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For any device to work correctly and safely, it must have a clear user interface (UI). As the manufacturer or distributor, you need to ensure that the device interface is understandable and user-friendly in all your target markets’ languages so it can be used safely and correctly. Translating the user interface is much more complicated than it sounds and can be highly challenging. Translators will often be faced with a list of strings (sometimes hundreds of them) with no context and little to no hands-on knowledge of how your device works.
What challenges arise in UI translation?
Isn’t translation really easy these days, with software like Google Translate? The answer is a resounding “no”. These tools are handy to get a general idea of the content of a document. For example, we can use machine translation to find out how to buy concert tickets on a foreign website. But this is not nearly as complex as translating a user interface for a high-tech device. Even seasoned professional translators find that this is one of the most challenging types of translation.
UI translations can go wrong for three key reasons:
- Lack of context and understanding of how the device works. UI text is often sent for translation as a list of isolated strings (sentences or even phrases), without any context. The strings can be ambiguous on their own, i.e., they can be interpreted ‒ and translated ‒ in various ways, even if you understand how the device works.
- Character limits. Strings often have a character limit to fit in the space allocated for text within the user interface. They are therefore often condensed or abbreviated to make the most of the space available. But in some languages you need more (or fewer) characters/words to express the same meaning. For example, French and Russian translations are 15–20% and 20–25% longer (respectively) than the original English text.
- Consistency. User interfaces frequently display short sentences or even single words, such as adjectives and commands. Translators need to know what these words refer to when translating from a language such as English (which do not have gender for nouns or verb conjugation) into languages such as French, Spanish, or Greek (which do). For example, is “Open door” a command for the user to do so, an indication that the door is open, or text on a key that the user can push to open the door? There is no way of knowing this out of context in English, but the translation of each of these meanings can differ vastly.
How can we improve UI translation?
We have seen that the main challenge is lack of context. Giving your translator or agency more context will give you a better UI translation:
- Provide detailed explanations for abbreviations. This is essential. Review the list of strings for translation and note any abbreviations that are non-standard or specific to your organisation. You can do this in a separate spreadsheet or through comments in the file.
- Provide context to expressions that are difficult to understand on their own. Review the list of strings and clarify anything that could be ambiguous or misunderstood out of context.
- Provide screenshots of the user interface. Screenshots tell the translator what a string is: for instance, is it a communication from the UI to the user or a label on a button? This step can be time-consuming, and some strings (e.g. error messages) may only be displayed in specific circumstances. One easier way to start doing this is to provide a manual with screenshots in the source language.
- Provide videos of the device functions, including the user interface. Keep the videos as short as possible, ensuring that each function or process is easily identifiable, so it is easy for the translator to find answers to their questions. This is more time-effective if the device does not have too many functions.
- Provide the device user manual (or the UI manual, if there is one), ideally in both the source and target languages. This may be time-consuming for the translator, as they may have to read entire pages just to translate a few words. But if you already have the manual translated, it gives the translator much more context and their translation of the user interface will be much better.
- Provide a contact person who can answer technical (i.e. content-related) questions. This step is essential for any translation. It is the best approach to help the translator (or agency on their behalf) understand your product and ensure sufficient quality of the translation.
- Provide enough budget for the translation. This may seem obvious, but remember that the translator will need time to look for information in your manual, watch your videos, do extensive research and ask questions. Translating UI texts is very time-consuming, so the rate per word or per project for translation of user interfaces is likely to be higher than it is for less complex projects.
UI translation: problems and solutions
Due to the lack of context and frequent use of abbreviations, translating a user interface is particularly challenging. As a result, UI translations often contain errors. You can improve the translations of your device user interfaces in these five ways:
- If you plan to translate the user manual, order it from the same language service provider at the same time, or have the manual translated first. Never start by translating the user interface.
- If the user manual has already been translated, provide it to the translator for reference.
- Make sure any potentially ambiguous UI strings are explained.
- Provide UI screenshots whenever possible.
- Name a contact person for the translator’s technical (content) questions.
We hope you found this information useful. Do get in touch at email@example.com and send us any suggestions for solutions that worked well for you when dealing with a UI translation, or your comments about applying these tips to your project. We will get back to you as soon as we can.