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If you buy a blender, a washing machine, or a machine with conveyors for wrapping cardboard boxes with heat-shrink film, you’ll get an instruction manual, a user guide, or a similar document. Even though these three devices are radically different, their manuals share similarities, especially in the case of various industrial machinery. If you translate such texts, you’ll find similar topics and passages.

Technical translation – especially in the case of instruction manuals – is like a hiking trip to different mountain ranges. Tracks and summits are different; some are easier, some are harder; some require little to no gear, others – special equipment; some demand intensive physical effort over a short time, others – long-distance endurance. Yet the experience gained over many trips is easily applied in the next ones, when there are other steep ascends, slippery slopes, muddy meadows, or rock exposures. You know how to tackle them, just like you know how to translate a manual for a motor in a gantry crane, even though earlier you translated manuals for motors in plastic bottle extruders.

Today, we embark on a journey along translation trails of instruction manuals and we’ll pay close attention to their similarities.


instruction manual guide technical documentation

Source: BDS Maschinen GmbH. Autor: Rohan B. Raut

If you look at instruction manuals attached to household appliances, TVs, or similar devices, you’ll notice that they are very similar to each other. The reason is that instruction manuals of machines and devices placed on the market in the European Union must meet the requirements of the Machinery Directive (full name: Directive 2006/42/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 May 2006 on machinery and amending Directive 95/16/EC). Some manuals are also compliant with the International Electrotechnical Commission standard IEC/IEEE 82079-1:2020, which concerns the preparation of instructions for use of products. That is why each instruction manual includes information about occupational health and safety, environmental protection, intended use, parts, use and operation, maintenance, and troubleshooting.

Moreover, in the case of industrial machinery, you always meet mechanical parts and usually electrical, electronic, hydraulic, or pneumatic components. It doesn’t matter if you translate a manual for an automatic lathe, shoe sole casting machine, or a robot for handling packages in a warehouse: most likely, you’ll read about mounting and maintaining motors, mechanical conveyors, electronic sensors, or pneumatic actuators.


Every instruction manual, whether for household appliances or industrial machinery, includes details concerning occupational health, safety, and environment (OHSE). The “OHS” part can be usually found at the beginning of the manual to warn the user about any and all hazards, while the “E” part is found at the end, in the sections about maintenance and waste disposal. In the case of industrial machinery, these parts are quite in-depth. When you translate them, it is worth knowing safety signs under standard ISO 7010, as they are quite commonly used. They concern prohibitions (e.g. “Do not tie knots in rope”), mandatory actions (e.g. “Keep a safe distance between sleds (toboggans)”), warnings (e.g. “Alligators, caimans, and crocodiles”), safe conditions (e.g. “Safety shower”), or fire safety (e.g. “Fire ladder”). Additionally, you can find other common signs for prohibitions or mandatory actions: “Close the protective cover”, “Do not plug in the device with wet hands”, “Disconnect the device before maintenance”.

Symbols from ISO 7010

Moreover, there are P-phrases (precautionary) and H-phrases (hazard), and, in the past, S-phrases (safety) and R-phrases (risk), respectively. Even though they are used mostly in safety data sheets, they can also appear in instruction manuals, e.g. when a device requires special cleaning agents.

There are also a few more common OHSE issues to be found in technical documentation. Often there are guidelines for using personal protection equipment (PPE), such as protective gloves, shoes, or goggles. There is also information about residual risk, which covers very improbable hazardous situations that may occur even in relatively safe conditions, e.g. when a device is disconnected from power.

Yet another typical OHSE phrases that are commonly found in manuals are instructions for emergencies. Even if the devices are used for extremely different purposes, the operators must perform the same or almost the same actions. This is also the result of European standards and directives which regulate safety. Here, the most frequently phrases are “emergency”, “emergency stop button”, “rectification”, “restoration”, “restart”, etc.

A topic that lies on the border of OHSE is the description of intended use. Although the majority of instruction manuals contain such provisions, they are related to a particular machinery, therefore they are different.

When it comes to the “E” part of the OHSE, which is “environment”, it is usually found at the beginning and end of a manual. At its beginning, there is information about toxic or dangerous substances used in the machinery or those processed in the device. At the end of the manual, there is information about the disposal of the machinery itself, which is usually accompanied by a symbol of a crossed-out bin. Very often there will be guidance concerning recycling and sorting the waste and handling consumables, e.g. oil, grease, hydraulic fluids, etc.


Once you read through the OHSE part, you’ll find the description of the device. Devices, especially large machinery, include various characteristic components. Since not every device consists of all those parts (e.g. actuators, lifts, or conveyors), we won’t dwell on that here.

