Translating Manuals – 5 Important Rules to Follow

Aktualisiert: Mai 7

When it comes to technical translations, tackling manuals is not like any other task: this process has a whole array of rules that you should follow – a manual ‘etiquette’. We want your translated works to be a breeze to read, and not a challenging and unintelligible blocks of text. Below you will find 10 rules that you must follow in order to deliver the perfect translation of technical manuals!

1. Read Instructions and Manuals in Your Target Language

Before starting with your translation project, you should get acquainted with the way instructions are phrased in your target language. Remember that you are not going for a literary, word-for-word translation: you have to be aware of the different ways instructions are conveyed in different languages. For instance, a manual in English might be phrased differently from a French manual.

EN: ‘After slackening the fixing screw on the bearing rail for the drive wheel, the entire unit can be swung out and at the same time remains fully operational.’

FR: Après le desserrage de la vis qui fixe la plaquette (100) sur la barre de butée de la roue d’entraînement, ladite plaquette peut être basculée vers l’extérieur, tout en demeurant apte au fonctionnement.

You can see that the French version is not a direct translation of the English one. Moreover, the translator decided to add ‘(100)’, thus helping the reader locate the object that the text is referring to. Even though this addition does not make the French text a faithful rendition of the original, it was still accepted by the manufacturer and was published alongside the other translations. This brings us to the next point.

2. Understand the Instructions in the Source Language

The French translator has clearly understood the instructions written in the source language, and thus is able to navigate freely through the sentences. As a translator, you should understand the instructions before translating them, or you would risk misleading your target audience. Not understanding the original text will inevitably lead to a word-for-word translation, which will make your work difficult to read and, more often than not, ambiguous and open to interpretation… which is never a good thing in technical texts like these!

3. Do Not Ignore Visual Instructions

‘The two final stages are located on the circuit board with the identification number “500”.’

How would you translate this sentence? For instance, how would you tackle the word ‘stage’? You have to be 100% sure that you are using the correct terminology. In order to get a clearer picture of the product that the manual is referring to, you have to know what it looks like and how it functions. It can be a little bit tricky when said object is not in front of you. However, instruction manuals often come with lots of visual instructions, i.e. diagrams, flowcharts and illustrations. Take advantage of them to get a sense of what you are reading about, before immersing yourself in your technical translation task.

4. Think About the Meaning, Not the Form

Unlike marketing translations, where form often trumps content, when it comes to instruction manuals, your task is to convey information in the most effective way possible. After understanding the text in the source language, you have to render it by preserving the meaning: you are free to change sentence structures and employ different grammatical constructions if you think that this will help you get the meaning across. In technical translations like these, we have two components: surface form and underlying meaning. The former can be subject to change, but the latter has to stay the same across languages.

DE: Bei dem langsamen Drücken der Taste „START“ muss die rechte Kupplung bereits angetrieben werden, bevor sich die Andruckrolle dreht.

EN: ‘Slowly depress the start key. This must cause the right-hand clutch to start rotating before the pressure roller starts rotating.’

You can see, from this example, that the German version is one long sentence, followed by a short subordinate clause. In English, the first sentence is split into two, and refers directly to the user (cf. ‘Slowly depress the start key’), whereas the German text uses an impersonal construction (cf. ‘By slowly pressing the start key…’). The translator clearly understands how the object functions and can easily comprehend the instructions and use them to their advantage, as can be seen from the way they confidently render both German verbs antreiben and sich drehen with the same translation ‘to start rotating’.

5. Picture Your Friend as the Target Audience of Your Translation

After figuring out all the details and intricacies of the source material, you are finally ready to translate the manual. Whenever you write out a sentence, imagine the following scenario: you are explaining the instructions to a friend of yours.

If possible, you could even do it in real life! Show your draft to your colleagues and, if they do not understand it, it means that the language you are employing is not adequate enough. Remember that manuals have to be, first and foremost, clear and concise.

If you would like someone to translate your instruction manuals, Access International GmbH can help you! We provide translation and localisation services carried out vy experienced technical translators: most of our linguists are engineers with a linguistics degree and have multiple years experience in translating highly specialised technical manuals. Contact us with your translation project and we will send you a chargeless quote right away: