64.2, May 2017

Converging Fields, Expanding Outcomes: Technical Communication, Translation, and Design at a Non-profit Organization

Laura Gonzales, University of Texas at El Paso and Heather Noel Turner, Michigan State University


Purpose: The purpose of this article is to illustrate how processes of translation, technical communication, and design converge in the development and dissemination of multilingual content at a non-profit organization in the US.

Method: As part of a larger project, the researchers observed and recorded (through video footage and field notes) translation activities taking place in a Language Services office during the course of two years. To visualize translation activities, the researchers used screencast recordings that captured how translators coordinated digital resources (e.g., digital translation tools, online dictionaries) to successfully translate information. Finally, the researchers conducted 12 artifact-based interviews with translators at the research site.

Results: Results show that translation, technical communication, and design activities are enacted iteratively and recursively by participants at this research site. Translators at this site must work across diverse design processes (UX design, information design, visual and document design) that often get subsumed into the translation process. Although employees within this organization do not consider themselves designers or technical communicators, the work that takes place within this office requires expertise across these areas of study and practice.

Conclusion: Designing and creating multilingual content often requires the intellectual contributions of individuals who can move across translation, technical communication, and design activities simultaneously. As the field of technical communication (particularly in the US) continues to acknowledge the value of global, multilingual content, it’s important that we highlight the expertise and added value of the multilingual communicators who make this work possible and accessible to users across cultures and languages.

Keywords: technical communication, translation, user-experience design, visual communication, multilingualism

Practitioner’s Takeaway:

  • Translation, technical communication, and design processes are embedded in the material realities of multilingual practitioners.
  • Multilingual communicators in a non-profit organization combine and cross skills in the creation of multilingual content.
  • Concrete models of translation processes illustrate the complexities embedded within the translation profession.


As technological advances both facilitate and demand the creation and dissemination of global content, the skills of successful translators and technical communicators continue to simultaneously converge and expand. In the introduction to their special issue focused on translation and technical communication, connexions editors Maylath, Muñoz Martín, & Pacheco Pinto (2015) explain, “Translating today often involves several agents with different roles, responsibilities and skills. This entails creative work, various innovative procedures, and collaborative networks in highly technological, distributed environments” (p. 3). In addition, a growing emphasis on global UX and international technical communication has led researchers and practitioners to emphasize the connections between technical communication, user experience, and design (Quesenbery & Szuc, 2012; Redish, 2010; Schumacher, 2010; Sun, 2012). With the increased need to develop multilingual, global-ready content, businesses and organizations now need individuals who can work as (and with) translators, technical communicators, and information designers to provide content that can be used and adapted in a wide range of contexts (Ding & Li, 2016; Windl and Heimgärtner, 2013; Lefeuvre, 2012).

Although theoretical conversations between translation, technical communication, and design have been emerging within the literature for some time, in this article, we seek to better understand how connections between these activities are being enacted by professionals developing multilingual content in the US. We want to understand how the convergence among technical communication, translation, and design activities may impact the daily realities of the professionals who conduct this work. Working with professional translators in a non-profit organization, we analyze if and how the theoretical connections being made by researchers in translation studies (e.g., Hirvonen & Tittula, 2010), technical communication (e.g., Ding, 2010), and design (e.g., Brumberger, 2014; Windl & Heimgärtner, 2013) are experienced by professionals navigating multilingual interactions for their clients and communities. To do so, we will first define and outline current calls for connecting technical communication, design, and translation, before introducing our research site and methods. In order to illustrate the diverse responsibilities of practitioners at our research site, we present three distinct but related data narratives. In Data narrative 1: Mirror translation as design, we show how general translation activities require extensive document design that moves beyond the mere formatting of a file. In Data narrative 2: Translating and designing across tools, we model the complex processes of translators as they incorporate multiple tools and approaches to translate, design, and code a 127-page document. In Data narrative 3: Teaching translation and UX design, we illustrate the ways that translators consider not just the words on the page but their clients and ultimately their users as they teach community members how to localize and practice translations. We then conclude by providing suggestions and strategies for both acknowledging and addressing the shifting skills and qualifications of contemporary professionals working across languages and cultures.

