Suppression as a Form of Creativity in Technical Translation

First published as Byrne, Jody (2006) Suppression as a Form of Creativity in Technical Translation. Ian Kemble (ed.) Translation and Creativity:How Creative is the Translator? Portsmouth: University of Portsmouth, pp.6-14

Abstract: Any discussion of creativity in translation depends on our definition of “creativity”. One approach to creativity might be to regard it simply as something which is not the norm or which is not expected. In the case of technical translation, particularly of instructional texts, translators may be met with artefacts of the original author’s creativity in the form of interesting or unusual phrases, examples, expressions, linguistic or stylistic devices or any number of methods to make the text seem less “technical” or repetitive. Here translators have the opportunity to be truly creative. Rather than replicate the author’s creativity in the translation, translators can suppress the author’s creativity in order to improve the translation. In technical texts, this may take the form of Iconic Linkage; using identical wording to express semantically identical information (Byrne 2003). The purpose of this paper is to show that conventional creativity in source texts is not always desirable and that creative translation strategies are needed by translators in order to produce high-quality translations. By eliminating creativity in source texts translators are utilising their own creativity to ensure that the translation meets the needs of the target audience more effectively. The paper will provide examples of creativity in technical documents and show how the suppression of creativity can eliminate confusion and ultimately improve the usability of the text (Byrne 2005).


When dealing with creativity in translation we generally think in terms of how translators recreate the creativity of the author in the target text. We look at the strategies and processes involved and try to understand them. This, however, is not always the case and the purpose of this paper is to attempt to show that an author’s creativity can be dealt with by the translator using equal and opposite creative “force”, suppressing the author’s creativity in the process. This paper will examine the idea of creativity in general terms and then examine it from the point of view of technical translation. It will be shown that creativity is a subjective and ephemeral notion which varies according to the situation and the text. Having explained that not all creativity in technical texts is intentional, and as such, the resulting textual features may simply be regarded as textual variation, the paper explains that it must, nevertheless, be treated identically. The paper will then show that suppressing this variation during translation, instead of impairing the literary and linguistic character of a text, actually improves the quality of the translation in a number of significant ways. The paper will conclude by briefly describing the results of an empirical study designed to test the effects of homogenising the style of a technical text.


Any discussion of creativity depends first and foremost on what we understand by the word creative. There are numerous activities and areas of translation which could be regarded as involving creativity in some form or another. Indeed, there is much debate as to whether translation itself is inherently creative but that is a discussion which will not be pursued here.
Kussmaul (2000:118) defines creative thought simply as not thinking in a straight line. In other words, rather than thinking or doing things in the standard, expected manner, some alternative route or approach is used in response to some aim or problem. In short, we can define creativity as something which is not expected or, as Kussmaul puts it with regard to translation, something which is different from the source text. Wilss (1996:51) defines creativity as “the ability to fashion an unfamiliar and yet worthy product within a particular realm or domain”. Now, this might seem deliberately vague and slippery, particularly when we consider the usual connotations evoked by the idea of creativity in translation: producing comparable puns, word plays, rhymes, metaphors etc. in the target text. However, a vague definition of creativity is actually quite useful. Indeed, Wilss argues that the only way of defining and understanding creativity is in very general terms unless we are dealing with a very specific instance or area. He asserts that “explanations of creativity must be reduced to the particular domain where it is found” (ibid.). He continues by saying that translators are only ever truly creative within the context of a particular text. Thus, what might be regarded as creative in one situation or text may not constitute creativity in another.
This is quite a useful approach to creativity, particularly in the case of technical translation. While traditional ideas of creativity have tended to focus on literary texts where the vast scope for stylistic variation and creativity provides a wealth of indicators or evidence of creativity, technical texts require a slightly different approach. In technical texts, we are confronted with highly constrained language use with the result that the typical indicators of creativity, e.g. stylistic and terminological variation, synonymy, metaphors etc. are not normally present, at least in the same quantities. In fact, the opposite is true of technical texts, i.e. the lack of stylistic and lexical variation can be an even greater indicator of creativity.
This fits in with the idea that creativity is both a process and a product. While creativity as a process may involve finding novel approaches or solutions to problems, it is not a foregone conclusion that this process will result in tangible artefacts in the target text; this is particularly true of conventional notions of creativity. Creativity, in the case of technical texts, does not necessarily result in linguistic variation in the target text nor, for that matter, does it require preserving the creativity of the original author. The creativity of the translator can produce entirely different results in the target text while at the same time equalling the creative effort of the original author. In the following section we will examine several types of creativity which may be found in technical texts.

