How to Obtain a Good Translation of a User Interface

A clear user interface is essential for the correct and safe operation of any machine. As a manufacturer or distributor of these machines, you need to make sure that the interface is clear in all languages, so that your equipment can be operated safely and effectively in all countries where it is sold.

However, translating user interfaces is much trickier than it seems, and perhaps one of the most difficult types of texts for your translator. Very often, your translator will have to handle a list of strings (sometimes reaching hundreds of items), with no context and without knowing how your machine works.

In my career as a technical translator, I have translated user interfaces for countless pieces of equipment, including numerical control machines, visual inspection equipment, dosing machines, and so on.

I have often encountered similar difficulties and in doing so, have discovered some common ways to greatly improve the translation quality. In particular, see my last tip below on how a small change to the order in which you request your translations can greatly improve the result, without requiring any more effort from you!

In both cases, if you’re thinking of having a mobile app or its manual translated, this post may be useful to you.

 

Firstly, is translation of user interfaces really that difficult?

Nowadays, with Google Translate, Deepl and all the other automatic translation software, translation is pretty straightforward, isn’t it?

Honestly? Not really, for many reasons. These tools are very helpful in providing a general idea of the meaning of a text. For example, I have used them to find out how to purchase tickets for a concert on a Swedish website. However, booking concert tickets is not the same as translating a user interface for your high-tech piece of equipment.

Even if you use the services of a competent human translator, this type of translation is amongst the most complex.

For example, here is screenshot from a manual already translated into Spanish that I was asked to review. I have removed the name of the manufacturer for confidentiality purposes, but I can tell you that this machine is used to manufacture parts for the aviation industry – which obviously requires complete clarity.

Translated user interface

Translated user interface

This translation was requested by a company from the US. The marketing manager probably didn’t speak Spanish, so didn’t pick up on the fact that the Spanish, when translated back into English, actually means the following:

User interface, how it really reads

User interface, how it really reads

I can assure you that this wasn’t the intended meaning! The original message in English was to warn the user about the main pendant control being disabled. I see this kind of mistake every day.

 

So, why are there so many mistakes in user interface translations?

Here are some reasons for things going pear-shaped when translating user interfaces:

  • Lack of context and poor knowledge of how the machine works. As I mentioned before, often these messages are sent for translation as a list of strings without any context. Without understanding how the machine works, messages can be translated in various (often incorrect) ways. This was the reason for the mistake in the example given above.
  • Character limitations. Often, the messages have a maximum character count to fit in the string. Therefore, they are usually shortened, use abbreviations, etc. For example, strings sometimes look like this (real) example:

Should be off

(crikey – what should be off? This needs clarification from the customer).

  • Concordance: User interfaces often just display short sentences, adjectives on their own, etc. When translating from a language like English (that has no genders for nouns and where there is little variation in verb conjugation) into languages like French, Spanish or German, translators often need to know what these adjectives refer to (a feminine or masculine noun or even a neutral noun for languages like German or Greek).

There are similar issues with verbs. For example, is “open door” a request to the user, an indication that the door is open, or just the wording on a key that the user can press to open the door? There is no way of knowing this from the English, but in the first case, the Spanish translation would be “abra la puerta”, in the second “puerta abierta” and in the third “abrir puerta”.

Hint: if your translator is diligent, he/ she will probably ask you lots questions to make sure the translation is correct.

So, as well as making sure that you choose a good professional (see this post on the importance of a good translation of your technical document and this one on the different profiles of technical translators) and that your budget covers the time he/she requires to produce a high-quality translation, what else can you do to help?

Ways to improve the translation of software interfaces

As you can see, issues are mainly due to lack of context. To provide translators with more information, consider doing the following:

  • Provide a full description of abbreviations. This is vital. Go through the list of strings you are sending for translation and clarify any non-standard abbreviations as well as abbreviations that are very specific to your company or industry. You could do this in a separate spreadsheet, for example, or via comments in the file.
  • Provide context for any text that may be hard to understand on its own. Go through the list of strings and, wherever you see things like “Should be off” as mentioned above, clarify.
  • Provide screenshots of the user interface: This way, the translator will at least be able to see if the string is a message from the UI to the user or wording on a button, for example. However, this can be very time consuming, and some of the messages (for example, error messages) may only be shown in certain cases. If you have a manual with screenshots in the original language, it may be a good idea to start by sending this.
  • Send videos of the different machine functions, which also show the user interface: Try to make the videos as short as possible, focusing on the operations and make every operation easy to identify, otherwise the translator will have to spend hours watching the videos to find the answers to any questions (and is likely to charge for this). Do bear in mind that this is not a very efficient method if the machine has many different operations.
  • Send the machine manual (or user interface manual if there is one). Alone, this is not the most efficient tool for the translator, as he/she may spend hours trying to locate every operation and potentially having to read whole sections to translate just a few words. However, the good news is that if you’re also planning to have the manual translated, you will improve the UI translation and provide more context. We’ll go into more details in the next section.
  • Put the translator in contact with someone who is able to answer his/her questions: This is essential and should really be done for any translation, as it is the best way to help the translator understand your machine and therefore improve the quality of the translation.
  • Make sure you assign enough of your budget to the translation: this may seem obvious, but if not, please bear in mind that your translator will need time to look for information in your manual, check your videos, ask questions, etc. This type of translation is much more time-consuming than a standard translation, so if regular translation costs a given per-word rate, this may increase for UI translation (because it is likely to take twice as long unless all messages are very similar).

What if I also want to translate the manual?

You are in luck – this is the perfect opportunity for the translator to obtain more context before he/she translates the UI. This means that the quality will be better, your employees will probably spend much less time answering questions, and the translator may even agree not to increase his/her per-word rate substantially for the strings.

Having to translate both the manual and the strings of the user interface at the same time is very common. However, based on my experience, this isn’t always done in the best order.

You can improve your chances of receiving a good translation by having the manual and the strings of the user interface translated as follows:

  • Order the translation of the manual and the strings at the same time, from the same translator. This way the translator will have read and understood the whole manual and your machine before having to translate the strings, which is a great way to provide more context and ensure full understanding.
  • If you want them translated at different times, send the manual for translation first and the messages and strings shortly afterwards – and use the same translator.

From my own experience, translating the manual first and the messages and strings shortly afterwards makes the job much easier. I work more efficiently, my customers save time and the end result is better.

Summary: Issues and solutions when translating a user interface

Translating a user interface is extremely difficult, mainly due to a lack of context and the frequent use of abbreviations. As a result, it is very common for UIs to be full of mistakes.

How to improve the translation of a UI, the following will help:

  • If you are translating the manual too, order the translation at the same time, from the same translator or have the manual translated first and then the user interface. Never start with the UI.
  • If the manual has previously been translated, send it for reference purposes.
  • Go through the text to translate and provide a full description of any abbreviations and clarify any unclear messages.
  • Provide screenshots of the display.
  • Nominate a contact person to answer any questions from the translator.

 

I hope this information was helpful. Please feel free to share your experiences or leave any comments or questions about how to apply this to your specific document below, and I will reply as soon as I can!

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