Writing for translation requires different thinking and approaches than writing for American audiences. There are two primary reasons for this.
Writing for translation involves language
The first of these is probably obvious, in that there’s a difference in language involved, and American English and other languages don’t always translate cleanly and clearly. In fact, American English doesn’t always translate well into British English, which is the preferred form of the language in much of the world.
Culture is critical when writing for translation
The second doesn’t occur to many American writers because of their lack of travel outside the U.S. or dealings with people in other countries. I’m referring to cultural differences. While the average American tends to believe the rest of the world simply mirrors American behavior and attitudes, the reality is cultures vary widely, and American approaches may not connect well – or even offend people from other cultures and countries.
Here’s a common example. While it isn’t directly relation to translation, it’s instructive. Americans tend to be more casual in business behaviors, and often open emails by using the first name of the recipient, such as they would in conversation. “Jessica, I’m still waiting for that report I need to finish our white paper.” To Americans, that’s just a friendly reminder. But to a reader in Europe or much of the world, opening an email with a first name may suggest that a scolding is coming. It carries an implied tone of an adult rebuking a child. Even when using emails, Europeans tend to be more formal.
Simple tips for writing for translation
The goal of this post is to help you become aware of the many factors that may affect writing in American English that will be translated to another language (even if that language is British English). Paying attention to these factors and incorporating the tips into your writing will improve the chances the translated white paper or other document will properly convey the correct message and tone, while limiting the potential for readers to misunderstand what you’re trying to say.
Translated copy is usually longer
One thing few people realize is that copy translated from English generally becomes much longer than the original. I’ve normally seen the number of words increase by about 10 percent, although the language and nature of the material may see it grow by as much as 25 percent in length.
Why is that an important consideration? Supposed you’re writing the copy for a printed piece that will have a set amount of space – such as a brochure that is designed to accommodate a copy block of 200 words. If we use that 25 percent factor, the translated copy will now be 250 words long, which may force an unwanted edit. The added length applies to more than just the body copy. Headlines and subheading will also be longer, as will captions, tables, and other visual elements.
So if you and your organization are creating a piece that will be translated into another language, may sure whoever will handle the actual design process is aware of this. I’ve seen situations in which some type of collateral material was going to be translated into multiple languages – for one example, I recall a piece for an auto parts manufacturer being translated into Spanish, French, and Arabic. Had the designer not left extra white space in the U.S. version, the translated versions would not have fit in the layout.
Copy for translation should be serious
Americans pride themselves on friendliness, and the language we tend to use in white papers and other marketing materials is usually conversational and friendly. However, what we see as friendly may be viewed as uncomfortably familiar to readers in other countries and cultures. In much of the world, business in particular is handled in a more formal and serious manner. The talky American style is often viewed as awkward at best and outright rude at worst.
Keep copy for translation brief
It’s easy to get carried away when writing copy, using long sentences and flowery prose. When it comes to writing copy that will be translated, that can be counterproductive. Instead of making the copy fancy and even poetic, concentrate on getting the key points across in as few words as possible.
Even though you’re targeting shorter copy, it’s also important to use standard language and complete sentences, because sentence fragments probably won’t translate as clearly. The same is true of long, complex sentences, which may become extremely confusing if they get too lengthy.
Watch articles and word order
Keep in mind that other languages often handle articles (such as “a” and “the”) differently or may not use them at all. In American English, adjectives generally precede the word — as in “I have a black cat” – but in other languages, such as Spanish, that gets reversed. “Tengo un gato negro” means the same thing, but transliterated, it reads “I have a cat black.” That’s less of a factor in body copy than in headlines, where word order may affect the design.
Be careful with noun strings
Particularly within companies and institutions, American English often involves the use of long strings of nouns. A phrase like “cybersecurity risk mitigation strategy summaries” technically contains five nouns. When translated into another language, the phrase may no longer mean what it does in English, so rework it into a phrase like “summaries for use in strategies to mitigate cybersecurity risks.” That may not roll off the tongue as easily, but it will allow the translator to more easily capture your intended meaning.
The reverse can also happen when translating from other languages into English. For example, German makes use of many complex nouns that carry very different meanings when transliterated. Say your company imports and distributes German-made equipment, and your job is to translate the owner’s manual into English. You’re surprised to discover that the equipment uses a glowing pear, or so your translation claims. The phrase you’ve translated, die Glühbirne, literally means “glow pear” in English, but the actual meaning is “light bulb.” And let’s be fair to our friends in Dusseldorf – the standard light bulb does resemble a glowing pear!
Use active voice when writing for translation
You’ve probably been taught to use active voice instead of its passive counterpart when writing. That’s particularly important when writing something that’s going to be translated into another language. If your white paper includes instructions, for example, it’s better to write “the user pushes the button” instead of “the button should be pushed by the user.” Sentences using active voice are typically shorter, and as noted earlier, that’s a good thing in copy for translation.
Stay consistent when writing for translation
English is a particularly rich language, full of synonyms that allow us to share thoughts in many different ways. We’re taught to use variety when we write, which is why college students come to rely upon the thesaurus built into their word processing app. But adding all that variety into copy that’s going to be translated may create confusion, because the translations for a pair of synonyms may have very different meanings. If you refer to Serena Williams as a “champion” and the “goat” (that American slang for “greatest of all time”), your reader may wonder why you’re comparing her to a barnyard animal.
(That also underscores the importance of avoiding the use of slang and trendy expressions when writing for translation. Saying your company has “a passion for high-quality ball bearings” may translate into a phrase with a far more colorful – and disturbing – meaning.)
Watch for cultural differences
What’s the shorthand for March 14, 2023? In the U.S., we typically write “3/14/23” or “March 14,” but in Europe and much of the rest of world, it’s “14/3/23” or “14 March,” which baffles Americans. “There are only 12 months!” The best advice is to avoid abbreviating dates. Yes, it takes a little extra space to spell the complete date, but you’re less likely to confuse the reader. Be just as careful when it comes to currency. If you want to mention the price of something you sell for $99.97, make sure you add “USD” at the end so readers elsewhere won’t confuse it with another currency.
Another area that can create confusion involves gender. In the U.S., we’ve gradually transitioned toward avoiding the use of gender in business writing, such as replacing gender-specific pronouns like “she” with gender-neutral examples like “they.” But if your copy is being used in Korea or Japan, it may be important for the reader to be able to differentiate whether you’re writing about a woman or a man, even if it feels a bit old-fashioned to you or flies in the face of your organization’s guidelines.
Don’t get funny
Finally, be extremely careful about using humor in copy that’s going to be translated. Something that’s funny to American readers may end up with a completely different meaning to people who use another language. Your humorous statement may have everyone in your office in Iowa chuckling, but your prospects in Bratislava are baffled and wondering if you’re sane and intelligent.
That’s another issue that also happens in the reverse. A childhood joke in Spanish asks why a train and an apple are the same. The punchline, “porque un tren no espera y un manzana no es pera” may get giggles from kids who grew up speaking Spanish, but when translated into English, it becomes the unfunny “because a train does not wait and an apple is not a pear.” Rest assured the jokes you find funny suffer the same fate when translated.