Have you ever found yourself reading an instruction manual, only to realize that you can’t understand a word of it, even if it’s written in your own language?
Or, have you ever sent out a technical documentation manual for translation only to find your inbox clogged up with queries from translators?
The goal of technical writing is to provide readers with information on a complex or technical subject, in a way that is easy to understand, explicit and unambiguous. And one of the most efficient ways of achieving this goal is to use controlled language.
What is controlled language?
A controlled language is basically a restricted form of a natural language such as English or German. Since all natural languages have different grammar rules, it follows that the rules for controlled language will vary from one language to another.
However, generally speaking, all controlled languages typically consist of:
- simplified grammar rules (that are more restrictive than the general language)
- limited vocabulary (only a relatively small number of words are permitted).
ASD-STE100 Simplified Technical English
English-based controlled languages like Simplified English, Global English or Standardized English are all attempts to write technical documentation in a simple, clear manner, that helps to improve the user experience for both native and non-native readers of the language.
One of the most popular controlled languages is the ASD-STE100 Simplified Technical English, a.k.a. Simplified English. Originally developed for the Aerospace and Defence domains in the early 80s, the principles of the Specification ASD Simplified Technical English have been adopted across many different industries. You can access a free copy of the latest issue available here.
Benefits of controlled language in translation
Controlled languages help streamline the translation of technical documentation in terms of time and cost efficiency:
- With controlled languages, source documents become more consistent, structured, comprehensible, and easier to read.
- A better understanding of the source document contributes to reducing the number of queries or clarifications required by the linguists working on its translation.
- By using controlled languages, language technologies like translation memories and machine translation can be leveraged to the fullest, thanks to the better structure and consistency of the source documents.
A great example for controlled language rules and their benefits for translation is the CLOUT™ rule set (Controlled Language Optimized for Uniform Translation) developed by localization industry expert Uwe Muegge.
Technical writing tips
Regardless of the approach you follow, controlled languages are a matter of adopting rules, and then sticking to them. Here are some general rules of thumb to help technical writers write in “plain language“, with the aim of optimizing the translation process.
If you want an even longer list of tips, you might want to check out Marc Achtelig’s article on Multilingual Magazine (from page 49). His first rule? “Keep it simple and stupid”.
1. Provide information that anyone can understand. Especially workers on the factory floor who could be disturbed by noise, colleagues, stress and need to be able to find information quickly.
2. Use the active voice rather than the passive, i.e. “Kick the bucket”, instead of “The bucket is kicked”.
3. Use the present tense. So not “Kick the bucket. The water will flow out”, but “Kick the bucket. The water flows out”.
4. Use relatively short sentences. A sentence with more than 10 words is rather long. The previous sentence has 10 words, spot on!
5. Limit technical jargon to a minimum. However, when you need to use technical terms, make sure you use them consistently. “Receptacle” can be used as a synonym for “bucket” for instance. Think carefully whether the more technical term will be immediately understandable by your audience.
6. Try to avoid the use of abbreviations on the one hand, and of lengthy compound words on the other hand.
7. Try to avoid the use of idiomatic expressions. You might prefer saying “It’s raining very hard” instead of “It’s raining cats and dogs”.
Also, think about the formatting of the document for better readability of your texts:
- Be generous with white space.
- Use vertical lists (like this one).
- Use tables, charts and illustrations, but only if they give added value to the written content.
Not sure if you’re doing it right?
If you are still unsure about whether your writing is plain enough, consider sending your document over to your translation vendor. They should be able to provide you with feedback on aspects you can improve.
Technical Writing Tools
When writing technical documentation, make sure you are using the right technical writing tool to create your content. If you want to know more about the best current tools out there, check out Ferry Vermeulen’s blog post from Instrktiv
And please note that the above guidelines do not apply to any budding literary writers out there. If Shakespeare had followed this advice, the famous line from his sonnet “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?…” might have ended up as: “You look better”.
If you want to learn more about this topic, here’s an article and a couple of style guides that will help you better understand controlled languages and writing clear:
Microsoft Manual of Style (4th Edition) –style guide by Microsoft Corporation.
The Global English Style Guide: Writing Clear, Translatable Documentation for a Global Market –style guide by John R. Kohl.