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PLAIN LANGUAGE IN TRANSLATION

zdjęcie rozsypanych literek symbolizujące prosty język w tłumaczeniach

In my previous text, I told you a little bit about the idea of plain language. And I did my best to use plain language for that purpose 😉 In this text, I’m focusing on the subject of plain language in translation.

Can you use plain language as a translator?

Can you simplify the language of the texts you translate?

How to apply the rules of clear writing in translation?

Read on to find answers to these and other related questions.

A FEW THOUGHTS FOR STARTERS

I have a personal theory, possibly biased, that English is simpler than Polish. I don’t mean that English is easier or somehow poorer, far from it! But it does seem more direct and better organised. I may have this impression because English is my second language so I’ve learnt it in a more conscious way than my native Polish. Perhaps my thoughts in English are better arranged and more disciplined.

I can see that when I translate from Polish to English, which is what I do most often in my job, the target English text is usually shorter and clearer than the Polish source. Even if I haven’t intentionally used any plain language techniques or interfered with its structure.

The translation process is never about rewriting sentences word-by-word. I carefully deconstruct the Polish text to understand its meaning and then I recreate this meaning, following the rules of English grammar and using adequate words to convey its message. As a result, the originally convoluted text becomes naturally simpler. Without any additional tinkering.

I am talking about non-literary translation here: for example, descriptions of film plots for festival catalogues or announcements for museum visitors. In literary texts, the author’s style may override any attempt at clarification, although it is subject to editing and proofreading – but that’s another story.

In sworn or certified translations (Polish: tłumaczenia przysięgłe), there is also less room for formal modifications and I won’t be talking about these here.

So, can you really use plain language in translation?

Yes, definitely. You can use plain language in translation. Sometimes you actually need to do this: in terms of syntax, vocabulary, and register. For instance, English notices and signs tend to be simple and direct. They sound more friendly than their usual Polish equivalents. So, even though the Polish source says, roughly, “You are kindly informed that under no circumstances should you touch the presented exhibits”, I would functionally translate it as “Please don’t touch the exhibits”.

When it comes to deeper levels of plainification (I’ve just made up this word), you need to ask your client first. Frequently, this would turn your translation service into transcreation – and that’s fine, as long as it’s accepted by the client. This happens to me quite often. For example, I let my Polish clients know that museum labels are usually more relaxed in style in the English-speaking context. So, if they want their bilingual exhibition to reach a wider audience, it’s a good idea to transcreate these labels from Polish into English this way. Then, if I’m given the green light (and more often than not – I am), I do exactly that: retain the content but clarify the style.

WHAT’S THE USE OF PLAIN LANGUAGE IN TRANSLATION?

I hope you can already appreciate the value of plain language in translation and editing. Clear writing shows that you care for the message and respect your audience. At the same time, keeping things simple in language and communication shows your professional attitude as a translator or editor.

But if you still need to persuade your client about the merit of plain language, here are some important benefits:

  • Plain language means that the user can understand the information faster.
  • Plain language makes it easier to have an impact and achieve the desired goals. If your client has a product to sell or a service to market, plain language is the right tool to get through to the target audience and get them to act. In marketingese, it’s a lead that creates conversions.
  • Plain language saves time, and time is money. If you clarify a concept once and for all, you don’t need to respond to hundreds of too-frequently asked questions or deal with misunderstandings later on.
  • Plain language creates a positive and forward-thinking image. It attracts and invites the audience. On the other hand, messy language may discourage and drive off potential users.
  • Plain language makes information more accessible and widespread.

Of course, these benefits may still be not enough for your clients. Or, your client’s business may require using a completely different kind of language for some reason.

Even so, plain language is worth knowing, so read on to find simple tips for translators.

PLAIN LANGUAGE IN TRANSLATION – HOW TO DO THIS?

To put it plainly – when you translate a text or edit/verify/review your or someone else’s translation, ask yourself these questions:

  • Who is the reader of this text/translation?

  • What is the purpose of this text/translation?

  • Does my text/translation make sense?

  • Does my text/translation meet its purpose?

  • Does my text/translation say what it’s supposed to say?

