November 11, 2017

Issues in technical English

By admin-emal-147 Views-No Comment

I recently visited a seminar on technical English. It targeted German native writers of English and mentioned some tricks on how to “sound more native.”

Most of the rules are known to anyone who has studied style guides:

  • using a verbal style instead of the nominal style so widely used in German
  • avoiding the passive voice
  • addressing the reader directly (aka including a subject in each sentence)
  • using simple verbs and prepositions

Still, many writers, especially academics, ignore these rules, whether they’re native or not. So to me it’s not about being or sounding native, but about writing well. And there are universal rules.

Some German tutorial writers of the YouTube generation are even starting to write in “anglicized” German, which has become familiar to readers through software translated from English into a foreign-sounding kind of German.

One characteristic is the inanimate agent. The English “The screen opens a window” would be, in “proper” German: “Ein Fenster öffnet sich auf dem Bildschirm / wird auf dem Bildschirm geöffnet.” (“A window is opened (or opens itself) on the screen”) because  a screen is inanimate and therefore cannot “open” something. So you need to make the window reflective (opens itself) or add an invisible subject (is opened). However, English influence has made the literal translation “Der Bildschirm öffnet ein Fenster” almost acceptable.

Some of the suggestions from the seminar seemed odd to me, such as using English jargon instead of writing jargon-free. I mean on the linguistic level, not the terminology. Apparently, some English writers still prefer fuzzy blanket verbs such as “include” & “visualize” or  prepositions such as “in conjunction with”, “with regard to” or “via”.

I prefer simple words in every case for 2 reasons:

  1. Finding a simple word forces you to understand the text. Translators in particular need this step to understand what they are reading. Our target group are the readers, so we need to simplify.
  2. Your default reader should always be an end user with no idea about technical stuff. If you use jargon, experts may know from context or experience what you mean, but it’s not obvious from your words. This means that a translator may even write out implicit information which is not obvious to an amateur.

There are tons of great references. Unfortunately, translators and other writers rarely read and apply them.

I use mostly monolingual style guides, such as the Microsoft manual of style. Their “for dummies” approach leaves no user behind. Also check the style guides of other major content publishers, such as Wikipedia or even the EU.

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