October 9, 2019
English is a stylish language to write in because it’s so wonderfully fluid and descriptive. It’s the language of Shakespeare and Kendrick Lamar, of Zadie Smith and Jane Austen. Sometimes this flexibility, however, can make it difficult for non-native speakers to follow.
So how do you keep your copy vivid and engaging when it’s intended to be translated and localized? It’s a challenge we often face at LEWIS. That is why, we develop content designed for an international audience through a central ‘hub’ relationship with our clients, then distribute the assets through our international teams to translate and localize for their markets. In the process, we’ve discovered some style choices that can help.
Using common phrases – or twists on common phrases – can draw your reader in. For translators, however, these phrases are a stumbling block. Should they translate it directly, knowing that it won’t have the same resonance for their audience? Should they rephrase it to the closest meaning? And that’s assuming they know your intended meaning. Some common sayings in English are used in other languages to mean something different. In German and Dutch, for example, a ‘cat in a bag’ refers to a bad or fraudulent purchase, not a long-held secret. It’s best to avoid colloquialisms entirely when you’re writing for translation.
Descriptions are also susceptible to this kind of confusion. You can – and should! – be creative with your descriptions as long as you follow this cardinal rule: use words that carry their own meaning and don’t rely on readers being familiar with the phrase. He went into the meeting like a bull into a china shop. You don’t have to know the phrase to get the image of something heavy and out of control smashing delicate and valuable things. He took the bull by the horns in the meeting with the CEO. If you’re not familiar with the phrase, it sounds like he did something foolish and dangerous, rather than something assertive and probably successful.
Speaking of common usage, don’t add unnecessary we qualifiers or extensively polite phrases. They can easily become redundant or confusing in a language that has we built into the verb, and, in many cultures, they can sound like false modesty. I have a lot of sympathy for this one. After spending my life saying “Could I please have…” to waiters, I’m living in a place where the language doesn’t even do that! For clear business communications in translation, however, it’s better to say: Q4 sales exceeded expectations than We somehow managed to exceed our high expectations for Q4 sales.
That example brings us directly to one of the most important style choices: what pronouns are you using for a business? Many people use we when discussing what their company does. This is fine, as long as you start with the company name, so readers know who we is. The other two grammatically sound options for any business are they/their and it/its. Your translator/localizer will thank you if you refer to businesses as it/its. If you must use they/their, be sure it’s clear that you’re referring to what the employees or teams have done. So your press release for DesignApp would say: Its design software is unparalleled. Later, it could also say: DesignApp’s customer care teams were instrumental in the launch. They worked around the clock.
English is a densely packed language. It’s possible to say a lot with few words. One famous example is Hemmingway’s: For sale: baby shoes, never worn. I might translate this into Spanish as Para la venta: zapatos para bebé que nunca fueron usados. Many languages expand like this from English, which means that what might be a slightly run-on sentence in English can last a month in translation. Be aware of sentence length and be willing to split sentences in two, rather than drag them out.
If you’re writing for a client, it’s better to follow their style choices, even if you wouldn’t choose them. This could mean anything from number format to the Oxford comma to British or American spelling. (English spelling matters in pieces that are going to be translated because some languages use English phrases or loan words, especially in less formal content like blogs or social media.) Consistency is especially important, however, with industry-specific language or quickly evolving terms. Nothing looks worse than a fintech company whose website uses Epayments but sends a press release about epayments and social posts about e-payments.
Communication is all about style. Don’t let these suggestions cramp yours. If you use them to inspire you, however, you will end up with copy that will be as dynamic when translated and localized as it was when you wrote it! Looking for content marketing services? Reach out today!