Connecting Technical Communication, Translation, And Design

Although the aim of this paper is to illustrate how technical communication, translation, and design overlap in the creation of multilingual content, we want to first identify how we are defining the terms and processes used in our analysis:

Translation: Although early conceptions of translation were limited to describing the process of transforming words in one language to another language (Cronin, 2009; Gnecci et al., 2011), definitions of translation have now been broadened to include not only the replacement of words but also the adaptation of content across languages and cultures (Gonzales & Zantjer, 2015). Concepts like localization have also been used in relation to translation, describing how users, designers, and developers adapt language and technologies to meet the needs of local users in various contexts (Sun, 2012).

Because we worked with a local community organization that translates information for a variety of clients (including community members, businesses, technology companies, and other non-profits), translation, as we will be using the term, also encompasses what some have called “technical translation” (Byrne, 2006; Ding & Li, 2016). According to Byrne (2006), technical translation “is a type of specialized translation that deals with technology and technological texts” (p. 3). All of the translation work that we studied for the purposes of this project rely on technical language, technology, and technological texts to varying degrees.

Design: We acknowledge that the term design is highly fluid and continues to merge with concepts from HCI (Human-Computer Interaction), STS (science and technology studies), and ICD (information communication design studies), based on the rapid digital advancements and financial globalization that have contributed to a blurring of design professions, which has altered design thinking and processes (Verhulsdonck, 2015; Getto & Amant, 2014; Bremner & Rodgers, 2013; Spinnuzi, 2012). For the purposes of this article, we define design as the process of making of any object including, but not limited to: documents, photo manipulations, videos, advertisements, webpages, and apps, with an explicit emphasis on the experience of the designed object on the user (Norman, 2013; Luck, 2012; Kalantidou & Fry, 2014). In this way, we use the term design to reference visual and digital making processes and the corresponding user experience surrounding these products.

While connections between technical communication, translation, and design have been in place in non-Western countries for decades (Ding, 2010; Ding & Li, 2016), the increasing need for multilingual software and technology design in the US has led to an added collaboration and cross-conversation between academics and industry practitioners working at different stages of global content development (Maylath, Muñoz Martín, & Pacheco Pinto, 2015). Contemporary translators, technical communicators, and designers are now more than ever required to navigate cultural, linguistic, and technological transitions, often simultaneously (Ding, 2010; Ketola, 2016; Frascara, 2015). For example, Hirvonen and Tittula (2010) emphasize the need for translators to consider visual and spoken modes as they transform information across languages. Similarly, in visual communication, Brumberger (2014) calls for further consideration of intercultural design in technical communication pedagogy and practice, emphasizing the need for technical communicators to understand how words and visuals work (or fail to work) together across languages and cultures.

Furthermore, conversations across technical communication, design studies, and user experience have constantly revisited what role design plays in technical communications (Blythe, Lauer, & Curran, 2014; Redish & Barnum, 2011), particularly for users that are increasingly global (Walwema, 2016). Eleni Kalantidou and Tony Fry (2014) insist that a culturally inclusive design process must move away from a “problem-solving activity” and toward a “problem-defining” activity that acknowledges the ways designed objects construct our surroundings and existences. As these brief examples illustrate, technical communicators, translators, and designers are now more than ever encouraged (if not required) to navigate across media, languages, and cultures to meet the needs of increasingly diverse audiences.

Undoubtedly, designing and disseminating information across languages and contexts requires an added level of complexity in both theory and practice, as individuals must consider cultural differences and ethical practices that can be accepted by users in diverse contexts (Walton, Zraly, & Mugengana, 2015). As these areas of theory and practice continue to converge in an effort to practice successful global content development (Gnecchi et al., 2011), it’s important for researchers and practitioners to consider how these overlaps may (or may not) affect the training, preparation, and daily realities of professionals (Brumberger & Lauer, 2015; Lauer & Brumberger, 2016). For this reason, in this article, we seek to understand how professionals working in a small translations office enact processes of translation, technical communication, and design as they create and disseminate multilingual content. By understanding how practitioners in this office leverage their skills in technical communication, translation, and design, we aim to begin answering the following questions:

  1. How do processes of translation and design converge (or remain separate) in the technical communication of multilingual content?
  2. How do convergences between translation, technical communication, and design affect the daily work scenarios of multilingual communicators who create multilingual content?
  3. What material realities (e.g., resources, staff, training) influence the execution of successful translation and design in technical communication?

By answering these questions, we aim to illustrate how the complex relationships between translation, technical communication, and design are enacted in practice by professionals aiming to deliver multilingual content to their community. Our goal is to understand overlaps between processes in the creation of multilingual content, in order to continue building definitions that accurately reflect the intellectual work and labor of professionals in the field.


