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Published on September 26th, 2006 | by Rahel Bailie

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Mangling language – can content management help?

Pardon the [intended] pun, but a conversation I had with a colleague this morning about content management and localized content made me think of a blog post I read a few months ago, a veritable laugh-till-your-gut-hurts type of mangled English on a Chinese restaurant menu. It reminds me a bit of the CBC’s Definitely Not the Opera show that had a Lost in Translation segment, where song lyrics were computer-translated into a foreign language, then back-translated and given to the audience to guess the song title. In both cases, there was some pretty literal translation going on, which can be hilarious to the casual observer, but doesn’t really do much for business development.

Over the past fifteen years, ten of those years were spent in organizations that either translated and localized material in various languages, or internationalized material through the use of Controlled Ehglish. I’ve lived in a bilingual society and noticed the subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – ways that language can enrich or complicate workplaces and product material.

So can using a content management system (CMS) help prevent mangling language? A little, yes, but mostly, no. What a content management system does is automate the transport of content, so if you have mangled a translation, that mangled content will be faithfully transported into the various places you asked that the content appear. The CMS helps you complete your task faster and move content about with more accuracy, but it doesn’t help a bad translation. You’ll just have a more consistent bad translation.

Translation isn’t simply about swapping out words for another language. It’s about picking up on nuance and culture and conversational patterns. It’s about knowing which language needs specific-to-general and which need general-to-specific instructions, about which colours are suitable and which offensive – or at least inappropriate – in each culture, and which graphics work best in each culture. It’s about knowing annotation standards and units of measure and regulations pertaining to each industry, and generational differences, and legal prohibitions on picturing currency, flags, and so on. What we may think are the most mundane of instructions can be frought with pitfalls that good translators are expected to know.

How content management can help is to reduce translation costs. Instead of translating the same content every time you use a particular description or paragraph, you can run the content through a translation memory, which will identify identical content chunks and apply the existing translations to them. Once those chunks are imported back into the content management system, they can be transported to the various places it gets re-used. Of couse, to take advantage of this efficiency, the content must be written in a highly structured way and in a style appropriate for re-use with other content. This type of structured writing isn’t specific to content management – in the late 90s when I was one of a group of eighty writers, we conformed to a rigid writing style in order to be able to re-use content in various manuals – but it is critical to the successful use of a content management system.

For more interesting glimpses into the world of localization, check out the Localization (acronym: L18N) resources at some of these sites:


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About the Author

Rahel Anne Bailie is a synthesizer of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, she is now the Chief Knowledge Officer of London-based Scroll. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy, and is working on her third content strategy book,



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