Assessing the Translatability of Your Content

Your team has been working hard developing strong, effective copy for your global communication plan. Now it’s time for translation. Everyone is eager to see the project through to completion, and there’s no room in the timeline or budget for surprises.

How can you be sure your content is easily translatable?

improving translation quality starts at the source

Improving the quality of your text is the first step to ensure the quality of your translations. To optimize your text for translation, write with international readers in mind from the start. This entails writing in a manner that is unambiguous and clear to people in different locales.

Here are a few guidelines to help you assess whether your content is ready for translation.

clarity, clarity, clarity

The number one priority when crafting text for translation is to keep the language clear and concise. Short, succinct sentences are easier to translate and leave less room for misunderstandings. As a rule of thumb, keep sentences to under 20 words. Evaluate your text critically by asking: have you found the most direct way to express your ideas?

  • Write sentences with an active voice. Passive sentences tend to use more words and have a complex structure. They also tend to be vague. Active sentences, in which the subject of the sentence is performing the action, have a better flow and make it clear who is doing what. “The cat chased the mouse,” is an example of an active sentence, while “The mouse was chased by the cat” is passive.
  • The subject-verb-object sentence structure is direct and widely recognized. Examples include “The director drinks coffee,” or “The staff worked hard.”
  • Write sentences that are affirmative rather than negative. For example, “don’t obscure your message” could be reframed in a positive way by saying, “make your message clear.”
  • Watch out for noun strings—a series of nouns or other words, all of which modify a final noun.  Examples include “human resource development project” or “rural farm worker safety protection program.”  The relationship between words can get lost in translation. Instead, say “Program to protect the safety of workers on rural farms.”
  • Does your text include redundancies? Ambiguous phrases? Edit out the unnecessary language.
  • Reducing your word count will also help lessen challenges associated with text expansion. Some languages, such as Spanish, expand up to 25% over English, while Chinese contracts.
  • Be consistent in your use of terminology. For example, select either “mobile phone” or “cellular phone,” and use the same term throughout.
  • Avoid double negatives—the combination of two negative terms. Examples include “the price of the redesign is not insignificant,” “it wasn’t uninteresting,” or “she was not irresponsible about her commitments.”

a few tips to avoid confusion and improve translation quality

  • Consider the cultural context and local conventions. References to football may be appropriate for an American audience, but in European countries, “football” is the equivalent to soccer in America.
  • Your copy should avoid humor or slang. Both rely on a certain degree of cultural familiarity or play on words, and therefore rarely translate well. Consider this simple one liner: “Did you hear about the guy whose left side was cut off? He’s all right now.” It relies on the word “right,” which has dual meanings in the English language. The punchline would be lost in translation.
  • Expand your abbreviations and acronyms. By doing so, you ensure that the translator will select the correct meaning. FYI: people in other cultures may not know how to send an IM to RSVP before COB, or FWD a PO to the R&D VP at HQ.
  • An idiom is a group of words or phrase that is not intended to be taken literally, such as “learn the ropes,” “piece of cake,” or “take the bull by the horns.” Your Japanese audience may not understand that “the elephant in the room” is not an actual pachyderm.
  • Avoid colloquialisms, which are words or phrases used informally—typically specific to a geographic region or local dialect. Not everyone understands that a “spell” can mean “an indefinite period of time,” or to “rile” may mean “to stir up.” Here in the U.S., someone might order lunch by asking for a “sub,” “hoagie,” “grinder,” “spuckie,” or a “po’ boy.” See how this can get confusing?

best practices to help you ensure consistency

Decide up front which words will stay in English, such as company or product names, or other brand-specific language. In order to maintain consistency with these choices, you should engage your language services provider early on. They can work with you to develop a glossary, which will help you make decisions about the appropriate use of brand-specific words and phrases upfront. This provides greater clarity, eliminates ambiguity for the translators, and helps ensure consistency across all of your materials.

Be specific when noting your unit of currency. Numerous countries call their unit of currency “the dollar,” but they are not all referring to the U.S. dollar. Be accurate by using the abbreviation for a unit of currency instead of the symbol, USD versus $ or EUR rather than €.

It may sound obvious but proofread your text thoroughly. Correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation are a must!

get an early start on translation

Considering the translatability of your content upfront will help your translators effectively communicate your vision. Don’t wait until you’ve translated your press release into five languages to clarify an ambiguous statement. As the number of languages increases, so does the potential for trouble.

Ultimately, considering your global audience from the start will save time and money, while ensuring the same message is communicated across languages.

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