In order to better understand the connections between technical communication, translation, and design as they are enacted by professionals working in multilingual contexts, we partnered with the Language Services Department at the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan. The Hispanic Center of Western Michigan is a non-profit organization located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The purpose of this organization is to provide access, education, and resources to the Latinx community in West Michigan and beyond (www.hispanic-center.org).

Although the Hispanic Center as a whole is a non-profit organization, the Language Services Department located inside the Hispanic Center is a for-profit translation and interpretation business aiming to provide language accessibility to the Latinx community. All of the revenue earned in the Language Services Department is re-invested in the Hispanic Center, fueling various programs for the larger organization. In this way, the Language Services Department at the Hispanic Center works under the same institutional constraints as a non-profit organization while simultaneously charging a small fee for services that is then re-invested into the community.

The Language Services Department at the Hispanic Center employs 30 bilingual (Spanish-English) translators and interpreters who facilitate communication between Spanish-speaking community members and over 50 local service and government organizations in the City of Grand Rapids (e.g., the local police department, Child Protective Services, technology businesses, local museums, other non-profit organizations). For the purposes of this study, we worked primarily with 4 in-house translators who are in charge of completing written translations of technical documents (e.g., birth certificates, medical records, websites). In this way, we were able to trace how 4 translators used technical communication, translation, and design skills to complete their written work across languages.

Situating this study in a small business located within a non-profit organization is an intentional and important component of this project. While the urgency to design and disseminate global content has led high-profit companies to develop additional organizational roles and positions, low-budget organizations, such as the Language Services Department at the Hispanic Center, do not have the resources to establish new positions to fit increasing demands. That is, in high-profit organizations, such as Microsoft, an exponential growth in localization teams has led to the development of new positions, such as localization engineers, localization program managers, and political standardization experts. While these new positions are incredibly valuable, organizations with less funding and resources, particularly those working for and within marginalized communities, don’t always have the revenue or infrastructure needed to develop and fund new positions to meet growing demands in localization and culturally sensitive design. Employees for these organizations prioritize the needs of their clients while negotiating multiple roles that require highly specialized knowledge, technology, and products. Situating this project within an organization like the Language Services Department, in turn, is an opportunity to understand the various roles and pressures that professionals navigate when providing multilingual content to marginalized communities. By situating this study within a low-budget organization like the Language Services Department, we aim to contribute an additional and important perspective to conversations about the shifting roles of technical communicators, translators, and designers in diverse organizations in and outside of the US.

Data Collection

As part of a larger project, we observed and recorded (through video footage and field notes) translation activities taking place in the Language Services Department office during the course of two years. To visualize translation activities, we used screencast recordings that captured how translators coordinated digital resources (e.g., digital translation tools, online dictionaries) to successfully translate information. These screencast recordings also allowed us to see how translators used digital resources to design information on technical documents in their translations, such as seals and stamps on birth certificates and medical records.

Although screencast recordings allowed us to capture how translators navigated digital resources to transform information across languages, much of the translation work that took place in the Language Services Department required the use of embodied activities. That is, translators in the office would frequently use gestures, tell stories, or have other conversations in an effort to successfully translate specific words, phrases, and descriptions for their community members (for a detailed description of translators’ embodied strategies, see Gonzales, 2016). For this reason, we used video footage to record how translators interacted with each other and with their physical surroundings as they composed across languages.

In addition to the recordings, we conducted interviews with translators to discuss the activities being recorded throughout our analysis. Rather than drawing our own limited analyses and conclusions from the data collected, we conducted artifact-based interviews with translators, where we watched selected parts of the screencast data and video footage to discuss how translation, technical communication, and design were being enacted in the recorded activities. Table 1 provides a summary of all the data we collected to understand the various activities taking place as information was transformed across languages in the Language Services Department.

Table 1. Data collected in the Language Services Department

Data Type Quantity Collected
Screen cast recordings 20 hours
Video footage 400 hours
Written field notes 74 pages
Artifact-based interviews 12 interviews/ 750 minutes of video footage

From this data, we constructed an interrelating model of translation that combines network diagrams of translation processes with a flow matrix (Spinuzzi, 2008, 2015) to illustrate how translators navigated across translation and design in the crafting of technical communication pieces. In this way, we traced how translators moved across translation, technical communication, and design activities as they collaborated with various clients to transform information across languages. Triangulating our screencast recordings, video footage, and artifact-based interviews, we developed models illustrating how our participants move across roles and activities in their daily interactions. These models were developed both from our observation of discrete translation activities as well as from the artifact-based interviews conducted with participants. In this way, our analysis and the corresponding models reflect both our own interpretation of recorded activities and our participants’ understanding of their work. In the sections that follow, we provide representative examples of how technical communication, translation, and design converged in our data.


