How to Translate GUIs

Or rather: How to translate GUIs properly.

If you work on a computer on a daily basis, you probably will have noticed that in some applications the wording used on the user interface is sometimes quite strange to say the least. Sometimes it’s plain wrong altogether.

Here’s a little true story about how these user interfaces, or GUIs as they are called, are produced. GUIs are usually developed by GUI programmers. Programmers are software developers and as such a highly technically minded type of people. They are usually only marginally interested in inter-human conversation. At least when they work they think in code. Not as exclusively so as perhaps the hardcore database programmers do (no offence), but still enough to sometimes twist natural language beyond recognition.

Don’t get me wrong. Developers are a nice bunch of people. I have worked with many of them on a lot of occasions and I have nothing but the fondest memories of them. Nevertheless, I believe that programmers should not be trusted with writing texts. Even if they are as short as GUI strings.

To sum it up, the initial GUI texts are often written by technicians. They are usually clipped to fit the constraints of the limited available space on the screen. And they often contain abbreviations or contracted technical terms intrinsic to the software at hand. Grammar is usually of no major concern.

The texts that appear on the screen are usually collected in so-called source files before the software is compiled or generated and shipped. These files are sometimes also called resource files.

When it comes to translation, such resource files are thrust at a translator. Most of the time with no background information at all about the software, how it works, and what it does. Hardly ever, screenshots are made available to the translator, let alone other helpful information such as manuals or design documents.

Do you see what I mean?

Does it begin to register why some software texts are so badly written and even worse when translated?

Experienced GUI translators would never accept to translate source texts without access to the software. Screenshots are the absolute minimum background information required to start serious translation work. Ideally, also the software design documents and/or a manual are provided to the translator.

So, to make it right, the translator must have:

  • Knowledge of the software and an understanding of how it works
  • Access to the software to understand functionalities from a user point of view
  • Access to the translated software to check and, if necessary, correct the translation
  • The technical terminology of the software’s subject matter

Good GUI texts are an important software usability factor


2 Responses to “How to Translate GUIs”

  1. Michael V. Says:

    So sad and in many cases so true.

    However, _good_ software companies employ a skilled technical writer and establish him or her as first line of defence against the usual language carnage.

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