Melinda Belcher - Optimizing Technical Content for Translation
Oct. 29, 2018•0 likes
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Presentations & Public Speaking
I’ll share real-life examples of how I’ve optimized content for translation at Mastercard, organized around 5 themes:
We’ll do hands-on exercises with actual technical content.
Why are email and product messaging together?
What kind of content do you make/work with? Names & intros, popcorn-style.
Do you write for a global product? Chances are your writing is going to get translated—badly. Here are some general guidelines you should keep in mind when writing technical content for translation. Because clear, concise, well-constructed content improves translation quality, reduces turnaround time, and keeps costs low—speeding time-to-market and accelerating revenue streams.
When it comes to content clarity, less is more. And that takes more time and planning. Often we are scrambling to reach deadlines and please stakeholders, so we end up with content in carousels as well as information icons, text links and hover text all over the place.
“I would have written you a shorter letter if only I had had the time” (Pascal, not Twain): “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”
Benjamin Franklin: “I have already made this paper too long, for which I must crave pardon, not having now time to make it shorter.”
Thoreau: “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.”
For increased comprehension and simpler translations, aim for about 20 words or less. Some say up to 26 words a sentence for manual translators, 24 for machine translation, according to the fees translation agencies charge. This has a direct impact on the cost of translation, as longer more complex sentences take more time to translate.
Brevity will also boost readability. I often ask myself, what’s truly important? How can I simplify what I want to say? Reading sentences aloud helps to keep them short and sweet.
This makes your content easier to read and easier to translate. It will also help you keep your sentences shorter, clearer and free of unnecessary jargon or unwieldy grammar.
Also, shorter content in general creates many efficiencies for translation across the board, as most agencies charge by the word.
Use plain English to make your point. Don’t use baseball metaphors. Why don’t you use “make an outstanding contribution” rather than “hitting a homerun.” And, please, let a “match made in heaven” simply be an “perfect combination.”
Using idiomatic phrases in English will make it harder to translate your content and could get you in a pickle. The famous example of Colonel Sanders’ “Finger lickin good” translated into Chinese as “Eat your fingers off.”
Variation creates confusion. Synonyms get in the way of clarity. Write the same thing, the same way, every time you write it. Finding different ways to write a single concept will not only affect the overall consistency of translation, but it will also reduce the related translation memory leverage. This can lead to decreased quality, increased cost, and increased turnaround.
Variation is expensive.
Translation memories leverage words in segments, so changing even a minor word has an impact. Always consider re-using existing content that has already been translated—don’t write from scratch if you don’t need to.
Consistent writing is easy to update and lends itself to structured authoring/reuse. Plus, it’s easier to read and keeps your content teams on message.
Any other terms you struggle with?
If the original English text is too difficult, the translated text will probably also be too difficult.
▪ Even when the original text is written in plain English that is easy to read, it can lose this ease of reading in translation. This can happen if translators have not been thoroughly briefed about the reading skills of the audience, or if they lack the ability to write text that is easy for less-skilled readers to understand and use.
▪ Even when translation preserves the ease of reading found in the English original, the translated text may still be too difficult for the intended readers if their reading skills are more limited than the English readers’ skills.
Take into account whether those with limited English proficiency are able to read in their native language. Before you invest time and resources in translation, it’s wise to check on the literacy skills of those you are trying to reach with your translated materials. Just because people speak a language does not necessarily mean that they can read in that language. Instead of trying to generalize about the readings skills of people who speak a particular language, think about the specific readers that you are trying to reach who speak that language. There is often great variation in native language reading skills among people with limited English proficiency.
Flesch reading ease test
In the Flesch reading-ease test, higher scores indicate material that is easier to read; lower numbers mark passages that are more difficult to read.
For audiences with limited literacy skills, or those in population groups shown to be at risk of limited literacy,1 text should be written at the 6th grade level or lower. For the general public, text should be written at the 8th grade level or lower. Some people worry that 8th grade level text will offend highly skilled readers. However, most people are pressed for time and may be stressed when reading technical information so they appreciate quick, concise information written in everyday language.
Hemingway wrote at about a 5-6th grade level. That’s what makes him and other writers of his ilk exceptional. And it gives them a better chance to reach larger audiences.
Take a few minutes to rewrite this message. What do you think you pressed to get here? Where would you go if you pressed Cancel? How can we streamline terms?
Structure. When preparing to translate, think about simplifying structure as much as you can. Work to deliver information when necessary in the most straightforward, contextual way possible. Say what you need to say, when you need to say it, and make sure you’re not overcomplicating the message.
This generally means a subject, verb, and object with associated modifiers. Ensure correct grammatical structure and proper punctuation. This includes checking the basics, because mistakes can travel across source and target languages. Translators often find and flag source errors, but that shouldn’t replace proofreading your source text.
It’s more direct, better understood, and easier to translate. Words like “was” and “by” may indicate that a passive voice is used. For example: The software was upgraded by the user = passive. The user upgraded the software = active.
Even if you don’t need them, they may improve understanding. “The software that he licensed expires tomorrow” is clearer than “The software he licensed expires tomorrow.” It’s good to check that pronouns have been included rather than assumed.
However it is good to avoid demonstrative determiners like “this” or “those” and subject/object pronouns like “it” to refer to a thing previously mentioned or easily identified. Like the basic parts of speech, determiners are so ingrained into the English language that using them is simple. The same goes for most Indo-European languages (for instance, Romance languages such as Spanish and the Germanic languages such as German).
However, the languages of other countries may not use determiners, or may have sets of rules very different than the English language does. For these individuals, learning how and where to use determiners can be rather difficult.