One of the most immediate findings we noted through our work with the Language Services Department is the connection between the organization’s mission and its corresponding activities. The Language Services Department operates on what Sara Proaño, the director of the department, calls a “three-tiered approach to community engagement.” During an interview, Sara defined this three-tiered approach in the following way:

  1. Language Accessibility, which entails providing translation and interpretation services that allow Spanish-speaking community members to access social services and to adequately understand government procedures.
  2. Sustainability, which Sara defines as the organization earning a modest income from language services that then get re-applied into other initiatives within the Hispanic Center.
  3. Leadership and Professional Development. All of the translators and interpreters in the Language Services Department are members of the Latinx community in the Grand Rapids area. Bilingual community members are encouraged to join the Language Services Department team by attending training programs and workshops that can lead to job opportunities in the translation and interpretation professions. For example, during her interview, Sara referenced Carla, a current interpreter in the Language Services Department who had been working as an egg packer in a factory for 12 years before entering one of the Language Services Department training initiatives.

Because the Language Services Department is founded on Sara’s three-tiered community engagement model, the goals and aims of the organization span beyond providing translation and interpretation services. Indeed, the organization’s commitment to the community consists of translation and interpretation activities rooted in social justice (Yajima & Toyosaki, 2016). In turn, the three-tiered approach and related organizational objectives inherently affect the daily activities of employees within this organization. For instance, translators act not only as adapters of language but also as community advocates, consulting with service providers to tailor information for Latinx communities rather than merely translating provided content. In addition, employees translating legal documents aim not only to complete translation projects quickly to turn a profit but also seek to help community members as they use this translated information to pursue new residency status or to enroll their children in new schools. In this way, as Sara explained during her interview, activities within the Language Services Department are “always new, as you never know what you’re going to get.” On any given day at any given moment, a client may walk into the office with a crisis, struggling to understand a court case, to understand medical information provided for his family, or to understand how to schedule an appointment with a service provider. For this reason, a convergence of goals, motivations, and activities is common practice within this organization, making it a unique site of study for better understanding how multilingual technical communication practices are enacted in professional contexts.

Data narrative 1: Mirror translation as design

The most common type of project to enter the Language Services Department is the translation of technical documents such as birth certificates, legal documents (e.g., court reports), and education records. After moving to the US from South and Central American countries, Latinx community members often have to translate these documents in order to gain residency, enroll in school, and qualify for health insurance (among other purposes). For this reason, the Language Services Department provides low-cost document translation to community members. Further, translators within the organization must be trained in technical translation and must also have at least a working knowledge of government requirements for translated documents eligible to be used in legal transactions. In 2015, the Language Services Department translated approximately 5,600 legal, medical, and education documents for members of the community.

Although the language on these types of technical documents is often limited (ranging from 1–2 pages or 100–300 words), much of the work in these types of translations requires that translators design or redesign logos, seals, and other visuals across languages. To ease language accessibility in technical translations, and to ensure that government agencies will accept translated technical documents, the Department of Language services provides clients with “mirror translations,” which consist of translated documents that identically match the design, layout, and formatting of the original text (Pym, 2003). Because the Language Services Department does mirror translations, graphics like the seals must all be translated and designed before the translated document is considered complete. Due to the frequency of translations requiring seals (birth certificates, proof of something, etc.), the Language Services Department’s greatest source of intellectual property has become their extensive, editable document library of translated seals. Translators have built this extensive database of translated seals and stamps over the course of 27 years. Seals and stamps are categorized into birth/death/marriage certificate, educational/medical records, and other technical document templates organized by the country of origin of each original text. Figures 1–3 illustrate various seals and figures that were designed by translators during our observation.

