Category Archives: Technical writing

Aspects of technical writing in any language

Mario Chávez, diplomate translator, at your service

I recently attended two conferences. One in Minneapolis, MN, on the design of medical devices, and a tradeshow in Cleveland, OH, for the 2016 Ceramics Expo. I enjoyed myself immensely on both and for a variety of reasons.

Having been absent from tradeshows or conferences since March 2015, I was a bit out of touch with that environment that I’d like to call outside: what kind of clothes to wear? Should I wear black or brown shoes? Shall I pack my netbook or just my iPad Mini 2? Should I design and order new business cards? And what about my elevator speech?

I grew up going to tradeshows when they were part of our school field trips in Córdoba, Argentina, so moving across a sea of strange faces and collecting free pens was a given. Because I had chosen the Design of Medical Devices event mostly as a learning experience and not a marketing opportunity, I went there with a ready and curious mind. Because I’m the kind of professional who isn’t giving elevator speeches at, well, elevators, and I prefer the laissez-faire approach, I did design new business cards with the focus on my medical translation expertise, with colors to match:

Wordsmeet Medical business card

I hedged my bets on a typewriter typeface to reflect many of the medical reports I transcribe and translate and settled on red tones resembling blood. I kept my contact information to a minimum to invite use and not contemplation. The reverse added to my call to action on the recipient:

Wordsmeet Medical business card2

Notice that I didn’t use the words freelance or translator anywhere on the card. My short introduction would go like this:

-Hello, I see that your company is designing cardiac stents (or valves or a measuring device). What can you tell me about it?

-Hello, I’m here attending the DMD to learn about 3D printing of organs. I see your company does something with 3D. Tell me about it.

When my interlocutor, after explaining what he does, turns to me and asked what I do, I would reply:

-I translate medical documentation, reports, medical devices… (handing him my business card to complete my own description). I’ve learned how laser sintering makes it possible to build these tracheas!

I would also use these conversations to delve into my other areas of expertise, as when a vendor and I were discussing the capabilities of a medical pump (used to regulate medicine drip on a patient in a hospital). I would ask what protections against hacking that pump device would have. The point was not to market myself but to start a conversation, contribute what I knew, ask about things I didn’t know, show sincere interest in what they did as a company. Most of these conversations would end pleasantly, sometimes without exchanging business cards.

Two weeks later, the Ceramics Expo was taking place at the I-X Expo Center close to the Cleveland Airport. I had a 3-day free pass to attend the tracks and visit the tradeshow floor. My only expense worth mentioning was the $10 day parking (and there is plenty of parking!) I have been to tradeshows on many occasions, as when visiting the New York City’s Jacob Javits Convention Center, but seldom have I seen such an organized expo as last week’s Ceramics Expo. Dozens of booths orderly set up, many German and Chinese companies being represented and brief yet useful presentations given (such as the one on transparent ceramics).

Showa Denko booth

Chinese company Showa Denko booth. Chinese reps were easy to spot for their dark business suits, white shirts and dark neckties, all very courteous to the visitor.

I remember debating on that Wednesday morning whether to bring 20, 40 or more business cards. I decided to bring to card carriers (those metal boxes with a capacity for 25-30 business cards) in my pocket. I almost regretted not carrying more cards with me because I had dozens of opportunities to speak with company representatives.

Of all the people I spoke to, only one or two were a bit surprised at my business card (see top of this post) because here I was, a medical translator in a non-medical tradeshow. I was able to explain away that discrepancy by introducing myself as:

-Hello, my name is Mario Chávez. I’m a technical communicator visiting this expo to learn more about the ceramics and glass industry.

And that’s all the spiel I needed to make. No need to use fancy schmancy words, or say that I’m an ATA-certified translator. I made a point of using active verbs to introduce myself: I translate this, I write that, I performed that other thing. If you want your prospect to take some current or future action, use action verbs, not nouns.

