If you’re writing content that’s going to be translated, should you write it in a way that’s going to be easy to translate?
It’s a question that we’re asked frequently, and it’s well worth thinking about if you’re commissioning content that’s intended for translation.
A quick Google search will return lots of advice form language service providers advising clients to simplify their content so that it’s easier to translate.
At first glance, it may seem logical: by simplifying your writing, you can make the job easier for a translator, improve turnaround times and reduce potential errors. But, in reality, it’s not that simple.
Yes, if you’re writing for translation, it can be helpful for a translator if you remove idioms and colloquialisms and avoid using too many synonyms, write in the active rather than passive tone of voice (that’s good advice anyway) and replace any phrasal verbs with one-word substitutes.
The problem is that the source content may work less effectively if you plan to use it to represent your business.
Where is your personality?
According to Marketing Profs, in 2015 alone two million blog posts were written daily.
Assuming your content is already well written and distributed, it comes down to differentiating yourself and owning a place in the mind of your readers. And tone of voice, personality and writing style are big differentiators for your brand – water them down and you will get lost in a sea of mediocrity.
This is true not only for your blog posts, but also for your website, sales pages, advertisement copy, email marketing campaigns – any content that needs to position and differentiate your brand or persuade and convert readers needs to be effective in engaging them. By writing specifically for translation, you may make too many compromises with the source text, making it less effective as a piece of content.
Language naturally contains quirks such as slang, acronyms and idioms – in many case these give a piece of content personality.
Language elements such as these may also help concisely get a message across that would otherwise take much longer to convey. For instance, ‘a blindingly obvious concern that we are ignoring and not discussing at present’ takes much longer to write out than ‘an elephant in the room’.
If you get into the habit of writing content that’s pruned of anything that might snag in the translation process, you’re likely to create material that’s somewhat bland and may not be as successful in the source language.
You’re going to need to take any humour, colloquialisms, or references to current affairs out of it. Whilst this may not be a huge problem with some formal kinds of content, if your brand is trying to convey a relaxed or witty tone of voice then it’s not going to achieve this if your content is written with easy translation as a priority.
A better approach to translation
In an ideal world, the best approach would be to write the content with its intended audience in mind and then rewrite it for the new audience in their native language. However, this can be more expensive and time consuming to achieve than translation.
A more realistic solution is to work with brilliant translators and transcreators, brief them well and allow them the freedom to adapt the content to suit the needs and expectations of readers in your target locale using their knowledge of the local cultures and language.
A good translator won’t mind if your content is not written in “simplified English” – in fact, he or she will welcome the creative challenge at hand.
Sure, it can make the translator’s job easier if the copy they’re asked to work on is free from elements of language such as idioms and colloquialisms. However, a good translator with a high level of fluency across both the source and target language won’t be phased by either.
The disadvantage of creating an original text to be translation-friendly is that you risk taking something of the personality out of it.
The only exception to this is if you’re using machine rather than human translation. In this case, you’re much more likely to run into problems with the translation unless the source text is very carefully prepared with translation in mind. This can be pretty time consuming and the result is far from certain.
If you’re using machine translation – and that’s not usually something we’d recommend – then you need to think a bit more carefully about how you craft the original content.
Machine translation tends to be much weaker when it comes to understanding the subtleties of language.
For example, a machine translation tool might translate an idiom like ‘fish out of water’ into its word-for-word equivalent in another language. The idiom is unlikely to be familiar to speakers of the other language. Whilst they might be able to understand the intended meaning from an idiom such as this one, the translated material will carry an unfamiliar ‘accent’.
Other idioms are more impenetrable. The German idiom ‘Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof’ translates into English as ‘I only understand the train station’. A human translator would probably favor ‘I don’t know what he/she is talking about’, which is what the idiom essentially means.
An English speaker might be confused by a text translated from Croatian that describes throwing cream in someone’s eyes – a popular idiomatic way to describe lying.
Machine translation also runs into problems when it encounters very technical language.
It’s difficult for machine translation to understand technical terminology and how it can be translated accurately into technical terms in another language. If you’re reliant on machine translation, it’s advisable to render the source text into language that will be translated as clearly as possible by machine.
You’ll need to remove slang (particularly very modern slang terms), ambiguity, idioms, abbreviations and also correct any spelling or grammatical errors your source text may contain. If you prepare the source text in this way, you’re more likely to get a better result from machine translation – but you can still expect it to be prone to errors.
Preparing original content with translation in mind can help obtain a better result but you shouldn’t compromise on making it engaging in either language.
A much more reliable result can be achieved by selecting, briefing and challenging a professional human translator.
When the message is critical to your branding, positioning or conversion and requires creative flair within the constrains of the target culture, consider giving more creative freedom to your linguists by opting for transcreation services.