Creative Artefacts in Technical Texts

Creativity as a phenomenon can manifest itself as both a process in the production of a text and as creative artefacts which are embedded within a text. Creative artefacts, as their name suggests, are invariably the result of some form of creativity in the writing process. However, it must be remembered that although creative artefacts are the result of some form of creative writing strategy, not all creative strategies result in creative artefacts within the text. This distinction will be illustrated later on.
In technical texts, creative artefacts can be grouped into two main categories: lexical and stylistic. Lexical artefacts relate to the choice of words and the ways in which they are used in a text as well as the way specific terminology is used by the author. Examples might relate to product references where an author may alternate between using the product’s name, e.g. Microsoft Word, using the more generic “the product” or some other variation such as “the software”, “the program”, “application”, “system” etc.
Other types of terminological creativity in a text might relate to the way certain objects are referred to. Examples include using terms which are synonymous in a given context to refer to the same object:

  • button/icon/control/
  • cable/wire/lead/line
  • system/device/unit/product/appliance
  • connector/socket/plug/bush/interface

Lexical creativity might include using competing verbs to refer to the same action, for example:

  • run/execute/start/call/open
  • select/check/mark/tick
  • enter/input/type/write

Stylistic artefacts relate to the way information is formulated within a text. Some examples might include the syntax of procedural sentences which contain conditions:

  • Select the Exit option to close the DigiLog program.
  • Click Exit to close DigiLog.
  • To close DigiLog, click Exit.

Other examples of stylistic creativity might include altering the way the reader is addressed, for example alternating between direct address, i.e. “you must…” and indirect address, i.e. “the user must…”.
There are numerous reasons as to why this type of creativity occurs within a text. While it is always possible and, indeed, likely that the type of variation within a text as illustrated by the previous examples were added to the text intentionally, it should be pointed out that such creative artefacts are not always intentional, i.e. they are not always purposely put in a text by the author. Consequently, we have creative artefacts in a text which strictly speaking are not creative but rather variations which need to be treated as if they were the result of some creative process.
One of the primary reasons for variation in technical texts is a misguided attempt on the part of the author to make texts more “interesting” and less repetitive. Landers (2001:132) refers to “errors of frequency” whereby authors and translators overuse certain words to the detriment of stylistic quality. He maintains that the same word should not be used more than once every 5-6 sentences. While this is advisable in certain types of texts, such as literary texts on which Landers concentrates, this is ill-advised in technical texts where synonymy is regarded as anathema to clear, accurate and effective communication (Van Laan & Julian 2001:207). Technical writers are not employed to produce aesthetically pleasing literary works and to impress readers with their command of the language. Rather, their role is to communicate clearly, to explain and to teach. Thus, any attempt to “spice up” a technical text betrays what might be regarded as the author’s dissatisfaction with the role of technical writer.

The Problem with Creativity

Regardless of the reasons why creative artefacts or variations emerge in a text, they are still framed within the overall context of technical communication. As such, they are subject to the same communicative requirements and must conform to the norms and standards of the particular text type, genre, subject and communicative intention. It is for this reason that most, if not all, of the types of variation mentioned above are widely regarded as problematic and unacceptable in a technical text, whether it is an original language text or a translation. Since technical documents are intended to be functional rather than entertaining, informative rather than aesthetically pleasing and that they are intended to help readers learn or do something, we can reject conventional creativity on a number of grounds.
Perhaps the most compelling problem with conventional creativity in a technical text is that it impairs the usability of the document. When we consider that usability refers to the measure of how easily, effectively and accurately readers can use a text, how satisfied they are with it and how much information they remember, we can see why anything that impairs the usability of a text would be undesirable.
Creative artefacts in a text increase the cognitive load for readers and cause confusion due to a lack of clarity (Mancuso 1990:231-232; White 1996:182-183). Creative formulations also make learning more difficult because they inhibit the formation of habits which can make using the information more effective. Raskin (2000:20) believes that providing multiple ways of doing something – in the case of a text, multiple wordings of the same information – is one of the biggest obstacles to forming habits because it shifts the readers attention away from the task at hand and forces them to concentrate on deciphering the text. By providing multiple wordings throughout a text and within individual sentences it is more difficult to chunk information (Byrne 2003:34-35; Card et al. 1983:36; Faulkner 1998:73) which results in less effective use of a reader’s cognitive resources (Byrne 2003:23).
The fact that there are structurally different sentences which, in turn, represent different problem-solving tasks, can increase interference when learning and performing tasks (Raskin 200:21; Coe 1996:34). In any case, creativity of the type described above is generally inappropriate in technical texts from a stylistic point of view and it interferes with readers’ expectations for the text.