As evidenced in Figures 1–3, the translation of technical documents, at least for participants in the Language Services Department, inherently requires multilingual, cross-cultural design. Indeed, in the video and screencast footage we recorded, translators spent 65% of their time in the translation of technical documents focused on designing logos and images. During an interview, one translator named Holly told us her time spent translating a single birth certificate was “30 minutes total, 10 minutes translating the text, 20 minutes fixing seal graphic templates.” Since the Language Services Department has been in business for 27 years, and since all translations completed at the Center are stored on a secure server, previous translations are used as templates for new projects, in essence decreasing the amount of time that translators have to spend recreating frequently used seals and images. For instance, Mexican state seals that have remained the same for decades are copied into new technical document translations repeatedly. However, as Holly explains in her description of “fixing seal graphic templates,” although the Language Services Department has this extensive library of translated seals, their insertion into documents still requires formatting and manipulation to completely mirror and communicate (to the best of the translator’s ability) the original document.

Translating seals, locating corresponding graphics, and formatting these final designs go beyond mere translation or design alone. Because technology plays an increasing role in globalization, designs, as David Womack (2005) describes, “still ha[ve] to pass through a layer of code that inevitably spit out something that bore only a passing resemblance to my original creation” (p.189). Here, instead of designs facing code alone, designs face the weight of authority across languages, countries, and legal institutions. Thus, translators in the Language Services Department are not only translating or designing, they are always doing these things all at once, in addition to designing for an experience that is deemed “authentic.” In the following section, we will elaborate on the interactions between design and translation in the Language Services Department, particularly when considering the various tools and platforms mediating these activities.

Figure 1. Birth certificate seal from Tepehuanes, Durango, Mexico. The image on the left is a picture from the original birth certificate seal submitted for translation at the Language Services Department. The image on the right is a screenshot from the translated seal designed by a translator in the department. As evidenced in these two images, employees in the Language Services Department must translate the information contained in the seal (e.g., Central Archives of the Civil Registry) and must also include the images and logos in the translated document for reference. In this way, translators also act as designers in the translation of birth certificates, ensuring the usability of translated documents by providing mirror translations that can be clearly understood in both the original and the target language.
Figure 2. Educational Record Stamps from Cuba. The image on the left is a picture from the original education certificate submitted by the client. On the right is the image designed and translated by an employee from the Language Services Department. The translated phrase “stamped document” signals that the client paid the due taxes on her original document. This in turn provides added credibility to the translated document, indicating to the English reader that the educational record was submitted to and accepted by the Cuban embassy.
Figure 3. Birth Certificate seal barcodes and seals from the Dominican Republic. In recent years, government agencies have been providing ways for individuals to digitally verify the authenticity of technical documents such as birth certificates. Although translators cannot recreate digital barcodes on birth certificates and other documents (as depicted in Figure 3), it’s important for translators to still place barcodes and their corresponding verification numbers in the right position on finalized documents. In this way, government agencies can verify the validity of these technical documents via a verification number (such as the “event number” pictured above).

Data narrative 2: Translating and designing across tools

Although many of the translation activities executed by the Language Services Department entail verbal interpretation between service providers and community members, all written translations in the office entail the use of digital resources and platforms. For this reason, translators working in this department are required to navigate a wide range of digital tools and platforms. In fact, technological advances have significantly influenced the role and required qualification of translators, both in and outside of the US (Lyons, 2013). As Lyons (2013) elaborates, in the case of medical translation, translators adopt digital tools for many purposes, including:

  • Creating templates and processing data uniformly to leverage for future use
  • Improving the efficacy of data processing to save time and money
  • Standardizing data capture so that modifications can be implemented in real time
  • Providing data that can be retrieved instantly to safeguard patient safety further and improve public health drug safety monitoring (pharmacovigilance).
  • Minimizing human error and omissions to ensure data accuracy and prevent data loss (pp. 19–20).

The use and adaptation of digital tools, as evidenced in the previous data narrative, is a frequent site of interaction for translation and design activities in the Language Services Department. Although digital tools are vital for short technical translations, such as birth certificates, the diversity of these tools only increases in more complex and extensive translation projects.

During our data collection period, the Language Services Department received a 7-part (127 pages total) document translation request from a local institution. This institution sought to have these documents available in English and Spanish on their website so that members of the Latinx community could utilize their services. In particular, the institution aimed to provide resources (in both Spanish and English) to help community members understand and navigate through home foreclosure processes. This translation consisted of an entire website with hyperlinks to external content.

When the Language Services Department originally received this translation request, we observed a conversation between the director, Sara, and the translator, Holly, where they discussed the value of this project: “This is a great resource for our people,” said Sara, “they can really use information on foreclosure.” Holly, a translator for the organization and the person in charge of delegating translation projects, immediately replied, “Yes, but how are we going to do it?” (emphasis in original).

