10 Essential Tips for Writing for Translation

Reduce Your Costs, Turnaround, and To-Market Times

In today’s globalized business world, writing for translation is important in any industry. Businesses often want to reach as many markets as possible, not just English speakers. For successful content translation, companies should consider their source text. Source text serves as a base for translated content in any other languages. As your number of target languages for translation increases, the impact of your source content does, too. This effect makes planning ahead critical when writing text to be translated. To reduce turnaround, cut costs, and speed up time-to-market, you need to write source text ready for translation and international readers. Often, these approaches will also improve the quality of your writing. Translation-ready writing requires clearer, grammatically pristine, and efficient text. These are ten key translation tips for writing your source content.

#1 Keep Sentences Brief When Writing for Translation

To improve content velocity in the translation process, you should aim for sentences of around 20 words or less. This length prevents the sentence from becoming too complicated or unreadable. A length of 20 words or less also optimizes content for Machine Translation, one of the most cost-effective translation services. You can test your sentences for simplicity and readability by reading them aloud.

#2 Use Standard English Word Order Whenever Possible

By using simple, predictable sentence structures, you’ll avoid errors in your marketing, legal, website translation, or any other translation. Content is translated faster and for a lower cost when you employ proper grammar, punctuation, and this structure:

subject verb object
This guide helps marketers.
modifier subject modifier verb modifier object
This free guide drastically helps experienced marketers.

You’ll avoid errors or questions from translators (which reduce translation content velocity and increase costs) when your writing for translation is grammatically simple and error-free.

#3 Eliminate Long Noun Strings

Noun strings are generally frowned upon in any kind of writing. When writing for translation, this is particularly true. A noun string could be challenging for a translator to understand, just as it could be even for native speakers. When connecting elements are omitted from noun strings, readers must infer the relationship between the words. Translators who don’t understand a section of your text will either have to ask questions or may misinterpret your meaning. Sometimes, the translator will interpret noun strings in a manner that’s incorrect and too literal. If you’re translating text into multiple languages, you’ll have multiple hold-ups and increase your translation costs. Avoid these issues by identifying and remedying long noun strings — before the translation process.

#4 Use Consistent Terms for Concepts

Using synonyms may be encouraged in other types of writing, but they’re problematic when writing for translation. Use one consistent term for the same concept. This tactic will help you avoid errors or questions in the translation process. It will also reduce costs and turnaround. Additionally, consistent terms increase Translation Memory leverage. A translation memory is data that a Language Service Provider (LSP) creates and saves as they execute translation services. When an LSP can use translation memories, the process is streamlined. Translation memory usage dramatically decreases your costs and turnaround time.

Translation consistency

#5 Eliminate Jokes, Jargon, Idioms, and Metaphors When Writing for Translation

While these kinds of writing are fun or entertaining, they also slow down the translation process and often incur higher costs. These types of writing often don’t have an equivalent form from language to language. They may hold up the translation process because they’re translated inaccurately or the translator stops to ask questions about them.

When a business needs to employ humor in its content, it’s a best practice to work with an LSP for transcreation. Transcreation services help you communicate the same message with the same effect, style, and tonality as your source text. However, the LSP will alter the text to meet the cultural and linguistic norms of the target audience. If translated directly, the language may sound very different. However, its impact will be identical to that of the source text.

Example: “knocking it out of the park” means to “notably succeed at something.” Since this phrase is a baseball reference, it means something to most Americans. In Europe, though, it doesn’t mean much. Translators may be baffled by this phrase.

Writing for translation

#6 Be Clear When Using Dates and Time

Many countries document dates and times in various formats. Since this information is often important, it’s vital that the source text clearly denotes dates and times. Sometimes, unclear dates and times create problems. People show up to meetings or events on the wrong day or at the wrong time. To avoid ambiguity, consider these tips:

  • Spell out the month’s name or use an abbreviation if there are space constraints.
  • Add in words like “afternoon, morning, or evening” if they may help clarify.
  • Provide context to ensure the translator and target audience will never have questions about when something is happening (or has happened).
  • Create standardized methods of sharing time and dates in your company’s style guide.

Example: What does 09/07/2023 mean? In some countries, like the U.S., it’s September 7th, 2023. In some countries, like Switzerland, it’s July 9th, 2023. The best way to communicate this date clearly is to spell out the month.

#7 Use Relative Pronouns, Such As “That” and “Which”

These words make your text clearer and easier for translators to understand. When in doubt, add the pronoun. It’s a best practice not to assume it. For example:

“The software he licensed will expire soon” vs. “The software that he licensed will expire soon.”

The second example ensures clarity. The reader knows that “the software” in question is the one “he licensed.”

#8 Chose the Active Voice instead of the Passive When Writing for Translation

Your text will be simpler to translate when you write in the active voice. This method makes your sentences shorter and clearer. You’ll avoid mistranslations or confusion from a translator. For example:

“The software was upgraded by the user.” vs. “The user upgraded the software.”

The second sentence, which is active, is shorter and clearer. Translators and the target audience won’t have any questions about what happened, who took action, or what object was acted upon.

#9 Cut Phrasal Verbs

Remove phrasal verbs from copy that you want translated. Phrasal verbs might impede the translation process because they often have more than one meaning. They’re also less desirable because they’re less formal. Phrasal verbs are often two or three-word verbs. Here are some examples:

  • Abide by
  • Account for
  • Add up
  • Advise against

#10 Plan for Text Expansion When Writing for Translation

You may intend to fit your translated text into an existing design. It’s important to know that when English text is translated into other languages, it often takes up significantly more space. Sometimes the text expands up to 35%. From the source text to the translation, there may be increases in a few components (or, in some cases, decreases).

Text Increases (or Reductions) from Translation Include:

  • Sentence length
  • Word length
  • Paragraph length
  • Length of the full document/complete text

This text expansion or reduction could create issues with a brochure design, web page layout, etc. The copy may not fit well into its designated place. You can plan for this text expansion by working on design changes to accommodate it. You may also want to shorten the source text, so that translation will be faster.

Example: The word Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften means “insurance companies providing legal protection.” The Guinness Book of World Records calls it the longest German word in everyday use. Imagine how well this one word fits, or doesn’t fit, into a preconceived design meant for five medium-sized English words.

Don't Forget to Provide Accompanying Resources for Translators

Obtaining strong translations of your copy isn’t just about what you write. It’s also about providing your LSP with any other necessary resources. They may need more than just the source text to meet your needs. Consider providing:

  • Your style guide
  • Reference materials for the copy, if there are any
  • A glossary of key terms in the text
  • Translation guidelines, if your organization has any
  • A list of keywords for SEO value, if applicable
  • Images you’ll include with the final translated materials

Ensure your materials are translated faster and more accurately by offering whatever other resources you can. This preparation may take some time, but it will dramatically reduce your translation turnaround and costs.

Get in touch

Need some help cutting your translation costs? Trying to reach more global markets? We can help. Contact us today to find out more about Lionbridge’s Translation Services. 

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Stefanie Frischknecht
Stefanie Frischknecht