Writing for translation
This section will address things you can do to help non-native English speakers better comprehend your text.
We try to write all of our content in standard, straightforward English that can be understood by users with limited English proficiency. It’s much easier for a translator to clearly communicate ideas written in straightforward, uncomplicated sentences.
Here are some guiding principles:
- Use active voice. We always aim for this, but it’s especially important when writing for translation.
- Use the subject-verb-object sentence structure. It’s not used by all languages, but it’s widely recognized.
- Use positive words when talking about positive situations. For example, because a question like “Don’t you think she did a great job?” begins with a negative word, a non-native English speaker may interpret its implication as negative. A better version would be “She did a good job, right?”
We generally follow what’s outlined in the voice and tone and style elements sections. But in this section more than others, some style points contradict what’s stated elsewhere in the guide. If you’re writing something to be translated, the guidelines in this section should take precedence.
Consider cultural differences
Skylight’s voice is conversational and friendly. However, in some cultures, this voice may be considered too informal. Check with your translator to see if this is the case for the particular language you’re writing for.
The translation company should give the option to translate in a formal or informal tone, if the language allows for it. (For example, in Spanish, it’s possible to write informally where tú = you or formally where usted = you.)
When writing text that will be translated, be careful about making references to things of local or regional importance. These may not be recognizable to readers outside the U.S.
Keep your copy brief, but don’t sacrifice clarity for brevity. You may need to repeat or add words to make the meaning of your sentences clear to a translator.
Repeat verbs that have multiple subjects
Customers who have ordered online can pick up their food at the cashier. Walk-in customers should stop by the cashier to order their food.
Customers who have ordered online or who are walk-ins should stop at the cashier to order or pick up their food.
Repeat helping verbs belonging to multiple verbs
Customers can order their food online or can call to order.
Customers can order their food online or call to order.
Repeat subjects and verbs
The Standard order comes with fries, but the Essentials order does not.
The Standard order comes with fries, but not the Essentials order.
Repeat markers in a list or series
Use Skylight to create a product that your users love, to modernize data collection, and to make your data open and accessible to the public
Use Skylight to create a product that your users love, modernize data collection, and make your data open and accessible to the public.
Avoid ambiguity and confusion
Many words, parts of speech, and grammar mechanics we don’t think twice about have the potential to cause confusion for translators and non-native English speakers. Here are some of the big trouble spots to avoid.
Use contractions with caution when writing for translation. Make sure to prioritize clarity. Take into account context and conventions around formal vs. informal tone.
Unclear pronoun references
Many believe that UFOs are real. Such belief is interesting, but this belief is not supported by evidence.
Many believe that UFOs are real. This is interesting, but it’s not supported by evidence.
Avoid -ing words
In English, many different types of words end in -ing: nouns, adjectives, progressive verbs, etc. But a translator who is a non-native English speaker may not be able to recognize the distinctions and may try to translate them all in the same way.
Because of this, we want to avoid -ing words when possible. One exception to this rule is words like “graphing calculator” and “riding lawnmower,” where the -ing word is part of a noun’s name and can’t be worked around.
Here are some other cases where you might see -ing words, and suggestions for how to edit around them.
At the top of the hill, you can see a boy with a smile on his face.
At the top of the hill, you can see a smiling boy.
In this article we will talk about how to make your data open and accessible to the public
In this article we will talk about making your data open and accessible to the public.
Parts of verbs
Several developers are currently working on that feature.
Several developers are working on that feature. (When you can’t easily avoid the -ing word, it may help to add an adverb to clarify the meaning.)
Parts of phrases modifying nouns
From our backyard, we could hear the planes that took off from the airport.
From our backyard, we could hear the planes taking off from the airport.
Other words and mechanics to avoid
- Slang, idioms, and cliches
- Shortened words, even if they’re common in English (use “application,” not “app”)
- Uncommon foreign words (use “genuine,” not “bona fide”)
- Unnecessary abbreviations (use “for example,” not “e.g.”)
- Converting one part of speech into another if it isn’t already commonly used (use “send us an email” instead of “message us”)
- Non-standard or indirect verb usage (use “he says,” not “he’s like” or “he was all”)
- Double negatives
- Synonyms, generally. Don’t use a lot of different words for the same thing in a single piece of writing. Instead of mixing it up, pick one term and stick with it.
Beware words with multiple meanings
“Once” (could mean “one time,” “after,” “in the past,” or “when”)
After you log in, you will see your account’s Dashboard.
Once you log in, you will see your account’s Dashboard.
“Right” (could mean “correct,” “the opposite of left,” “politically conservative,” etc.)
In the File Manager, click the correct image and drag it to the pane at right.
In the File Manager, click the right image and drag it to the right pane.
“Since” (could refer to a point in time, or a synonym of “because”)
Because you already know the answer, you can answer the question.
Since you already know the answer, you can answer the question.
“Require” plus an infinitive (could confuse the relationship between subject and object)
Transactions can be made from a user’s account.
An account is required to make a transaction. (This could imply that users with accounts are required to make a transaction.)
“Has” or “have” plus past participle (could confuse the relationship between subject and object)
The folder contains relevant documents.
The folder has relevant documents.
When writing for an international audience, use the metric system. Spell out all units and avoid abbreviation.
Many countries call their currency “the dollar,” but the value is going to differ between countries. The U.S. dollar is not the same as the Canadian dollar, for example. So it’s important to specify.
Indicate currency by using its three-letter abbreviation, such as USD or CAD. Don’t use currency symbols, like $ or €.
Avoid colloquial phrases that relate to money, like “five-and-dime,” “greenbacks,” or “c-notes.” These won’t translate well.