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PLAIN LANGUAGE, PLAIN POLISH, PLAIN ENGLISH – INTRODUCTION

Scrabble cubes saying Keep Things Simple

Plain language. Prosty język. Lenguaje claro. Linguagem simples. Leichte Sprache.

What is plain language?

INTRO

The first time I heard about plain language, or Simple English, was a long time ago, in my university days. Then, several years ago, the notion of prosta polszczyzna, or plain/simple Polish, came within my orbit.

So, the concept of plain language has been around me for some time now. As a translator and editor, I deal with confusing texts all the time. And they are not literary or poetic texts. This is why I’ve learnt to offer simplicity as an added value to my translation or editing services. As a result, I often advise my clients on how to simplify and organise the main ideas and information in the texts I translate or edit.

Even so, I keep falling into the trap of confusion myself, as I tend to create complicated sentences and utterances. That’s why I decided to take part in a plain language course for translators. It was organised by the Textem school in cooperation with Contelia. The course was focused on plain Polish. It helped me structure and consolidate what I already sensed and knew.

This article draws on my experience, thoughts, and the knowledge I gained thanks to that course and the materials the course tutors shared with us.

PLAIN LANGUAGE – WHO IS IT FOR?

Plain language can be used by anyone who writes. And so, this article is addressed to language users of all sorts. There are three points of focus, though:

* Polish language – I’m going to concentrate on Polish examples and contexts, but many guidelines are universal and can be applied to English too.

* Non-literary texts – I’ll be talking about various types of non-literary texts, but having simplicity in mind won’t hurt literary creation either.

* Translation – I’m mostly addressing this text to translators, but it can come in handy to anyone who works with words, including editors, proofreaders, writers, social media specialists, public officials, or cultural institution employees.

As I don’t want you to feel overwhelmed, I’ve divided the article into two parts. This part will introduce plain language and my perspective on it. The second part will present specific guidelines and ideas for translators on how to apply plain language in translation.

WHAT IS PLAIN LANGUAGE?

The most popular definition of plain language is by the International Plain Language Federation (IPLF).

It goes as follows:

“A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.”

The definition is focused on understanding and using information. But how to measure these aspects? Every person is different and has a different level and scope of understanding information. I will write more about this in the section about plain language tools.

Still, plain language is not a brand new idea. Simple and direct communication was recommended by George Orwell in his Politics and the English Language, by Winston Churchill in Brevity, a memo which he sent to the War Cabinet, or by Steven Pinker in his Sense of Style. Grice’s Maxims are also based on a similar concept, as students of philology and linguistics know all too well.

Nowadays, plain language movements are much more widespread. Plain language has been adopted by many public and private institutions. Their goal is to address their audiences in a simpler and friendlier way to get their message across. With plain language, organisations make their users’ lives easier.

In Poland, the most active promoters and researchers of plain language are associated with Pracownia Prostej Polszczyzny Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego (University of Wrocław Plain Polish Lab), headed by Tomasz Piekot. You can also become a certified consultant to teach plain Polish in banks or local governments.

Below, you will find a list of my thoughts about plain language. Some of them come from my professional experience and everyday contact with language. Others are conclusions from the course organised by Textem and Contelia.

1. Plain language is not simplistic

This may be one of the most important features of plain language. It is simple but not simplistic. Plain does not mean crude. When you make your message clear, you don’t lower its quality – quite the opposite. To facilitate communication, you don’t use primitive means. Plain language is actually more elegant, because it reflects clarity. In other words, it makes complex thoughts clearer.

2. Plain language is not trivial

Important institutions and public organisations may be worried that communication in plain language is inappropriate, because it’s not serious enough. Again – quite the opposite. Plain is not freewheeling. Plain language can be successfully used to create official rules and regulations. Simple structures are more likely to get through to the reader than long words or complicated syntax.

3. Plain language is not disrespectful

If you’re used to a cold and formal tone of voice in official communication, you may be concerned that plain language lacks respect. Third time lucky – quite the opposite! You can use plain language to express your respect for the audience. If you communicate in a simple and comprehensible way, you show your readers that you do want them to understand your message. You give them free access to important information.

4. Plain language is not always brief

Plain language usually is about brevity. The shorter the words and sentences, the easier they are for the brain to process. Compound words and sentences make information more difficult to understand. But being concise isn’t always the goal. Sometimes, to explain an issue better and make it simpler to grasp, you need to use more words or longer phrases. This is especially true for Polish. Polish has a lot of inflections and declensions, which means that Polish words come with a number of affixes. Consequently, they are often longer than English ones.

