If you were to ask people about what a technical writer is and does, most likely you will be met with a shrug or a blank stare. Among your bewildered interlocutors, there will surely be translators, who are also blithely unaware of the actual role of technical writers, even though there’s an undeniable interplay between those professions as both translators and technical writers are part of the information product development cycle.
As a translator, do you find yourself often complaining about translation work drying up or translation word rates plummeting with every passing year? How can you make a career change while still harnessing your hard-earned writing skills? Read on to learn how much these language professions have in common and why transitioning from being a translator to a technical writer could be a fitting and smart career move.
Around 80% of technical writers started their careers in a different field and at least 30% have a professional background in any type of language study. According to the US Occupational Outlook Handbook, published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of technical writers is projected to grow 6% from 2021 to 2031. Also, while the median pay of interpreters and translators is at $49,110 a year, the median annual wage for technical writers was $78,060 in May 2021. Do I have your attention now?
What do they have in common
The commonalities between these two language professionals are patent. Both translators and technical writers must have excellent writing and research skills as well as an inquisitive mind. They also understand the importance of tailoring the text to meet the needs of the target audience. They have been trained to discern the purpose of a text so they can make the right choices to better serve that purpose and strike the right tone for their readers and the communicative situation at hand.
Translators, above all, are cognizant of the fact that a text is a reflection of the culture that text was produced in. Writing or translating with your audience in mind involves being aware of any cultural differences to avoid misunderstandings and localization faux pas. Likewise, translators and technical writers understand that language can be vague and ambiguous. Therefore, they must do everything in their power to rid the text of any potential ambiguity given the legal consequences and safety concerns for the user that may arise from such ambiguity.
What are the differences
The first obvious difference between the two is that technical writers get more free reign when authoring an information product from scratch as they are not bound by a source document written by someone else, albeit they work within the constraints of company best practices and need to stay consistent with legacy corporate materials, all the while making sure their information product is in keeping with safety and health regulations. Translators, on the other hand, are supposed to always follow in the author’s footsteps and stay faithful to the original. Literary translators and transcreators are of course expected to have much more creative leeway as a target-oriented translation is desirable. In the realm of technical communication, this is quite the opposite. Therefore, a creative translator may have a hard time refraining from exercising their creativity when embarking upon their first technical writing assignments.
Another significant difference is that technical writers usually have at their disposal an array of techniques such as the user persona method, customer journey maps, usability tests and context interviews that allow them to better know their audience and understand the interaction between the user and the product. Translators rarely get to interact with or receive feedback from the potential readers of their translations, making the “target audience” concept a bit elusive.
Lastly, any translator aspiring to make it as a technical writer must be ready to embrace technology, as technical writers are expected to use a wide range of tools (such as help authoring tools and DITA-compliant content management systems) to do their job. Technophobic translators are usually not cut out for technical writing.
Taking steps in the right direction
The important takeaway is that, as a translator, you already have the primary skill set to become a technical writer. However, some retraining and a change in mindset will be required to break into technical writing. I recommend listening to blogs and podcasts on technical writing such as I’d Rather Be Writing by Tom Johnson and visiting The Society for Technical Communication and Tekom websites. These organizations offer a myriad of resources as well as training and certifications for career changers.