5 things I learned from translating the official React docs to German


Around six months ago after attending the conference React Amsterdam and hearing about all the benefits of contributing to open-source code and the community around it I got inspired to be part of it.

Around six months ago after attending the conference React Amsterdam and hearing about all the benefits of contributing to open-source code and the community around it I got inspired to be part of it. 


But where do you start?


I knew I wanted to contribute to React (it was the technology I used most at that time) but I didn’t feel confident enough to raise or fix actual production issues. After having a little look around I stumbled across a website where you can see all languages the React documentation are available in, and their progress if they are still being translated. And there I found my first potential open-source project: The website for the German React documentation is still in progress and looked like it needed help. 

As somebody who is originally from Austria, being a German native speaker (some Germans might disagree...) and having a keen interest in translation (I studied English Studies/Translation for a year) I knew this was exactly what I was looking for. Six months and a couple of successfully translated pages later, I thought it would be nice to share some lessons I learnt along the way and hopefully inspire you to contribute to open-source projects in the future.


1. Translating is way harder than it seems, even as a German native speaker pt.1

When I started translating my first page for the React docs I thought it would be easy - after all I am fluent in English and German right? Ha, was I in for a treat. It started with basic things such as do we address the audience in a formal or informal manner (makes a big difference in German and somebody even raised its separate issue on GitHub for this) and ranged to which technical terms should actually stay in English and which we would translate into German (again, there is a glossary for that and I’m still having nightmare deciding between ‘Shallow rendering’ and ‘Flaches Rendern’). Luckily each PR get reviewed by really clever people who help me with those decisions and relieve me from having nightmares about whether I should translate ‘Context’ into ‘Kontext’ or not (yes really).


2. Translating in German is way harder than it seems pt.2 

Very brief German lesson: There are actually three standard variations of German (German Standard German, Austrian Standard German and Swiss German) and guess what, they differ. There are certain ways (apparently) Austrians phrase their sentences Germans wouldn’t and vice versa. I felt that the hard way, after reading through the requested changes on a PR and literally questioning my ability to speak German (“What do you mean you don’t say it like that, I HAVE BEEN SAYING THIS MY ENTIRE LIFE”). We usually settle for the German version but I’m sure all my translated pages have that special Austrian ring to them. ;)


3. You actually read the docs for the first time

Oh boy, there is a difference between reading the docs and reading the docs in order to translate them. You dissect each sentence into so many individual pieces and look at the same word so many times nothing makes sense anymore. And in order to properly translate technical documentation, you have to fully grasp what it actually means. Imagine having a really nasty bug in your code and you read through the docs and can’t find the answer because the docs have mixed up certain points? Yeah, not fun. So hats off to all translators out there, technical or not, it sure is very challenging and takes so much more time than I thought - translating this page took me around 7 hours spanned across several days (when I thought I could finish it easily on a Sunday afternoon…)

4. Always remind yourself of the value you’re providing to the community 

At first, I wasn’t sure my contribution to translate the docs would be of value for anybody - surely if you are a programmer you can speak English? Most people probably do - but for a lot of them it is not their second language (or third/fourth language). An example would be my now 16-year old sister who started an IT college in Austria when she was 14 and started learning programming from a very young age - all with the help of translated documentation. It’s not like her and her friends didn’t know English, but trying to understand how a piece of technology actually works is so much easier if you don’t have to translate it into your native language first. It took me years before I understood what ‘throttle’ and ‘defer’ literally mean. 

5. Teamwork makes the dream work aka Don’t stop believing!

And finally, the open-source community. It’s amazing what you can achieve if loads of people offer their free time to translate docs, ponder about how to translate that one specific word into German, go through pull requests and review them, maintain repositories and answer all sorts of queries. Without that amazing community the React documentation wouldn’t be available in 16 different languages, with 8 more still under development. So go on, check out your favourite framework/library/API and see if they need your help!


If you want to know more about how to help translate the React documentation you can have a little nosey here and you can check out the progress of the docs and read it here. I hope you all have a calm December and don’t have sleepless nights over the difference of German and Austrian grammar. 

About the Author

Tamara Undesser – Software Engineer at BBC 

Twitter: @tamaraundssr

Hi I’m Tamara, a Software Engineer living in Manchester and working at the BBC at the moment doing AWS/backend stuff with Node.js. This year I helped organise an international UX conference called Talk UX in Manchester with a group of fabulous and inspirational women which showed me what you can achieve if we work together. I’m passionate about STEM and the environment and recently started doing Roller Derby (which is why I’m in constant pain from falling over all the time – it’s a lot of fun though!)