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Found in Translation

Imagine that everything you wrote were translated into several foreign languages. How would you write differently? Would your sentences still be complex? Would you continue to use puns, cultural allusions, and slang? How about acronyms and abbreviations?

For me, it’s more than something I have imagined. I found out this week that our web site and this blog are translated by Google into Spanish, Italian, French, and German. I don’t know exactly how this happens. But people who search through Google in those languages (and maybe others) can click on a translated version of everything I write.

Knowing that people may be reading this blog in other languages humbles me. And knowing that a software program is translating my words has made me careful and newly self-conscious.

Now that my writing is being translated, I will study the best ways to write for translation. In the meantime, here are three writing rules I can follow.

1. Write simple sentences–not complex, convoluted ones. This is a writing principle I always follow. But it’s essential when writing for translation.

2. Use words that have few meanings. For instance, use a word such as accurate or appropriate (when it fits) rather than the word right. Right has dozens of different meanings.

One of my tasks is to decide which word to use for the classes I teach. In the translated blogs, I noticed that the word class, which has many meanings, had been translated as though it were category. But a likely alternative, the word course, also has many meanings. Workshop may be the best choice. It has only two meanings, one of which is "an educational seminar."

3. Avoid cultural allusions and figurative expressions. Cultural allusions are references that people outside a given culture or group may not understand. These are going to be hard for me to give up. Notice that the title of this post, "Found in Translation," is a cultural allusion. In it, I’m playing off the Oscar-winning 2003 film Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

Figurative expressions are those metaphoric, sometimes overused phrases that people who speak our language (literally and figuratively) understand. Here are three examples:

  • Most of the employees were kept in the dark.
  • In a new job, you’ll start with a clean slate.
  • She saw right through him.

I look forward to seeing how those three sentences get translated.

My guiding principle as a business writer has always been to focus on my readers. Now that I have readers around the globe, focusing is a whole new world! (Yikes! "Whole new world" is another figurative expression. Writing for translation is going to be a great challenge for me.)

Note: Here’s another post, Writing for the World, on writing for readers around the globe.

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.