69.2 May 2022

The Importance of Translation: An Interview with Dr. Laura Gonzales

By Miriam F. Williams, Editor

In this issue of Technical Communication, the authors discuss ways that users (i.e., IT professionals on Twitter, survivors of natural disasters in Puerto Rico and Nepal, and GameStop and GE investors on Reddit) use networking technologies, effectively, to share information. Authors in this issue also introduce readers to emerging technologies (extended reality), new ways of centering user analysis (power reticulations), and new ways of viewing the work of technical communication (crisis publics communication). Within these articles, the authors discuss details of their data collection, which in some cases required translation, an important part of technical communication research and practice. Therefore, to introduce these articles, which highlight the importance of communication across borders and technologies, I had the pleasure of speaking with an award-winning researcher and Technical Communication Editorial Advisory Board Member, Dr. Laura Gonzales, about the importance of translation in technical communication.

Miriam Williams: Hi Laura, thanks for agreeing to speak with me and the Technical Communication audience. First, tell us about how you became interested in technical communication?

Laura Gonzales: I became interested in technical communication when I began working as a translator. In graduate school, I worked as a Spanish-English translator and project manager at the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, a non-profit organization that supports Latinx communities in Western Michigan and beyond. In doing that work, and researching processes of translation for my dissertation and book project, I realized that translators engage in technical communication on several levels. Translators have to navigate technical language in multiple languages when translating information for legal, health, and community contexts. They have to research complex terminology, adapt information, and make information accessible across languages. Translators also have to navigate different translation tools and technologies, and they have to document their work on different platforms. In our contemporary contexts, translators also engage in design work, adapting seals, graphics, and other digital images across languages. So, for me, as I read about technical communication in graduate school, I also saw technical communication happening in practice in translation contexts, and I became interested in exploring these intersections further.

Williams: Much of your recent research is about the importance of translation, language, and technical communication. What would you like to share with the Technical Communication audience about our strengths and opportunities for improvement in this area? What are we doing well? How can we improve?

Gonzales: One thing that technical communicators often do well is pay attention to the importance of language—using plain language to reach broad audiences, writing clear and specific documentation, collaborating with stakeholders to ensure work toward accessibility. Our attunement to language helps technical communicators to facilitate so much activity in our world.

What we need to continue improving, however, is expanding our framework for understanding and recognizing difference in language so that we can better acknowledge the multilingual reality that we all live in. While we all live in an increasingly multilingual world, so few of our frameworks for looking at language span beyond standard white English, especially in the United States. Our theories for making information accessible, especially in US-based technical communication, are often limited to standard white English, which then limits the types of audiences that we can successfully reach and engage. In order to improve this, as technical communicators, I think we should keep asking: how does this concept apply to non-English speakers? (How) can people who don’t speak standard White English access this information? Am I including multilingual audiences as my target reader or participant? By asking these questions before starting a project, and by collaborating with translators and other multilingual audiences, I think technical communicators can continue working toward better accessibility for all.

Williams: You have a book “Designing Multilingual Experiences in Technical Communication,” coming out this summer. In what ways can students, researchers, and practicing technical communicators benefit from reading your exciting new book?

Gonzales: Designing Multilingual Experiences in Technical Communication is really a book of stories about multilingual technical communication in practice. In this book, I document how language shifts and influences collaborative research in transnational contexts, although these influences often go unacknowledged. For example, while many technical communicators conduct international research, much of this research takes place in English, either because people in international contexts speak English as an additional language or because there are interpreters present to facilitate communication into English. Yet, the fact that translation plays a role in these international technical communication projects often goes unacknowledged, and I argue that this dismissal has negative consequences. Although English is often used as a “neutral” language because it’s spoken by many people, the truth is, the English language has caused a lot of harm to various communities across the world, and this harm doesn’t go away just because we are a nice and friendly researcher doing good work in an international context.

By reading this book and engaging with the successes, failures, tools, and strategies presented, I hope students, researchers, and practicing technical communicators can better understand how language diversity, and its undeniable presence in all contemporary technical communication work, could be further acknowledged and centralized in technical communication research, pedagogy, and practice. For example, rather than ignoring the fact that many students and practitioners are multilingual, the book invites technical communication researchers and practitioners to ask participants, stakeholders, or students to discuss their linguistic histories and skills. These types of conversations can open opportunities for further participation and engagement, where stakeholders, participants, and students can feel more included and understood as they engage with a technical document or a new design. By centralizing, rather than ignoring or dismissing language difference, technical communicators can develop exciting new frameworks for documentation, innovation, and collaboration. My goal is for this book to help technical communicators think about how language diversity plays a role in their work and how they can take up the responsibility of making information accessible across languages, even if they themselves identify as “monolingual.”

Williams: I’m always curious about how technical communication researchers in higher education make connections with practitioners in industry, government, and in the community. What advice can you offer us about making these types of connections and collaborations with communities and researchers outside of academia?