The whole exercise let me thinking: Should I use the title “Technical communicator” instead of “Spanish-English translator” from now on? Or Should I call myself something else, like a BA or MA in Translation Studies. I kept pondering on these alternatives and seemingly ambivalent thoughts for days. Then I stumbled on an article about how nurses with a BA are more in demand in American hospitals than nurses with an associate’s degree. The article, published in The Wall Street Journal last October 14, 2015, made a larger point: the use of the adjective baccalaureate, which means a 4-year or bachelor’s university degree.

Baccalaureate nurses are more in demand than those with associate's degrees.

Baccalaureate nurses are more in demand than those with associate’s degrees.

That adjective took me to another one: diplomate. According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary:

Definition of diplomate

So, I’ve decided to posit the question: wouldn’t it be better for a translator holding a university degree to call herself a diplomate translator instead of a freelance one? First, a freelance anything is simply someone who is working on her own, as a sole proprietor (or entrepreneur, if you must use that detestable word). A freelance translator’s only highlight is her ability to work for a variety of clients, beholden to no employer. But there are so many bilingual workers who call themselves translators that this distinction becomes not just blurry but useless and noxious.

Second, the beauty of the diplomate adjective attached to our chosen profession is that it highlights one of our largest investments: a university degree and/or diploma and a professional who has been vetted by a board of professionals (such as the American Translators Association).

So there you have it. From now on, I’ll be calling myself a diplomate translator because freelance translator just doesn’t cut it for me anymore. How about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Baccalaureate degree, Diploma, Diplomate translator, Marketing, Professional development, Public image of translators, Qualified translators, Reputation, Technical writing, Translator qualifications

Translation craftsmanship and the culture of quality

What do the terms quality, accuracy, precision and perfection have in common? They share an almost mathematical trait of exactness, of measuring by numbers. They also point to something concrete, tangible, almost physical. Days can be measured in hours and seconds. Cargo space in cars can be measured in cubic feet. Even unseen things can be measured, as the gravity of an asteroid or planet or the wattage of an electric current.

The above list of terms, which bring to mind a rhythm of their own so grounded in facts and data, reflects more of an industrial or technological domain. Within an industry, sets of instructions can also be measured by quantity, length and even objectiveness. Any technical writer worth his ink will tell you that a technical document containing instructions to install a boiler cannot have personal opinions on the make and model of the device or whether it’s painted in pretty colors. Simply put, those attributes are foreign to the goal of a technical document.

I recently watched how a Western-style mounting saddle is being made on TV: the different rawhide pieces, sheets of tin to provide strength to the seat, the kinds of needles and strings used to sew leather, the warm-water treatment of the main piece of leather to make it pliable and flexible, etc. revealed the work of highly skilled artisans and saddle makers. The kinds of tools a saddle maker uses have their own names and unique purposes. Never mind the specialized terminology. Just the step-by-step portrayal of such an involved and logical process gave the viewer a sense of pleasure and completion, even to someone who doesn’t ride horses, far removed from the realities of saddle making. The craftsmanship is there for all to see and appreciate.

The same could be said about other industrial processes: beer, waffles, bread, the soon-to-be-extinct Twinkies, bricks, cars, boats, etc. For example, we seldom see craftsmanship in the making of a car because most automobile plants are virtually robotized and human workers only assemble parts, install electrical harnesses or push buttons and pull levers. Their function is important and essential, but denotes no particular creativity because everything has already been designed and determined in advance: the length of a certain panel or the number and color of knobs on the dashboard. Putting them together and running  some quality tests afterwards is all they have to do.

But if you see an industrial process involving some secret sauce or combination of ingredients, or some unrevealed temperature at which something is forged, baked or heated (because it’s confidential), you can see a glimpse of craftsmanship. Someone —not a machine— thought about the different proportions of a certain formula or the best temperature at which to subject a certain material for best results, and decided on a formula by trial and error or because it has been handed down from generations past. That’s craftsmanship, the human touch, the unmeasurable attribute.

