Re. Translate words or meaning?

Subject: Re. Translate words or meaning?
From: geoff-h -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA
Date: Tue, 21 May 1996 07:51:14 -0500

Except in literature, where the goal is to replicate the author's
voice and imagery, the primary goal of translation is to ensure that
the ideas get across successfully. This is particularly important in
technical writing. Here's a trivial yet telling example: If the
English version of the manual says "as you type, the words will flow
from left to right across the screen", can we legitimately preserve
the "left to right" for the Hebrew and Arabic versions (in which text
flows from right to left) and most oriental versions (in which text
also flows from top to bottom if I remember correctly)? I doubt it.

That's one simple example in which using the exact same words is a
poor choice. You could argue that this example is valid only because
the wording no longer represents the product's functioning, not
because the word choice is inherently wrong, so let's consider a more
complex (realistic?) example. What unpleasant connotations would (in
the context of disk drives etc.) the concept of a "master/slave"
relationship have for black Africans and Eastern European communists?
A simple and clear metaphor to most of us, but I suspect that it has
undesirable meanings for a non-North American audience.

This gets more complex still when the user interface itself isn't
easily translatable among cultures. For example, if we're documenting
a user interface that uses file folders, file cabinets and a desktop
(e.g., the Mac OS) for users from a non-urban environment, would this
communicate effectively? I can see this as a problem if you're
training native field staff to maintain products in the field in, say,
a rainforest environment in which file folders are as common as BMWs.
Might we have to come up with a different metaphor that was easier to

Even between more compatible cultures, metaphors can go astray. I've
read that the "typewriter keyboard" metaphor and interface that we use
for most computer interactions are problematic for many Orientals
since the notion of a 100-key keyboard is entirely foreign to members
of cultures that use thousands of symbols for words. What problems has
this created for members of oriental cultures who must learn North
American software?

These are largely hypothetical examples, off the top of my head. I've
worked primarily with European languages, for which the problems are
familiar to me. I'd be curious to see what real problems other writers
have encountered in their work.

--Geoff Hart @8^{)} geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
Disclaimer: Speaking for myself, not FERIC.

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