How to Translate GUIs

February 24, 2011

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


Text Analysis, feat. the Text Type Detector

February 2, 2011

Today, I am going to kick off a new series. And I will introduce a cool little tool to you: The personal Text Type Detector, or T-TD.

I mentioned before that texts have different types. So, what does this mean for translation?
How do you grasp the type of a text? And what do you do to get it right; the transfer of the types of text from one language to another?

In my experience, all texts have three top issues to ponder, three text parameters featuring in every text. First, the author and her/his style and storyline. Second, and somewhat opposed to the first, there are the readers/users and what they should do or how they should react when reading the text. Third, there’s terminology or the literal meaning. This trinity rules every text. But, and actually we must capitalize this BUT, the weight of the three chunks varies a lot between the different types. All parameters are closely related to the purpose of a text.

Text analysis itself is easy. With the T-TD. I feed the text into this mind tool and see where the meter goes. The element that dominates a text is where the needle sticks.
Read the rest of this entry »

Offshoring Translations

January 19, 2011

Yes, of course, why not. But like with all products or services acquired from lower-middle-income countries, some aspects need to be considered:

  • Is the price the only criterion you base your decision on?
  • Are you familiar with the translation business?
  • What do you expect from the text?

Generally, you should never just pick the first provider in, say, India or China that comes along, even though there are plenty. But then again, this is true also for language service providers (LSP) in your home country.

So, the really decisive criteria apparently are the two others. (1) ‘Do you know your way around in the translation industry’ and (2) ‘What do you expect from the text’.

If this is the first text that you need to have translated, you should be very careful who you pick. Better ask around whether someone you know can recommend a good translator or agency. Chances are higher that you will get what you want.

Which brings us to the third criterion: This is probably the most important one. Do you just want to get rid of the task without putting too much emphasis on the result? Then go ahead. Not much can go wrong in this case.

On the other hand, if you want a high-quality result and a properly managed, smooth-running translation project, you might want to proceed as follows:

  1. Pick a translator (freelance or agency) who gives you the impression that s/he cares about you, your company, and your text.
  2. Check the translator’s credentials and experience in translation in general and in the text type and subject matter at hand.
  3. Provide as much background information as possible in terms of terminology, existing bilingual texts, details on the author and the target group, etc.

And, please, beware of translators whose only reply to your initial request is: “Yes, I can do it. How fast do you need it done?”

It is better to plan translations ahead and pick your translator with care. You get better results from true professionals, whether they live and work in your own country or somewhere else.

Think globally, act responsibly

Welcome Back

January 19, 2011

Hello, a good start to the new year to you all and welcome back! Thanks for your continued interest.

The visits to this blog go up every day and some of you have contributed very interesting comments. Thank you for those!

My blog will continue also in 2011 with some ideas on the translation business. The first entry of this year will follow shortly…

Be back!

Season’s Greetings

December 20, 2010

Season's Greetings

Five Easy Steps to Quality Translations

December 13, 2010
  1. Plan the translation well ahead
  2. see also:
    Who Writes the Source Texts?
    Special Ops – When Translation is Not Enough

  3. Find an experienced translator specialized in the subject matter
  4. see also:
    Your Unknown Translator
    The Cheap vs. the Quality Translation
    The Translator’s Mind – Part III, Translation Training

  5. Define usage, target group and geography for the foreign-language text
  6. see also:
    Specialists and Generalists
    International English

  7. Assign a competent contact person in-house to answer the translator’s question
  8. see also:
    The SME and the Translator

  9. Allow enough time for translation
  10. see also:
    Time and Error
    How Much How Fast?

If you follow these minimum requirements your translation will at least get a chance to have acceptable quality.


Translation Strategies

November 16, 2010

Over the past 20 years of my translation work I have discovered that there are the following strategies* to convert a text from one language into another:

Literal Translation
This is what most of us had to do in school, where we sat with our dictionaries, looking up every other word and getting increasingly frustrated. Never mind. Real translation doesn’t work like that. Results of this approach are texts copied word by word, which are not at all idiomatic in the target language. Such texts lack fluency and are generally eyed with suspicion by most professional translators. Besides, they will be immediately recognized as translations by native speakers of the target language.

You can forget this strategy right away. No one should have to suffer under literal translation.

Exact Translation (One-on-One Translation)
Well, one could point out that every translation should be exact. Yes, but how do we define exact in this case? Think about it!

Read the rest of this entry »

Assemble in Reverse Order

November 5, 2010

English: Assemble in the reverse order of disassembly.
German: Der Zusammenbau erfolgt in umgekehrter Reihenfolge.

This is a common phrase in technical manuals. The convention in English is a verbal instruction, in German the description of the process is passive and nominal.
Both are standing phrases in the respective language.

If this instruction were translated literally from English to German, a member of the target group would have to do the effort of translating the sentence into his/her context. A waste of time and an example of how bad translations make the user’s life unnecessarily harder.

A native English speaker would probably be equally troubled by the literal translation of the German “Der Zusammenbau…” It would read something like this ‘The assembly happens in reverse order’. It will be understood, of course. But again, the reader would have to do the translation into his/her reality. An effort that is actually part of the translator’s job.

Translation aligns conventions and patterns of speech across two languages, never words alone.

Native Memory Loss

October 27, 2010

At a loss for words. This is a phenomenon sometimes experienced by native speakers after they have lived in a country where a different language is spoken for a considerable period of time. Especially those who are not working in the language industry. By and by, they simply forget the language they used to speak as a child or younger adult, because they usually try to communicate in the language of the country they live in.

I had a colleague once, a US lady, who at that time had been living in Austria for roughly ten years. She worked in marketing and had never had a dedicated linguistic education other than the usual language classes in school. Whenever she had to write an official text in English, her native tongue, she used to come to us translators in the documentation department to have it checked. She once said: “It is strange, but sometimes I am not sure whether what I think is English or German. It gets harder and harder to keep the words apart!”

My father was born in another country. He came to Austria as a teenage boy. Now, after having been living in this country for over 60 years, he says that he could barely say a straight sentence in his native language. Lack of practice and the constant presence of another language and culture made him forget all but the most basic vocabulary.

Language skills need permanent practice to remain eloquent. Growing up with a language doesn’t mean you will be good at it for the rest of your life. If you don’t hone your language skills, they will get dull. People working in the language industry practice their languages at all times. They cannot forget their languages, because they permanently work in both (or all) of them.

…another reason for having translations done by professional translators.

Reliable quality comes from permanent practice

No Questions Asked

October 5, 2010

Some translators work like secret agents or as if they were trading contraband.

They quietly receive the source text from the client, confirm the client’s deadline without hesitation, let themselves be drawn into haggling about the price and then keep absolute radio silence until delivery.

Weird, hm?

When s/he works in a professional way, your translator should act like your family doctor. S/he should carefully inquire where it hurts and and when and how. Your translator should be as inquisitive and interested in your case as your trusted lawyer. Translators should do everything to protect their clients from linguistic harm.

In translation terms, translators should ask their clients everything there is to know about the text and the client’s desires surrounding the text. They must at least find out what the text will be used for, by whom, when and where.

If they don’t, accurate translation is not possible.