To complete this translation request, translators had to not only complete mirror translations, which include formatting and designing to match the original website, they had to delegate discrete translation and design activities to different team members as well as design the translations with the end users, client, and Web developers in mind. Thus, the translators engaged in multiple, overlapping activities normally undertaken by specialized project managers, translators, user experience designers and Web developers. Since the Language Services Department is a small, low-budget office, and since translators for the organization are trained bilingual community members who typically do not have extensive professional training outside of the office, technical equipment (e.g., design software) is not readily available. Instead, translators have to work with limited word processing software (i.e., Microsoft Office) to complete all projects.

Figure 4 illustrates how translators moved across activities and interactions in their completion of this extensive project. To provide a more nuanced understanding of the processes at work in this project, we 1) identified the interactions and roles between client and translator, 2) identified acts of technical communication in a translation project, 3) tracked those actions over time, and 4) illustrated overlapping acts of technical communication by labeling acts with specific primary colors (red, yellow, blue, and gray). Because each process at work below is often classified not as a single distinct act of project management (red), translation (blue), UX design (yellow), or visual design (gray), the processes in the diagram below take on multiple, blended color representations. For example, “formatting documents to match layout and color” is a pale yellow to represent that process as both ux (yellow) and visual (gray) design. “Reformatting part one” required translators to participate in actions of translation (blue), UX design (yellow), and visual design (gray), and so is represented with a light green. “Generating a quote” requires both translation work (blue) and project management (red) and is thus depicted as purple. The purpose of this color blending is to illustrate the complexity of these processes and their interactions.

Figure 4. Translation project work-flow

As Figure 4 illustrates, completing this 7-part, 127-page project required over 125 hours of in-house project management, translation, UX design, and visual design work. In addition to translating technical language about home financing and foreclosure, the 4 translators who worked on this project had to negotiate roles as project managers and designers. For instance, the 127-page file was initially delivered to the office as a PDF document (see Figure 5). Later, after a client conversation regarding formatting and style, the document was re-submitted by the client as an editable Microsoft Word file. Translators then worked on this editable Word file to complete and format the initial translation, taking into account visuals that could be seen directly on the document in which they were working. However, three weeks into the project (after all the language translation had been completed), the client contacted the Language Services Department to request that the content be re-formatted into a file format that would make the content suitable for transfer into Web publishing (see Figure 6). As Figure 6 illustrates, this last-minute re-formatting, which facilitated Web design and online accessibility, resulted in an additional 50 hours of work for translators in the Language Services Department. This is because, as shown in Figure 6, the formatting update requested by the client required Web coding knowledge (marking spaces, headings, etc.) that was not readily available to participants in the Language Services Department. In turn, in order to complete this reformatting, translators had to learn to navigate new software (i.e., SDL Trados—a popular digital translation tool),while simultaneously keeping in mind how this new translation format might impact Spanish-speaking readers aiming to understand the content in the finished project. As Figure 6 illustrates, reformatting this document required translators to understand how English content was segmented in the original version and to then develop a way to similarly break up Spanish content in a way that would fit within the specified parameters of the new format.

Figure 5. Initial PDF document submitted for translation. The content presented in Figure 5 allowed translators to see how information would be presented to the target audiences. Translators working in this document could see the images and space limitations, and could make translation choices based on these parameters.

Figures 5 and 6 contain the same language that needed to be translated for this client. However, as the two images illustrate, the formatting and design of each document is dramatically different. Figure 6 contains a file format that will facilitate accessibility and design on the side of the client developer, where information is broken into line segments with embedded code that will transfer into the document design published online. The image in Figure 5, on the other hand, represents the original PDF document submitted to the translators. This initial PDF file was used to provide a quote and a time estimate for the clients of this project, who later asked for the translation to be transferred into the format displayed in Figure 6.

During an interview with Sara (the director and one of the translators on this project), she explained that the updated file format

“was challenging for our office . . . we had to think of new ways to translate information, even though we had already technically completed the translation in the first file version. The purpose of this new format was to publish something on the web, which was not clear to us in the original version. This completely changes the translation because now we have to think about words and space, numbers [with the line segments] and letters, all while keeping our community in mind and thinking about how they would be using their information (emphasis added). We can’t send them to a hyperlink that is not translated, or break up a title just because there is a picture in between the words. We have to think of ways to redirect the information so that it’s available and understandable to them in their language. It’s not just about replacing words.”

