Writing and translating technical automotive documentation


My name is Christian Vandersmissen. I've been a technical automotive translator for 27 years. My company is called automotive-translation.com. I'm going to talk about my experience and share some thoughts about my work.

I'll be addressing the subject of writing and translating technical manuals for land motor vehicles. Manuals are mainly meant for workshops and garages (for mechanics and repairmen) and they make up a large volume of my work. The types of vehicles are varied: passenger car, vans, trucks, motorcycles, and agricultural, construction, industrial, and special vehicles.


Vehicles are described and illustrated in detail in the manufacturers' documentation. Manuals explain how vehicles run, how to dissemble them, what breakdowns could occur, what possible repairs may be needed, how to maintain them, etc. These manuals may be thousands of pages long and hundreds of thousands of words long, per model and per brand. The texts repeat themselves from one year to another since much of the information remains the same. IT professionals have created software that enables us to automatically recover anything that could be useful in a manual's future versions (before we had to manually copy and paste the repetitions).

Manuals are increasingly more available online and are decreasingly printed out. Nevertheless it is possible to reduce the volume even more and therefore the writing expenses and so on. The countless comments, safety warnings, as well as redundant or superfluous explanations (readers are competent) could be normalized and put together in a special chapter, like the terms and conditions we tick when we make Internet purchases (of course without reading them!).

An even more important point is about the source language of technical writers. Motor vehicle manufacturers are mainly American and British (so they use English); Japanese, Korean and Chinese (they also write in English); German, Italian, Russian and Dutch (they write in their own language); and Swedish (who often write in English).

The language used is relatively specific: in each language, we come across the same expressions and words, from one brand to another, to describe the same actions, the same components, and the same tools. This familiar language enables native speakers to understand the text. This language has the same shortcomings as all “natural” languages:

words that have become ambiguous from usage (words that have several meanings, such as “pin” or “to get”)
complex or obscure sentences (long sentences that include several subjects, etc)

The aviation industry, which pays special attention to safety, has reduced errors by using “plain” English that includes approximately 50 rules that technical writers must follow, in order to reduce the risk that maintenance technicians might misunderstand the data.

Caterpillar has been a pioneer by making similar efforts when writing about agricultural vehicles, with the help of the Carnegie Mellon University of Pittsburgh. But overall, the automotive industry

seems to be less concerned about the subject. This leads into the second part of this short paper: translation.


While the automotive industry writes manuals in its own language - often English - it is obligated to translate them in the language of its customers. This is sometimes a legal obligation. The major problem stems from the number of languages worldwide: about six thousand, not including dialects such as creole or patois. While major carmakers will translate into up to forty languages, not a single one translates into six thousand.

Machine translations that are manually corrected are beginning to replace human translation. But translation software is a robot without intelligence that gets stuck on ambiguous and obscure terms as mentioned before.

The radical impossibility of translating into every language should lead to the adoption of “plain” English or “plain” translations into English. This simplified English would be easier to understand for non-native speakers. The same goes for machine translation, which would clearly be improved if source texts were in plain English. These are two good reasons for the automotive industry to use plain English and follow the aviation industry's example.

Translation agencies (that are in contact with manufacturers or importers and that distribute the work among translators of different languages) and their in-house or freelance translators use translation memories and accept, whether they like it or not, to work with post-edited machine translation. But often, machine translation gives such poor results and demand so many corrections that the process is quite useless. The problem comes from the source text: it was written without consideration for the demands of machine translation. Unfortunately, agencies, and freelance translators to a greater degree, have little impact on source texts. These agencies and translators could propose translations in “plain” English but do not do so.


Manufacturers could benefit from using “plain” English in their manuals or could translate them into “plain” English

1) to replace missing versions (in languages that have not been translated)
2) to improve the results of machine translation and reduce the cost of post-editing
3) Translators could be following the rules of “plain” English and produce translations that are
more straightforward than the originals. This is what the best technical translators naturally
do already.

Christian Vandersmissen, cvautomotive@gmail.com

February 2013