4 Ways Not to Drive Your Translator Crazy

I recently happened on a conversation thread in a translators’ forum on the quality of source text. The translators were discussing the ways they deal with text that is rambling, convoluted, or simply contradictory. You’d be hard-pressed to find a translator who hasn’t experienced poor quality source text – for many translators, this is their everyday reality. But as an enterprise content producer, there’s an easy way to get on the good side of your translator. By taking responsibility for the quality of the original text (where the translation quality saga begins) you can alleviate the pain of your translator, not to mention the benefit from an improved in-language user experience.

In this blog post, I will lay down a few simple rules for clear writing and briefly discuss the impact of low quality source text on translators. Spoiler alert: It’s not pretty.

 1. Before You Write Clearly, Think Clearly

What is the purpose of your content? What are you trying to communicate? Who is your target audience? The answers to these questions will help you form your broader content strategy. Then you’ll need to drill down to determine what each individual piece of content is trying to achieve.

Any long-form piece of text should have a broad outline and clearly defined goals. Otherwise, it’s easy for the writer to lose sight of the purpose of the piece and he/she, in turn, will propagate the fuzziness.

2. Reduce Clutter

In a recent New York Times article, Japanese home consultant Marie Kondo talks about the art of decluttering. The first of Kondo’s tenets: “Discard everything that does not ‘spark joy’.”

Try thinking about your writing in this same Zen-like way. Write as concisely as possible and cut down on the fluff. Clutter comes in many forms – here’s how to avoid all of them.

Don’t begin sentences with wasteful words:

  • “It should be pointed out that . . .”
  • “We might add that . . .”
  • “It would be interesting to note that . . .”

Or add vague and meaningless tail-enders:

  • “ . . ., he said in this context”
  • “. . . on the subject“

Ditch the long-winded phrase for the single word:

Instead of Say
In view of the fact that Because
Pertaining to the fact that About
A large proportion/percentage of Many
In a hasty manner Hastily
The question as to whether Whether

The more circumlocution in your source text, the more likely it is that you’ll receive an equally bloated translation back, not to mention all the extra time and money required to translate long, winding sentences. Verbose text is also often difficult to understand and may lead to errors in the target-language text.

3. Avoid Jargon

Jargon refers to complicated, technical terms that only specialists use and understand. By definition, you should not be using jargon in content created for a lay audience. Sometimes, writers end up creating or using jargon when they do not have a clear idea of what they’re trying to communicate. (Another reminder to get it right in your head before assigning words to your thoughts.)

When you must use a technical term, follow it up with an explanation right after.

Even when writing for a specialist or technical audience, keep jargon to the minimum. PlainLanguage.Gov – the federal government’s effort to adopt plain language in all government communication – says, “Going beyond necessary technical terms to write in jargon can cause misunderstanding or alienation, even if your only readers are specialists.”

What happens at at the translator’s end when they encounter jargon? Utter confusion. Professional translators will end up in a dilemma over whether they should “edit-translate” or just translate. That is, if they can figure out the meaning of the source jargon in the first place. It’s enough to make your translator want to bang his or her head against the wall. Your best bet: Stay clear of jargon in your source text. Period.

4. Address the Reader, in the Active Voice

All content is written for a reader. Address her directly, using the word “you” in the active voice. Passive voice leaves the reader (and the translator) wondering who in the sentence is doing what. Again, passive voice adds more words to a sentence than active.

I would have provided some samples of excrutiating passive writing, but Stephen King has already done that. So, go look this up.

In summary, once you create convoluted, jargon-laden, and sleep-inducing text that no one wants to read, much less translate, you set off a chain resulting in equally ineffective and limp target text.

Apart from affecting translation quality, badly written source content will delay delivery and affect your brand. Also, as bad writing ultimately ends up in adding a word too many, do consider your translation memory costs in this business where words mean money.