To localize... or not? (Was: Dropping the you?)

Subject: To localize... or not? (Was: Dropping the you?)
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Janice Gelb <janice -dot- gelb -at- sun -dot- com>
Date: Sat, 24 Jun 2006 09:24:59 -0400

Janice Gelb noted: <<... our style guide doesn't allow first-person plural and we also suggest that writers don't "recommend" and that they just tell the reader what to do.>>

FYI for those who don't know her: Janice is co-author of "Read me first!", which she co-developed while working at Sun. It's a highly credible alternative to Microsoft's guide (I believe it won an STC award too), even if you primarily write in a Microsoft environment. Being an editor, I don't agree with everything in it (the world will almost certainly end when all editors agree <g>), but I like it much better than Microsoft's advice.

As Janice notes, the word "recommend" is generally redundant if you're writing in the imperative voice. If you tell someone to do something, it's clear that this instruction is your recommendation, so there's no need to emphasize the point. Delete the word, shorten the writing, get to the point. There are cases when it's necessary to add the word back in for emphasis, but those cases must be the exception: like seasoning food, adding too much of any one spice dulls the palate and conceals the other (often more important) flavors.

<<On the greater question, while I agree that cultural sensibilities should be taken into account, and our style guide has plenty of recommendations on the subject, I don't think that sensitivity should extend to making the English more convoluted than necessary for Europeans.>>

As several of the examples in this thread have shown, it's easy to write clearly in a way that all audiences will understand. One way to look at this requires us to take a step back and think about writing in a slightly different way than we might have been doing. Think about writing as having two components: the words that convey the meaning, and the words that flavor that meaning (i.e., account for a cultural context). Simplistically, this could be described as "what you say and how you say it". In that context:

<<Correcting writing that is difficult to understand for non-native speakers is one thing, as that benefits all readers.>>

That's the "what you say" part. One of the cool things about trying to boil down writing to make it as concise as possible (but no more concise!*) is that the exercise helps you focus in on which words are really important.

* See my post on this topic many years ago: -00907.html (Yikes! Has it really been nearly 10 years? <g>)

<<Changing writing that might not use an approach comfortable for absolutely every reader is to me another issue entirely. I don't think that possible Asian discomfort with the use of "you" as too informal should necessarily outweigh a desire to make technical writing more approachable for non-Asian readers unless that is the primary audience.>>

This comes down to whether it's possible to localize or not. As I noted previously, many Asian readers will simply accomodate our different English rhetorical style without any fuss or bother. They might prefer a different style, but if the information is important and meaningful, they'll cope. It works the other way too. I, for example, don't expect China to adapt Mandarin to follow English syntax so that learning Chinese syntax would be easier for me. (Unfortunately, it's also why my aging brain makes earning so much slower, but that's life.) I do expect my Chinese colleagues to write clearly.

Many companies take the perspective that it's simply not practically or economically feasible to make the effort to customize their writing for different audiences. Yet if you take a step back and consider the difference between "what you say and how you say it", this perspective becomes a bit more difficult to support. The hard part about technical editing, and the most time-consuming part in my experience, is the technical part: getting the facts right, and ensuring that the "what you say" is correct and clear. This is why we have intensive peer reviews.

The easier part is the mechanics of copyediting, the "how you say it" part. (Yes, I'm oversimplifying... I'm trying to make a point, not to state a law of the universe of words.) This suggests that the burden of localization may be easier than we sometimes think: get the "what you say" right in the first version (the technical edit), then hire a local editor to polish the "how you say it" part. A good editor (they do exist) can be taught how to distinguish between the "what" and the "how", and work much faster by touching only the how.

How might this work? If you think a bit about writing to prepare for localization, there are a range of strategies, up to and including the use of AECMA simplified English ( But even in the simplest of these strategies, imposing a measure of consistency on how you write makes the job easier. Sometimes the changes become purely mechanical and easy to automate with a Word macro; for a trivial example, phrases such as "you should [imperative verb]" can be automatically replaced with "[imperative verb]" by the local editor if the local style is to use imperative voice.

Real-world examples become more complex, of course, but the philosophy doesn't. Something to ponder!

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
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re: you or he/it: From: Sean Hower
Dropping the you? The Asian response to imperative voice. (was: Re: you or he/it): From: Geoff Hart
Re: Dropping the you? The Asian response to imperative voice. (was: Re: you or he/it): From: Monica Cellio
Re: Dropping the you? The Asian response to imperative voice.: From: Janice Gelb
Re: Dropping the you? The Asian response to imperative voice.: From: Monica Cellio
Re: Dropping the you? The Asian response to imperative voice.: From: Janice Gelb

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