A day in the life: Technical Writer – Coordinating translations

Coordinating translations

My company has offices in 128 countries, on 5 continents, and we localize our products into 31 languages. My Technical Communications department, located in San Diego, manages the translations of our support documentation into 8 languages using a Knowledge Management System (KMS). More specifically, I coordinate (among other things) the translations for one of our two North American market’s languages—Spanish.  On reading this, one might ask, “¿Dónde has aprendido español?” To which I would reply, “What?”, because I don’t speak Spanish…

UPDATE: February 2013

Also see my Slideshare presentation from Lavacon Conference: Using Internal Resources to Coordinate a Multi-Language Information Management System

The presentation discusses the successes and setbacks that I encounter as a technical writer who develops content in English and then coordinates the translations to the other supported languages. My company does not outsource translations; it uses internal and external translators (for example, employees in global offices) to localize content to their specific markets. The presentation explains this process and discusses how a technical writer can successfully coordinate global translations using an IMS.

In fact, I speak German. And the French translation coordinator? He doesn’t speak French. You may think that my company is operating some crazy polyglot zoo with each technical writer in the wrong habitat; however, I believe that this system is just as good as, if not superior to a multi-lingual technical writer doing the translations himself or herself.

I have found that “translation coordinator” is a less acerbic word for the translators and their managers, who prefer it to “translation manager.”

Crowdsourcing translations

A key feature companies look for in a translator or translation service is that their language is “localized” to the region of the deliverable’s intended audience (in conjunction with other key features, such as linguistic accuracy). For multi-national companies with offices located in those [localized] markets, there exists a great resource for translations.

My technical communications department has tried many approaches to translate our support documentation effectively and quickly but the method that I am having the most success with involves the combining of in-house translation crowdsourcing with objective coordination.

Use local translators

The support documentation that I will use as an example for this article is our customer-facing email templates that our technical support agents use to respond to support requests. First, I write the templates in English (after being submitted or recommended by the technical support agents) and then I email the primary Spanish translator the text. In this case, our primary translator is a technical support agent; however, this role changes depending on availability and subject matter and we have primary translators within several departments.  At this step, the text is “generally” translated—the “localization” comes next. This is unavoidable because the translator will undoubtedly translate the text according to the standards of his geographic locale. Truthfully, a Google Translate would suffice for this step if it’s critical to publish the information quickly. As I will demonstrate, the translation crowdsource will find and fix any errors that the translator or machine translator makes.

Once the translated text is published, I send an email to all of the Spanish speakers who will use the template. This email notifies the Spanish support agents of the availability of the new template as well as requests feedback on the language of the template itself.  This translation crowdsource will narrow the translation to a more specific locality—one that is most closely centered to the majority of that language’s users as the support agents converse daily with the users.

Time to coordinate

I, the translation coordinator, am the point of contact for all of the Spanish agents who use the template. Therefore, as they start to “localize” the original translation, I begin to receive emails with alternate translation requests. Of course, as I don’t speak Spanish, there is no way for me to know if the request is correct. I trust, however, that the cumulative response from the community of translators is correct and I implement the requests based on this aggregate.

Objective review

The advantage of the cumulative approach also creates a dilemma. If I receive only one request or if there are conflicting requests pertaining to the same word or phrase there must be some process used to determine which word or phrase to use. I have had success making this determination myself, as a non-Spanish speaker, by emailing the group the translation request and asking for feedback. Generally, I will receive back about 5 replies with that agent’s reasoning for using or not using the translation request. The basis for my assertion that having a coordinator who doesn’t speak the language is this—if I spoke Spanish, I would be opinion number 6 and just one more suggestion on which to decide. Instead, I can look at where each translator is located, who the primary audience for the deliverable is, and all other relevant factors; then an objective decision can be made.

Following up

I always communicate with the original translation requester and all the translators once I have made my decision and made (or not made) the edit. Included in this email is the reasoning I used to make my decision. I have received positive responses using this method and I believe it serves well the user who reads the document. It also allows each translator to contribute his or her opinion in a constructive way to meet both ends.

I hope that this will help another technical communicator who is in a similar situation handling translations. I know this isn’t the best way but it has worked well for me and my department so far. If you know of a better method, please share it here so we can all benefit. What’s nice about having the freedom to coordinate this project how I choose is that I can experiment with different methods that other technical writers suggest. I will be sure to update this article with the results of other methods as applicable.


July 25, 2011 · 2:43 pm

6 responses to “A day in the life: Technical Writer – Coordinating translations

  1. Hello,

    I’m glad to hear you understand German. If I come across something that needs more massaging than Google Translate provides, I now know where to go.


    Aryeh Goretsky

  2. Great article, Fer. My company also has a team of international translation coordinators. Recently, we came up with a new process for coordinating our UI translations. A meeting with our development team means we now automate the process of pushing new translations to our live server on a daily basis.

    The biggest challenge will be to maintain a current list of translation coordinators. Fortunately, I’m not the one tasked with that list maintenance. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Using Latin abbreviations in technical writing | ferswriteshoe

  4. I would suggest to you, as a technical writer, to take a look at this translation tool: https://poeditor.com . I’m sure that all the translators you’re working with will love it.

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