Writing For Translation: 15 Tips to Streamline Your Content


ink illustration of hand holding pen with text saying "how to write translation-friendly source content" agains turquoise background

The French say a translation cannot be belle et fidèle – beautiful and faithful. Although they have nailed it in many respects (can you imagine a world without mayonnaise?) on this, we can't agree. A translation can be as beautiful AND accurate as the source text – if done properly. 

Does it all depend on the linguist's ability? 

Well, not entirely.

A Fine Translation Starts With a Fine Source Text

When it comes to translating, it takes two to tango. It's a team effort where translators are your best friends, carrying your brilliant ideas and products to faraway places where people speak and think differently. Places you wouldn't be able to reach otherwise. All they ask of you is not to forget they exist and try to make their work easier. Why would you do that? Because you are a nice person. But most importantly, because easier for them means better and faster for you.

Federico Fellini said: "a different language is a different vision of life." Because whatever text you need to translate (a marketing document, product descriptions for an eCommerce website, or a legal contract), the process does not involve merely replacing words in language A with words in language B. 

The importance of non-verbal, context-related clues may be more evident in spoken communication (facial expressions, body language, gestures, tone of voice). Yet written communication can be just as tricky, only more subtly so. For example, cultural references and nuances may be hidden in the word order, the choice of metaphors, and the deliberate use of long, complex sentences. Because in some cases, clarity is not even the ultimate goal of communication: cue in the notorious legalese, for instance.

This, from a translation point of view, is unhealthy. It makes the process lengthier and riskier: the translator may either be very scrupulous and ask for continuous clarifications (meaning you, the client, have to spend more time on the assignment) or decide that, after all, time is money and make one-handed decisions without consulting on doubtful passages beforehand. He may get it right, or he may not.

This is why you want your translator to understand exactly what you mean to say. The result will be a faster, clearer, more accurate translation. And, of course, a happier linguist (but that's a bonus). 

How can your writing team achieve this? 

By keeping in mind these few easy tips when writing for translation.

#1 Keep it Short and Sweet

two exotic goldfish swimming with black background

Avoid long, complex sentences. Shorter sentences (and fewer words) will boost readability and make your texts easier to understand and translate, with less risk of blunders. 
According to Time magazine, the average person loses concentration after about 8 seconds, while the average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds. So if you want to keep the goldfish engaged (and prevent your translator from becoming entangled in syntax), your sentence length should be around 20-25 words.

#2 Respect the Word Order of the English You Must

image of a Yoda figurine

English is an SVO (Subject-Verb-Object) language. We say:

"Jane loves mayonnaise."

Other languages, such as Korean, Turkish, Punjabi, and Tamil for example, follow a different word order, that is to say, SOV (Subject-Object-Verb). Therefore, in SOV languages, a sentence such as this is perfectly correct:

"Jane mayonnaise loves."

There are also VSO languages with Verb-Subject-Object sentences. Arabic, Filipino, Hawaiian, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Tongan are all SVO languages, and we would have:

"Loves Jane mayonnaise."

And then, of course, there's Yoda, OSV ("Mayonnaise, Jane loves"), but you need not worry about that. Google Translate has excelled in it.

As you can see, the word order has its standard rules, which, if not respected, may cause the meaning to become unclear.

So, if you are writing in English, stick to SVO.

#3 Preferably Avoidable Translator Confusing Long Noun Strings

Variety of yarns entangled together.jpg

English is brilliant. You can convey complex meanings just by juxtaposing nouns.


Except when the noun string becomes too long, and the translator risks getting fuddled.

Here is an excellent example taken from plainlanguage.gov:

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's automobile seat belt interlock rule

Now, compare it with this one.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's interlock rule that applies to automotive seat belts

When writing for translation, use articles, prepositions, and other wee words that will help avoid noun strings and explain the relationship between various sentence elements, thus making the meaning clearer and the translation process smoother.

#4 Lazy is Good. Avoid Synonyms.

lazy black dog lying on a bar stool

When you wrote essays in school, chances are you were told that repetitions denoted laziness. Synonyms are all the hype with English teachers. Bless them. 

However, when you are writing for translation, you can relax. Repetitive content equals content quality. It is exactly what your translation company wants you to use.


Because consistency is key. It improves clarity and helps reduce costs as translation memories leverage words. Recycling (in this case, re-using existing content) is always a good idea. And CAT (Computer-Aided-Translation) tools do just that: they divide the content into text segments and re-use what has already been translated. 

You pay less, turnaround is faster, and consistency is assured.

