When Worlds Collide: Understanding How Documentation and Translation Processes Affect Each Other

By Kit Brown-Hoekstra

Companies that successfully integrate translation into the documentation and product development process reap the financial benefits of simultaneous global releases, high quality products that meet the needs of all their customers, regardless of locale, and improved perception of customer service. Such integration also requires the localization/translation vendor to take a long-term view toward its client relationships because, while integration results in short-term loss of revenue on a project, the overall budget for localization doesn’t typically go down. Instead, those short-term savings go toward adding languages, improving the product’s internationalization, localizing marketing, or other initiatives that improve the company’s global presence, all of which represent revenue opportunities for the savvy localization vendor.
Regardless of your role in the translation process (content creator, translator, project manager, etc.), you need to understand how both the documentation process and the translation process affect each other, where the problems occur, and how to integrate the two so that the company can meet its goals in the global marketplace.

Documentation Process

Quality translation really begins with content creation and the processes that support it, as well as the degree to which the company incorporates internationalization into the product development cycle and its strategic planning. There are essentially four levels of internationalization in a company, and it’s important to understand that each level both affects and is affected by the others:

  • Organizational
  • Process
  • Product
  • Documentation

Companies vary greatly in their global maturity at each of these levels, but the most mature ones integrate internationalization not only into the product development cycle, but also into their overall strategic planning and marketing. The company’s global maturity level will give you an idea of how difficult it will be for the client localization manager or documentation manager to effect change, and helps you understand the company’s cultural milieu. Companies that have globalization and internationalization built into their overall strategic plan will be more open to suggestions and better able to facilitate changes at all levels of the organization.
While most documentation teams have little control over the overall corporate strategy and corporate level processes, they often significantly influence the product development, and control the documentation process.
The documentation process is one of creation and iteration. The documentation team typically is responsible for every aspect of the documentation, from researching and participating in product development team meetings to developing templates, style guides, and glossaries to content creation and management to publishing.

Documentation teams must be able to understand both the technical staff and the audience, to deal well with ambiguity, to distill reams of technical data and specifications into usable and useful information, and often to test the usability of both the product and the documentation. Technical content creation is essentially a translation process as many users don’t speak geek and many techies have difficulty communicating at a level that is comfortable for non-techies. The team also must frequently deal with multiple, shifting priorities while still meeting deadlines (documentation is almost never allowed to hold up a product release).
Unfortunately, the translation/localization process is a “black box” for most documentation teams, and this lack of insight can cause issues with both the quality of the source documentation and the translations, particularly for companies that have implemented content management without fully integrating the translation team and process into the workflow. Taking the time to educate the documentation team on translation and localization issues can significantly improve the product’s global appeal and marketability. In addition, the earlier an issue is caught in the design process, the less expensive it is to fix (and the more likely that the fix will get made).

Translation Process

Translation, the act of taking content in one language and transferring it to another, is only part of the process for making a product and documentation set ready for a new language market. Good translators must not only speak both the source and target languages fluently, they must also understand the industry and products that they are translating the content for. Because they are native speakers of the target language, they also usually have native understanding of the target culture. In addition to the actual translation and editing process, the translation/localization team must ensure that the content is culturally appropriate and make adjustments where necessary.
The localization/translation team is also typically responsible for desktop publishing for print and engineering output for electronic media. And, the team must work closely with the client’s designated in-country reviewers, who might or might not have formal language or product training.
Translation and localization are acts of transference rather than development. The translation of the content is usually separated from the desktop publishing and engineering functions, and performed by different sub-teams. Because of this separation, good project management is critical to ensure that each functional group understands how its work affects the other team members.

One of the biggest challenges for translation/localization teams is that the translation tends to be pushed to the very end of the product release cycle and, if deadlines aren’t met, can cost companies millions of dollars in delayed releases. (Most countries’ regulations demand local language products, particularly for products that involve public safety, such as heavy equipment or medical devices.)

Working Together Without Colliding

Simultaneous releases are de rigueur for most products and industries, which means that translation and localization must become more fully integrated into the documentation process. This integration requires that both the company and the translation/localization vendor have a good relationship with each other and have a solid understanding of each other’s existing processes.
Several aspects of both the documentation and localization processes can be divorced from individual projects and assigned to senior team members who work closely with their counterparts:

  • Terminology management: Create a sub-team that includes a representative from the documentation, translation, and development teams, as well as the in-country reviewers. When done as an ongoing activity, and especially when new products are developed, you can ensure more consistency throughout the product, documentation, marketing, and language products. The approved terms can be loaded into the translation memories early in the project and, for software projects, used in tests of the user interface.
  • Style guide and template review and internationalization: Desktop publishing and engineering are often the largest costs in a translation project. By ensuring that the templates work with all languages, you can significantly reduce problems and overtime costs at the end of a project. Better yet, automating the publishing by using a content management system and structured authoring, saves costs and enables you to more effectively focus your resources on the quality of the content itself. (Cautionary note here: It takes significant effort to move to content management and structured authoring and doing so is not a panacea, so be sure to perform a cost/benefit analysis before leaping in.)
  • Periodic content and process audits for internationalization and translation issues: These audits help you identify appropriate metrics, identify what you are doing well, and show you where there is room for improvement. When done consistently, the audits help you to prioritize your efforts, and give you the information you need to make sound business decisions.
  • Integration of internationalization tasks into the fabric of every process, making it indistinguishable from best practices: Internationalization is, ideally, not a separate process, but is built into the very design of the products, strategic planning and cultural milieu. It’s much easier to design something that considers global needs, than it is to retrofit it later. It takes time to build the initial understanding and shift the corporate culture, and the process is ongoing as the teams reach new levels of knowledge and understanding. Once that integration occurs, however, companies begin to reap the rewards in terms of faster times to market, fewer cultural issues, improved customer service, and potentially, larger market share.

