If you work for a global company, chances are your documents are undergoing some sort of language translation – from English to other languages or vice versa. But even if your company doesn’t do any translations, learning how to write for translation can improve your skills as a writer and create sharper audit reports.
In my previous life, I worked in localization. (That means prepping documents so they can be translated.) One section of localization requires combing through and editing the source text to ensure quality writing. If we could produce a quality original report, then we could drastically reduce localization times. Once we figured out the tricks to translation, you’d be surprised how much money we could shave off the final bill by writing so well in English that translators could fly through the document.
Newsflash: Your bad writing makes it 10 times more difficult for the translator.
So, to help you reduce frustration, headache, and overhead, I’d like to share some of these translation tips with you. Truth is, these tips contribute to just good writing anyway.
Use Short Sentences
Here’s a current, real-life example: a few weeks ago, I received an audit report to edit. The report had been translated from Spanish into English. In this report, it was not uncommon to find a sentence that was over 150 words.
You didn’t misread that. Sentences, people. Not paragraphs. Sentences were over 150 words. (Imagine trying to unravel a 150-word long sentence that was written in English to begin with!)
In this case, translation compounded the problem of editing incredibly complex sentence structures. The source text was poor, creating extra work for the translator. Additionally, a single sentence cost the company almost 30 minutes of my time to unravel, edit, and rewrite. Both translators and editors cost the company money.
What’s the fix? Write in shorter sentences less than 20 words. Also, pass onto the translator that when they translate, they need to include the punctuation. If you’re translating from English into another language, keep in mind that English often takes up less space or uses fewer words than other languages, and shorter sentences will help with the translation process.
Quick tip: Work with your language service provider (LSP). Let them know the voice you want to maintain and create a list of commonly used words so they can easily refer to the list when translating.
Follow Standard English Order
Too often, sentences become long and convoluted. Stick to standard English word order (and standard word order for other languages too) when possible. For example, see the standard English word order below. (We’ll use the colors to illustrate).
Executives review timesheets.
You can even add modifiers. But let’s stop there.
Accountable Executives quarterly review physician timesheets.
However, let’s look at a translation nightmare. The sentence is long. The longer the sentence, the more fractured the word order becomes.
Translation Nightmare (47-word sentence):
Accountable Executives are required to review physician time documentation to determine whether the physician is working the number of hours specified in the contract and to determine, at least quarterly, whether the physician is on track to hit the expected level of effort on an annual basis.
Translation Dream (11-word and 18-word sentences):
Physicians must work the number of hours specified in their contract. Executives quarterly review these timesheets to determine if the physician will meet required hours within the year.
Does it matter whether or not the long sentence is going to be translated? Which one is easier for you to read – the translation nightmare or the dream? If you chose the dream, you played right into my point!
Write in Nouns and Verbs
Concrete subjects and action verbs create good sentences. But our writing might not always be concrete. For example, if we begin a sentence with “We found that...,” then the translator has to determine what the most important subject is. Is it the pronoun “we” or is it the rest of the sentence that follows the beginning mumbling phrase?
Phrasal verbs are a common part of colloquial English that are not always appropriate for technical writing. Eliminating phrasal verbs whenever possible is good practice in preparing a text for translation.
A phrasal verb is a phrase that includes two or more words: a verb and a “particle”. The particle can be another verb (“found to be”), a preposition (“put on”) or an adverb (“advise against”). In a phrasal verb, the additional words create ONE meaning.
So your goal is to get rid of as many words as possible. And in technical writing, you need to eliminate phrasal verbs in favor of succinct, simple verbs. “Found to be” becomes discovered, “put on” becomes wear, and “advise against” becomes discourage.
Use Relative Pronouns Like “That” and “Which.”
I came across a CAE who despised the word “that.” And that’s okay. Often we don’t need to use the word that, which is probably why the CAE didn’t like use of the word at all (if you’re a CAE, I know you have pet peeves like this – you should email them to me!)
But turns out, even if you don’t need these words in English, the words “that” and “which” actually improve understanding for a foreign audience... and a local audience too.
When to use that: For translation purposes, multiple nouns and verbs without the conjunction that becomes confusing for the translator. Use the word that when the phrase following that is necessary to understanding the sentence.
For example, “The house [that] Jack built is cool.” Typically, main nouns and verbs should be close to each other. However, the subject house and the main verb is are three words apart. Therefore, the translator could erroneously assume the subject to be Jack and the main verb built. Without the conjunction that, the translator wouldn’t know what to do with the phrase Jack built. Excluding that just makes the translator reread the sentence and have to interpret (which may or may not be correct). This process repeated over and over in a document equates to dollars. Lotsa lotsa dollars (translate that!).
What’s the fix? Avoid confusion and don’t assume conjunctions are implied. Use that.
When to use which: Use the word which when the phrase following is unnecessary to understanding the sentence. (Quick tip: that does not use a comma, but you always use a comma before which.) If you wrote, “The house, which Jack built, is cool,” the phrase which Jack built is an aside, nice to know but not necessary to understanding to the integrity of the sentence.
Write in Active Voice Instead of Passive Voice
Regardless of translating the audit report, passive voice confuses readers. For example,
This problem was documented last year.
The sentence above is passive because the noun in the subject section (the problem) does not commit the action (documented). Who did? We don’t know yet. Was it management? Was it Ronald McDonald? We don’t know. And there’s the issue for translators. Translators need a subject noun to translate and the sentence above fails to provide a subject noun. Instead rewrite:
Management documented this problem last year.
Now translators can easily decipher that Management is the subject noun, documented is the verb, and this problem is the object noun.
Quick tip: There are so many ways to discover passive voice in your own writing, but one way is finding words like “was” or “by.” For example,
Passive: The password was created by the user.
Active: The user created the password.
Do a quick search for the words “was” and “by,” double-check your report, and correct those sentences.
Just like writing well in your own native language requires diligent practice, learning how to write concisely for an international audience takes additional study and practice. Keep sentences short, use thoughtful subjects and verbs, and stick to the active voice. Do you have additional translation tips? Drop me a note!
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