One of Tech Writing's unsung heroes is (or at least ought to be) Pedro Carolino. This near-mythical wordsmith decided, in the mid-1800s, that it would be worthwhile to put together a Portuguese-English phrasebook for travelers.
Nothing wrong so far. Lots of people could have benefited from one. There was just one small (nay, minuscule) problem: Carolino didn't speak a word of English.
A lesser man would have been daunted. But our intrepid quill-pusher didn't let a little thing like that stop him. He was supremely confident because he had three resources at his disposal: a Portuguese-French phrasebook that countryman José de Fonseca had written, a Portuguese-French dictionary, and a French-English dictionary. These in hand, he poised himself on the precipice of immortality.
He started with well-constructed Portuguese phrases that de Fonseca had translated into perfectly good French. He then rummaged through his dictionaries, and, without a clue as to the workings of English grammar and syntax, translated them into usually bewildering, often-times hilarious, and generally surreal English. The book ("The New Guide Of The Conversation In Portuguese And English") was a sensation (although probably not in Portugal). It has been reprinted many times, under the title "English As She Is Spoke".
In fact, the book became so infamous in its day that no less a personage than Mark Twain said of it, "Nobody can add to the absurdity of this book, nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect, it must and will stand alone: its immortality is secure." He was correct.
Prefaces are rarely my favorite part of a book, but this one paved the way on Carolino's road to ruin. He wrote, in part:
We expect then, who the little book (for the care what we wrote him, and for her typographical correction) that may be worth the acceptation of the studious persons, and especially of the Youth, at which we dedicate him particularly.
I'm sure you probably kinda sorta understood that. But can you appreciate what he went through to create it? Do you think it was easy? Could you have done it?
Here are some examples of Carolino's unique translation skills (which Twain called "miraculous stupidities"). I've included the original Portuguese, so you can follow along and try your hand at translating them yourself. I have to admit that many of the phrases in the book seem to have little relevance in a travelers' guide, but that's hardly the point. (And yes, it's all [sic].)
Original: São manjáres dê quê déve abstêr-se.
Literally: They are the foods from which you must abstain.
Carolino's Translation: That are the dishes whose you must be and to abstain.
Original: Não podêmos ouvír nos.
Literally: We cannot hear ourselves.
Carolino's Translation: Do not might one's understand to speak.
Original: Sería melhór empregár â brandura.
Literally: It's better to use moderation.
Carolino's Translation: It should do metter and take i by the sweetness.
Original: Por dinheiro baila o perro (in a section he called "Idiotisms").
Literally: For money, the dog dances.
Carolino's Translation: Nothing some money, nothing of Swiss. [Wha???]
Original: Esperar horas e horas.
Literally: To wait for hours and hours.
Carolino's Translation: To craunch the marmoset.
[Craunch means to crunch or chew loudly and a marmoset is a small South American monkey. I've tried and tried (and tried again), but I can't come up with even the hint of a ghost of an explanation as to how he could possibly have done this one. A million marmosets translating through a million dictionaries (including extraterrestrial ones) over a million years probably couldn't make the one out of the other. This is the epitome of Carolino's genius.]
Now think what it takes to localize a manual.
English is not easy, and there are few of us who don't have some trouble with it, even when it's our primary language. (If you understand the difference between may and might, you're better than I am.) It takes a special person to be fluent in two languages, especially when one of them is English. But to be fluent doesn't mean to sound like a textbook. It means using a language colloquially, so that the average literate person has no trouble understanding you (and doesn't laugh at your attempts). People who translate for a living, therefore, need to have that facility in at least two languages. Not easy. Not easy at all. Every language has its idioms (phrases that make no literal sense, but that native speakers understand perfectly); every language has its irregularities (ever wonder how "be", "is", "are", "were", "am", and "was" could all be part of the same verb?). These will cause horrific problems if all you're working with is a dictionary. Thus it was for Pedro Carolino (although he was probably blissfully unaware of the sheer depth of his ignorance).
In fact, Carolino understood how difficult it is to be fluent in multiple languages. I'll let him speak for himself (once again, it's all [sic]):
Tough he is German, he speak so much well italyan, french, spanish and english, that among the Italyans, they believe him Italyan, he speak the frenche as the Frenches himselves. The Spanishesmen believe him Spanishing, and the Englishes, Englishman. It is difficult to enjoy well so much several languages.
So if it's that hard for translators, what chance do we have? How can we realistically be expected to write for localization? Most of us don't know the grammatical constructs of any other language, let alone all the languages our manuals are translated into. (I know I'm constantly forgetting how the pluperfect is handled in Aztec.) On top of that, we're ignorant of the cultural taboos of our potential readers. (For all I know, "operating system" is an insult to your ancestors in Tagalog, "word processing" is the vilest curse possible in Urdu, and just the word "computer" causes riots in the streets among speakers of Wolof.) We don't know the way any other society thinks. And we shouldn't have to!
So I've just told you to ignore localization, right? Boy, are you quick to misinterpret my ravings. What I said (and what I'm always saying) is that we should be encouraged to turn out well-written, useful documentation. And by well-written, I mean composed in readable, colloquial English. If we write well, we shouldn't have to worry about localization; that's the job of the translator. An adept translator can take well-written, colloquial English and convert it into well-written, colloquial Bulgarian or Maori or Tlingit or Tibetan. (Say, what languages are our manuals translated into, anyway?)
If we write naturally, the translator will have less trouble understanding what we're trying to say (a feat that's difficult enough given the complexity of the things we write about). We shouldn't make life more complicated by adhering to dozens of arcane rules that don't reflect the way our language is actually spoken (or "actually spoke" as our new idol would have said).
Therefore, if we're good (not strait-jacketed) writers, the entire process should take care of itself. We owe it to Pedro Carolino to try. I think he himself summed it up best when he said:
The actual liking of the public is depraved they does not read who for to amuse one's self ant but to instruct one's.