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Many people don’t realise that when it comes to translation, the raw material – the original (source) text – has a huge impact on the finished product.
A lower quality text will be harder and take longer to translate than a high-quality one. Seems logical, right? But there’s more to it than that. By using a few simple techniques you can create a text that’s not only great in its own right, but is also translation-friendly.
Of course, sometimes we write a text without knowing it will be translated later on. But when a writer knows a piece will be translated into one or more other languages, it makes sense to create something that will be easier to translate. This can help avoid misunderstandings and make the translation process smoother, quicker and perhaps cheaper.
Below we’ve summarised some key techniques and tips for writing for translation. You can find more information, details and examples in the Translation Centre for the Bodies of the European Union’s Writing for Translation document.
6 top tips for writing translation-friendly original texts
- Keep it concise
If you can say it in ten words rather than twenty, do. Make your text concise and get to the point. Otherwise it’s easy to lose your reader along the way. And a concise text will help the translator produce a concise translation.
What’s more, keeping things brief means you’re doing yourself a favour financially, as translation is often charged by the word.
- Be consistent
You may well have had it drummed into you at school that you should avoid repetition in your writing. But when it comes to writing for translation, consistency is key.
Where possible, avoid synonyms. This prevents misunderstandings and ambiguity and will make for a clearer text. It will also make the translation process quicker as translation software remembers how certain words and phrases are translated, so when they’re used consistently, translators can work more quickly.
- Use plain language
No matter how technical and complex your subject matter, make sure your text is as straightforward as possible.
While you should always trust your translations to a professional that specialises in your particular area, there’s no point making things more complex than they need to be. Try to avoid using overly formal or technical words and phrasing, as this tends to make the translator do the same. If you choose plain words that are easy to understand, you’ll have a text that’s easier to read for the original audience, that can be translated more efficiently and, ultimately, a clearer translation.
In English, writing a plain text generally means choosing shorter words or phrasal verbs, like ‘need’, ‘speed up’ and ‘after’ instead of ‘necessitate’ ‘expedite’ and ‘subsequent to’. Avoid long sentences and complicated sentence structures that can be confusing and ambiguous. Using short sentences will also ensure that multiple ideas don’t get mixed up. Similarly, not using abstract words and buzzwords will make your text easier to read and translate.
Plain Language Association International has more information about using plain language (in various languages).
- Be careful with layout and formatting
Some languages are very succinct, while others require more words or take up more space to express the same idea. For instance, English is relatively short, while Portuguese is on average 30% longer. Similarly, some formatting may not be compatible with certain languages or may have different connotations in the target culture.
Bear this in mind when you’re planning the layout of a document or webpage. If you’re not sure, why not have a quick chat with your translator to check? It could save you a whole lot of time further down the road.
- Avoid idioms
Idiomatic expressions have their place. But they’re not ideal in texts that are going to be translated. They can rarely be translated literally from one language to another, and can overcomplicate things.
Using idioms means you risk either ending up with a literal translation that makes no sense in the target language, or delaying the process as your translator struggles to come up with an appropriate equivalent in their native tongue.
- Say what you mean
When writing for translation you need to say what you mean, unambiguously, without anything left unsaid or merely implied.
Don’t waste your time trying to come up with clever ways to say things that will, most likely, be untranslatable. Double meanings or clever puns should be reserved for monolingual audiences.
Bonus points: going the extra mile
Keen to make your text as translatable as possible? Here are a few ways you can help:
- File formats – ask your translator which file format they can work with (for instance, PDFs can be a bit of a nightmare to work with in translation tools)
- Images and layout info – it’s easy to think that because a translator works with words, they don’t need the images or diagrams that go along with your text. But they can really help by giving added context about the text and layout of a page or document.
- Restrictions and requirements – if you have a specific character limit or word count the translation needs to fit within, let your translator know at the beginning.
- Style guide – having a style guide can really help both translators and writers create texts that are in line with your brand values and tone of voice.
Translation-friendly texts = accessible texts
All of the tips and techniques we’ve detailed above, from using plain language to keeping your text concise and avoiding ambiguity, will not only make your texts easier to translate, they’ll also make them easier to read. This means they’re more accessible for a broad audience in your original target market, so you’ll be boosting their reach and impact.
Not sure whether you need localization, translation or transcreation? We’re here to help you understand the translation industry jargon.
Don’t waste your time trying to come up with clever ways to say things that will, most probably, be untranslatable. Double meanings or clever plays on words should be reserved for monolingual audiences.
Were you already implementing some of these tips? Share this article with someone else who might find it useful!