Writing for Localization: Making Your Source Text Translation-Friendly

Recently, I suggested ways to avoid common translation missteps when targeting multilingual markets. As a continuation of this topic, I’d like to provide a few tips on how to write source content that lends itself well to translation.
The basis for accurate, clear, and consistent localized content is accurate, clear, and consistent source text. The localization of text into other languages is difficult under the best of circumstances; imagine how much more difficult it is if the original source material is confusing or poorly written.

Take, for example, this obviously literal English translation of a cannelloni recipe found on an Italian pasta box.

1. Bring in cannelloni, as they are, a stuffing baked with beef, eggs, cheese parmigiana, pepper or spices, as you like, all well amalgamated and juicy.
2. Besmear a backing [sic] pan with a good tomato sauce and after, dispose the cannelloni, lightly distanced between them.
3. At last, for a safe success in cooking, shed the remnant sauce, cover the backing [sic] pan, and put her in the oven.

Um, ok.

This brings me to Tip #1. Don’t include unnecessary information. Keeping your source material concise and consistent will make your text easier to localize…for obvious reasons.

Tip #2: Remember your international audiences. When developing content, avoid the use of slang, word plays, idioms, jargon, and terms that may be culturally biased, such as sports or political analogies.

Slang is difficult to translate and is rarely understood in a foreign context. Idioms are equally challenging. For example, would you know what any of these Russian idioms mean based on these literal renderings?

“Don’t hang noodles from my ears.”
“Only the grave straightens the hunchback.”
“The naked have sly devices.”
“When there’s no fish, a crab is a fish.”

The English idiom “It’s easy as pie” is just as confusing to Russian readers…and come to think of it, I’m not even sure what the phrase means in English myself.

Humor is very difficult to translate from one language to another and should be avoided altogether.

Sports analogies should be avoided as well. To explain why, consider the British prime minister’s recent analogy that caused problems even for Americans, let alone the rest of his global audience. “It was slow batting, not as good as a run a minute, but safe play. Stumps were drawn at about 5PM.” Say what?

Tip #3: As a continuation of Tip #2, remember your translators. Your translator will read every word in your document for comprehension and context. Write simply and clearly. Be thorough, but be succinct. Translators won’t edit your original text before translating it, so if your instructions are vague or difficult to follow, the translation will be handicapped.

Make sure:

– Sentences are clear, simple, and direct. Compare these two sentences:
a) “A spectrum analyzer displays signals over a given frequency range”


b) “A spectrum analyzer is a versatile measurement instrument permitting the user to examine a frequency spectrum, be it broad or narrow.”
– Sentences contain a single thought.
– The writing is active. Be sure to avoid changes in verb tense as well as active/passive voices.
– Standard and consistent vocabulary is used. Remember, consistency leads to clarity and cost savings.
– The use of prepositions is clear.
– Onomatopoeias are avoided. Sounds are perceived differently around the world. For example, a dog bark is “bow wow” in the US, “oua oua” in France, “wan wan” in Japan, “bau bau” Italy, “guau-guau” in Spain, “mong-mong” in Korea, and “vovvov” in Norway.

Tip #4: Clarify all acronyms, abbreviations, and initials. Shortcuts are not worth using when information is destined for translation. Meanings can easily be misunderstood. Any time saved by using acronyms, abbreviations, or initials is typically lost when one or more of translators must ask for clarification. As a rule, use “electro-magnetic interference (EMI)” instead of just “EMI.’

Tip #5: Don’t make too many assumptions about your target market. Ask yourself, have they used similar products before? Do they need examples? Are they likely to make mistakes without clarification? For example, people in some countries will cut open a Ziploc bag as if it were a standard plastic bag because they don’t realize that it’s reusable.

And finally, Tip #6: Use repetitions. The cost for localization can be significantly reduced by including repetitions in your content. Increasing the number of repetitions increases the percentage of leverageable text, which in turn results in lower localization costs. Remember than any inconsistencies in capitalization, spacing, and formatting will reduce your rate of repetition.

For more advice on how to make your communications translation-ready, contact me today at EC Innovations, a globalization partner for whom there is no such thing as a ‘foreign’ language.

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