Writing for translation doesn’t have to involve miscommunications

If your organization does business in the growing global marketplace, there may be times when you need to communicate with people in languages other than English. While it’s tempting to simply translate your existing materials, that may not be the most effective approach.

That’s because writing for translation requires different thinking and approaches than writing for American audiences. For starters, English doesn’t always translate cleanly and clearly to other languages. You also need to consider culture, because simply translated American English may not connect well – or even inadvertently offend people from other cultures and countries.

If you’re thinking about creating materials for translation – or having your existing materials translated – you need to consider a variety of factors to ensure they minimize the potential for confusion and miscommunication.

For starters, one thing few people realize is copy translated from English into another language generally becomes much longer than the original. In my experience, the number of words typically increases by about 10 percent, although the language and nature of the material may see it grow by as much as 25 percent. Why is that an important consideration? If you’re planning to drop the translated headlines and copy into an existing design, they may not fit. When designing a piece for use in multiple languages, it’s important to provide additional space for flexibility.

Another major issue is tone. Americans pride themselves on friendliness, and the language used in marketing materials is often conversational and friendly. However, that may be viewed as uncomfortably familiar to readers in other countries and cultures. In much of the world, business is handled in a more formal, serious manner. The talky American style may be viewed as awkward at best and outright rude at worst. (Our tendency to open emails with the recipient’s first name induces anxiety for folks in some countries, because it feels like they’re about to be scolded by a superior.)

It’s easy to get carried away and use long sentences and flowery prose. But when you’re writing for translation, it pays to be more concise, using standard language and complete sentences. Concentrate on getting the key points across in as few words as possible.

American business writing often involves the use of jargon, especially long strings of nouns. When translated into another language, a phrase like “cybersecurity risk mitigation strategy summaries” may no longer mean what it does in English. Reworking it into something like “summaries for use in strategies to mitigate cybersecurity risks” may not roll off the tongue as smoothly, but it will allow the translator to more easily capture your intended meaning.

You’ve probably been taught to use active voice instead of passive. That’s particularly important when writing something that’s going to be translated into another language. If your copy includes instructions, 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 clearer, so they translate better.

English is a particularly rich language, and we’re taught to use variety when we write, such as turning to synonyms instead of repeating the same words. However, adding all that variety into copy may create confusion, because the direct translations for a pair of synonyms may carry vastly different (and unintended) meanings.

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 an uncomfortable meaning, drawing snickers instead of respect.

In the U.S., we’ve 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 countries like Korea or Japan, it may be important for the reader to be able to differentiate whether it references 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.

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 Indiana headquarters chuckling, but your prospects in Bratislava are wondering if you’re sane and intelligent.

The best rule is an easy one to remember: write to communicate instead of to impress. Stick with straightforward, easy-to-understand wording, and you’ll minimize the potential for getting lost in translation.