Translating Manufacturing Documentation for Global Growth
Updated: Sep 23, 2020
Your documentation is showing up in new places- are your translations helping?
The era of the printed manual is rapidly receding, because printed documentation simply can’t be updated often enough to support today’s agile/rapid development processes. We’re reaching the point where your technical documentation must get upgraded every time you do a software or hardware update. Can your translation provider keep up with all the emerging formats? And when you start managing docs in multiple formats and multiple languages, how do you keep from tearing your hair out?
Formats are more than file formats
In a perfect world all our docs would be output and translated into a universal file format like XML that includes metadata that can tell the output device how to correctly format it, regardless of device type or language being displayed. And this perfect world does exist when you get into authoring and managing your content with a structured component content management system (CCMS). But realistically, the transition to a system like that is messy, costly, and means crossing cultural hurdles that many manufacturers aren’t willing to invest in. Add in the complexity of reproducing tech content in multiple languages which vary in length, character sets and reading orientation (left to right or right to left, etc) and you have a wildly complex animal to manage.
Formats encompass things like regulatory, government, and/or military requirements
Are you in life sciences? How about aerospace and defense? Maybe you supply large government agencies? Each has additional requirements that can be considered formats, on top of the file formats we are familiar with. And sometimes these become so specialized that they can make translation of your documentation even more complex than you likely considered.
For example, you are developing documentation for a defense-related product that requires translated user manuals. The customer specifies requirements for those translations, based on security and/or safety considerations, that you may not consider formatting issues. As translation partners, these requirements very much become a big part of our challenge. In one common case, working with a defense contractor, the requirement was that we find a native speaking translator, who is a US citizen living in the continental United States, who is also a subject matter expert. Probably an engineer. And this is a requirement for each different language pair. They may even require vetting by a governmental agency before they can translate the documents.
As you might imagine, finding these resources, especially for less used languages, becomes a major challenge for a language service provider (LSP). Because they can be rare birds, they don’t come cheap and turnaround times can take longer while they are found and vetted. The complexity of this example is just one instance of how complex the creation, publishing, translation, and distribution of your critical product information can be.
You can’t just send it to the tech docs team
An unfortunate fact is that many technical writing teams and individuals have not adapted to these new models and requirements. Their comfort level is still in delivering docs in Word or FrameMaker formats, both of which are wildly behind the times and incapable of easily entering the workflows required by the format requirements listed above. How will a hundred page product manual display on the phone? Can those tech writers supply you with copy that is ready to slot into a mobile world? Much of the time they cannot, in part because of cultural resistance to doing things in ways they are not familiar with. And when their legacy content is sent to a translation vendor, that vendor must be tech forward enough to unravel its legacy issues and convert that content into usable formats, before it is even translated.
This isn’t simply a cost issue, it is a strategic go to market issue
In emerging countries, which are also emerging markets, 70% of the potential customers and users of your equipment principally access online information via a phone. Connections are often slow and unreliable. Now imagine they are in the field and need information to repair or troubleshoot that equipment you sold them. Is downloading a Word doc or a bulky Knowledge Base a viable option? And will that information be translated and localized so they can use it?
If it is not, you may not be positioned to enter that market. And a competitor who is, can eat your lunch. Not considering these factors is a strategic mistake, one that can cost millions in lost and future business. Yet most manufacturing companies treat documentation and translation as a costly, necessary evil and won’t invest in the tools content teams require to solve this growing problem.
The problem can be so in-grained that the solution can seem insurmountable
When you are moving from thirty year old technology, of any kind, and introducing current best practices, you will encounter major hurdles, including cost, implementation, training, and cultural acceptance, which is typically underestimated. As mentioned earlier, there are advanced systems for developing, organizing, re-purposing, and publishing complex content to multiple outputs. These systems also can talk to translation workflow systems that prep each content piece for translation, send it to the translator, loop into required review workflows, then send the properly formatted translated copy back into these systems for distribution. Once implemented, these systems can change your ability to enter new markets, more rapidly turn around updates and upgrades, ensure that your docs are accurately and compliant, and make it much easier for your customers to use them. But behind the scenes these things are complex.
Implementing a modern documentation and translation workflow
The decision to move to modern workflow systems is not a minor one. These systems can be costly and very challenging to implement, including importing your existing content into them. Your tech writers and documentation managers must first be convinced to buy into an entirely different way of working, and this should not be underestimated. I have seen costly systems abandoned because the tech writing team revolted and refused to change. Sad but true.
The best route is to use an experienced integration team with the resources and experience to manage these transitions. This experience rarely resides within manufacturing companies, so make sure a part of their job is to create internal champions who can carry on when the integrator is done. This is critical and management must strongly support these new resources.
Why is a manufacturing translation provider pitching these new concepts?
There are two reasons why we wade into these difficult recommendations. First, translation is almost always the first process to benefit from the adoption of these systems and the ROI for our clients is easily recognized. They save immense amounts of time, hassles, and money if they are doing translation of large scale documentation sets. The second is selfish. These systems organize your content and use XML file formats with all the necessary metadata to manage publishing and distribution automatically, including translated content. We can offer clients a far more efficient process, making translation and localization an integral part of a global markets initiative, rather than a painful cost center.
Considering investing in an end-to-end structured content management system? Talk to us about the aspects that involve translation. We can help you configure them to save money and time with all your translation projects.