Text Expansion and Contraction in Translation

Your designer did a fabulous job developing your new line of brochures – the perfect balance between compelling copy and eye-catching images. But how will your latest collateral look when it’s translated into Chinese? Or German?

When you translate a marketing campaign, presentation, website, or app into other languages, text expansion and contraction is something to be aware of. It may change the look and feel of your materials. By understanding how different languages behave, you can begin to predict how the final product might be impacted and plan ahead to obtain the results you want.

What is text expansion and contraction?

Text expansion occurs when the target language (the language you translate into) takes up more space than the source language. In certain languages, it just takes more words to make the same statement. This can result from differences in grammar, sentence structure, or the way terminology is used across languages. In certain cases, expansion can also result from word length. For example, an English-into-German translation may produce a similar number of words, but German has long, compound words that take up more space.

Text contraction is just the opposite. When translating from English into Danish, Swedish, or many Asian languages, for example, the translated text will take up less space.

Predicting expansion rates

The rate of expansion and/or contraction varies widely. Translating from English into languages such as Spanish or French can result in 20-25% expansion, while German may expand as much as 35%. On the other hand, Chinese, Korean, or Japanese will usually contract, although the percentages may fluctuate significantly. And, even while these languages typically contract, they use characters that are more complex than those in Latin alphabets and therefore require more space in between characters. This can result in vertical expansion if the space between the lines needs to increase to fit the characters.

There’s no easy formula to follow because the percentage of expansion/contraction can change significantly even within a single language pair. One of the largest factors is subject matter. Literary translations, for example, may expand significantly more than technical translations or legal text. Letters or personal documents, on the other hand, may have a much smaller rate of expansion/contraction. Other variables that contribute to the expansion/contraction rate include grammar, tone, writing style, syntax, word usage, terminology, and sentence structure.

Tips and tricks

To achieve the results you want, prepare your English content with translation in mind. Here are a few things to be mindful of:

  • White space is your friend. Leave ample white space, so your text will not appear crowded as it expands.
  • When possible, create real tables rather than using tabs, rules, or text boxes. Functional tables are easier to resize to accommodate expanding text.
  • When creating tables, do not make your columns too narrow. While the English text may fit, consider how narrow columns will look when filled with long, compound German words.
  • Be wary of using too many abbreviations. Text that can be abbreviated in English may need to be written out in your target language, and this will add to the length of the text.
  • Use well-defined character and paragraph styles and use them consistently.
  • Always link your text frames. The more flexibility you can allow for the reflowing of text, the easier it will be to adjust the flow of text while keeping the integrity of your design intact.
  • If possible, do not embed text tightly in your graphics. The translated text may not work with the image as you had originally intended.
  • If you must embed text in your graphics, be prepared to provide all the native graphic files (Photoshop, Illustrator, etc.) with editable text.

Websites and apps

Most of the latest CMS platforms are now translation friendly and built to handle the expansion and contraction that comes with translations. Developers are creating global-ready apps that are designed to accommodate localization for other countries, languages, and cultures.

Despite the capabilities of web and app development to accommodate multiple languages, it is worth considering a final round of post-localization review. Linguists will review your site and/or app to ensure the appropriate translations were used, have been placed properly, fit the space, and function according to the developer’s specifications.

Voiceovers and subtitling

Text expansion doesn’t just apply to the written word, it also impacts the rate of spoken dialogue. Some languages take longer to speak because they have higher word counts. In other languages, words have more syllables and take longer to pronounce.

This is something to consider if you are translating subtitles or voiceovers. If your subtitles grow by 30%, it becomes harder for viewers to read and absorb the text at a pace that was established by an English-speaking narrator. It helps to have your English-language narrator speak a bit more slowly or leave longer pauses between sentences so the subtitles (and the reader) can catch up. The language may also need to be adjusted to work with the timing of the script.

Never fear, your language service provider will work from your time-coded script to ensure your dialogue is translated accordingly. Be aware that it’s more important to translate the meaning of what is being said within the allotted time than it is to insist on a more literal translation. Professional voiceover talent has the experience to modify what they say so their pacing matches the timing of the original.

A few guidelines

The chart below provides some guidelines for expansion/contraction. Keep in mind that these ratios are in many cases very general because there are so many factors at play.

Leave some breathing room

“Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.” – Alexander Graham Bell

Always plan ahead! Involve your language services provider early on. Professionals with language and subject matter expertise will know what can be reworded, moved around, or otherwise adjusted to fit the space permitted.

Understanding what text expansion is and how it impacts different languages will help you know what to expect. Awareness can help you develop content with translation in mind from the start – leaving less room for surprises later on.

We’re here to help!

Eriksen provides translation, typesetting, web and app localization, and voiceover and subtitling services to help you reach your multilingual audiences. Contact us to discuss the ways we can support your language needs.

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