With integrated documentation and translation processes, you can also move some translation tasks earlier in the development process, where they can save significant costs. This activities include pseudo-translations, where you test the user interface to ensure that field labels and other elements fit properly, and pre-translations, where you run a draft in the source language through the translation memories to identify potential issues with the content. For example, a lot of 90-95% matches might indicate that preferential editorial changes are being made to previously translated content, or that content is being rewritten instead of re-used.

In addition, each team can improve integration by doing the following.

On the development side:

  • Involve the localization project manager early in the product development process. This early involvement will help the localization project manager allocate resources and will enable them to identify areas where the translation team can contribute throughout the development cycle.
  • Train team members on best practices. Improving the documentation for translation not only helps the customer who uses the translated products, it also improves usability and consistency of the source product.
  • Establish effective editing, change management, and in-country review processes. Editing best practices are vital. Translation is very much a “garbage in, garbage out” process. The higher the quality of the source content, the better the translation will be. Change management allows you to be more proactive about how and when you submit changes to translation. If a project is already in post-editing or desktop publishing when you make the change, it will cost a lot more than if the content is just being started. In-country reviewers can completely derail the process because the translators depend on them for QA approval. Ensuring that the reviewers are trained in both the products, are native speakers of the target language, and that the review is part of their job description will help facilitate a smoother process.
  • Communicate regularly and proactively with the localization project manager. You should have primary and secondary points of contact to act as liaisons with the translation team. If something comes up in a project meeting that affects the documentation that means it also affects translation.
  • Consider modularizing your documentation, and implementing a content management (CMS) workflow. Modularizing the content enables you to send the content in chunks to the localization vendor, starting with the most stable content. Also, if you are using a CMS, you can send only the content that’s changed to the translation team, automate the publishing, and modify the translation QA process to ensure that the output is correct. The business case for each company will be different, but you could potentially save over 20% of your localization costs by implementing an effective workflow.

On the localization side:

  • Communicate proactively with the client. If the client is consistently submitting problematic source content, tell them. Work with the documentation manager to train the team. Educate the client on what you need from them to be successful. Let them know the financial considerations for their decisions, but phrase it in a way that lets them know you are looking out for their best interests. For example, “We can certainly do X; the cost is Y. I suggest Z, which will cost less and still do what you need.”
  • Establish primary and secondary contacts with the client team. You need to establish a rapport and habit of regular interaction with the client. Doing so helps you find out earlier of impacts to the translation process, and facilitates the project management.
  • Review the templates, terminology, style guides, and so on early in the project. Provide the feedback early. If you wait until you are doing the translation or the desktop publishing, it’s too late. The documentation team has moved on to other projects by then, or is scrambling to document the latest feature that got added at the last minute.
  • Offer to train the documentation team on how to write for translation. Such workshops help the documentation team see how their job affects the company’s bottom line. In most cases, your suggestions will require only a slight change in the way the documentation team works and will save significant localization costs. Take graphics for example. Simply removing the text from the graphics and using a legend could save the company thousands of dollars every project. In this example, if one graphic costs $50 to create, you have 100 graphics being translated into 20 languages, all of which need to be reworked to accommodate the text, that’s $100,000. In another example, one error in the source help content might cost $50 to fix. If you are translating into 20 languages and don’t catch the error in the source, that one error costs $1000 to fix (doesn’t sound like much until you multiply that $1000 by every error that gets missed in the source and fixed during translation).

From a technical and process standpoint, this integration is relatively simple, though, as with any major change, it can be difficult to get the initial buy-in and overcome inertia.
It’s a good idea to start with a pilot project staffed by innovative, motivated, and open-minded team members who understand the business reasons for integrating the translation and documentation processes, as well as having the technical skills to pull it off. Pilot projects allow you to work out any kinks and to set up metrics before changing everyone over to the new processes.


Understanding how documentation and translation each affect the quality of the other enables you to identify ways to integrate the processes to improve quality, while reducing costs and time to market. Effective content management and workflow facilitate this integration. With integration, it becomes even more important to nurture your relationships between the documentation and translation teams.

Note: This article was first published in Multilingual (Dec 2010), www.multilingual.com. It is reprinted here with permission.

About the Author

Kit Brown-Hoekstra, Principal of Comgenesis, LLC, is an Associate Fellow for STC, speaks regularly at conferences worldwide, and has authored many articles on a variety of technical communication and localization topics. She also coauthored (with Brenda Huettner and Char James-Tanny) the book Managing Virtual Teams: Getting the Most from Wikis, Blogs, and Other Collaborative Tools. Comgenesis, LLC provides consulting and training on internationalization, content strategy, process improvement, content audits, project management, and technical writing/editing. (This article is based on her training session from the Localization Institute’s Localization Project Manager Certificate Workshop, presented in St. Louis in 2008).

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