#5 Seriously, Forget About Jokes

black and white headshot of man wearing clown glasses, nose and moustache and a cigar in his hand

We all like a good laugh, but nothing is more culture-bound than humor. Think of puns or wordplay. Unfortunately, most humorous intent gets lost in translation, and linguists have no choice but to neutralize it or rack their brains looking for an equivalent in the target language.

Translating jokes and one-liners is time-consuming, not to mention risky. What you find funny may even be considered a cultural taboo overseas. 

Ask yourself: "do I really need jokes to get my message across?" If you don't, avoid humor. Your source content will be easier to translate, and you will not risk rubbing anybody the wrong way.
If, however, you believe humor is a crucial part of what you are writing and you don't want to give it up, transcreation may be what you need (more info in this little guide).

#6 DD-MM-YYYY Vs. MM-DD-YYY. The Problem With International Dates.

Japanese calendar

The United States is one of the very few countries that use "mm-dd-yyyy" as their date format. In some Asian countries, the year is written first, followed by the month and day (yyyy-mm-dd). But in most countries, the day is written first and the year last (dd-mm-yyyy). 

In business communication, this difference is frequently a cause for misunderstanding.

in the States, 06/07/2022 would be June 7th, 2022

But in France, it would be July 6th, 2022.

You can avoid this by writing dates out in full (October 18, 2022), thus making them clear even for international readers who are not familiar with the American date format.

#7 How Long is Long? Imperial Vs. Metric System.

Map of World showing which countries use imperial and which metric system for measurements in 2019

Ounces, inches, and Fahrenheit, not to mention gallons and tablespoons. These measurement units are an unfamiliar or distant memory to most people worldwide. Only the US, Liberia and Myanmar use the imperial system, in which distance, height, weight, or area measurements can be traced back to body parts or everyday items.

When you are writing for translation and you are from a country where measurements are expressed in imperial units, you should add the metric equivalent in parenthesis: 120mph (192,12kph). This addition will ease the translation process and ensure your data are as accurate as you need them.

#8 Cut Down on Phrasal Verbs

Yellow banana cut in half sinking in yellow background

Phrasal verbs are the convenience store of the English language. You take a verb, add a preposition or two, and voilà – you have a wholly new verb, often more direct and idiomatic than its single-word equivalent.

Take a phrasal verb such as "to get."

You "get away" (have a vacation), then "get back" (return from the said vacation). It's time to "get down" (begin) to work. You soon "get wound up" (angry) because you don't "get on" (have a good relationship) with your colleagues, who "get at" you (criticize you all the time). If only you could "get rid of them" (eliminate them). But you can't. So you "get it over with" (finish what you are doing) and "get over it" (stop being bothered by it).

Now put yourself in your translator's sorry shoes and cut down on (avoid!) phrasal verbs. Instead, use the standard verb form to make your text clearer and improve your source content quality.

#9 Use the Active Voice. The Passive Is To Be Avoided (By You).

When a sentence is in passive voice, the object is the one performing the action. Sometimes, the agent who is responsible for the action is even omitted. We may want to do that because we don't know who they are, or they are implied or unimportant, or we'd rather not say.

The passive voice is highly popular with academics ("A research was conducted…") and politicians ("Mistakes were made"). When you were in school, your English teacher (the one obsessed with synonyms) probably told you to avoid passive structure. Except, it turns out that sometimes the passive voice is exactly what you need. Your teacher should have told you: "use active voice as a general rule, and switch to passive only when you have a good reason to."

Why is this even more important if you are writing for translation?


  • Not all languages have a passive voice (for more information, check out this list at The World Atlas of Language Structures)
  • Even though most languages have an alternation of passive and active voices, the use of passive may not be as frequent in other languages as in English. Take French, for example, where the impersonal pronoun "on" is used to make even agent-less sentences active.

So, just this once, your English teacher may have had a point.

#10 Ominous Homonyms & Co.

eggs in tray with painted faces on white surface

More often than not, we can understand the meaning of a word based on the context. However, sometimes the context may not be there to help us. Imagine an Excel spreadsheet, with isolated cells where terms are not preceded or followed by any additional information. In this case, you may be unlucky enough to come across some of the trickiest words in your native language, namely:

HOMONYMS – words with the same sound or spelling but multiple meanings.

e.g.: TIRE (car wheel) and TIRE (fatigue), SHIP (vessel) and SHIP (to dispatch)

HETERONYMS – words that have the same spelling but different meanings and pronunciation

e.g., CONVICT (a prisoner) and CONVICT (to find guilty)

and even CONTRONYMS, a.k.a. Janus words (Janus was an ancient Roman god with two faces that looked in opposite directions), that is to say, terms that, depending on the context, can have opposite or contradictory meanings.

e.g., to LEASE: (to offer property for rent or to hold such property)

SANCTION: (to approve or to punish)

Avoiding these very particular types of words will help clarify your text's meaning and make translation easier.