5. Plain language is difficult

Plain language is simple to understand but it’s not easy to write. If it were, there would be no plain language courses, blog posts, knowledge hubs, labs, or organisations. And text editing would be useless. But plain language is difficult to craft – just like expressing your mind clearly is hard. Another challenge in plain language is to adopt the perspective of your audience. To communicate, you need to know how to address your readers. You want to make them understand your thinking and to help them absorb new information.

6. Plain language is correct

I know that correctness is a complex issue in itself. My goal here is not to pass any judgement. What I mean to say – and let’s make it plain – is that language rules are here to help us communicate and understand each other well. It doesn’t matter if you speak Polish, English, or another language. If you follow the basic rules of spelling, punctuation, and grammar, and if you use vocabulary and style properly, you can assume that the other person will understand you just the way you want them. And it works both ways. From my perspective, we agree on following certain language rules to make communication less of an effort.

7. Plain language is not dull

You may be afraid that if you write in plain language, be it Polish or English, you will lose your unique personal style. It needn’t be this way! Of course, official or legal language should be neutral to make information clear and open to the reader. For example, if you want to know how much tax you have to pay or why you’ve received this letter from the court, ornamental style will block your access to this information. But as a journalist, blogger, or another type of content creator, you can use plain language without compromising on your style. And if this turns out impossible, try and reflect on it. Ask yourself what’s potentially unclear about the way you write and why this is a feature of your style.

8. Plain language is easier to translate

This is actually the conclusion that has brought me right here. I’ve translated tons of texts which required a lot of language detangling from me. And believe me, the confusing pieces were not some excerpts from Joyce’s Ulysses or Heidegger’s Being and Time. These texts were, for instance, terms and conditions prepared by cultural institutions or research paper abstracts. Their purpose was to summarise important information – but they usually made this information ambiguous. The same goes for user manuals that Paweł translates. We often seem to find our translations easier, simpler, and clearer than the source texts.

USEFUL TOOLS

Here are some practical tools and websites where you can learn more about plain language and apply it to your writing. They are focused on Polish language, except two examples. If you translate from English to Polish, they are absolutely worth using!

Prosto i kropka

This is a plain language campaign created by the European Funds Portal. Although it’s addressed to Polish officials and office workers, it will be of use to anyone interested in plain Polish. The title translates roughly as “Keep it simple, full stop.” The campaign is a collection of ten short educational videos that explain the basics of plain language. They are straightforward and funny. Every episode is also summed up in writing.

Prosty język na wesoło

Another campaign by the European Funds is also a useful source of knowledge about plain Polish. As the title suggests, the subject is presented in a light-hearted way. The rules of writing plain are illustrated with witty images and plenty of examples.

Prosty język w służbie cywilnej

The Polish government has issued official recommendations about plain Polish: “Plain language in civil service”. These guidelines are really sensible. You can follow them if you translate, edit, or create content in Polish. The main goal of these recommendations is to make information more accessible.

Contelia

Contelia is the content agency that co-created the plain language course for translators I took part in. I definitely recommend their blog. You can find a collection of articles about plain language in the Polish context there. Their texts show that they practise what they preach, as they are written in a simple and accessible way.

International Plain Language Federation

The IPLF website, which I linked to at the beginning of this article, is a valuable source of information about plain language. You can also visit it to read definitions of plain language in various languages.

Plain Language Association International

Another organisation that promotes plain language has an apt acronym – PLAIN. On their website, you can read more about plain language and learn how to write in plain English effectively.

Logios

When it comes to measuring how plain your text is, the best Polish tool is Logios, developed by Pracownia Prostej Polszczyzny from Wrocław. It takes various parameters into account, including the FOG index of readability. You just need to paste your Polish text in Logios, choose its type and style, and you will get a detailed summary. The result presents the text metrics and tells you how educated your reader must be to understand your writing. The tool is available for free with a limited but still large number of functionalities. Try it out and have fun!

interface of the Logios tool to measure plain language level in Polish texts
Logios tool and its metrics

Jasnopis

This is another tool that measures how understandable a text is in Polish. It was developed at the SWPS University in Warsaw. Try it out to see what it can tell you about your text and its simplicity.

***

I do hope I’ve managed to tell you what plain language is in a plain way. Like I’ve said – plain language is not easy to write!

After all, to write a text is to design it. A writer works carefully on every detail to achieve the desired effect. A simple logotype of infographics can express a lot in a minimalist manner. The same applies to communication in plain language.

If you want to learn more about plain language in the context of translation, stay tuned. In a week, I’m going to publish the second part of this article.

Martyna

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