To use the word “quality” to try to measure such handiwork is almost patronizing. Granted, we speak of good quality whenever we feel a perfectly smooth and polished leather in a pair of boots, or the lack of burrs in a polished skillet, or the soft border of a very good sheet of paper that doesn’t give us a paper cut. We speak of high quality pictures on a TV when we detect no dead pixels, no smudgy black transitions. Can we speak of high quality poetry or fiction writing? When we read a paper on a topic we care about, like job reports, climate change or safety in public places, do we judge them in terms of quality…or whether they address those topics properly? To me, using the word “quality” in any degree to describe the attributes of a piece of writing is akin to using a stainless steel spoon to measure and weigh the love of a child.

I propose we return to basics and leave alone the bad metaphors based on the making of solid objects. I propose we talk about translation craftsmanship. When we view translations written from the viewpoint of a craftsman, we may appreciate their unique character, even their so-called flaws. We begin to focus on how well written a translation is and not on the number of errors we seem to encounter. The actuarial obsession with which some companies seem to focus on an error-free translation, creating splashy graphics and mind-numbing statistical models to explain how each error in grammar, terminology and syntax should be counted, measured and measured again to provide a picture of quality is a slippery slope to numbing criticism of translations.

Have you ever encountered a completely error-free handbook, speech or clinical trial report in English? Talking about translation quality sometimes feels like talking about the natural imperfections of the wood made to build a cabinet or a table. We lose sight of the whole picture as we focus more on errors and how to avoid them. We make less intelligent judgments about what constitutes good writing in translation because we are too busy counting words, lines of text and commas. We end up thinking like a calculator rather than a human being.

When was the last time you wrote something and felt happy with the final copy? When was the last time you sat down to write an email reply that actually had a coherent subject line on top, a proper salutation and not just “Hi,” and addressed all the points requiring an answer? Do you feel qualified to critique someone else’s writing style? Why, or why not? After all, if you can read complex texts, why shouldn’t you be able to write them and weigh how others write them?

Shouldn’t we start with ourselves and cultivate good writing in order to recognize it in others? Craftsmanship means taking pride in your own work and recognizing good work and giving credit to others for it. Craftsmanship means doing purposeful, complete things with your hands and your mind. Translators are writers, wordsmiths, artisans of the written word, not industry drones that slap words together in other languages.

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Filed under Technical writing, Translation as art, Translation as value added, Translation as writing, Translation errors, Translation testing, Writing skills

Read all about it: Upcoming publication of my thesis

Finally, after long months of crafting my Master’s thesis with which I obtained my M.A. in Audiovisual Translation from Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona in 2009, I am pleased to announce that Editorial Académica Española will soon publish it under the title Redacción técnica comparativa: Análisis comparativo de los estilos de redacción en textos técnicos en español en los últimos 40 años (Comparative Technical Writing: A comparative analysis of writing styles in Spanish technical texts in the last 40 years). This 96-page publication will be available in Spanish.

A sample cover is shown below:

Redacción técnica comparativa, by Mario Chávez

I chose this topic because I have observed that technical manuals —especially computer manuals— written in Spanish have undergone significant changes in style for the last four decades. In the 60s and 70s, engineers with a solid knowledge of Spanish and good writing skills wrote computer manuals and were responsible for preserving the authoritative, master-to-student style that is traditional in Spanish handbooks. This style started to change in the late 80s and early 90s with arrival of computerized typesetting and the globalization of manual authoring.

The formal, authoritative style in official Spanish technical publications is part of the personality of a well-written technical manual, akin to the corporate dark suit and necktie Latin American businesspeople are known for. Even in today’s American acculturation of global commerce with its casual wardrobe and in-your-face colloquial speaking mannerisms, this traditional model of authoring Spanish manuals is being preserved and cultivated as a sign of premium quality.

I will be happy to share some excerpts translated in English with my readers who so request it.

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Filed under Master's thesis, My publications, Spanish technical writing, Style, Writing skills

Translators are writers

It’s that simple. Writing is an essential part of the translation process. By the way, how many steps does the translation process involve? Academics from the translationsphere have come up with different workflows, but I would like to offer my own in plain English:

  1. Reflexive reading of the original
  2. Writing of the first draft
  3. Polishing the first draft into a final copy (composition)
  4. Spell-checking
  5. Reflexive reading of the translation

Now, these are visible steps. There are many more steps going on inside the mind for each of the above. I’ll focus on writing.

