The undeniable pre-eminence of English as the “world language” in all sectors of society, across continents and in almost every international business, medical and even social environment is truly a feat of human adaptation. As a native tongue, it gained a certain prominence due to its worldwide distribution. The UK, the US and Australia all use English as their official language, while The Republic of Ireland, Canada, Malta and many Commonwealth nations employ English as an official language alongside others. Some states, including India and the Philippines, also use English as their official language, even though it is not natively spoken nationwide.
The Rise of English as a ‘Lingua Franca’
The rise and fall of the British Empire and the subsequent use of English within these regions was undoubtedly the starting point for its ever-increasing dominance as a lingua franca. Interestingly, however, it’s no longer merely the influence or stature of the countries that speak English which is driving the trend. Rather, the main factor that has cemented English’s place as an unofficial, yet widely accepted ‘universal tongue’ is the adoption of English as a second language by the majority of non-native speakers across the globe.
Technical translation is an area of great scope which necessitates the use of the most specialised and qualified translators to achieve the high standards expected for accuracy. Spanning all industries and sectors, the translation of technical specifications for equipment, product information leaflets, and user manuals, documents, reports to CMSs and much more requires extensive professional experience in the relevant sector, as well as impeccable comprehension of both the source and target languages to permit the production of accurate and accessible translations. With the already work-laden task of translating jargon-heavy texts precisely into numerous languages for worldwide markets, it might seem excessive to consider two possible translations for the same language. However, this is often a subject for discussion when it comes to English. As English enjoys such global dominance, the many variants of this complex language must be taken into consideration due to the need for effective communication with both native and non-native consumers.
Is All English, Really English?
There are distinct and varying forms of English in use across the globe in addition to the most widely recognised ones, British English and US English. This is partly due to natural usage by native speakers in different regions, and the slow evolution of extraterritorial English. In fact, non-native English speakers now make up for over 60% of speakers, in fact actually outnumbering native speakers in a first for global language development. This has naturally created new subsets of English that are quite foreign to the original.
Which form of English to use?
As regards the complex task of technical manual translation itself, it’s vital to consider the different regions your target market is located in, and use this to inform your choice of specific variant. For example, British English is more widely accepted in most Anglophonic countries that were once under British rule, the exception, of course, being the US. Some translators and even marketers have aimed for ‘Internationalisation’ in an effort to produce a more generic English translation, that can be used to effectively communicate with consumers from all regions and thus promote easier understanding for all English speakers, native and non-native, regardless of variant.
In truth, translation experts have devised this methodology for those cases when choosing a particular variant of English can be expected to cause confusion. In simple terms, it involves avoiding words, phrases, and idioms from a particular region and instead of putting the onus on the translator to find ways to convey the original meaning in the most concise way. Keeping sentences short and clear and using only culturally neutral language helps non-native speakers comprehend a text much more easily.
The question of spelling choice in words that commonly vary between variants is another issue to consider. In practice, the simpler spelling or more easily comprehensible choice is the obvious choice to use. In the case of ‘colour’ versus ‘color’, ‘color’ will often be preferred. However, there are words whose meanings bare no distinct comparison and where a choice indeed needs to be made. For example, a car ‘boot’ in British English would be a car ‘trunk’ in the US, while a ‘lift’ in the UK is an ‘elevator’ in the US. If possible, it may be simpler to just avoid using the term at all, although, unsurprisingly, this method isn’t foolproof either and may actually hinder producing effective translations for the sake of inclusivity.
A Choice Needs to be Made
It may be tempting to try to look for a common ground between the two most commonly used forms of English so as to communicate more efficiently with a global audience, but it doesn’t always prove to be practical. Cultural expectations and preferences play a vital role in the decision-making process. It’s worth noting that, while US English commands a higher share of Internet usage with almost 80% of English content online being in US English, Americans themselves are not always opposed to being faced with content written in British English. Depending on the product, it may add to their allure. In addition, for many non-US native speakers, British English is more widely considered to be correct and US English can even be mistaken for poor translation by those unaccustomed to the differing linguistic styles.
From a marketing standpoint, there are many variables at play when considering which English is the ‘better’ choice for a given translation. Regional preference, marketing strategy, overall accessibility, and translation costs all have an impact. Professional translation providers specialised in technical translation and with experiences of the many nuances to be considered when aiming for flawless translation of technical manuals are well placed to advise as to which approach would best suit your needs.