Technical Writers and Technical Translators: the unsung heroes of customer experience

Technical texts are dry and a means to an end and very few people get wild over them, but they are essential in the customer experience of your client. How can you, manufacturer or service provider improve the quality of technical texts and translations? In the end, technical documents should enhance the customer experience, not hinder it…

In this article, we lay out a few points for your guidance.

What is technical writing and where does it fit in?

Technical writing is the editing of technical texts so very specific information is conveyed simply, accurately and quickly. Technical texts are either about solving a practical problem or describing a technical process. The language of technical texts must be clear, precise and concise so that the reader can quickly find the desired information and understand the solution.

Technical writing is required for many types of content, for example for the operating instructions already mentioned, but also for repair manuals, software documentation, online help, training material, safety instructions or scientific articles.

Sometimes there is no election: especially for complex products, there are strict legal requirements and regulations that come with launching new products or services. These regulations ensure consumer safety, environmental protection and the overall integrity of the sector. Failure to comply with these regulations will have significant consequences: fines, product recalls or legal action.

Technical documentation plays a crucial role in managing the complexity of the regulatory environment. Technical documentation serves as a safeguard against potential legal issues. In the event of a lawsuit, an accident or a claim for damages, carefully prepared technical documentation will serve as a crucial defence for the company. By creating and maintaining high-quality technical documentation and information, companies emphasise their commitment to compliance and the safety of their customers.

Technical writing also plays an important role in the training of new employees or users: well-written instructions and manuals facilitate training. And as training courses are increasingly conducted via online learning platforms (i.e. without a teacher), it is all the more important that the content is clearly formulated and avoids ambiguity.

The good news: technical writing is a skill that which can be learnt. At the same time, companies do not appreciate the benefit of clear communication which is why the potential of many technical texts is not yet fully utilised.

As soon as a company markets its products and services internationally, the technical documentation must be available in different languages. In the European Union, for example, technical documentation is a prerequisite for affixing the CE mark to products, which demonstrates compliance with EU standards for health, safety and environmental protection. Without accurate and easily accessible translations of this documentation, you cannot gain access to these markets or face delays, fines or exclusion from the market.

What is technical translation?

Technical translation is the transfer of specialised information from one language to another, with a focus on technical knowledge and terminology. Technical translation requires a precise and accurate approach in order to preserve the meaning and integrity of the text.

Because technical translation must be precise, the smallest errors in the source text can lead to ambiguities that can be quite costly. While errors in consumer electronics can still be labelled as “funny”, the fun definitely stops when it comes to complex operating instructions for systems costing millions.

According to the German Association for Technical Communication (tekom), technical documentation and technical translation cannot be dissociated.

“On average, 11 different information products are created (for any given product, gv), which in turn are translated into an average of 12 different languages. In percentage terms, at least 45% of technical communication is currently translated into more than 10 languages.”

Technical documentation has become more complex: new tasks are emerging, new media come into play, and qualification requirements for employees increase. In order to cope with all this, the translation process for technical documentation must be improved. To this end, tekom has set up the “Technical Translation” working group to develop a new competency framework.

This project aims to develop a competency framework for the creation of international technical communication. One of the findings: it is not necessary for every person to know everything. Instead, various experts, including project managers, terminologists, translators, localisers, IT administrators and media designers, work hand in hand. The technical writer plays a central role but works together with all these specialities. The new competency framework for technical translation is already available as a comprehensive draft and we will revert to you once all is finalised.

A current tekom white paper, “Technical communication on the Road to Digitization“, provides insights into the future. tekom conducted a survey among several hundred experts and their managers. Some of the findings… “Digitization” (digitalisation) requires a strict way of working (re-use, a clearly defined structure of metadata, authoring support), as offered by a CCMS (Component Content Management System). Such a system is particularly helpful for teams who work at different locations or have different responsibilities and/or competences. Further, digitalisation refers not only to the creation or authoring but also, and in particular, to the way in which information is made available: in a browser for instance so that information can be researched efficiently or in learning software. All this has an impact on the organisation of the technical writing and translation process, but it does not change what is expected of a technical writer!! The question then becomes whether content-generating or conversation-oriented software takes over the role of the technical writer. The overall conclusions of the participants were serene: technologies such as terminology databases and variant management are used extensively (and have been for some time), but at this stage AI only plays an important role in the translation processes. The proven skills of the technical writer are as relevant as ever.

How can you make technical content more translation-friendly?

Companies should make their technical content more translation-friendly to take advantage of international markets, increase customer satisfaction and fulfil legal requirements. By providing clear and accurate translations, you can increase customer confidence, promote the safe use of products and realise cost savings. This gives you a competitive advantage and improves communication between international teams and subsidiaries.

Below we look at different ways that organisations can make their technical content more translation-friendly.

1. Training to improve technical writing skills

If your organisation is just starting to focus on technical writing and technical translation, you may want to provide training in these areas for the relevant employees. There are very few things in life which cannot be learned. Tekom provides on-line classes (your author took these classes and can attest how thorough these are), many universities provide training as well, as a post-graduate programme for instance. It is important that the technical documentation department, and technical writers in particular, acquire the skills and reflexes to write efficiently and in a translation-friendly way.

2. Authoring support tools

If your organisation lacks consistent and clearly structured texts, it may be time to introduce an authoring support tool. These are very well established on the market but are still not used by many organisations, despite the significant time and cost savings they can bring. The main components of these tools are a terminology database, an authoring memory and the ability to define individual language rules.

4. Use of controlled language

The use of controlled language in technical documentation is essential to make translations more efficient and easier to understand. In essence this is about standardising that part of the communication other than the terminology.  “Open”, “close”, “put”, “upload”, “download” are all quite common yet the actions they represent must be quite clear, for the reader/user and all the more for the translators!

In addition, sentence length, sentence complexity and content complexity are usually reduced when adhering to ‘controlled language”.

These rules can be included in a binding style guide, which is then used for editing all technical texts. Quite often, these style guides can be integrated partially or totally in authoring tools so the technical writer can work more efficiently and with confidence about the quality of the  work he or she delivers.

4. Collaboration with the translators

Last but not least, co-operation and exchange with translators is important in order to be able to write translation-friendly texts. In an ideal world, there is time to review instructions, to ask questions, to get clarification on the source texts. A good contact between translators and technical writers goes a long way, and please, please leave some time and budget to give yourself the chance to get the best translations around…