  • Does my text/translation sound the way it’s supposed to sound?

When you answer these questions, you will know if you can use plain language in your translation and to what extent, depending on the purpose and audience of the text. You will also know if you’ve managed to convey the right message in a clear and simple way.

Here are my plain language tips for translators:

1. Let no logic be lost in translation

When translating, what we actually do is create sentences from scratch to carry the original meaning. This means that translators have some form of structural freedom. So, we can make the message clear also through logic.

  • One sentence – one idea
    This is not to say that every utterance should be reduced to three-word sentences. Your goal is to avoid confusion. Meaning often gets lost in long, embedded clauses. So, when you translate, make sure that one sentence expresses one idea. If you’re dealing with paragraph-long sentences in the source texts, separate them into shorter clauses.
  • Logical arrangement of information
    Have the sequence of tenses in mind: present events in chronological order. Show the connection between the cause and the effect. Avoid excessive negation: it requires more effort to understand a sentence that says “I don’t think it’s unallowed” than just “I think it’s allowed”.
  • Avoid tautologies and pleonasms
    Sometimes, translation reveals a redundant use of words. In Polish, there are at least two common words for “creative”, two words for “detail”, and two words for “cooperation”. If these synonyms are used next to one another in the source, you can easily omit one in the target. Otherwise, you’ll end up repeating yourself.

2. Make grammar easy

Grammar is your friend. It helps in conveying information in a simple – and logical – way. Unless you bend it and twist it in some unfathomable directions.

  • Syntax
    In English, word order is rather fixed, except in some cases of inversion. In Polish, sentence structure is more flexible but it’s not happy-go-lucky. If you want to sound clear, use the subject-verb-object (SVO) order, which is common in Indo-European languages. Make sure nothing is ambiguous. The reader needs to know who did what and who is supposed to do what. Also, remember that words that carry meaning together should stand together – don’t interrupt them with digressions.
  • Passive voice
    In English, using passive forms is much more common than in Polish so they sound more natural. Even so, language experts often say that it’s better to avoid passive constructions altogether. It surely is better to avoid them in Polish translations from English. In general, passive sentences have a more complicated structure and a formal and impersonal tone. This creates a sense of distance between the author and the reader and, again, blocks understanding.
  • Zombie nouns
    I first learnt about them in Steven Pinker’s Sense of Style. They are often mentioned in plain language style guides (and here I am, using passive voice). Zombie nouns are nominalised verbs. They speak about actions but make them sound slower – and less active. Such nouns are generally long, dull, and half-dead. Instead of writing “Non-compliance with the rules will result in the obligation of paying a fine”, write “If you don’t follow these rules, you will have to pay a fine”.

3. Make vocabulary easy

  • Avoid pompous, pretentious, and puffed-up words
    Say “so” instead of “therefore” or “thus”, “despite that” instead of “nonetheless”, and “and then” instead of “whereupon”. In Polish, there are some overly official phrases typically associated with public authorities that will scare anyone away – such as niniejszy (which simply means “this”). Get rid of them.
  • Avoid fluffy, fuzzy, and foggy phrases
    You don’t really need that many adjectives. And you don’t need to repeat “really” and “very” all the time.
  • Stop stacking synonyms
    Synonym stacking is what I did in the bullet headlines above. But alliteration is always appreciated, just like the rule of three 😉

4. Give your text some structure

As a translator, you don’t have much influence over the text structure because your task is usually to faithfully recreate it. But if you’re on good terms with your direct clients and offer transcreation services, you may suggest some structural changes to make the translation clear and readable.

What can you do to structure your text?

  • Divide your text into paragraphs
    When translating some types of texts, like research papers, I often divide the wall of text into more manageable chunks. Another good idea is to use neat bullet lists to enumerate things.
  • Use headlines
    If your job is to translate a long text for a website, you may suggest adding headlines to paragraphs. This will make the information clearer, and the headlines will help the reader grasp the main thought of each fragment.
  • Bold key information
    This type of text formatting is great for emphasis. Readers will pay more attention to bolded words or phrases. Don’t overdo it, though. If almost everything gets bolded, then nothing stands out as important.

