Make it Clear: How to make language more inclusive

    A good translation is much more than a literal translation of the source document. You’ve heard the saying “Garbage in garbage out.” In the world of translation that saying might become, although far less cleverly stated: “Literal translations will be just as dry and confusing as the words they translate.” And in some cases, far worse.

    It’s the responsibility of your translator to understand what you are trying to say and say it clearly and concisely, given the cultural and linguistic differences between the two languages. It is your responsibility to make the source material as clear and concise as you can.

    Current estimates put the amount of money invested in translation and interpreting services at 4.5 billion dollars. We wonder what percentage of this staggering amount actually achieves the goal of shared understanding; meaning the version of your message in my head is the same as the message you intended to send. Obviously, moving your message from one language into another complicates this goal.

    Here are three tips that can uncomplicate that goal, creating better, clearer, and less expensive translations.

    1. Start with clarity.

    Make sure the document you want translated is written clearly. Too much writing uses the passive voice. Too often people like to use big words to impress. For example:

    Passive voice: It is the belief of the Board that a ceiling must be placed on the budget by the leadership of the company.

    Active: The Board believes company leaders must put a ceiling on the budget.

    In another example, translating this same passive sentence into Haitian Creole, a language that does not have a passive voice, a literal translation might produce:

    It is the opinion of the Board that the budget must place a ceiling on the leadership of the company.

    Active voice is always clearer and more precise. Will you rely on your translator to clarify your message or will you?

    • Other tips in service of clarity include:
    • Be clear about the purpose of your writing
    • Aim for an average sentence length of 15 to 18 words
    • Avoid idioms, they often don't translate accurately


    2. Use qualified translators.

    Of course, you say, that’s obvious. But what does “qualified” mean? A large translation company…does this mean the person doing your translation is qualified? Maybe, but it’s not guarantee. Look for good linguistic skills, of course. But that’s not just your beginning.

    A qualified translator should also be a great writer. Superior writing skills is the first guard rail against a literal translation that is not clear.

    A qualified translator should also have knowledge about the intended audience. Perhaps the easiest way to determine “local knowledge” is if your translator’s native language is the one your message is being translated into.

    3 Involve the translator in the writing of the document being translated.

    This doesn’t have to be as cumbersome as it might seem at first glance. Start with a 30-minute phone call. Is the intended audience government assistance recipients or software developers? What are the key points that need to be communicated? The translator can offer critical advice about both writing style and content format based on their understanding of the cultural implications. This both improves the quality of the translation and can save you money by reducing the amount of time required in the translation process.

    A good translation must clearly and accurately deliver your message. I hope these tips both make your translations better AND less expensive.

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