Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Techno-Marketing Hybrid

Back in February I promised to write about the relationship between technical information and marketing tactics (Will Controlled English Take Over Technical Communication?). I just translated a technical text that was clearly intended as a marketing tool. Documents like this one often include "purely technical" information, such as tables with specifications and parts lists, but the bulk of the text is intended to convince potential buyers of the superiority of the particular product.

There is an inherent tension between technical and marketing speak: Technical information is highly specific and full of terms with very precise meanings in the field in question. Marketing text, on the other hand, tends to be much more vaguely worded, including phrases aimed at emotions and devoid of actual meaning. Combining these two very dissimilar writing styles is an art, but can leave a technically minded translator scratching her head.

I must confess, when I read that someone's ball bearings are superior, I immediately think: "Says who? Why or how are they better than anyone else's?" Sometimes technical-marketing hybrids will actually answer that question, but more often than not, they will simply assert that this is so. The accompanying table will then add some numbers, but without offering corresponding numbers for other, similar products.

Presumably the intended audience for these documents does have an idea what these numbers mean and whether higher or lower values are better for a particular feature. But I doubt procurement managers memorize the standard specifications for all -- or even most -- items they order. So how do they decide which ball bearing to order?

Many of these hybrid texts land in a technical translator's inbox, rather than being translated by someone specializing in marketing. Even though I much prefer straightforward technical information, I have had to learn marketing speak in order to handle these types of texts. Living in New York City surrounded by advertising does help me come up with appropriately "salesy" terms. Superior ball bearings? - ah, yeah, that's what that sign in the hardware superstore said. So I guess it's a common term...


  1. The importance of a technical translation being accurate and efficient should not be overstated. Especially in the ever faster moving world of globalized business, successful information and technology transfer within multinational businesses can make the difference between win or lose.
    Luckily, I can't see machines taking over the jobs of human translators in the near future, as they have done with so many other professions (remember telephone operators?)

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