Six tips for an easily translatable manual

If you’ve ever assembled an IKEA shelf, you will know that user manuals can be a source of frustration or a saving grace: It all depends on the clarity and quality of the manual.

Companies therefore put a lot of time and energy into creating  a manual that is tailored to the (end) user of the product – and with good reason. A badly-written manual could result in customer backlash, potential accidents, and even financial repercussion through fines and lawsuits. Therefore, it’s imperative that misleading or ambiguous instructions are avoided at all costs.

So while companies generally write these user manuals with great care, there is one aspect that is often forgotten about: translating  these manuals into a different language. Many firms do not take this phase into account right from the beginning, which naturally increases the risk of a flawed translation – but also disregards the time required to translate the manual and the costs associated with this. Incorrect units of measurement, unclear explanations, or an error in formatting can have serious consequences. Therefore, we’ve collated the following six tips for optimising your operating instructions.


1. Remember that the text length differs between languages

Languages differ from one another in many ways – one of them being the text length! When writing a text in the English language, it is important for the author to be aware that it is likely to increase in length when it is translated into languages such as German or Italian. In order to avoid formatting issues that need hours to be fixed, it is much more efficient to simply write the text with the translation in mind. The increased text length is not only an issue when it comes to the number of pages set for the manual, but also for the pictures accompanying the descriptions. A proofreader who has to go through the entire text to check the position of the images will obviously need to put in more hours when the text constantly shifts throughout the manual.


2. Work according to international standards

Every country has their own rules when it comes to the safety measures for manuals. International standards such as the ISO 3864 standard for safety signs can simplify the translation of your manual into another language. By working based on these guidelines, it will be far less time-consuming to adapt the translated manual to the national requirements.

This method of working also aids in decreasing the risk of being fined in countries such as the U.S.A. – a place where it is quite common for companies to receive huge fines because individuals sued them based on a “failure to warn” – a complaint that is intrinsically linked to the manual and product description, rather than  to the actual product.


3. Determine how your measurements should be conveyed in other languages

Whether your original measurements are in feet or meters, when you’re expanding internationally, you need to consider audiences with different measurement systems than your own. By creating a Terminology List that specifies whether 5 foot should be precisely 152,4cm or whether it suffices to say 152cm, you can ensure that the translator knows exactly how to deal with these measurements – which of course, saves everyone time.


4. Create a terminology list for specific terms

Do your product names need to be adapted to the local audience or should they be kept consistent even across borders? ? Questions like these always come up during translations for companies – and if you know exactly what you expect from the translation, it is beneficial for both parties if you communicate it right from the beginning. While creating the manual, it is therefore always a good idea to keep track of important terminology and product names that might cause confusion for a translator. This simple task – in combination with the necessary clarification for the translators – will end up saving a lot of time during the translation process.


5. Be consistent in your choice of vocabulary

Now that we have established the necessity of a glossary or terminology list, it is necessary to also consider the use of this vocabulary. User manuals should always be consistent – they are not written to sound nice, they are created to make the reader understand the content and the product. Consistent terminology ensures that there will be no confusion – neither for readers who speak your native language, nor for international audiences. Your terminology requires clear context, because some English words may have several meanings in a different language. This can have a negative effect on the consistency of the translation, and therefore the quality of the manual.


6. Use clear, simple language

This advice might sound self-explanatory, but it is as important as ever. When manufacturing products for a certain industry, it may be tempting to assume there those reading the manual possess a certain level of expertise that allows them to understand specialised words. However, if you are active in an international market it is impossible to know how much the reader of your manual knows. Therefore, as a general rule, user manuals should be written in plain and simple language (complete with the appropriate vocabulary) that can easily be adapted to different audiences around the world.


Writing a user manual is a huge responsibility even when writing for an audience within your own country. It becomes more difficult to create one that is appropriate for cultures all around the world – but if you are following these 6 tips, you are heading in the right direction!

If we have piqued your interest, feel free to take a look at how we handle the translation process of your manuals or contact us directly!

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