Nitpicking cuts translation costs

by Judy Petersen

To cut translation costs, attend to the little things--the nits. This article describes nits that need picking in computer documentation.

Headings, captions, and callouts

Are you writing for a new product? Consider sentence-style capitalization, which saves time. You need not add the extra key strokes or stop to think about capital letters.

Translators need not search for proper nouns in headings, captions, or callouts, because proper nouns are always capitalized, for example:

Searching the Product Name (PN) databases

Figure 1. PN interface elements

Input to PN log collector

Use consistent wording in headings. For example, try gerund endings before each procedure: Installing on a PC, Managing the database, and Changing your password.

If your product documentation consists of several books, use the same wording style across the product library. That way, translators need not add headings to the project style sheets.

Types of information

Use the same format for different types of information—especially for processes and procedures. Do not bury them in paragraphs. For example, you might use bullet lists for processes and number lists for procedures. Or you might try the Information Mappingä approach, where all processes and procedures are put into tables that have headings, which differentiate processes from procedures.

But you might consistently use different border and shading styles to further differentiate processes from procedures.

Wording in procedures

Avoid synonyms. Use the same wording in procedures so that with one global change, many words can be translated at once—especially if you use the formats shown above. Try to start each action description with the same verb. Consider these (where appropriate):

Try:   Rather than:
select   click on, choose, pick
close   quit, exit, leave
type   enter, specify, state, register
start   begin, initiate, invoke, call up, activate
copy   make a copy, take a copy, back up
use   utilize, employ, apply, make use of

Wording in cross-references

When cross-referencing, try see--when you cross-reference to a chapter or section online or inside the book. Try refer to—when you cross-reference to another book. Tell the translation agency that you have done this.

Wording in indexes

Use the same verb form for index entries that start with verbs. Do not use a singular noun in one entry and a plural in another. Select one style and stick with it. For example:

  file names16
  backing up9

Terminology lists

When you send documents for translation, include a terminology list. Also include acronym and abbreviation lists so that the translators can judge whether the shortened source version is also used in the target language.

In the IT industry, for example, many acronyms are not translated, because they would not be recognized.

If your documentation has been translated before, old terminology lists must be continuously updated during product development. These updated lists need not be complicated. Add your new terms to your translation agency's terminology list from the last release.

Most simple lists contain source and target terms, for example:


Unpublished documents

Most published documents in source languages are usually consistent regarding terminology. But documents such as plans, proposals, or requests for proposals (and their requirements specifications sections) are inconsistent because several people develop the documents. Sometimes, these people are not professional writers.

Give the translation agency a list of names, telephone numbers, and the names or numbers of the chapters that each person wrote. That way, translators can contact the authors if something is unclear


Ensure that the terminology is consistent, and watch for the excessive use of quotation marks and capital letters, which are frequently used for emphasis. Don't do this:

  • ... in "cyberspace", ... who "own" the project
  • Zoe Blow, Project Co-Leader of the Merger-Process Group's Subgroup
  • The Supplier shall give the Purchaser an Estimate in the Bid. If a Subcontractor ...


Avoid complicated highlighting. Let your words do the work—especially if illustrations or screen captures appear with your instructions or if you can safely assume that a screen is displayed while the reader follows your instructions. Highlighting takes a lot of time during translation:

  • Without: Select the XYZ icon.
  • With: Select the XYZ icon.

You might also consider the same simplicity for definition lists, where the position and white space make the term stand out. Highlight column headings but not the terms.

Cutting words cuts cost

The volume of information determines the cost of a translation. Different agencies have different ways of calculating the price that you pay. Some agencies pay a per-word rate to the freelance translators who work for them.

This rate usually covers the number of words in the source language. (Some agencies charge customers an hourly rate.)

The per-word rate is calculated into the total price. So to cut costs, you might cut words—if the cuts don't interfere with the quality.

Describing actions

You need not always repeat certain words if, as mentioned earlier, detailed illustrations accompany your text or if the readers have already displayed the interface. Compare:

1. File.
2. Print.
3. Pages, and then type the page numbers.
4. OK.
  1. Select the File option on the menu bar.
2. Select the Print... option on the File pull-down menu.
3. Click on the Pages radio button, and type the page numbers in the page range field.
4. Select the OK button.


In publications and requirements lists, use an ellipsis rather than repeating the same words in each list item:

Compare these:

• The Company Name Product Name Installation Manual, ISBN X-XX-XXXXXX-X
• The Company Name Product Name Technical Reference Manual, ISBN X-XX-XXXXXX-X

You need:

• The Company Name Product Name operating system 0.0 or later
• The Company Name Product Name network monitor 0.0 or equivalent
• The Company Name Product Name database or equivalent

To these:

The Company Name Product Name ...
... User's Manual, ISBN X-XX-XXXXXX-X
... Installation Manual, ISBN X-XX-XXXXXX-X
... Technical Reference Manual, ISBN X-XX-XXXXXX-X<

You need the Company Name Product Name ...
... Operating system 0.0 or later
... Network monitor 0.0 or equivalent
... Database or equivalent

You might need to rewrite the phrase that precedes a list if you want to use a similar technique in other lists where the same words are repeated in each item:

Compare this:

Functions are grouped according to:

• The management of errors
• The management of configurations
• The management of performance

To this:

Functions are grouped according to the management of:

• Errors
• Configurations
• Performance

If-then statements

The Information Mapping approach can also cut words. For example, if one paragraph contains more than two if-then statements, you can cut the word count by creating an if-then table:

If you use ...Then you need ...
SpotifyGood hearing ...
iPadLots of money ...
Google TranslateAn editor ...


When one or two words accurately describe a process, you need not add the word process after the word or words, for example: change management, installation, product development, quality control, and so on.


If every step in a procedure starts with the same verb, then do this:

StepType ...
1... your user ID.
2... your password, and press Enter.

StepSelect ...
1... the words you want to copy.
2... Edit.
3... Copy.
4... the new position.
5... Paste.

Mind the person

To avoid confusion, clearly specify who does what in marketing documents. Marketing people sometimes mix the you in marketing documents. The you at the beginning, that is, the decision-maker or manager, is not the same you later in the document. In many cases, the latter you is, for example, an operator, administrator, end user, or a programmer.

Introductions in marketing documents correctly introduce a problem faced by a decision-maker:

You cannot meet agreed-upon service levels for network users.

But later, when details describe how the product solves a problem, the person who actually performs a problem-solving task still remains you:

You collect network data and store it in a database. Then you can display the data or print reports.

Instead, the final previous sentences should begin as follows: End users collect data, store it in ...

Nits cost money

This section describes one example of what it could cost to translate into Swedish. Translation costs for other languages vary—depending on the country.

Given the exchange rate in June 2005, you pay an average of between USD 75-85 per hour for one, first-release, 20,000-word user's guide.

A book this size takes an average of 80 hours to translate, edit, and prepare for printing. So the total cost would be about USD 6800. If you deal directly with a local agency, you might pay sales tax, which is 25 percent on top of the cost. So the final bill would be USD 8500.

This table suggests minimum time and cost savings:

Consistent wording175
Consistent terminology4300
Word count175
Consistent person175
  675 total

So if you pick the nits, you could save USD 675 on one book in one language. But if your internal hourly rate is USD 85 or more per hour, and you are only translating into one language, then you must decide if the nits described in this article can cut your costs.


Adapted from an article for INTERCOM. Reprinted with permission from INTERCOM, the magazine of the Society for Technical Communication. Arlington, VA, USA. For more information, contact Judy Petersen.