I have been reading Daniel Cassany’s book titled La cocina de la escritura, an excellent treatise on the art and discipline of writing.  In chapter 3, Accionar máquinas, Cassany explores strategies to overcome writer’s block. It occurred to me that we hit a block because we assume that we have to write something finished. A writer doesn’t produce a publish-ready copy; he goes through drafts.

A translation is never finished. Writing is even more complicated all of a sudden. Then again, for the sake of deadlines, a more or less finished draft of the translation is delivered.

To avoid digressing and losing my readers here, let me ask you: What do you think happens when you write? Say, an email, a note to your spouse, a holiday card to a relative. If your first thought is ‘to communicate something’, you got it half right. It’s a half answer because communication is the means to an end. If you want me to deliver a package to a client containing television parts and you send me an email telling me so, the purpose of the email is not to communicate, but to direct me to do something. Not to order, command or mandate. To direct, to guide me, if you will, to do or achieve something. That email has a functional purpose. This applies to other forms of functional texts, such as procedures, handbooks, quick start guides, installation guides, building plans, etc.

Let’s slow down when it comes to writing and translating. When we write, we are not just assembling words together, stitching them up to ‘communicate’. We are not slaves of the words, quite the contrary. We command the words, we can slow them down to think about them. No wonder many translators forget about their role as writers.

What I would like to leave you with is this: writing involves condensing ideas, sometimes, very complex ideas, into words that should make sense to the reader. Translation is not that different.

 

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Filed under Spanish technical writing, Translation, Translation as writing, Word formation

Stow standard roller bags LENGTHWISE

I am writing from the Silicon Valley today. The mountain air, the wide lanes on 87 South…the outdated Continental terminal at San Jose International Airport.

I am an amateur photographer. Things, not people, inspire my shots. I recently took a picture inside the cabin of a plane before disembarking (sorry, I don’t use deplaning because I think it’s a stupid Americanism).

The object in question is an informative signage in overhead bins: Stow standard roller bags LENGTHWISE and its accompanying Spanish translation: “Guarde equipaje con ruedas A LO LARGO”.

Bilingual signage

Guardar equipaje con ruedas A LO LARGO

What’s wrong with this picture? First, we Spanish speakers will ask ourselves ¿a lo largo de qué? Part of the translation, a lo largo, is, therefore, incomplete because, as an adverbial phrase, it requires a complement. However, lengthwise, an adverb, has been correctly translated…if translation meant just swapping words. But as a proponent of the translation technique known as desverbalización (deverbalization), I have to look deeper for the meaning (or unidades de sentido).

Second, the English has been poorly conceived because the phrase is incomplete. The original meaning, judging from the image, is that carry-ons or roller luggage should be stowed so that the handle will face the bin door. In this meaning, the wheels of whatever luggage contraption you use to carry your belongings will face the back of the bin. So, why use lengthwise?

I am assuming that the writer of the English phrase was thinking of the length the wheels have to travel from the lip of the bin to the back, which is called depth in better written texts. The word length refers to distance. A better instruction would have been Stow standard roller bags with wheels facing back, which is short and to the point. Of course, there are other variations, such as Stow standard roller bags so that handle faces bin door, but limits of space in signage demand a crisper, briefer version.

If anything, this example shows translators (and translation managers, buyers, project managers and other interested parties) how important it is to attach a graphic or figure to illustrate the instruction for clarity. More often than not, the text in and of itself is incomplete or unclear without a graphic. In this particular case, the graphic informs and completes the meaning of the English phrase, and a watchful translator will take it into consideration.

In my upcoming presentation at the Boston ATA Conference in October, I plan on using this item to exemplify one of the best practices in writing technical texts in Spanish. Your comments are always welcome, in English or en español.

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Filed under Bilingual signage, Cultural awareness, Signage, Spanish technical writing, Syntax, Technical writing, Translation errors