So far we’ve looked at word choice and phrasing in writing for translation. This time we’ll look at some tips for sentence structure.

Identify the actor

Style rules advise writers to avoid passive voice, but passive voice is appropriate in some cases and is necessary when the “doer” cannot be identified. However, whether you use active or passive voice, identify the person doing the action if that is possible. The identity of the actor can make a difference in how a verb is translated. “Bob painted this room” or “This room was painted by Bob.”

Use parallel construction

It is particularly important in writing for translation to make sure that equal parts of a sentence share the same structure. For example, the sentence “Her job is filing, typing, and to open the mail” is problematic; two gerunds are followed by an infinitive. Be sure that you consistently use parallel construction (“filing, typing, and opening the mail”). Repeat structural elements to make sentences even clearer (“by writing for translation and by maximizing the efficiency of translation software”).

Punctuate correctly

Incorrect use of punctuation can completely change the meaning of a sentence, as illustrated by the joke about the koala bear that goes into a bar, eats, shoots, and leaves. Check your punctuation carefully. In particular, make sure you separate subordinate phrases and clauses from main clauses with commas.

Be careful with modifier placement

Dangling and misplaced modifying phrases are common mistakes in English. Sometimes the meaning may be clear from the context, but software cannot tell. Very often misplaced or dangling modifiers con-fuse human readers as well. Make sure that the sentence includes the noun or pronoun that a modifying phrase relates to. Place modifying phrases near the nouns or pronouns that they modify. Consider this sentence which has entertained school children for years:

George Washington wrote his Farewell Address while riding to Washington on the back of an envelope.

 The phrase “on the back of an envelope” relates to the verb “wrote” and should be near it.

 George Washington wrote his Farewell Address on the back of an envelope while riding to Washington.

Convert lists to freestanding phrases

Bulleted or numbered lists of items that follow from an introductory sentence fragment are a problem for translation software. Translation software sees the introduction and items as separate, each of them a sentence fragment with no context. It cannot relate each item to the introduction. Also, in some languages it is not possible to construct a list like this. It is better to convert the list into one sentence or convert each list item into a freestanding sentence, clause or phrase. Remember to include the correct punctuation when doing this conversion.

Many of the tips we’ve given in this series may seem to violate ideas of brevity. And certainly brevity is important in writing for translation; translation is usually charged by the word. However, clarity and the elimination of ambiguity are even more important for the translation process. Ambiguity leads machine translation systems to guess at your meaning (usually incorrectly) and it leads translators to ask numerous questions, slowing down the translation process. By all means, be concise, but not at the expense of clarity.

Download our Localization Quick Guide, “Writing for Translation.”

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