Many a translation failure has little to do with the translation itself. In fact, a translation tries to imitate the way the copy was written in the first place. These ‘upstream’ errors, though, can be easily avoided if content writers know who the ultimate consumers of their work will be — worldwide. If that's not always possible, at least some coordination can and must be arranged between content writers and translators.
In today’s day and age, it’s safe to assume that a product will go global at some point, if it hasn’t already done so at its launch. By extension, the content that you write must also be ready to go global. What tips can translators give to their content writer friends (and their bosses in marketing) so that their own job gets easier?
Save the creativity for marketing copy
Marketing copy tends to use colloquialisms and packs a big message into as few words as possible. Taglines, especially, make for a translator’s nightmare. It’s quite impossible to mean the same thing in just a couple of words or phrases across multiple languages, however simple the phrase may be in the source language.
Take NIKE’s ‘Just Do It’ slogan. On the face of it, it shouldn’t be difficult to translate, right? I mean, just three words and a simple message of action, determination, inspiration. It turned out to be so difficult that NIKE eventually decided to just leave it in English. Watch this interesting video by NIKE for its Chinese audience where it attempts to make clear what its tagline means, with a series of sentences that emphasize the opposite.
But then that’s the nature of marketing copy — there’s no way you can use neutral or standard language just so you can be relevant in all languages. That comes at the cost of lost intimacy with the customer — in all languages.
However, there’s also a huge body of content that companies cannot afford to recreate in each and every market they operate in: web copy. Not the ultra-creative homepage copy, but the rest of the pages, user guides, video subtitles, product interface copy, and other online resources. When writing any of these, you really need to avoid expressions that only make sense in your particular cultural background.
I still stumble on LinkedIn’s notification alert that says, “You’re all caught up!” The first time I saw it, I nearly panicked. What was I caught up in? How? And without my knowledge? It took me a while to realize that all that LinkedIn meant was that I was done catching up with various alerts from contacts in my network. Relief!
Of course, it’s not always easy to figure out what may be incomprehensible in other markets — that’s one more reason why you need to involve localization professionals from the start. I remember from my brief stint at an elearning company how an entire instruction manual fell apart because the creatives in India used a mosquito as a motif. It made no sense to audiences in countries where the mosquito was unheard of or was very rare.
If you must use colloquialisms or local slang, it’s always a good idea to include footnotes for translators, explaining the sense of the phrase. That way, at least it can be recreated in the target languages without mayhem. Same goes for humor that you may feel compelled to use to add some color to the content.
Use plain language and be loved by translators
All the rules of plain language make perfect sense when writing for translation. And not just because they make the translators’ job easier, but also because people all over the world want to be able to understand what they read, and not be confused by it.
Plain language requires that you use the active voice so that there is clarity about the doer of the action. This and other rules result in the use of far fewer words, and shorter, precise content means fewer words to translate. It’s also a sensible approach for translating into languages such as German that take up to 30% more space compared to English text. This becomes critical in mobile app localization where screen real estate is precious.
Using plain language at source makes the content clear and unambiguous, bringing down the number of clarifications sought by translators. It will also usually result in plain-language translations.
While this post focuses on useful tips for writing translation-friendly copy, companies must also think about putting in place a global content strategy. That will provide the overall framework and conventions which will continue to guide the creation and translation of content.