Prepare Your Writing For Translation

With thousands of people taking training around the globe, it's more important than ever to ensure your writing can be easily translated into other languages.

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With thousands of people taking training around the globe, it's more important than ever to ensure your writing can be easily translated into other languages. Even if there are not yet translation plans for your document, it is impossible to say today what might be translated tomorrow, or into what language it might be translated. Whenever you write, assume that a non-native speaker is going to have to read, understand, and translate it into another language.

Follow Good Writing Practices

  • Write clearly. Use simple sentence structures.
  • Limit the number of nouns that qualify a noun.
  • Repeat nouns instead of using backward-pointing pronouns like "it," "they," "this" or "these."
  • Put phrases as close as possible to the nouns that they modify.
  • Avoid an informal style, such as slang or cliches.
  • Avoid contractions, such as: we'll, haven't, won't, aren't, we'd, it's, she's, he'll, etc.
  • Avoid long strings of nouns. Reorganize sentences to include articles and prepositions that make the meaning clearer.
  • Avoid gerunds (nouns derived from progressive verb forms) in sentences; it can be unclear whether to translate them as nouns or verbs.
  • Avoid use of auxiliary verbs such as "shall be", "may be", "may have", and "should be."
  • Be careful when using adverbs such as "when", "while", and "where", because they can have many meanings, some of which are contradictory and can lead to incorrect translations.
  • Ensure spelling and grammar is correct.

Pay Attention to Dates and Numbers

  • Use the standard American format of commas as the thousands separator and periods as the decimal separator. The translator can localize the number.
  • When translating numbers, be alert to potential differences in meaning. The word "billion" means "one thousand million" in the United States, but in other countries can mean what Americans refer to as a "trillion."
  • Avoid using the short forms of dates. The order in which the date is given varies from country to country and could be interpreted incorrectly. The date "1/2/2001", for example, could be translated as January 2nd or February 1st. Spell out the month (abbreviating if necessary) and place it first. Do not use ordinal numbers (January 2nd); use cardinal numbers instead (January 2).

Optimize Translation Output

  • Do not use telegraphic writing: Telegraphic writing is a terse form of English in which articles, prepositions, and other small words are omitted in order to reduce word count. Omitting these words makes the translation process more difficult. For example, the phrase "Empty file" could be interpreted as "This file is empty", "Empty the file", or "An empty file."
  • Use consistent language: Pick a single word to describe a single concept, and use that word every time, even if it seems monotonous.
  • Use an article or a descriptor to clarify the part of speech of a word.
  • Include relative pronouns even when they are not required.
  • Write list items as complete clauses or complete sentences.
  • Include the article in lists of nouns or noun phrases.
  • Minimize ambiguity. Avoid homographs.
  • Use words with their primary dictionary meaning.

Be Aware of Differences in Written Graphics and Metaphors

  • There are cultural differences in graphics and metaphors. For example "wizards" are called "assistants" in some countries. A mailbox icon used to represent e-mail might not make sense to readers in a region where mailboxes look different from the ones the author had in mind.
  • Scenarios used as examples must be globally understood. Using a gourmet food company as a scenario for a demonstration, for example, would seem very strange in countries where luxury goods are not common.

Use Recommended Punctuation and Formatting

  • Always use commas correctly in coordinate phrases and clauses.
  • Add two spaces after a full stop or a colon. Add one space after a comma or semicolon.
  • Use a combination of punctuation, capitalization and font to identify a name such as an object name or a function.
  • Do not use a dash as a punctuation mark.
  • Avoid using a slash (/) for alternate values.
  • Separate subordinate phrases and clauses from the main clause with commas.
  • Hyphenate word phrases that modify or qualify other words.
  • In cases where the absence of a hyphen could lead to confusion, one should be included.
  • Use parentheses sparingly, and only when the enclosed material is independent of the meaning for the sentence.
  • Do not break up heading or introductory sentences over table boundaries or into lists, as these may require significant rewriting by the translators when the structure of the sentence changes in another language.

Final Thoughts

Remember, even if there are no current translation plans for your documents, it is impossible to say today what might be translated tomorrow, or into what language it might be translated. Whenever you write, assume that a non-native speaker is going to have to read, understand, and translate it into another language.

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