Sara’s reference to the shifting roles of translators within the Language Services Department, through her discussion of “words and space, numbers and letters,” reflects the constant flux of activity that participants in this organization must undertake to successfully complete a large-scale translation project.

Figure 6. Re-formatted version of document submitted for translation. In the re-formatted version of this project, information is broken into line segments. Translators working with this document don’t always have a reference point for how their words will be positioned within the context of an entire document. That is, employees have to translate phrases such as “They are:” without knowing what “they” is being referenced and where the word “they” may be placed within the text. This increases complexity in the translation process.

Because the translators in the Language Services Department are the user-experience experts when it comes to Spanish-speakers, they are the only ones who can understand how Spanish-readers might navigate information differently than those who can read the information in English. The line segments and text breaks embedded in the reformatted file were created with English-speakers and readers in mind, which meant the translators were left to make decisions about how these formats could impact their audience. Although translators in the Language Services Department are not formally trained in user experience or Web development, as Sara demonstrates, these participants are the ones with the user expertise in these instances, even when working with Web developers and content designers who have many more years of experience in digital publishing. In the following section, we will elaborate on the role of translators as user-experience designers in the Language Services Department.

Data narrative 3: Teaching translation and UX design

Since the Language Services Department’s “three-tiered approach to community engagement” lends itself to a focus on professional development, many of the translators in this organization participate in outreach activities within their community. During our observation period, two translators in the Language Services Department (including one of the authors of this article) co-taught a Spanish language class provided to city employees in the City of Grand Rapids. This six-week Spanish course was designed to provide city employees with some useful resources for interacting with Spanish-speakers in the community. The course consisted of 28 students who worked in various city offices, including the office of human resources, the code compliance and city inspection office, the local police department, and many others.

While the discussion of the course itself is beyond the scope of this article, materials used during the class provided interesting translation projects that were brought into the Language Services Department. Rather than teaching traditional conversational Spanish, the two translators teaching this course asked students to think about the specific information that would be shared during a typical interaction with a Spanish speaker. For example, the image depicted in Figure 7 illustrates how one student, Zac, described interactions he would typically engage in with his clients in the City Department of Human Resources.

Figure 7. Conversation diagram for human resources student

As Figure 7 illustrates, students in the Spanish course facilitated by the Language Services Department began class by thinking about how information is delivered to users rather than by focusing on language and translation alone. After students developed their conversation diagrams (such as the one depicted in Figure 7), the translators who served as course instructors brought the diagrams into the office to provide a translation. Students then spent the remainder of the course practicing the translations provided by the Language Services Department. Translating conversation diagrams for students in the Spanish Language class required that the translators/course instructors and the students worked together to determine how information could be best presented to Spanish-speakers users in the community.

In collaborating with a student who works as a home inspector for the city, the translators/course instructors worked to develop a dialogue translation that would facilitate interactions between the home inspector and the tenants/home owners visited during inspections. During the course, the student/home inspector mentioned that “it would be great to just be able to point at something” during his interactions with community members. For this reason, rather than translating a dialogue and key words alone, the course instructors/translators provided this student with a visual diagram, as depicted in Figure 8.

Figure 8. Visual Spanish diagram for home inspectors

As evidenced in Figure 8, translating information for students in the Spanish language class required the course instructors/translators to account for design, multilingual content, and user experience as they developed ways to present information for Spanish-speaking community members in their city. By moving across these activities, employees in the Language Services Department helped city employees learn Spanish while simultaneously providing materials that could enhance the experience of Spanish-speakers interacting with employees of their community.


This study has illustrated the processes of translation and design as they converge in the technical communication of multilingual content. Specifically, we found that in general translations, designing documents occurs and reoccurs at multiple stages of the translation process, as documents flow from client to translator, to the Web, and then to community members. This movement requires that multilingual practitioners use a wide range of skills and knowledge, often outside the traditional understanding of their role as translator or technical communicator, in order to complete the tasks that their jobs as translators and technical communicators now require. We then illustrated the material realities (e.g., resources, staff, training) that practitioners face daily and showed how these realities influence the execution of successful translation and design in technical communication. These material realities result in translators who embed practices of technical communication, document design, and user experience within their own responsibilities, moving away from the practice of separating these practices into specialized roles of industry teams. Although translation, design, and technical communication can occur separately, this study suggests creating multilingual content that is accessible to diverse audiences requires complex skills and strategies that work across translation, design, and technical communication.