A Practical Example

Consider the following sentences which describe the use of an imaginary USB storage device.

  • Always exit the application before disconnecting the storage device from your PC.
  • Never remove the unit from your system without closing the associated program on your PC.
  • To safely remove the drive, you must first close EasyUSB.

The information contained in these sentences is essential for the safe operation of the device and it is vital that readers understand it quickly and act upon it effectively. However, at first glance these sentences seem to say different things and it is only after closer examination that it becomes apparent that they are, in fact, semantically identical. Needless to say, this process of deciphering, analysing and comparing the information takes a sizeable amount of time, time which would be better spent doing something else. Indeed, there are no guarantees that even after the sentences have been read that a reader will realise that the three sentences all convey the same information.
Let us assume that these sentences appear in the user guide for our imaginary USB device. The aim of the user guide is to provide clear and effective instructions to help readers use the device quickly and safely. Let us also assume that the writer decided to make the user guide less dull and boring by phrasing the same information differently each time it appears in the text. While it will undoubtedly make the text less repetitive, it has also succeeded in causing significant interference in the way the reader uses the text and the product. When information is phrased identically, it has certain visual characteristics which help the reader identify the information and quickly recognise the fact that the information has already been seen and, hopefully, learned (Raskin 2000:21; Coe 1996:34). In contrast, as the reader sees each of the “creative” sentences, there are no visual clues to aid recall (Dix 1998:36; Card et al. 1983:82) and so the reader needs to decode and assimilate each sentence individually. In effect, each sentence is a new series of problem-solving tasks (see Coe 1996:134-135) rather than a simple retrieval or recall task. So, in addition to making more work for the reader, the creative author has also introduced the possibility that the information will not be understood properly or that each sentence will have a slightly different meaning for the reader who will then treat them as separate, possibly conflicting or competing chunks of information.

Tackling the Problem of Creativity

Avoiding the problems of creativity outlined above requires quite drastic action on our part as translators. Ideally, we would be able to tell writers not to be creative when they write. Unfortunately, this is as impractical as it is improbable. Creativity, and more specifically, unintentional creativity or variation, are inherent to the writing process. Language in capable of expressing the same information in myriad ways and humans have a natural tendency to take advantage of this flexibility. It is, however, possible to remedy the effects of creativity within a text by homogenising and standardising the language it contains.
One of the easiest ways of standardising the language in a text is to use some form of style guide. Style guides, depending on their level of complexity and detail, allow us to restrict the range of language which can be used in a particular context. Such an approach was used by Byrne (2005) to eliminate variation in the translation of semantically identical but non-isomorphic sentences. This study sought to introduce Iconic Linkage into a software user guide in order to improve its usability (see also Byrne: forthcoming).
Using a combination of style guide rules and a translation memory tool (Byrne 2005:159-160), the study involved rewriting the user guide to replace alternate translations of the same semantic information with identical translations; in the process of which, creativity and variation, as described earlier, were removed from the text.
To test the effect of this homogenisation, an empirical usability study involving two groups of users was carried out. By recording the time subjects took to complete tasks, the number of errors they made as well as recording their satisfaction levels and levels of information retention, it was found that readers who used the homogenised user guide:

  • performed tasks on average 44.4% faster
  • made 65.8% fewer errors
  • were 25% more satisfied with the user guide and software
  • remembered 52% more information 1 week later

These figures represent a significant improvement in the usability, and consequently the quality, of the translated text. By removing the creative artefacts and variation from the text (but not adding any additional information), the text was made more effective, easier to understand and more suited to the needs of its readers.


From the preceding discussion we can see that conventional creativity is not appropriate in technical texts because the very methods that can make the text more entertaining to read conflict significantly with the aim of the texts, which is to convey information effectively and clearly.
The preceding paragraphs also raise questions about our attitudes to creativity. While creativity is defined as doing something in a way which is different from the norm, and this is manifest in the form of variation in texts, then the elimination by a translator of creative artefacts must surely also be regarded as a creative process. Consequently, the practice of trying to identify creativity on the basis of textual clues alone seems somewhat limited and one-dimensional.
We have also seen that removing the signs of creativity from a text can actually improve the quality of the text. Whereas variation and creative language is appropriate and desirable in certain types of texts and may indeed enhance its value and quality, variation in other texts, such as user guides, is something to be avoided. This is certainly justification for Wilss’s claim that we can only define creativity in the context of a specific genre or situation (1996:51).


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Category: Academic Papers