Why do we need multilingual technical manuals?

A workman consulting a manual
I wish I could understand the manual

My background

I have always loved learning languages and I studied French and German as subsidiary subjects at university.  However  my first real job when I left college was as a technician in a metallurgical laboratory in a large engineering works. The laboratory was headed by a formidable female Russian engineer.  A lot of the equipment we bought came from Germany and we would often struggle to understand the manuals even when they had been translated into English.

The firm was not large enough to have its own translation department so we would also  be asked for help by other departments who had bought equipment from abroad and  were struggling to understand the technical manuals that came with it. Sometimes these manuals would also have very poor and difficult to understand illustrations.  The text in the pictures might be different from the text on the page leaving everyone baffled. The photos might show buttons with the name still in the original language. We found that staff were often reluctant to be the first  to use the new machine in case they damaged it.  If they were unable to understand the manual because it had been badly translated or not translated at all it obviously increased their risk of injury.

Getting the right manual

When you buy a piece of equipment which costs several thousand pounds it is important that it comes with a manual that is accurate and easy to understand. If it has been translated the translator should understand the technical side of what they are translating and know the specialist vocabulary. He or she also  needs to be able to write in a way that sounds natural and is enjoyable to read. If the manual has been translated into English it is important to think that the person using the equipment may not have English as a first language and  even if they do they may not be familiar with obscure technical vocabulary. The quality of  technical documentation can help determine if the equipment will be used properly and looked after correctly. If a product has a good easy to understand and attractively presented manual the buyer is far more likely to consider purchasing further equipment from the same manufacturer. At a trade show abroad a sales representative would find it easier to deal with enquiries if he is able to show a potential customer a clear well laid out manual in his mother tongue,

Manuals in everyday life.

Nowadays  I enjoy travelling and we usually stay in a rented apartment. I have found it can be difficult trying to use a cooker or washing machine if for example  the user manual or other technical documentation  is only in German or Spanish. If user friendly multilingual manuals came as standard with household goods, I am sure that guests would  be less likely to damage themselves or the property. My daughter   who is teaching English in Prague in Czechia has even had to contend with classroom equipment with manuals in Czech. In an ideal world all equipment would come with multilingual manuals

Although English is rapidly becoming the main world language many people who speak English as a second language lack the  vocabulary needed to understand a technical manual and would prefer a manual written in their mother tongue with familiar illustrations. This would give them the confidence to use the piece of equipment properly. I think it also shows that a company is going the extra mile if they provide a well thought out manual in the local language.

Have you had problems understanding a manual when you have tried to use a piece of equipment you have bought?  Did you struggle to use the washing machine when you were renting abroad.?  I would love to hear your stories in the comments below. Perhaps we can help persuade firms to provide instructions that are clear, simple and easy to understand.

(collaborative post)

One Reply to “Why do we need multilingual technical manuals?”

  1. Hi, Anne – Great post! My husband and I lived in Beijing, China for fourteen years. I am painfully aware of the struggles that can arise when trying to use a washing machine (or any other type of equipment, etc.) when there are no universal symbols, or instructions in multiple languages included. Recently, my husband and I purchased Bodum double-wall glass mugs. “Are they dishwasher safe?” my husband asked. I took the box from his hands and pointed to the symbol of a dishwasher with a green check mark beside it. “Oh, I was looking for written instructions,” he said! 🙂

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