Avoid phrasal verbs (containing a verb form with one or more articles).
They tend to complicate translations. For example, use “met” rather than “ran into.” Phrasal verbs often have multiple meanings and are less formal. Be on the lookout for two- or three-word verbs.
When connecting elements are omitted from noun strings, readers must infer the relationship between the words. If you have to read a sentence several times to understand it, chances are that there will be further complications when it’s translated into a different language. When this happens, we tend to see misinterpretations of the original meaning—or a translation that appears too literal.
Format. The formatting of your design needs to take into account the possibility (or reality) of travel.
(Google Material Design)
English text is often shorter than other languages, which means sufficient space is needed for expansion (up to 35%!). This is particularly important for software interfaces and graphics. Differences exist not only in sentence length, but also in individual word length—as some languages use large compound words.
6. Be clear with international dates and measurements, etc.
Style guides should document the handling of large numerals, measurements of weight, height, width, temperature, time, phone numbers, currency, etc. for each language pair.
For example: 09/07/2015. Is that September, or July? It depends where I am. In Switzerland, it reads as July, but in the U.S., it’s September. The safest choice is to spell out the name of the month. Using an abbreviation for the month is fine if space is tight.
The best way to keep things straight and ensure that the translation is not going to change the price of your product is to use ISO 4217 codes, like USD for United States dollars, HKD for Hong Kong dollars or EUR for the Euros.
Whether you plan to produce separate versions of translated documents or use a dual language format, keep in mind that the translated text will likely require more space than the original English text. For example, The Health Literacy Style Manual says you should count on a Spanish translation taking approximately 25% more room (MAXIMUS, 2005:94). As explained in this manual (MAXIMUS, 2005:95), there are a number of reasons for text expansion. For example, the text can be longer in translated documents than in the English original if:
▪ The other language is more descriptive than representative. For example in Hmong many concepts are explained, not represented by a word or phrase.
▪ The other language doesn’t use the standard Western, Cyrillic, and Greek fonts. Examples are Arabic and the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Southeast Asian languages.
▪ The fonts don’t correspond in size to the fonts chosen for the original text.
▪ The translator makes cultural or linguistic adaptations, such as adding explanations or definitions to make the material easier for readers of the translated versions to understand.
This tendency for translated versions to be longer than English versions has important implications for the production and distribution of the translated document:
Allow extra room for this natural expansion when you do your original planning of design. You don’t want to end up compromising good design in the translated versions by crowding your translated version into too little space, reducing the size of the type, or sacrificing visual appeal by dropping illustrations, photographs, or other visual elements.
Some writing systems, like Arabic and Hebrew, are displayed with characters appearing from right to left. Those fonts may appear smaller than Latin ones at the same font-size, requiring adjustments to line spacing and alignment so that the typography works well in that UI for all languages.
Arabic tends to be a more ‘wordy’ language than English. Information that can be communicated in just a few words in English, can take a sentence or two in Arabic. It’s often the case that certain words or phrases in English don’t have direct Arabic translations. Instead, they end up being described with longer phrases. This becomes a particular problem when there’s limited screen real estate available, for example button copy or copy for a mobile design.
So don’t just rely on direct translation from your English content. When creating your Arabic copy, you’ll need to make an effort to think about what exactly it is you want to communicate and how best to do it as concisely as possible.
Translated materials need bilingual or multi-lingual text to alert readers that versions are available in other languages, and a label in English that identifies the title, language, and date of translation for reference by those who speak English.
Localization. Once you know you’re building something at scale, how best to build it? Whether it’s an app or a document, there are some different approaches to localization.
It rarely translates with equivalency. The same goes for jargon, regional phrases, or metaphors. True story: I didn’t know what “knocking it out of the park” or a “grand slam” was until I moved to Boston in 2004 and got pulled into watching the Red Sox World Series. Now I get it, but chances are that many translators are as clueless as I am when it comes to American sports. Expressions are not always universally understood or appreciated—they just don’t translate.
Strengthen your organization’s capacity for translation oversight. If your organization does a good deal of translation, you may already have an in-house capability to do professional translation of written materials. If not, it helps enormously to at least have some bilingual or multilingual staff members who speak the requisite languages.
Some translations miss the mark due to the translator’s lack of familiarity with the culture of the intended readers and their local language patterns and word use. When translators are deciding how to convey English words and concepts in the target language, they face many choices about which words and phrases to use. To make good choices, translators must know a lot about the culture and language of the people who will use the translated text, including variations in language use.
You can write the material independently in each language, which helps ensure cultural appropriateness and makes translation unnecessary.
Create specifications for the material by defining its purpose and describing its content and the intended readers. The project team that is responsible for producing the written material in multiple languages discusses what they want to accomplish with the material and what it needs to say. They also describe the cultural background and reading skills of the intended readers in each language, as well as any other characteristics that are relevant to the written material. Then the team gives the set of specifications and information about the intended readers to the writers who will be drafting the material in each language.
▪ Working from these specifications, writers of the different languages work independently to produce a version in their respective language. Since each version in a given language is developed individually from the same set of specifications, each is an “original.” There is no translation of text from one language into another.
▪ The various language versions are reviewed and revised to create the final materials. Typically, writers and the project team compare versions and make adjustments as needed. Each language version is checked to see how well it meets the specifications for the material. Sometimes this approach includes independent assessments by outside reviewers.
▪ Or, you can do a “one-way” translation from English into the target language, using one or more translators.
▪ Or, you can do “two-way” or “back translation,” where one person does the initial translation, and a different person translates it back into English. Then as a check on the translation, you compare the original English and back-translated English.