Gonzales: There is so much going on in the world right now, and technical communicators have so many skills and strengths that we can contribute to our communities' efforts. My biggest advice is for technical communication researchers, especially those of us in higher education, is to get involved in what is happening in our local communities—to see what the community needs, what actions are being taken in the continuous fight for justice and equality, and to connect with folks who have been doing the work to see if and how we can help. My best research collaborations with community partners have stemmed from conversations at community events, from reaching out to activists in the community and offering my assistance, and from just showing up to do the work of trying to make our community more inclusive. When people in the community see that you are an academic who actually follows through, they will continue to reach out to you, and that’s where the best relationships can begin. It’s important to not go in the community with a research agenda in mind, but to instead go into the community ready to listen and learn. There is so much work to do, so the best approach is to listen and learn about what is needed and how we as technical communicators can help. From there, we can bring our students in to learn alongside us and our community partners, and we can continue expanding connections with other industry and academic leaders interested in positive change. To me, these collaborations and connections start with showing up ready to work.

Williams: Thank you, Laura, and we look forward to “Designing Multilingual Experiences in Technical Communication,” which will be published in July 2022.


As I mentioned earlier, this issue is full of exciting research, which you'll find in the following order:

In “Localization at Users’ Sites is Not Enough: GhanaPostGPS, and Power Reticulations in the Postcolony,” G. Edzordzi Agbozo asks, “where do we localize so that we can produce the most satisfying technological solutions for users? To fully respond to such a task, we need to move beyond analyzing localized technologies—those repurposed for specific contexts other than their original contexts of production—and pay attention to local technologies—those that are either created, conceptualized, concretized, or compromised in their contexts of use—as well. Such a move is important in providing a holistic perspective on technology localization—a theory that draws on the complexity of context especially as mediated by hegemonic forces that influence agency in specific domains. I provide such a perspective in this article focusing on Ghana, a postcolonial country in West Africa and the country’s attempt at creating a geo-location technology to solve the challenges of location finding.”

In “Twitter as a Technical Communication Platform:
How IT Companies’ Message Characteristics Relate to Online Engagement,” Shu Zhang, Menno D.T. de Jong, and Jordy F. Gosselt, “Provide an overview of the way large IT companies [HP (Hewlett-Packard), IBM, Intel, and Microsoft] use Twitter for technical communication purposes, which can be a source of inspiration for technical communicators working for technology companies. The authors recommend, “Companies that want to benefit from SNSs [social networking sites] in the domain of technical communication need to gain an understanding of the range of possible technical communication content and their effects, and learn how communication strategies (e.g., one-way information sharing vs. action- or community-oriented tweets) and message elements (e.g., hyperlinks, visuals, and emojis) may affect user engagement.”

In their case study, “Tactical Organizing: What Can the r/wallstreetbets and GameStop Frenzy Teach Us About Technical Communication in a Networked Age?” Meghalee Das and Jason Tham ask, “What can technical communicators learn from a seemingly swank event such as the Reddit Wall Street Bets and GameStop (WSB-GME) saga? In this article, we identify tactical organizing in online spaces as a complex convergence of social uptake and socialized information afforded by news sharing and mass user interactions in digital platforms… We employed a case study methodology that combined positivist and interpretive perspectives toward a developing event. We curated a series of Reddit posts pertaining to the WSB-GME saga and applied critical discourse analysis with an eye toward the tactical and multimodal elements in these posts to identify their professional and theoretical implications.”

In “How Technical Communicators Help in Disaster Response?” Sweta Baniya examines the crisis communication during recent disasters in Nepal and Puerto Rico and explains, “In the context of this article, the crisis publics are the ones who have suffered through and survived the disaster or have experienced the trauma from afar (like diasporic communities) and become the voice of marginalized people and those who are silenced by the state or have been ignored. Some of these publics have access to digital platforms, have the privilege of the internet, have writing as well as communicating abilities in one or multiple languages, and have self-motivation to support communities needing their help. Additionally, among the crisis publics are some who might not have access to the digital media or chose not to use digital media or aren’t tech-savvy but play an important role in gathering and disseminating information. The crisis publics also represent transnational assemblages of people who use their privilege of access, time, multiple languages, and abilities to challenge privileged spaces, organizations, and dominant voices and create space in digital media or offline spaces for people needing support during a disaster. These publics use their means of access to create a coalition, challenging the big organizational disaster responders and the privileged discourses in social media.”

Finally, in “Data Handling Process in Extended Reality (XR) When Delivering Technical Instructions” Satu Rantakokko explains, “Extended reality (XR) is a promising new medium that creates environments that combine real and virtual elements or offers a completely virtual environment for people to experience. In the field of technical communication, XR offers a plethora of possibilities, such as augmenting critical instructions in a work environment. On the downside, XR brings about challenges…issues of privacy and security require more attention due to the risks involved with XR devices continuously collecting data from the users and their surroundings. More knowledge concerning the use of XR as a medium to deliver technical instructions is required. In this article, I address this need by explaining how XR handles data.”

Thanks to the authors and many peer reviewers for their contributions to this issue of Technical Communication.