Monday, March 06, 2006

Lost in translation

Canada has two official languages: English and French. As a result, many of my clients' communications are published in both languages. Being (hopelessly) unilingual, I never get directly involved in the translation process. But, that doesn't mean I don't think about it when I write or edit things for those clients.

Planning and production issues
The most obvious impact translation has on any communication project is the need to schedule time for the translation in the overall production schedule. You'd be surprised how many times this is overlooked. As a consultant, I always ask if the client plans on having a French version. If the answer is yes, I always confirm that they have a translator they use (otherwise I will help them find one). I also urge them to contact the translator as soon as possible to make sure he or she can do it based on our planned time frame.

Aside from scheduling, another production-type concern to keep in mind relates to the length of the document. For lack of a better way of describing it, French is wordier than English. (The rule of thumb I use is that a French translation will be about 30% longer than the English version.) So, if you have absolute restrictions on the length of a document, if the English text "just fits", the French version definitely won't! (If this happens you'll be faced with the unenviable -- and time consuming -- decision of either simply cutting some of the text from the French version or going back and shortening the English version and then re-translating.)

KISS: Keeping it simple and straightforward
The last -- but probably most important -- thing to keep in mind when you know a document will be translated is to choose words that are easy to translate and to avoid words and phrases that may carry subtle meanings. Things like jargon and industry terms -- and even expressions that are currently popular -- don't translate well. In other words, though there might be literal translations for the words, meaning that may be inferred by readers of the original will not necessarily be conveyed in the translated version. Also, keeping the sentence structure simple will make translating easier, saving time and decreasing the risk of mis-translation.


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