#11 AAAAAAC (Avoid Acronyms And Abbreviations At All Costs)

white letters stacked on wooden table

If you are a scientific or financial writer, you are no doubt familiar with acronyms and abbreviations of technical terms, which make your everyday communication easier and faster. However, suppose you are writing global content. In that case, you should probably steer clear of them (or at least provide a glossary or explanation of the acronyms and abbreviations you decide to use).

An acronym – i.e., a word formed from the initial letters of several words – rarely translates well into another language (apart from universally understood acronyms such as CEO – Chief Executive Officer). Relying on acronyms and abbreviations when writing for translation can be risky, sometimes leading to dangerous misunderstandings. 

Take AD, for example. 

Authorized Dealer, right? Or is it Art Director? Air Defense? Architectural Design, perhaps? Not to mention the possible meanings the same acronym may have in other languages.

Again, the context may help, or it may not. When writing for translation, the rule of thumb is to write the word in full. The translator will thank you for this, and the target language (TL!) version will be accurate.

#12 Figures of Speech Can Make The Translation Process Go... Pear Shaped

Without figures of speech, language would be dull. Figures of speech give everyday language some poetry, sometimes making even the most mundane topic worth listening to or reading. 

With metaphors, we transfer properties typical of an object or action to another object or action with which they are normally not associated. 

Politicians love them.

At the start of the Space Race, John F. Kennedy announced:

"America has tossed its cap over the wall of space!"

Had he said:

"The US is going to be the first to send its spaceship to the moon,"

his speech would have probably been long forgotten.

But he didn't. And we still remember his exact words.

If your goal is not to make history but to ensure your content is as clear and easily translatable as possible, forget figures of speech. Metaphors are not always obvious and can even pass unnoticed. In that case, they might be translated literally. And this is usually a terrible idea.

When it comes to translating anything but literature, what is important is the meaning of the source text. 

Until, of course, you decide to run for Presidency. In which case you can use all the metaphors you like, and we will be honored to translate your speeches for the world to read.

#13 Keep An Iron Fence Between Your Text and Your Graphics

iron fence locked with chain

Your documents may contain charts, screenshots, or other graphic elements. If those elements contain text, translating them may be very complicated. It may even require some DTP (desktop publishing), inevitably leading to additional costs and a longer turnaround time.

When writing for translation, you can avoid this by creating separate text boxes or callouts in the source text. As a result, the translation will be faster, and you will save money.

#14 Does The Target Language Fit?

a very long name of a town on a road sign against green bushes in background

If you are writing a contract or a technical report, the translation turning out longer than the source text is probably irrelevant. If, however, you are preparing a multilingual brochure or catalog, you need to ensure the layout has sufficient space to accommodate the text in target languages.

Some languages tend to have greater individual word length – German being one of these. Want an example? 

Rinderkennzeichnungsfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz is currently the longest word in the Duden dictionary. Try fitting that one into a narrow column. 

On the other hand, other languages may have shorter words but a more complex syntax and, therefore, higher word count (Italian, for example). 

But the result is the same: the translation may take more space (up to thirty percent!) compared to your English text. 

So, if you want to ensure you don't have problems with text expansion, ask our team of experts at LingPerfect. Depending on the language, we can tell you how much your text will likely bump up once translated.

#15 Who, What, When, Where, and Why. Details Matter.

Silhouette of Sherlock Holmes

The five old W's. They apply to journalism, research, police investigation, and writing for translation. Whoever translates for you needs to know exactly what you want to say, to whom you are saying it, and why.

Plus, any relevant background information (reference materials). For example, in what context is the translation going to be used? How formal does it need to be? This sort of information is crucial, especially in hierarchical cultures where a high level of formality is expected in some circles.

Need Further Help With Getting Your Source Text Translation-Ready?

Black and white headshots of LingPerfect language expert team members

If you follow these 15 tips when writing for translation, you can rest assured that the process will be accurate, fast, and cost-effective. Of course, you will also become your translator's favorite client, which is a bonus.

If your content is already available and you don't have the time for linguistic subtleties, remember at LingPerfect translation company, we can deal with the consultation and editing of source texts to ensure their seamless translation.

Our experts are at your disposal.

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