Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash
5 min Read
May 5, 2020

9 tips to write for clearer translation when your audiences don’t speak English

You’re reading English. 

It’s one of the world’s most dominant lingua francas, which means that it’s the common means of communication used between speakers of different first languages. 

A lingua franca can change, and can be different depending on the region or context. But for the foreseeable future, English will reign (and English speakers will have the privilege of understanding the majority of words that they encounter).

The majority of US-based nonprofits conduct all of their written communications in English. But what if your nonprofit’s staff members or audiences primarily speak and write in another language? Or if your organization is striving to reach new audiences who are more comfortable with any of the thousands of other languages spoken around the world?

That’s where translation comes in. These tips will help you make the process of translating English text easier, and make your written work more accessible:

1. Know your audience.

Not only the language they communicate in, but who are they? What do they believe? What are their core values? What action do you want them to take? These are good questions to ask yourself even if you’re not writing for translation. How can you communicate to them clearly and without bias? (For strategies to avoid bias when defining your nonprofit’s audiences, check out this post by Laura Fisher, Big Duck’s Senior Strategist.)

If possible, learn about your audience members directly. Conducting interviews and focus groups in the language that they speak are great ways to get to know your audience members (and to introduce your organization to them). 

Before turning to Big Duck for creative help on their bilingual campaign, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice conducted focus groups with Latinx audiences to learn about their opinions on supporting a loved on considering abortion. Read more about that project here.

2. Be concise.

Short sentences are easy to understand in any language. Plus, there’s a greater margin of error when translating long sentences. 

Concise sentences also fit better in most designs. English is much shorter than other languages, so designers will need more space to make the translation fit well on the flyer, website, or brochure. If you’re writing a script or speech, account for the extra time it may take to read your writing in a different language, or for a translator to translate in real time.

No: As a welcoming nonprofit that is committed to excellence, we welcome all community members to our programs and services.

Yes: We welcome all community members to our services.

3. Use basic sentence structure.

The simplest English sentence structure is [Subject] + [Verb] + [Object] (for example,  Vincent baked a cake). It is much easier to accurately translate basic sentence structures, no matter the structure of the language they are translating to (for example, Korean uses a [Subject] + [Object] + [Verb] structure). Whenever you can, keep your sentences basic.

No: Building community centers is something our nonprofit does whenever we get the opportunity. 

Yes: We build community centers.

4. Avoid humor, jargon, metaphor, and idioms.

None of these translate well. Idioms like “A little goes a long way,” or metaphors like “She steered the conversation,” are innate for English-dominant people. But when literally translated into other languages, these phrases are incomprehensible.

To make your translator’s job easier and to ensure clear understanding, use straightforward language. Humor and wordplay varies widely between languages and cultures. We recommend avoiding them entirely. For example, if we had titled this blog post, “Is it write for translation?” only English readers would find it mildly amusing.

No: Donating is a piece of cake!

Yes: Donating is easy!

5. Define unique words.

If you’re introducing a new concept or topic that your audiences are unfamiliar with, plan how you’re going to define it. For example, if you’re writing about a new program, choose simple words to describe what it offers and why it’s valuable.

6. Use active voice.

This point is related to sentence structure. In active voice, the subject performs an action on the object. In passive voice, the object leads the sentence and the verb performs an action on the subject.

We recommend using active voice because it is much easier to understand and translate. Also, active sentences need less words to work well. Look out for extra words like “was,” “is being,” “were,” “by,” or “has been.” If you find them, the sentence might be passive.

The Hemingway Editor is a free tool that will point out passive voice in your writing and estimate how difficult or easy it is to read. 

No: Reduced unemployment and increased job security were achieved by the program.

Yes: The program reduced unemployment and increased job security.

7. Embrace “that” and “which.”

These words will add length to your sentences, but they will also make your sentences easier for translators to interpret and for readers to understand. Removing “that” and “which” can make sentences unnecessarily confusing. When writing for translation, keep them in to ensure your meaning is clear.

No: The PSA we developed premieres next week.

Yes: The PSA that we developed premieres next week

8. Avoid acronyms.

It is better to avoid—or explain—acronyms when writing for translations. Unless your audiences are already familiar with the acronym, it can be a barrier to understanding. 

If you can’t avoid using an acronym, we recommend defining what it is when it’s first mentioned. This is more practical than spelling it out in full every time, which can significantly affect the overall word count.

9. Ask a native speaker.

A native speaker, or a person who is dominant in the language that you are translating to, may be able to tell you if something that you’re writing won’t work well. Their perspective can be particularly helpful if you’re introducing a new concept or topic to an audience who is unfamiliar with it.

When asking for help, be mindful of native speakers’ time and the amount of effort it takes to translate—especially if translation isn’t a core function of their job. Translation is a profession that entails gaining certifications, accreditations, and more. Language fluency is only the beginning of professional translation.

The saying, “Knowledge is power,” isn’t completely accurate. But being able to receive and understand information that you have access to is powerful. We hope these tips help make your translation process more successful and the outcome clearer to new audiences.