The basic rule for writing materials that will be translated into foreign languages is this: Make your language as clear, straightforward, and unambiguous as possible. Whether the translation will be done by professional translators, machine translation, or a combination of both, the quality of the source text is the key to ensuring a smooth and accurate translation process.

This three-part series of blog posts will give you some tips to help you write materials that will be translation-ready. These tips are especially relevant for business and technical writing. (In marketing materials, especially ad campaigns, you may often need to break these rules. Translating advertising may require transcreation rather than more literal translation.)

This first article looks at word choice. Subsequent articles will look at phrasing and sentence structure.

Be consistent in word choice

You may have learned in writing class to vary your word choice in order to make your writing more interesting. When you are writing for translation, however, it is better to consistently use the same words to convey the same concept. You could say that a CD was “inserted,” “placed” or “loaded” into a CD player, but it’s better if you pick one verb and stick to it. Consistent word choice also makes human translation less expensive. Most translators use a translation memory (a database of previously translated terms and phrases) to avoid translating the same words over and over again, and they charge for repeated content at reduced rates.

Stick to primary meanings of words

Choose your words according to their primary dictionary meaning. For example, the primary meaning of “meet” is “encounter,” not “satisfy.” Sticking to primary meanings will make your word choice more consistent. This does not mean that you can’t use language metaphorically. As long as the metaphor is based on the primary dictionary meaning of the word, there should not be a problem. For example, even translation software recognized the meaning of “bridge” in the sentence, “We can help bridge the differences between Asian and Australian business.”

Avoid idioms

Every language has idiomatic expressions that are really shorthand for longer sentences (“Later” instead of “I’ll see you later”) or are metaphors (“Cat got your tongue?”). These types of expressions vary not only by language, but also by locality. A literal translation of such a phrase may be meaningless or unintentionally humorous to a foreign audience and there may be no real equivalent in the other language. Be careful to avoid idiomatic expressions in writing for translation.

The same rule applies to metaphors based on sports or other things that might not be familiar in other cultures. Saying that something is a “bridge between two cultures” should work as a metaphor in any languages. Calling something done well a “home run” would not necessarily translate.

Next week: “Tips on Writing for Translation 2: Phrasing

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