Translating from English to Italian: Mind the Space

Space can be a limiting factor when it comes to translating. The banner on your client’s website can only take so many characters of a certain size before turning into a web designer’s worst nightmare. That billboard has to be exactly this large, and the client paid to have their headline printed with a specific font and a minimum size of 72, so you cannot make the text just a little thinner.

More often than not, translating from one language to another poses a length problem. Let’s take English to Italian as an example.

The Shorter, the Merrier

The average English word is 8.23 characters long. By contrast, the average Italian word is about 9.49 characters long. That may not seem much, until you realize that, in doing actual work, you never deal with averages. You deal with actual words that grow impossibly longer when you switch from a language to another.

Want to translate a headline such as “Just do it” in the most faithful way possible? Good luck. The Italian version, “Fatelo e basta”, is 40 percent longer. And the situation grows worse as the original text gets longer, because compounding starts to kick in. Forty percent longer isn’t much when you go from 10 characters to 14… but it’s a lot when you go from 100 to 140. And it only grows worse from that point on.

A Solution to the Word Length Problem

A great solution to the length issue comes from Smartling’s in-context translation tools that allow you to see directly the webpage that you want to translate. This will allow you to see where your translation would “break” the website and correct your mistake immediately, saving everyone’s time and money. The beauty of this way of working is that it creates a win-win situation: translators are happier because they can work better, and you’re happier because quality and speed improve a whole lot.

Granted, even the best of tools is useless if it’s not used correctly. After all, you still need to make sure that your translation stays within the space you have to put it in. This is where your transcreation skills come into use: you will need to come up with something that conveys the original’s meaning and stays within those pesky, creativity-murdering spaces. At least you will have those in front of your very eyes as you translate, making your job much easier.

About Ernesto Pavan

I’m a native Italian translator based in Italy. I have a degree in journalism, and my specialty areas are journalism translation, advertising translation, and literary translation.