Writing for Translation


Writing for Translation

From cookery books to mainframe-computer maintenance manuals, concise instructions guarantee that the user will get correct results first time. When these instructions are translated into 10 or 60 languages, good writing can save time and money.

Good writing has three benefits:

  1. It is easier for the reader to understand and follow
  2. It is easier for the translator to translate
  3. The output from Machine Translation (MT) will be better.

I would like to stress that MT is in third place intentionally, that’s why this article is not titles “Writing for MT”.

There is a fourth reason, namely brand consistency. But simple instructions are not enough to guarantee it and more complex systems, like Acrolinx, need to be used.

Below are a few good rules for writing instructional texts that will be translated into several languages.

Short Sentences

This is the most important recommendation not only for translation, but for any instructions. Sentences of 15-20 words are easy to understand and do not sound unnecessarily abrupt. In general, sentences should be no longer than 25 words.

Ease of Understanding

Text must be easy to understand and should not allow two (or more) possible interpretations.

1. Consistent Terminology

Use standard terminology consistently.

In everyday speech and creative writing, synonyms are used for variety. In technical writing, it is necessary to be consistent in the use of one term when referring to a specific thing or concept.

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2. Sub-Clauses

Avoid subordinate clauses.

English is a very compact language. Where one word is sufficient in English, Italian or Russian will need two or three to make the sentence grammatical. Very often translators split the translation into two sentences to make them shorter and more readable. This can be done at source instead.

3. Order of things

Consider the sequence of events. In what order will the reader execute the instructions? The instructions should be listed in the same order.


Put the cake into the oven preheated to 180 degrees.


Turn the oven to 180 degrees. Mix the cake. Put the cake into the preheated oven.

4. Nouns strung together

When writing in English, nouns can modify other nouns. And the nature of these modifications can be very diverse. ‘Stone wall’ refers to a wall made of stone, ‘arm chair’ is a chair with arms, and ‘kitchen cabinets’ are made for the kitchen. When three or four nouns are strung together, the matter get even more complicated.

Consider ‘Local road accident research centre’: Is it a local office of the organization that does research on road accidents OR is it a research centre that focuses specifically on accidents on local roads?

‘Large-scale data centre transformation projects’: are the projects large-scale or the data centre?

Try to avoid these constructions as much as possible, or clarify the meaning if necessary.

5. Garden Path

“The old man the boat”. “The complex houses married and single soldiers and their families”.

The above are examples of garden path sentences  – when starting to read the sentence the reader will form a certain interpretation. But half-way through the sentence s/he has to back track and read again as the first interpretation proves wrong. This mostly happens when a verb and the noun in English have exactly the same spelling.

As a linguist joke, such examples can be quite amusing. However, in translation, they either slow down the translator or lead to a mistranslation.

What to avoid

The linguistic devices listed below can add interest and variety to a text. They are suitable for marketing text or advertising slogans, and as such they will demand more time and consideration in translation  – and sometimes even transcreation.

1. Word play

Word play is intentional use of a word which can have different meanings in the same context. This device is quite often used in advertising slogans. But it is extremely rare that the words in the target language have the same two meanings as in the source language.

2. Jokes

Humour appeals to people and makes the texts very readable. However, jokes are particularly difficult to translate. There is a risk that they will be offensive when presented to the readers or listeners in a different culture. The translation must still be funny. Usually a joke just is replaced with a similar one suitable for the context.

3. Set expressions and proverbs

Set expressions are part of the fabric language, and they make speech more interesting. However, they often lead to a mistranslation. They are very colloquial  – not even specific to a language, but to a country or even a region.