Following plain language guidelines is an important starting point for producing source material that’s ready for translation services.
Although translators can produce some pretty impressive work, they aren’t miracle workers. For a translator to create a high-quality, easily readable document in the target language, the source text must be equally high in quality and just as easy to read.
In other words, source text should be written in plain language.
The term “plain language” refers to writing that’s concise and easy to understand on the first read. Although federal agencies are already required to produce official communications using plain language under the Plain Writing Act of 2010, anybody can — and should — use plain language in their internal or external communications.
Plain language is particularly helpful when you need to have a document translated. When translators have to wade through lots of dense, confusing language, it can slow down the translation process, creating unnecessary or burdensome work for the translator.
When creating content that you know will be translated later on, following plain language guidelines is a proactive step toward a final product that’s as easy to read as the source text. Here’s our guide to observing plain language guidelines and making sure your writing is as clear and concise as possible.
If you’re a bit strapped for time, scroll down to the summary section, where we’ve outlined some of the basics for you.
What is plain language?
If you’ve ever asked somebody to explain a long-winded, convoluted topic to you “in laymen’s terms,” you already have some familiarity with the concept of plain language. In fact, the phrase “plain language” is essentially a, well, plainer way of referring to laymen’s terms.
Plain language is any form of writing that emphasizes clarity and conciseness. When writing in plain language, a writer’s goal is to ensure that the text is easy for readers to understand and quickly gloss over.
Here’s an example of some decidedly not plain language provided by the US General Services Administration:
“Apply if you are aged (65 years old or older), blind, or disabled and have low income and few resources. Apply if you are terminally ill and want to receive hospice services. Apply if you are aged, blind, or disabled; live in a nursing home; and have low income and limited resources. Apply if you are aged, blind, or disabled and need nursing home care, but can stay at home with special community care services. Apply if you are eligible for Medicare and have low income and limited resources.”
Now, here’s a revised version of that passage, written to follow plain language guidelines:
“You may apply for Medicaid if you are:
- Terminally ill and want hospice services
- Eligible for Medicare and have low income and limited resources
- 65 years old or older, blind, or disabled and have low income and few resources and:
- Live in a nursing home
- Need a nursing home care but can stay at home with special community care services”
Notice how much easier it is to follow the second one. While the first example consists of a single, nearly 100-word paragraph, the second uses simple sentence structure and a series of bullet points to make the text a little bit easier on the eyes. Plus, it cuts the total word count down to 60.
Ultimately, plain language allows individuals to find the information they need faster, making complicated topics easier to understand for wide, non-specialized audiences.
Why is plain language important for translation services?
Plain language isn’t just important for improving accessibility in general communications though. It’s also a way to simplify the translation process from the get-go. By doing this, you can get faster translation delivery times, increased accuracy, and potentially lowered costs.
Writing in plain language makes things a little easier for the translator(s) rendering your texts into the target language. Because translators aim to convey the meaning of the source text in the target language, content writers should aim to make that meaning as clear as possible.
It may not be possible to use plain language in every piece of content — highly regulated areas like the pharmaceutical industry and legal services often have specific and formal terminology that can’t be easily simplified into plain language. Thus, it’s important to keep your target audience in mind — a scientific review committee will surely understand more niche terms than the general public.
When producing public-facing content like blogs, informational pamphlets, or advertisements, plain language is critical to making sure that both the translator and the target audience can easily understand your intended meaning.
Some plain language guidelines for translation
Here are a few basic tips that we recommend for writers creating content they intend to have translated later on:
Use everyday vocabulary
While jargon can be difficult to avoid, it’s also important to note that the general public may not have a solid understanding of terms you use daily in your field. For instance, the medical condition “myocardial infarction” is more commonly known as a “heart attack.” Unless you absolutely have to use the phrase “myocardial infarction,” the term “heart attack” will likely serve you better, as it’s just plain easy for readers to understand.
Don’t be too wordy
Long sentences packed with several different ideas can be hard to follow. Try to stick to one idea per sentence and try to keep the average number of words per sentence down to 20 or fewer.
When writing, you’ll often find that some words are redundant or unnecessary. For instance, why would you call something “very good,” when you can call it “great?” Not only is “great” a more specific word — it’s also quicker to read than “very good.” More often than not, you can replace phrases like “very,” “really,” or “actually,” with more purposeful words.
Avoid passive voice
In addition to being a key tenet of plain language guidelines, this rule’s also a staple in grade-school English classes. Passive voice constructions tend to be wordier than those in the active voice. As a result, they add unnecessary words to the sentence and can make it harder for a translator to understand the meaning. Moreover, active voice generally illustrates the main idea of the sentence more effectively than passive voice.
From the writer’s perspective, direct subject-verb-object sentences may seem a bit dry and repetitive. But the truth is that they’re much easier to follow than winding sentences that have all sorts of additional clauses and information that can be expressed in a separate sentence.
Directness in your word choice is also key. Whenever appropriate, try addressing the reader directly using the personal pronoun “you,” to help engage them and form a connection between the reader and writer.
- Using plain language in your content can go a long way toward simplifying the translation process
- Plain language is writing that’s concise, clear and easy for the reader to follow along with
- Here are some basic plain language guidelines
- Use everyday vocabulary
- Don’t be too wordy
- Avoid passive voice
- Be direct
And if you’ve got your content drafted up in plain language and need translation services, don’t hesitate to reach out to the Avantpage team at [email protected] or (530) 750-2040.