I recently came across an article that listed the “25 most annoying business phrases.” I forwarded it to my Global Solutions team for a Friday afternoon laugh, asking, “How annoying are you?”
One of my colleagues in Europe responded, “This is excellent! Especially when you are not a native English speaker and your colleagues use these phrases all the time.” Having grown up bilingual in both Switzerland and the United States, I could really relate to this reaction.
It made me think about global audiences and how certain expressions don’t always translate the way we intend. These ambiguous phrases lose their meaning and can cause confusion. So in today’s global world, the way we speak and write affects others on a wide scale.
As a Solution Architect, part of my job includes consulting with clients and setting up their localization programs for success. These client discussions often focus on scope, languages, technology, success criteria, goals, and other expected topics. But a critical element of successful localization is often overlooked: source text quality. How well written is your content?
Your source text serves as a base for translated content in all other languages. And as your number of target languages for translation increases, the impact of your source content does too. So when writing for successful translation, it’s critical that you plan ahead. It’s all about writing it right—the first time.
To avoid common pitfalls, there are some general guidelines you should keep in mind when writing for website translation. Keep your sentences simple and direct to increase understanding—and use a style guide for consistency. Because clear, concise, well-constructed sentences improve translation quality, reduce turnaround time, and cut costs—which speeds time-to-market and accelerates revenue streams.
Here are 10 tips to remember when writing for translation:
1. Keep sentences brief.
For increased comprehension and simpler translations, aim for about 20 words or less. And boost readability. I often ask myself, what’s truly important? How can I simplify what I want to say? Reading sentences aloud helps to keep them short and sweet.
2. Use Standard English word order whenever possible.
This generally means a subject, verb, and object with associated modifiers. Ensure correct grammatical structure and proper punctuation.
Writing for Global Audiences.Standard Word Order V2-13
This includes checking the basics, because mistakes can travel across source and target languages. Translators often find and flag source errors, but that shouldn’t replace proofreading your source text.
3. Avoid long noun strings.
When connecting elements are omitted from noun strings, readers must infer the relationship between the words. If you have to read a sentence several times to understand it, chances are that there will be further complications when it’s translated into a different language. When this happens, we tend to see misinterpretations of the original meaning—or a translation that appears too literal.
4. Use just one term to identify a single concept.
Synonyms get in the way of clarity. Write the same thing, the same way, every time you write it. Finding different ways to write a single concept will not only affect the overall consistency of translation, but it will also reduce the related translation memory leverage. This can lead to decreased quality, increased cost, and increased turnaround.
Writing for Global Audiences.Uniform word choice-14
Translation memories leverage words in segments, so changing even a minor word has an impact. Always consider re-using existing content that has already been translated—don’t write from scratch if you don’t need to.
5. Avoid humor.
It rarely translates with equivalency. The same goes for jargon, regional phrases, or metaphors. True story: I didn’t know what “knocking it out of the park” or a “grand slam” was until I moved to Boston in 2004 and got pulled into watching the Red Sox World Series. Now I get it, but chances are that many translators are as clueless as I am when it comes to American sports. Expressions are not always universally understood or appreciated—they just don’t translate.
6. Be clear with international dates.
Style guides should document the handling of large numerals, measurements of weight, height, width, temperature, time, phone numbers, currency, etc. for each language pair.
Writing for Global Audiences.Date Format-12
For example: 09/07/2015. Is that September, or July? It depends where I am. In Switzerland, it reads as July, but in the U.S., it’s September. The safest choice is to spell out the name of the month. Using an abbreviation for the month is fine if space is tight.
7. Use relative pronouns like “that” and “which.”
Even if you don’t need them, they may improve understanding. “The software that he licensed expires tomorrow” is clearer than “The software he licensed expires tomorrow.” It’s good to check that pronouns have been included rather than assumed.
8. Use the active voice rather than the passive.
It’s more direct, better understood, and easier to translate. Words like “was” and “by” may indicate that a passive voice is used. For example: The software was upgraded by the user = passive. The user upgraded the software = active.
9. Avoid phrasal verbs (containing a verb form with one or more articles).
They tend to complicate translations. For example, use “met” rather than “ran into.” Phrasal verbs often have multiple meanings and are less formal. Be on the lookout for two- or three-word verbs. I was trying to think of this in relation to German, but guess what: a “phrasal verb” as such doesn’t exist in German.
10. Make sure it fits.
English text is often shorter than other languages, which means sufficient space is needed for expansion (up to 35%!). This is particularly important for software interfaces and graphics. Differences exist not only in sentence length, but also in individual word length—as some languages use large compound words.
Writing for Global Audiences.Translated Text Length V2-11
Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften (insurance companies providing legal protection): The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes this cumbersome word as the longest German word in everyday use. And what happens when a German translation won’t fit into an allotted space? What about white space when text contracts? Planning ahead will save you money and a lot of headaches.
Communication and preparation are key
Cross-cultural communication requires some study and practice to master. But it all begins with preparing content for international readers and making sure that source text is easy to translate. Once the stage is set for translation, you can focus on the translation process itself and further refine content to suit different audiences. Writing translation-ready materials will save you time as well as money&mda
sh;and it’ll increase the quality and readability of your target translations.
When it comes to going global, a common goal is to maintain a unique brand voice while providing accurate translations. So it’s important to work in partnership with your language service provider (LSP) and give them the necessary resources and reference materials. The more you communicate with your LSP, the better they are set up for success, and the higher the translation quality they can provide you.
> To learn more tips and best practices for ensuring translation and localization success, download the new ebook, The Definitive Guide to Website Translation.