Simplified Technical English: Simple language for international technical documentation

Simplified Technical English (STE) makes technical documentation and translation more efficient and understandable. Properly applied, STE results in texts that are easy to create, effective to localise and safe to use. All areas and people involved benefit from this.

Why Simplified Technical English?

English is now the international language of many industries and therefore also the language in which technical documentation is most often written. However, it is often not the mother tongue of the readers – or even the authors – of the documentation. Many non-native speakers have limited English skills and may misunderstand complex sentence structures and the possible multitude of meanings and synonyms of English words. As a result, complex technical instructions, maintenance and operating instructions can be misunderstood and lead to serious misuse.

Simplified Technical English (STE) makes technical texts easy to understand for all readers. It serves as an important resource for technical documentation and writing, facilitates correct user understanding of instructions and guidance, removes language barriers and reduces human factor risks.

Objectives of Simplified Technical English:
  • Reduce ambiguities and ensure clarity in technical texts
  • Increase comprehensibility for non-native speakers of English
  • Enable simple, and so too cost-effective translations, also creating better conditions for machine translation

What exactly is Simplified Technical English?

Simplified Technical English (STE) is a controlled language, in which the vocabulary of natural English is limited to a standardised subset with restricted writing rules for a specific purpose. In its controlled vocabulary, each term has exactly one meaning and it only allows certain grammatical forms with defined syntax.

STE is not comparable with Plain Language or Basic English, which is a similar, more formal language created as a “world auxiliary language” for general language use.

Where does Simplified Technical English come from?

STE was developed in the 1980s for maintenance documentation in the European civil aviation industry. At the time, it was a booming industry that became increasingly complex and was producing technical documents that were harder and harder to read, even for experts, which had several negative consequences: because 80 per cent of the staff were non-native speakers, it became increasingly difficult to carry out proper maintenance and ensure aircraft availability. Airlines had to invest more in translating technical documents. And although new employees were needed, the influx decreased because user and maintenance manuals that were difficult to understand created enormous barriers to entry.

To solve this dilemma, the airlines finally turned to the European Association of Aerospace Industries (“Association Européenne des Constructeurs de Matériel Aérospatial”, AECMA). In 1983, the AECMA launched the “Simplified English” project and developed the first “AECMA Simplified English Guide”.

The guide, which has since been published in several editions and revisions and has been called “Simplified Technical English” since 2004, is now a standard of the Aerospace and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD) as the successor organisation to AECMA. Therefore, the full name is also ASD-STE100 Simplified Technical English. The short form is STE.

Although STE has a stable and consolidated structure, the controlled language is maintained in line with technological development and evolves based on the continuous and important feedback from users.

The current edition of the ASD-STE100 guide is available for download.

Today, STE is so successful that it is also used in other industries and beyond maintenance documentation. Meanwhile, a large proportion of primary texts in technical documentation is written in STE. It is also a topic in the academic fields of engineering and linguistics.

What are the rules of Simplified Technical English?

The guide “Simplified Technical English” is divided into two parts: Rules section and dictionary. The rules section includes guidelines for grammar, style and choice of words in procedural and descriptive texts. It also contains an extensive list of restrictions on wording.

The Guide’s dictionary lists permissible and impermissible terms. The centrepiece is a 850-word list, which helps make technical documentation more readable, easier to maintain and cheaper to localise.

What are the advantages of Simplified Technical English for technical translation?

Less text, more repetition

The simplified and standardised syntax and word choice makes translation easier and thus more cost-effective with English as the source language. As the volume of text is reduced by at least 20 per cent and the remaining text becomes more repetitive, using Simplified Technical English usually results in 30 to 40 per cent lower translation costs.

Using translation memories

STE reduces linguistic variations. Thanks to the restricted vocabulary and STE rules, there are fewer ways of expressing a particular issue compared to Standard English. This enables and facilitates work with a translation memory. This is because the fewer possible variants there are, the more likely it is that there are already translated and approved words or phrases in the translation memory for the required subject matter, which can be transferred into the text by the translator.

Better comprehensibility, more effective translations

As explained, comprehensible texts are not only good for readers. Translators also make faster and more effective progress if the source text is comprehensible and clearly formulated. Comprehensible texts written in STE mean fewer queries from translators.

Better conditions for machine translation and MTPE

Reduction, simplification and comprehensibility through standardised syntax and word choice also have an effect on implementing Machine Translation and Post-Editing (MTPE). If a source text created in STE is (pre-)translated by a machine, the probability of translation errors decreases and the effort required in subsequent post-editing is significantly reduced.

Also important in this context: Thanks to the STE standard, it is also easier for non-native speakers to create English texts in the first place instead of first writing source texts in their own language. However, to conclude from this that translations into English through STE are no longer necessary would fall short of reality. This is because even self-authored, STE-based texts should be proofread by language and subject experts. In this case, the translator’s task shifts more towards post-editing, but it does not disappear completely. Otherwise, quality would no longer be assured.

Conclusion: Companies benefit from Simplified Technical English

STE is a proven and field-tested standard. Its consistent application offers companies all the fundamental benefits of standardisation – uniformity, higher productivity and lower costs. First of all, the technical documentation benefits from this:

  • Effectiveness in technical writing and clarity in technical documentation
  • Easier to translate with time and cost savings in technical translation

Ultimately, all the divisions involved benefit from the results and consequences:

  • Clear technical documentation and communication
  • Clearly understandable technical documentation, instructions and guidance in any language
  • Safe technical applications and reduced maintenance times

Would you also like to benefit from this? Do you need your texts revised in or translated into Simplified Technical English? Then talk to us.

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