by Jen O Neill
Buy many products in Europe and inside the box you’ll probably find a printed multilingual manual. The manual could contain over a dozen languages. They can often elicit a groan from readers as they can initially be overwhelmed by all the languages in front of them.
This type of document is widely used in Europe, particularly for lower-cost hardware products. Its advantage is that the product can be packaged without knowing the eventual country to which it will be shipped, simplifying shipping and reducing costs.
These manuals are usually printed as a large folded sheet or as a small booklet. Due to space demands, page and font sizes tend be on the small side. They are often thrown out after use. As a result the cost of production can be an important issue.
In spite of their widespread use, we don’t often hear much about how they’re produced. Unlike the larger monolingual user manuals we all work on, these manuals are often more exposed to the cold realities of cost and size restrictions. So when planning a multilingual manual you should consider the following points:
Will it be the only printed manual shipped with the product or is it intended as a quick installation guide with the full user guide to be include, for example, on a CD?
This will help you decide the type and extent of information required in the multilingual manual.
How much space is available in the box for the printed manual when packed with the product and any other accompanying accessories and documents (such as WEEE and/or Battery Directive information sheets and CDs)?
This will determine the size and thickness of the printed manual with all required languages included, which in turn will impact how information can be presented.
Do you have access to high quality graphics?
Usually these manuals communicate information in a very visual manner to reduce the amount of text needed. So the graphics need to be well drawn, descriptive and clear. They will often be describing hardware. If you can’t draw the graphics yourself, you’ll need the services of someone who can. To facilitate translation, graphics should only include text that doesn’t need to be translated such as measurements.
One way to save space is to present all the graphics in the front pages of the manual and then refer to them in the text of each language that follow after the graphics. Not always best in terms of usability but a compromise that at least ensures the information is provide in all the required languages in a limited space.
This type of documentation can reveal some of the cultural issues involved with producing international documentation. Europeans are more familiar than Americans with working from pictures. Europe is not (yet) as litigious a market as America so there may not always be the same legal demands for information to be explained in text format rather than split between graphics and text.
Are there budget limitations for producing and printing this manual?
Know what the printing budget will be since this document type is often used for lower cost products. As a result you may not be able to print in colour or use higher quality paper. Multilingual manuals tend to be printed in large print runs (perhaps several thousand at a time) so mistakes can be expensive to correct if they produce a lot of scrap documents. Don’t start writing this manual without knowing your production and cost restrictions.
How many languages will be included in a multilingual manual?
If you need to ship many languages with the product, the languages could be included in a single manual or split between two or more manuals. Including only a few languages in a manual makes it less intimidating and easier to use. However, printing two or more multilingual manuals to be shipped with a product will increase production costs, for which the budget may not always be available. There can sometimes be pressure to keep the number of items on the bill of materials for a product to a minimum.
Use the internationally recognised ISO language or country codes to identify the languages in a multilingual manual. Language codes are preferable to country codes as many countries share the same language. For the same reason, don’t use national flags to identify languages.
Love or hate them multilingual manuals will not be disappearing anytime soon. There’s a business need for them. So it’s important that we understand what makes them tick. I’ve done dozens over the years and enjoy the challenge each presents.
What’s been your experience of writing them? As a reader, which ones did you particularly like or dislike?