However, a vast majority of devices, whether big or small, includes housings, covers, doors, handles, panels, controllers, buttons, lights, indicators, or screens. In addition, there are connecting or jointing elements and fittings: screws, bolts, brackets, cable glands, ducts, pipes, tubes, cables, or wires. That’s why it’s a good idea to learn about those parts in advance.


Another regular part of instruction manuals is information about electrical parts. Some instructions are trivial, because they may be simple procedures of connecting the device to power, e.g. “Plug the cord to a socket”. Procedures of that kind are usually found in the manuals for home appliances, but it also happens that industrial equipment can be unsophisticated in that matter too.

This topic becomes much more difficult if there is a complete wiring diagram. Generally, the larger the device or the more industrial it is, the higher the probability that its electrical system will be described in detail. This requires higher expertise with such systems, components, and its terminology, which may cover: fuses, circuit breakers, terminal blocks, cables and wires and their colours, insulation, motors and their components. It is also worth knowing the symbols used in wiring diagrams.


Another topic is electronics. It is quite common for industrial machinery to include electronic control systems, controllers, limit switches, light barriers, sensors, probes, or other measuring devices. Generally, instruction manuals cover details about their use, operation, servicing, and how they fit in with other parts of the machinery.

Sometimes, you can also find details about configuration and connection of such parts. Then, you’ll have to deal with transistors, resistors, capacitors, relays, analogue and digital signals, circuits, loops and printed circuit boards.


Although not every machine is equipped with a hydraulic or pneumatic system, they are used fairly often and they share many similar parts and principles of operation.

Many industrial machines have moving parts such as conveyors, lifts, or, in general, actuators. Their operation relies on compressors, which move compressed air in pneumatic systems, or hydraulic units to pump fluids. The important parts of such systems are cylinders, membranes, valves, hoses, controllers, motors, pumps, and pressure gauges (also known as manometers).

However, even if the machinery includes these systems, the instruction manuals rarely include their in-depth description as opposed to electric or electronic parts. That’s why the general knowledge of these systems should be enough: what does what and what for, what connects with what. Usually, the operators of these systems don’t need to know everything about them, but only how to operate them in the context of a given machine.


It’s not a big surprise that in an instruction manual of a piece of machinery there will be descriptions of mechanisms. How detailed or difficult they may be in translation can vary, but most often there are sections on engines, motors, gears, arms, conveyors or lifts (excluding their hydraulic or pneumatic components), various drives, and other manually or automatically operated parts.

Often this topic is joined with electronics and OHS. Many mechanical parts are controlled electronically and sometimes even are fully automatic, so sections on automatic systems will also cover various mechanisms. It’s similar in the case of OHS: the first sections of instruction manuals contain warning signs against putting hands into moving parts, wearing loose clothes or jewellery which risk entrapment, etc. Further sections of the instruction manual can also contain safety instructions concerning mechanical parts.


Almost all instruction manuals include terminology covering various materials. Primarily, these are materials which the machine is made of, but may also cover the materials processed. Luckily, information about materials is usually fairly simple, as it is limited to lists of names. The most common materials are stainless steel, cast iron, copper, brass, and various types of plastic, which are often abbreviated: PP (polypropylene), PU (polyurethane), PE (polyethylene), HDPE (high-density polyethylene), and PVC (polyvinyl chloride). The last one is often – and wrongly – spelt in Polish as “PCV”, because the English abbreviation is confused with the Polish one “PCW”, which stands for the Polish name of this plastic, polichlorek winylu.

It is also good to know the properties of the materials, e.g. conductivity, resistance, rupture strength, creep strength, shear strength, tensile strength, and many, many others.


technical translator engineering electric electronics OHS machinery

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

There’s no good answer to this question. Of course, the more you know, the better, and the easier the job. If you want to translate instruction manuals, it’s always good to have basic knowledge of electricity, electronics, OHS terminology, and common sense as to how machines operate and what parts they have. Much depends on the type of machinery and how detailed the document is. For instance, an instruction manual for a home coffee maker is less detailed and much easier to be translated than its technical documentation for service staff which was prepared by the engineers who designed the appliance. Such documentation includes in-depth description of electronic and electric circuits and all the other internal mechanisms that brew your coffee.

That’s why if you want to start your journey as a technical translator, start with simple instruction manuals (which doesn’t mean they have to cover only household appliances) and gradually expand your knowledge and experience.


PS: If you want to learn more about which features of technical documentation make translation easier, read my earlier entry The Features of Technical Documentation that Make Translation Easier.


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