How to make your translation the best it can be

Translation can often be mistakenly considered as ‘easy’. Translate each word, put them together and hey presto. However, it’s not that simple. Many factors come into play and need to be thought about when translating. This article takes the example of translating into English, due to this being Poools latest challenge.

It goes without saying that having a website and publications in English has significant advantages. There are at least 330 million English speakers in the world, the third most popular language. However, if you count second language English speakers too, it’s by far the most popular language in the world.

To add to this, 55.5% of online content is in English. That’s a huge audience who could be missing out on reading and interacting with your content simply due to the language.

What with the products that Poool offers being so easy to integrate into websites around the world, in any language, it seemed yet more important to have English versions of our publications, advertising documents and website. It would be silly to miss out on that large percentage of possible clients who speak English.

So, now that we’ve agreed that translating into English is important, what is the best way to go about this?

Translating isn’t as simple as it seems. Word-for-word translation doesn’t work for the majority of texts what with cultural specific language, idioms, word order differences…

Choose an audience and style

English is like any language, there are many varieties. And with these varieties comes differences of spelling, levels of formality, cultural references and more.

Adapting to a specific audience can be very beneficial. If, for example, you want to use informal language, then using abbreviations and slang that appeal to a cultural group can make your content more attractive to them.

However, if you’re wanting to write English for an international audience, like we’ve done at Poool, you want to avoid using a cultural-specific language. Words such as ‘mozzie’ (mosquito) and ‘servo’ (gas station) are examples from Australian abbreviations that are very commonly used among speakers in Australia. These words though may not be understood in other English-speaking countries and perhaps less so among second language speakers.

Photo by Brandon Mowinkel on Upsplash

If you’re aiming for an international audience, including second language speakers, American English is the best route. This is due to this variety of English being taught to foreign language learners, the fact that there’s a wider audience of American English speakers and that British people read more American content than vice versa.

But, most importantly of all, be consistent. Pick a variety and stick to it.

Word order: preference for active sentences

It’s easy to translate one word to another language. One of the difficulties comes with putting words together.

To add to this, you have to think about the word order that’s easiest to understand for non-native speakers. An English sentence will be easier to understand for international readers if they’re active rather than passive.

For example: ‘The reader activates the dynamic paywall’ is clear and simple to understand. However, the passive version is less easy and might take more time to understand — ‘The dynamic paywall is activated by the reader’.

Avoid cultural specific expressions (or work out how you can translate them)

It’s clear that with a language comes a culture and each has their own idioms and expressions that are specific to that language. Consequently, phrases that may be easily understood in one part of the world may seem unclear to others.

Therefore, these types of phrases should be avoided to ensure comprehension of your writing.

Sometimes though, they can’t be avoided. In this case, you should try to find an equivalent translation that will portray the same idea as the original language.

For example: If we want to translate ‘licence’ from French to English, we would choose ‘Bachelors degree’ in English. However the word ‘cloud’ (as in the data storage system by Apple) would stay the same across languages so as to ensure that it refers to the same idea, rather than the physical cloud in the sky.

Equally, this may be needed for dates or national celebrations that aren’t recognized world-wide.

For example: Mention the ‘4th of July’ to an American and they will instantly know the date. However, if translating this into French, you may need to be more specific — ‘la fête de l’indépendance américaine’ (literally, the celebration of american independence).

Repeat the same vocabulary

When we write, we try to find synonyms of words in order to add variety to our text and make it more creative. However, this can backfire in some situations.

Someone’s vocabulary in a foreign language is most often smaller than native speakers. Because of this, when writing for an international audience, aim to reuse the same buzzwords that will be recognizable to a reader.

In particular, try to do this when talking about specific topics. These topics obviously require specialized vocabulary, a lot of which you don’t tend to learn in language classes at school!

Don’t be afraid to define words too if necessary. Better to be sure that they’re understood.

Translation is often more about UX design than about writing a beautifully-written literature piece that’s full of ‘fancy’ language. Comprehension is key.

Make use of ways of highlighting important aspects of a text

There are many tools available to you when writing a text and it’s good to make use of these, especially for international readers.

Reading in a second language can be hard to understand. Therefore, putting the important phrases or words in bold, italics or underlining them can make it a lot clearer.

Take this article for example, it would be a lot harder to read if the text was simply a big block without gaps, sub headings and use of tools such as emboldening. This applies to articles that you read in your own first language, but it becomes even more important when writing for an international audience.

Avoid unclear abbreviations

As mentioned, you should avoid using words and phrases that perhaps aren’t taught in English as a foreign language classes or abbreviations that a reader may not recognize, even the seemingly simple ones.

For example:

  • use ‘for example’ rather than ‘e.g.’
  • try to use full forms of words rather than contractions — ‘will not’ rather than ‘won’t’
  • ‘miles per hour’ rather than mph

However, abbreviations should be used instead of symbols in certain cases. This includes when using currency as one symbol can have various meanings.

For example: $ could mean USD, AUD, CAD…

Whatsmore is that abbreviations could be used to alter the formality of your writing. If you’re looking for a ‘chatty’ style, basic abbreviations can portray this. Just be careful not to go too far or make it too complex, remembering that understanding of the text is the most important thing.

For example:

We’re very happy to announce = Poool Facebook post (informal)

We are proud to guide our clients = Poool website (formal)

Check punctuation differences between languages

A tiny dot may not seem important but in fact, punctuation varies in different languages and can have an effect on understanding.

For example: In French there is a space after a word and the punctuation that follows (Like this !) whereas English doesn’t have this.

This shows the importance of doing a bit of research before writing a translation to check that you’re using the correct punctuation that will be recognized by speakers of that specific language.

For example: At Poool we realized, after reading various grammar rules on the topic, that French ellipses (…) include a space after the dots but not before and this seems to be a fairly set-in-stone rule, where as in English, it is a lot more flexible and although the majority of uses seem to be the reverse of the French rule, some examples show dots with a space in between each: . . .

As mentioned, just make sure you’re consistent with what you choose.

Some additional examples that Poool have used when translating from French to English:

  • Poool chose to use American English as this is the most widely used online and appeals to international English speakers. We have used this variety of English throughout our website and documents. For example: ‘analyze’ rather than ‘analyse’
  • We tried to make our English texts as simple to understand as possible, especially on our Help Centre articles where the contents and understanding is much more important than the style of the language. For example: The title of a paragraph in the Help Centre translated from French to English: ‘Extraction des données avec l’export’ → ‘Exporting data’
  • As Poool is a fairly specific business, we reused some key words throughout our site and articles to ensure comprehension. For example: ‘journey’, ‘widgets’, ‘scenario’

We hope that you’ve found this article useful and that it’ll give you a few things to think about when translating into English.

And we’d love to hear from you too — What difficulties have you come across? How have you overcome them?

Initially published by Madeleine White on our former Medium platform "Poool Stories"