How To Write for Translation

A conversation with a colleague recently posed a question that I’m surprised I hadn’t considered before: How do we write for effective translation?

Surrounded as we are, especially if we are anglophones, by competent speakers and writers of English, and with machines translators at our fingertips, it is easy to forget that translation is still an important and necessary function performed well by professionally trained people so that we can communicate with one another across the language barrier

But sometimes, as in the case of my colleague, a professional translator is not available (for reasons of cost, time or convenience) so a few hard and fast rules may be necessary to help the non-professional make good translations. (And I’m sure the professional translator would appreciate the effort to make their job easier.) The following, therefore, is similar to a previous post I wrote on speaking effectively through interpretation, for it requires the same attention paid to language and how it is used in the day to day. But it departs from speaking because of the usual attention paid to grammar, structure, and rhetoric in most drafted documents.

This presumes that you are not a poet, journalist or literary writer of some kind who is otherwise focused on the craft of molding the language; in that case it is the job of the translator to transmogrify your work into another’s language (on which see Edith Grossman’s excellent book, above). For the rest of us, these guidelines will help you, and your translator, make yourself understood in another language.

Rule #1: Write as literally and as simply as possible. Use language that is commonly understood and definitions that are confined to the first or second entries in most dictionaries. You will get no extra credit, as it were, for elaborate hidden meanings, double entendres, or word play, because most words are stripped of their additional load-bearing meanings when translated into another language. If you want or need to use such complex meanings clear in another language, you need to describe them as such in the text.

Rule #2: Avoid complex sentences and elaborate subordinate clause structures. These are either likely to confuse the translator or, if they are translated more literally, not to come out in a way that is comprehensible in the foreign language. At the same time, sentences should not be so simple that the flow of thought is cut up in the chop.

Rule #3: Avoid metaphor and simile, especially obscure or culturally unique metaphors and comparisons; purge cliche. Metaphors have a bad habit of translating poorly (think of “the mother of all battles”). As with Rule #2, if you must use a metaphor, explain it, its background and relevance. Cliches should never be used unless absolutely necessary and literally true.

Rule #4: Purge jargon and acronyms whenever possible. This is generally a good rule for solid writing in any case, but often it is not possible, especially with technical or professional writing. If jargon or acronyms are not commonly understood, the Associated Press rule is best: spell it out on first reference and refer to the acronym. As necessary explain the context of the jargon, acronym or organization.

Rule #5: Set off and explain terms of art and other important language. You may need to communicate terms of art or other important words that has precise or specific meaning in your own language. (For example, legal jurisdiction in English is usually translated as competence in French. But competence in English has an entirely different meaning.) It will be important to separate these terms with quotation marks, or italics, and then explain or define them so there is no risk of a mistranslation.

I’ve been told that English, particularly American English, is perhaps too blunt and straight-forward, that its grammatical structure encourages punch and pith rather than thought and consideration. That may be. So you may want to take into account cultural sensitivities, perhaps by talking to your translator about pleasantries, honorifics, and sign-offs that are considerate and sensitive rather than brusque. But for certain there again you’ll want to make sure that it translates well.


About James Thomas Snyder

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, writer, translator and former NATO and U.S. Congressional staffer. All opinions expressed here are my own. My work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Internationale Politik, Dissent, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. In 2013, Palgrave-MacMillan published my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy. In 2004, TAMU press published my translation of Pierre Hazan's Justice in a Time of War, a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2004. I earned a joint JD-MA from American University in 2001 and a BA from UCLA in 1995. I also studied European and international law at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and international security at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan.
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