Lost in translation

I’m mixing a some of my favorite themes, music videos that feature dance numbers and technical writing with a dash of Latin culture.

(Bear with me… or skip to the technical part)

Latin pop star, Enrique Iglesias made this video of a song in Spanish. As I write this, it had over 648-million views since it was published April 11, 2014. About 65-million/month.

Released a few months later, on June 13, 2014, was this “localized” version in Spanglish (with mixed Spanish and English lyrics). It has had only 90-million views. About 13-million/month.

Now there are a lot of reasons that could explain such a difference (and 13-million a month isn’t shabby, by the way), but in listening to them both, I’m with the majority and prefer the original.  Both versions are good, but they are different and they each have a unique feel to them. To my ears, the all-Spanish version has more feeling and is a bit more romantic. In comparison, the Spanglish version doesn’t have the same sentiment, to my ears. You can compare the two sets of lyrics for yourself, if you’re interested: Spanish lyrics and Spanglish lyrics.

What’s this have to do with technical writing? (Thanks for hanging in there, by the way)

In code samples and technical documentation, like music (and many other fields), the original is almost always better than the translation. The best information about developing with a software library or API is going to be in the original language, which invariably is English.

So, as a technical writer of developer documentation for a software product with an international audience, should you write in English and/or localize the technical content? In the absence of evidence to the contrary, my default answer is, Yes you should write the documentation in English and No, you shouldn’t localize it. Localization is guaranteed to be costly and not guaranteed to be anything more than marginally beneficial.

Over the years, I’ve collected a lot of anecdotal information on this, but this is one of the things I’ve wanted to study more formally. Anecdotally, international developers believe that the translations aren’t as good as the original English version and tend to prefer the original English version over the same content translated into their language. One reason might be that software has a lot of keywords, class and method names, and the like in English which can’t really be translated. If you read the original, you know you won’t be tripping over inappropriately translated terms.

I have some info from my recent API documentation study, but it’s a bit tangential to this topic.

Yet another study to put on the list.

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