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Guidelines for writing for translation

By on April 26, 2017

content_highlightedIn the translation world, we talk a lot about quality.  The first building block of a top-quality translation is a quality source text.

Writing source content with translation in mind is critical.  In addition to the standard rules for well-written English, there are specific guidelines to follow when creating source content for translation.

Keep reading to find our Top 10 Guidelines for writing for translation.

  1. Short sentences

Not only do sentences aid comprehension, thereby reducing the risk of errors, it creates smaller pieces for the translator to fit together.  It is easier to fit smaller text segments  together in different ways to create a flow that is more natural in the target language.

  1. Grammar/punctuation: check the basics

Proofreading your own work prevents errors from being replicated in the translation, and limits opportunities for misunderstandings. Also, if it seems like you haven’t bothered much with your own content, a translator is less likely to see a polished, top-quality translation as imperative…

  1. Text expansion

Some languages use more words than English to say the same thing, and some have really long words, like German.  When creating graphics, PDFs, software or anything that has restricted space, make sure to budget for more space in the translations.  If you want the translations to use the same layout, it may be that you need to cut a sentence or two from the English, or make a text box bigger than required by the English content.

  1. Clarity

If it’s not obvious in the source language, it may not be clear to the translator, so prioritise clarity.  Ensure pronouns are clear, and use relative pronouns like ‘that’ and ‘which’ even if they aren’t necessary in English. Ditto for words like ‘then,’ ‘a,’ ‘the,’ ‘to.’ Repeat verbs that have multiple subjects, repeat helping verbs belonging to multiple verbs, repeat subjects and verbs, and repeat markers in a list or series.  For examples, look at Mailchimp’s style guide: http://styleguide.mailchimp.com/writing-for-translation/.

  1. Consistency

Use technical terms and expressions consistently.  When writing product descriptions or other repetitive content, re-use the same blocks of content as much as possible. This will increase repetitions in the text, reducing translation costs.  Synonyms and variations are great for single-language content, but with source content, by writing something the same way every time, clarity improves and costs drop.

  1. Slang / Humour / Metaphors / Regional phrases / Clichés

We have seen many mistranslations of these, and often there isn’t an acceptable substitute that doesn’t involve adding an extra explanatory sentence.  Bear in mind that foreign readers have a different frame of reference to you, and only use these elements in your source content when necessary.

  1. Dates

Be clear with dates – write out the month if possible to avoid people from wondering if you mean the 3rd of February, or the 2nd of March.  Your target audience, and translator, may be more familiar with the American date format, or vice versa.

  1. Active voice

Write in an active voice. It’s easier to translate than the passive voice, and uses fewer words. Fewer words mean a lower price.  Words like ‘by’ and ‘was’ may indicate the passive voice.

Passive: The translation was completed on time by Maria
Active: Maria completed the translation on time

  1. Abbreviations / acronyms

Avoid abbreviations and acronyms or explain them at first mention.

  1. Provide background information

You have background knowledge of your company which may not be obvious to a translator or other outsider.  For example, a Japanese translator will need to include Mr/Mrs in any names they mention, so if a name is not a traditional English name, please clarify if the person is female or male.

If you don’t think your English text will be improved by these suggestions, and your English content is your main priority, it may be an idea to “pre-localise” another copy purely to be used as a translation template.

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