Get the best translation for your machinery manual

By October 4, 2016Blog

You’ve got an expensive piece of equipment and some clients abroad who are interested in buying it. But they want the operations and maintenance manual in their own language, or maybe there’s even a legal requirement to have it translated.So, how do you go about it? Will you send it to a translation agency, and if so, to which one? Or will you look for a freelance, but how do you find one? Or will you send it to your dealer in that country so that someone in their office translates it?

Manuals of industrial equipment are one of the most sensitive pieces of documentation for a company.

The manual you want to translate explains how to operate your machine so that it produces the highest quality products, or so that it details your client’s products according to their specifications. It also explains how to service your piece of machinery to achieve its maximum lifetime, ensuring you keep your promise to the client.

Lastly, it will explain to operators and engineers the dangers these products could entail for them, and offer health and safety instructions to avoid injury during use.

A clear and well written manual will:

  • Improve the experience of operators and engineers with your machine (you don’t want anyone complaining that it takes them hours to figure out how to make it work!)
  • Reduce the number of queries you receive, as well as the time that your people spend replying to them
  • Help your client produce or inspect parts without glitches, improving in turn the reputation of your brand
  • Increase the life span of your machine (again good reputation for you!).
  • Reduce the risk of your machine causing injuries to people or damage to goods.

Despite all of the above, most manuals are, well, not the easiest read. If it’s hard enough to follow the instructions to assemble a table, imagine what it would be like to decipher a badly translated manual for, let’s say, an injection machine manufacturing pieces for the automotive industry or for a complicated vision inspection machine with hundreds of functions and parameters.

Many manuals are very badly translated, to the point that they can’t be understood. And these are some of the reasons:

A. Manuals can be very long, and therefore expensive documents to translate. A manual of a complex piece machinery can take 1 month of a translator’s time.

B. Manuals need to be translated by someone who can understand your machine. Technical translations are both about being able to write in a clear and accurate way and about understanding the technology.

C. Manuals are sometimes regarded by the person commissioning it as a formality, rather than a useful tool to get the best out of your machine.

D. The person commissioning the translation doesn’t necessarily understand the target language or he may not be technical enough to assess its quality.

If the person ordering the translation sees it as just a formality and doesn’t have a way to evaluate the translated version, they may be tempted to try to cut costs.

But, apart from some small efficiency gains related to technology and methods, cutting costs in translations can only be done in two ways: i) spending less time on the document (i.e. rushing through it) or ii) hiring someone cheaper (i.e. someone without the technical and linguistic knowledge needed for your document).

If nobody on the client’s side assesses the quality of the translation, then the fact that the manual is unintelligible will pass unnoticed.

But this decision can result in manuals with these (real life) sentences:

So that you can see what impression it gives the reader, even if you don’t speak Spanish, I will demonstrate its poor back translation into English:


This is an example of a translation I was asked to review. Fortunately, it was corrected before going to print, but you can imagine how confused the operators could have felt. Of course, BRAKES ANNOUNCEMENT should actually have been translated RELEASE BRAKE (much clearer, isn’t it?).

Or this other example from a catalogue:

  • XXX fabrica productos para líneas caliente

Back translation into English:

  • XXX manufactures products for porn lines

Needless to say, the products weren’t meant for porn lines, but rather for hot electrical lines (i.e. lines with electrical current).

Some manuals have so many of these issues on every page that makes them unreadable. If you’ve just translated a manual and it reads like that, you may as well give the client 100 pages written in an imaginary language, because they’ll understand it just the same.

So, how can you sort this out?

– The manual will cost a fair amount, so make sure you spend the money the text deserves and ensure that you get the best manual for your machine, rather than an useless one for half the price. How much does your machine cost? The translation will only set you back a small percentage of that cost, and will be your sales tool for all your sales to a specific country.

Go to a trusted agency that has been recommended to you. Ideally, you’d want a translator with a technical background (note: a couple of webinars are not technical background!) who’s able to write well. The agency won’t normally give you the name of the translator, though. Order a small translation to start with. Make sure to agree that the same translator will always handle your texts, although this may not be always possible because of holidays or work load (but it’s easier if you give reasonable deadlines).

Or go to a trusted freelance translator with technical knowledge and who’s a good technical writer. In this case you have the advantage that you can know the real background of the translator (you can check his/her LinkedIn profile, their profile in professional associations, etc.). Again, start by ordering a small translation first and give reasonable deadlines.

Provide a contact to solve queries. During the translation, the translator may need clarification about aspects of your machine, the specific words you’re already using, reference documents, etc.

Get the translation read/checked by someone knowledgeable in the target language and in the technical aspects of your machine, particularly for the first translations, and from time to time after that to ensure that quality doesn’t vary.

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