Writing for translation

Subject: Writing for translation
From: geoff-h -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA
Date: Fri, 11 Oct 1996 09:01:02 -0500

Jeannette Lubitz asked for advice on "writing for
translation". We've already talked about editing
translations (use a native speaker!), but here are some
tips for the other end of the process (off the top of my
head... so there will be gaps):

- Start with a well-edited English version: remember,
garbage in, garbage out. If the text says Figure 1, and it
should say Figure 11, don't expect the translator to catch
- Implement some process for alerting the translator to
last-minute changes in the English version. We all know how
annoying it is when engineers forget to keep us up to date,
so we can empathize with the translator, right?
- Implement some form of controlled vocabulary: either
create a list of standard terminology, and stick to it, or
edit ruthlessly to eliminate synonyms. One word = one
meaning, and no synonyms for single concepts.
- Avoid qualifying phrases, particularly adjectives: how
"very" is "very" to someone who speaks another language
with different attitudes towards adjectives?
- Use punctuation correctly, but don't rely on fine
distinctions in punctuation to communicate specific
meanings. Information can be complex, but the manner in
which you express it should never be.
- Ruthlessly eliminate culturally specific phrases (e.g.,
most similes or metaphors, idiom, sports or military
analogies, religious references, literary allusions). These
can be offensive, misleading, or simply incomprehensible.
- Create a list of changes that must occur as a result of
localisation issues. For example, if the Middle East
version writes text from right to left, warn the translator
that "text wraps at the right margin" and its kin are no
longer valid. This is particularly important if it's a
blind translation, in which the translator doesn't have
your product to work with during the translation. Actually,
why tolerate blind translations in the first place?
- Understand enough about your new audience and perhaps its
language that you can watch for some of these "gotchas".
You don't have to be bilingual, but it helps. (In French,
there are plenty of words known as "faux amis" that exist
identically in English and French, yet have different
meanings in each language. Knowing this, you can avoid some
of these terms or warn the translator.

Interestingly enough, most of these suggestions apply
equally well to writing good English. Quel concept!

--Geoff Hart @8^{)} geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
Disclaimer: Speaking for myself, not FERIC.

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