Interview with John Kohl (SAS)
02 May 2008
The author speaks with GALA about his recently published book, The Global English Style Guide: Writing Clear, Translatable Documentation for a Global Market.
What was your motivation for developing the Global English guidelines?
I've studied foreign languages (German, French, Russian, Spanish) and have taught English to non-native speakers. As a result, I have a lot of empathy and understanding for people who are reading in what, for them, is a foreign or second language. I understand how much of a difference the style and vocabulary in a document can make to a non-native speaker's ability to comprehend the material.
What made you decide to publish the guidelines?
After I spoke about some of the Global English guidelines at the Localization World conference in Seattle in 2005, several localization professionals approached me and encouraged me to publish the guidelines. The same thing had happened previously at STC (Society for Technical Communication) conferences. Every time I’ve spoken about Global English at conferences, translators and other localization professionals have told me “I wish your guidelines were available for me to give to my customers.”
Finally I pitched the idea of publishing the guidelines to my management at SAS, and I was pleasantly surprised that they said yes.
You write about authors sometimes resisting "controlled authoring.” How do you avoid crossing that line? And what has the reception been like for these guidelines within your division at SAS?
I used the term “controlled authoring” in the book because that term has been in use for quite a while. But at SAS we avoided using that term because it has negative connotations and because it really doesn’t describe how we use our authoring software. We used the name Assisted Writing and Editing (AWE) to encompass our implementation of acrocheck™ software plus a couple of other related tools and processes. More recently, I’ve started using the term “language quality-assurance software” when I discuss this technology with people outside of SAS.
We’ve been very pleased with how receptive our writers and editors have been to using acrocheck. The resistance that we were afraid we might encounter did not materialize. Probably part of the reason is that we thoroughly tested all of the grammar rules, style rules, and terminology restrictions that we implemented, and we customized the software to eliminate as many “false alarms” as possible. Our users think acrocheck is AWEsome!
How would a company go about consistently implementing these guidelines? Is implementation possible without an accompanying technology to support the effort?
It’s certainly possible for individuals and for small documentation groups to implement many of the Global English guidelines without using technology. But in a large organization, consistency – especially with regard to terminology – is very difficult to achieve without controlled-authoring software. Without that software, you have to do a lot of training, and all of your authors and editors have to be very dedicated to following the guidelines. Because of staff turnover, you have to conduct the training over and over again. If your trainer gets bored with the material and changes positions, then you have to find a new trainer!
At SAS, where we have about 60 writers and editors in our Documentation Division alone, the training approach did not work. In the long run, using controlled-authoring software is less expensive and delivers much better results. Even people in divisions such as marketing and tech support – people who are not professional writers or editors – can use the software. I don’t know of any better way to ensure that all of our customer-facing information contains correct, consistent terminology and is suitable for a global audience.
Is there anything in particular that you think an organization should avoid in attempting to apply these guidelines?
I’d rather mention something that organizations should do: They should invite their localization vendors to help them develop a “Global English strategy.” Chapter 1 of my book emphasizes the need for organizations and their vendors to establish good communication channels. Part of that communication can be for both parties to skim through the Global English guidelines and to agree on which guidelines to focus on. They should also discuss how they can best develop and share terminology resources – not just English terms and their translations, but definitions (for terms that should be included in published glossaries), explanations (for other terms such as noun phrases in which the relationships among the words is unclear), and information about deprecated terms.
Your book includes 49 major style guidelines, plus dozens of other guidelines for punctuation, capitalization, and terminology. If you had to narrow those down to only ONE, what would be the most important guideline you'd like to see companies use in their authoring?
The in-house translators at SAS once told me that “Limit the length of sentences” was the most important guideline. That guideline is certainly important, but not all long sentences are difficult to translate. So, personally, my favorite guideline is “Make each sentence syntactically and semantically complete.” The book contains several more-specific guidelines about how to do that, but here is one example:
Not Global English:
Space is tracked and reused according to the REUSE value when the file was created, not when you add and delete records.
Space is tracked and reused according to the REUSE value that was in effect when the file was created, not according to the REUSE value that is in effect when you add and delete records.
In order to translate the first version of the sentence, a translator has to read between the lines and has to have a very good understanding of the context and subject matter. The translator essentially has to rewrite the sentence as I did in the revised version, supplying the missing content, in order to translate it. Translators should not have to compensate for authors who don’t express their ideas completely!
Why would GALA members be interested in this book?
Because of the feedback I received at Localization World and other conferences, I suspect that many translators and localization companies will want to make their customers aware of this book. It’s in everyone’s best interest for localization customers to produce better-quality source texts. The book makes it abundantly clear that the quality of the source text, not the skill or competence of the translator, is typically the biggest factor that affects translation quality. The book also explains how unnecessary inconsistencies make the use of translation memory less effective, driving up localization costs.
What features of the book are you especially pleased with?
I’m happy that I was able to cover the topic as thoroughly as I did. Some other authors on the topic of writing for international audiences have done little more than admonish authors to “write clearly.” That advice does absolutely no good! You have to give authors specific guidelines that help them recognize ambiguities and other unnecessary impediments to the translation process. And you have to give them enough of an explanation and enough examples that they can actually understand and apply those guidelines. That’s what I’ve tried to do in this book.
John R. Kohl has worked at SAS Institute as a technical writer, technical editor, and linguistic engineer since 1992. He has a B.A. in German and an M.A. in Teaching English as a Second Language. As a linguistic engineer, John currently supports and customizes tools and processes that help writers and editors at SAS follow the Global English guidelines.
For information about the book, see The Global English Style Guide.