As the field of technical communication (particularly in the US) continues to acknowledge the value of global, multilingual content, it’s important that we highlight the expertise and added value of the multilingual communicators who make this work possible and accessible to users across cultures and languages. For participants like Sara and Holly, designing multilingual content is not just about translating words; rather, it is about providing accessible, effectively designed and user-friendly content for their Spanish-speaking community. Because multilingual professionals like Holly and Sara are part of the community they are trying to serve (being multilingual immigrant learners themselves), creating multilingual content in this organization reflects an added level of investment that frequently results in additional labor (e.g., learning new technologies, understanding government regulations for translated documents). As the field of technical communication continues to push for globalization and for the creation of cross-cultural, multilingual content, we suggest that researchers, practitioners, and teachers both acknowledge and compensate the intellectual contributions of multilingual communicators, particularly those like Sara and Holly who work within the constraints of the non-profit sector.

Creating accessible, multilingual content requires added time, resources, and training that could be more effectively highlighted in U.S.-based technical communication research and pedagogies. For many years now, researchers have been acknowledging technical communicators’ goal as that of “mak[ing] even complex interactions understandable and usable” (Redish & Barnum, 2011, p. 92). As the complexity of technical communication work continues to increase through the creation and dissemination of multilingual content, valuing and listening to the experiences of multilingual communicators like those mentioned in this study will be increasingly valuable.


Although this study provides just one illustration of how translation, technical communication, and design activities converge in a language services office, these connections have been ongoing in international organizations for quite some time (Aykin, 2004; Ding, 2010; Maylath, Muñoz Martín, & Pacheco Pinto, 2015; Brejcha, 2015; Ding & Li, 2016). Indeed, the field of technical communication is still emerging in international contexts. Yet, translators, localizers, and user-experience designers are in high demand within these populations, particularly in non-Western countries. For example, in her analysis of tech writing positions in China, Ding (2010) explains that employers in non-Western cultures tend to “put more stress on translation and interpretation than on technical writing” (p. 311). As Ding (2010) explains, the lack of specific jobs calling for technical communicators in China does not mean that the field of technical communication does not exist in the country. Instead, this work “clearly demonstrates the importance of translation in the centralized curricula for English majors” who seek to do technical communication work (Ding, 2010, p. 312). In turn, based on our data, we also suggest that the field of technical communication in the US could also benefit from placing added value and emphasis on translation and on the development of user-centered multilingual designs. It is no longer enough for technical communicators to know how to write and edit for English-dominant audiences (Aykin, 2004; Brumberger & Lauer, 2015; Lauer & Brumberger, 2016). Instead, technical communicators must also be agile information designers, user-experience researchers, and visual communicators who can address the needs of cross-cultural audiences in various contexts. As we continue training technical communicators to navigate cross-cultural, multilingual settings, listening to and learning from the expertise of professionals like those in the Language Services Department can help us (and our students) more effectively contextualize the purpose, execution, and impact of this work. Data from language service providers such as those highlighted in this study can help technical communication researchers, teachers, and practitioners both understand and prepare for the realities of enacting effective technical communication across languages, cultures, and contexts.


The authors would like to thank Sara Proaño, Holly Rea, Eloy Baez, and the Language Services Department at the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan for their generous support throughout this study. Additional thanks to Ann Shivers-McNair and the special issue editors and reviewers for their continued support and feedback.


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About the Authors

Laura Gonzales is an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Writing Studies in Department of English at the University of Texas, El Paso. Her research focuses on intersections of technical communication, translation, and community activism. She is the recipient of the 2016 Sweetland/UM Digital Rhetoric Collaborative Book Prize for her monograph, Sites of Translation: What Multilinguals Can Teach us about Digital Writing and Rhetoric. She is also a technical translator for the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan. She is available at gonzlaur@gmail.com.

Heather Noel Turner is a PhD Candidate of Rhetoric and Writing and an instructor of Professional Writing in the Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures Department at Michigan State University. Her research focuses on design and social justice in technical communication. She is a UX design consultant for the Hub for Innovation in Teaching and Technology; the Writing, Information, and Digital Experience (WIDE) Research Center; and the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan. She is available at heathno@gmail.com.

Manuscript received 15 August 2016, revised 23 November 2016; accepted 12 December 2016.