5. Give your text some space

Some texts are heavy and thick. Even if they shouldn’t: for instance, instructions for museum or gallery visitors. But luckily, you can lighten your translation to give breathing space to the target readers.

  • Demist-ify your text
    Remove linguistic ornaments and smoke screens. Make sure that the key message of the text is crystal-clear to potential readers. Even if the Polish source says “You are kindly requested to refrain from using tobacco”, you can easily translate that as “No smoking”.
  • Don’t be polite in a passive-aggressive way
    Sometimes, kindness may backfire. Even if the sentence says “Please be kindly informed that some inaccuracies have been observed in your tax return”, it doesn’t come off as particularly kind. Empty politeness may sound threatening and make the recipient suspect that something is wrong.
  • Don’t write about writing
    I’ll admit – I keep doing this. I always want to guide my readers around my writing, so I let them know, now and then, where they are, where we’re heading, and why we’re doing it this way. But there are more extreme cases of hedging, especially in Polish. You don’t need to say “We would like to inform you that…”, “It must be emphasised that…”, “It is worth mentioning that…”. If you want to inform the reader, just do it. If something needs emphasising, just do it. If something is worth mentioning, you’re surely going to mention it in a second. What matters to readers is the actual information you’re about to give them.

6. Ask yourself questions

I know, I’ve already said that. But I’ll say that again. ASK YOURSELF QUESTIONS. Engage in self-reflection and text-reflection. Analyse your translation. Be aware of what you’re writing. Repeat.

7. Have the reader in mind

This is also no news. The importance of user experience should be clear to anyone by now. Having the reader in mind works not only in plain language but in writing in general, so translation is no different. Focus on your audience. Is your translation clear? Will your reader understand it? Does it meet its goal? Again, ask yourself questions.

8. Consult experts

We always recommend consulting experts in the translation process. They are wonderful sources of information – especially in the case of specialised translation and difficult terminology.

When it comes to plain language, specialists are there to help you hold your simplification horses. Normally, your clients are experts in their fields. If you believe that certain pieces of information may overwhelm the reader, you can ask the client if they believe these pieces are necessary to communicate what must be communicated. This often happens when I translate descriptions of artworks, design projects, or difficult terms and concepts for exhibitions. Don’t make such decisions on your own! Plain language is not about dumbing down the text but about facilitating knowledge.

9. Beware of the curse of knowledge

If you want to learn more about the curse of knowledge, read Paweł’s article about it.

To avoid the curse of knowledge in translation, make difficult terms easier for the reader to understand:

  • explain acronyms (e.g. in brackets),
  • explain proper names, especially names of organisations,
  • explain foreign or foreign-sounding words, which are rare, uncommon, culture-specific, or have no equivalents in the target language.

10. Don’t complicate things

That’s simple. If you can’t or don’t want to use plain language in your translation – just make sure you don’t introduce any additional complications.

A FEW AFTERTHOUGHTS

These tips are not like the Ten Commandments or provisions of law. You don’t always have to follow all of them – sometimes, you can’t follow all of them. They are guidelines that will help you get closer to the reader as a translator.

I gave you general hacks but they will differ from language to language, as you can see even in the case of Polish and English. Different languages address people in different ways and require different registers. In some languages, you can freely manipulate word order, in others – you have to stick to certain structures. One of the best examples of such differences is the English “you”, which you can use when addressing a single person, or more people, someone you know, someone you don’t know, or even a general abstract someone. In Polish, each of these cases will require a different pronoun and verb form. There are also honorifics to bear in mind: specific courtesy phrases used to refer to the addressee.

My tips apply mostly to translation but you can freely follow them as a writer or editor. Plain language works in so many places and environments: cultural, academic, legal, and even in social media.

As a matter of fact, plain language has a lot to do with technical writing. Both are simply based on common sense and clarity of expression. But this is Paweł’s area of expertise, so let’s hope he’ll tell us more about it in the near future!

Plain language is minimalist. Just as you declutter your home to live better and breathe easier, you can do the same with your text – and your translation.

Martyna

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