What You Need to Know About DITA Document Translation

Last Updated May 19, 2021

Learn how DITA has become a mainstay in the fields of technical and medical translation and how your company can benefit from document translation.

The OASIS Open Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) is an XML-based standard. Its primary uses are designing, managing, writing, and publishing information.

It enables content reuse, has a linking system, and is customizable. Because of this, DITA is earning a reputation as a universal solution.

Here’s what you need to know about DITA.

Key Features of DITA Document Translation

DITA is best known as a tool for technical writers and documentation teams. Its versatility in translation lends itself to other professions like medical devices and other high tech industries.

As a standard, DITA provides features that ensure content modularity and reuse.

DITA’s controlled extension of document vocabularies ensures interoperability of the documents created.


DITA documents are modular in structure. They are interchangeable and interoperable. This concept of modularity applies in more than one area.

Content types exist in reusable modules or maps. Modules organize topics for publishing across formats (print books, Websites, and so on).

Vocabulary is modular as well. There is a common base, but also a set of added vocabulary modules.

This modularity helps with the release of multilingual content by reusing translated modules as needed, without requiring another translation—lowering costs and speeding up multinational releases.

Furthermore, translated vocabulary modules become terminology assets that can be used by translators as they perform their tasks across all DITA modules and documents. This therefore ensures consistency and quality throughout.

DITA Open Toolkit

Technical writers and programmers can combine sets as desired to meet markup requirements. Further, the DITA Open Toolkit (OT) has a plugin module that supports new vocabulary module processing.

The modularity makes DITA flexible and robust. It’s far from a single application. Rather, think of it as a set of building blocks, a complex series of working parts within a framework.

You can pick and choose the features you need for your project. From this framework, you can build specific applications, all while continuing the interoperation.

DITA exists within an ecosystem of supporting tools. These tools are both free and open source as well as commercially available. All the major commercial XML editors support DITA, as do XML content management systems.

Mind you, this is but a high-level overview of DITA. Its capabilities are vast. The rest of this discussion focuses on document translation and software localization.

Content Globalization Using DITA

The DITA standard is full of features that enable globalized content. Some of these, for instance, include the dir, xml:lang, and translate attributes. DITA uses these attributes to publish content written or translated into different languages.

The DITA standard can accommodate content written in any language. The toolkit passes content through unaltered and into any output format. Language support exists in generated text, index sorting, and text direction.

Generated Text

Generated text doesn’t appear in source topics. Instead, it’s generated and placed in the output file. For example, titles like “Chapter” and “Related Information” appear above the corresponding content.

That generated text appears there when the file publishes. If the file will appear in more than one language, the toolkit checks for the specified xml:lang attribute value. If it can’t find it, DITA will select the closest specified value. It uses that to determine what language to use when generating text. If it detects no specified language, the DITA defaults to US English.

Index Sorting

Indexes sort using a single language only. The toolkit will detect the first language used and sets on the root element of a map. It henceforth applies that language to sort the index.

Text Direction

Most of the time, internet browsers detect right-to-left text and display it as they should. Similarly, the DITA toolkit detects right-to-left languages like Hebrew (xml:lang=”he”) or Arabic (xml:lang=”ar”). These languages are called bidirectional languages.

When it detects bidirectional languages, it switches to the correct CSS file. The CSS spacing based on the left margin switches to the right. And spacing based on the right margin switches to the left.

Languages Supported by the Toolkit

Supported languages vary according to the output format. The original toolkit, for instance, supported generated text in about 40 languages. Those languages included variants like American English and Queen’s English.

That number continues to increase over time.

DITA Document Translation for the Medical Industry

The life-science fields have regulations that need specialized attention. Therefore, any language translation must involve subject matter experts and specialized healthcare translators.

Clients in need of translation services vary. They may include surgical and medical device manufacturers, clinical diagnostic agencies, and biotech companies. Other types include research tool companies and patient recruitment and clinical trials.

Translating requires a trained eye, followed by a review from a second senior translator. Translators must review the output and stay within regulatory compliance. Finally, the desktop publishers format and publish the content.

Often, specific regulations demand something called blind back-translation. In this case, a third translator translates the language back to the original, without access to the original text. This confirms the translation’s integrity for those who cannot read the translated language.

Medical Translation Products

Medical translation includes an array of digital assets. Examples include medical documents, manuals, online help, web help, datasheets, labels, pamphlets and reports. They also include patient information and recruitment materials for clinical trials.

There are also user guides targeted for staff, patients, and technicians.

DITA Interoperability for Medical Documentation and Translation

Remember that DITA content is reusable. You can hence output medical documentation in any format. Medical content is re-purposed for all required formats. Having the content in a modular form, permits the tech pubs department to produce all needed formats, in print or electronic, without having to re-author content each time.

The benefits also extend to translation since the localization group can re-purpose the translated content without having to re-translate it.

DITA Document Translation for High-Tech Industries

Technical content translation is another specialization that requires the versatility of the DITA framework.

From manuals and user guides to patents and legal documents, translation services are essential for today’s global market. Other supporting digital products include technical documentation and packaging.

Translating Highly Technical Materials

Translating technical materials means capturing language nuances to maintain meaning across languages. As it is with medical translation, the DITA framework accommodates many languages. Translation happens in concert with the efforts of skilled linguists and translators.

The DITA OT (open toolkit) enables the customization of the output to allow additional formats to meet specialized and specific needs.

DITA OT is also used to create translated files by selecting strings and objects with the proper language attribute.

Single-Source Authoring with DITA

DITA-based authoring and translation go much deeper than one article can cover. DITA is a fascinating framework with endless customization options.

Its robust nature makes it an ideal single-source tool for authoring. By coupling it with the right translation environment, we can enable our clients to release digital and print assets in any language simultaneously and efficiently.

This is very helpful particularly in the life sciences and technical fields where regulated bodies require tracking, comparing and certifying the source of documentation.

The framework’s capabilities continue to grow as more developers explore its potential. No doubt, the future includes innovations and exciting new DITA features and opportunities.

We can help you make the most of DITA. Contact us today.

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