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The problem of text expansion in translation

Twitter’s strict 140 character limit is either eroding English grammar or sparking creativity, depending on your point of view. Shortenings such as lol, imo, tmi and icymi are all becoming part of our everyday language.

But if you’re a Chinese or Japanese microblogger then you’re unlikely to have this problem. These character-based languages only take up around a third of the space of English, meaning users of Twitter or Sina Weibo (a Chinese equivalent) rarely reach the limit.

Switch to Spanish, and you’ll have to use your imagination even more. The language is around 40 per cent “wordier” than English, meaning social media users tend to resort to more abbreviations, cut out words and use non-standard grammar.

Language lovers have set up the project, Twiccionario , to look at how Spanish speakers modify their language on the network.

Translators have always been aware of the problem of language expansion and contraction. But it’s now more of an issue than ever in areas such as website design, software localisation and social media.

If you’re localising your website into another language, then the chances are the different text lengths could play havoc with your design.

Here’s an example from the Lingo24 website – the same passage in French takes up 52% more space.

Managing translation can be complex – at Lingo24 we make it simple, fun and inexpensive. 

La gestion de traduction est un exercice qui peut s’avérer complexe : chez Lingo24, nous l’avons rendu simple, agréable et bon marché.

Other long-winded languages include Hungarian (around 35 per cent longer than English), Italian (30 per cent), Tagalog and German (both about 28 per cent longer). Arabic is another relatively concise language, taking up about 15 per cent less space than English.

This problem becomes even trickier when it comes to short sentences designed for restricted spaces such as text boxes, menus and dialog boxes. Microsoft advises web designers to allow for an expansion of 30 per cent in areas such as interface design, where there is some flexibility. But they suggest allowing around 100 percent for message boxes. A typical example is the English word “move” which almost triples in length to “verschieben” in German.

Futhermore, they recommend that designers avoid having software rely on the position of text in a box or window, as it may need to be moved in translation.

Another issue with German is its tendency to run words together into one long word, meaning it looks inelegant split across two lines. Even a simple idea such as “speed limit” is expressed by Geschwindigkeitsbeschränkungen, while some of the wonderfully descriptive compound words include  Handschuhschneeballwerfer – a person who wears gloves to throw snowballs!

 Of course building flexibility into the design is important, as is explaining to translators any restrictions on characters. One advantage of Lingo24’s Mirror “translation proxy” solution is that translators can see the website design as they’re working, and translate the text directly onto a “mirror” of the original site. They’re constantly aware of any restrictions on length and can try different words or synonyms to make sure the text fits nicely.

Another area where words and characters come at a premium is online ads, such as Google Ads or other pay-per-click campaigns. It’s not easy to get your message across succinctly in the first place, but it’s especially tricky to convey it in another language.

In fact, this is an area where transcreation, rather than translation, is needed. Coming up with a snappy, persuasive text, that fits both the culture and character restrictions, is a tricky job best left to an experienced multilingual copywriter.

And language length isn’t the only problem. While Chinese and other character-based languages tend to be much more concise than English, the characters are often taller and take up more vertical space. Designers also need to take this into account.

Clearly, translation and localisation involve a lot more than just getting the meaning right. But we think the variations between  the world’s languages are some of the reasons why they’re so fascinating!

Hazel Mollison

Hazel Mollison edits and writes for the Lingo24 blog. After studying Italian and German at Cambridge University, she worked as a journalist for five years with regional and national newspapers. She enjoys writing about languages, translation, online marketing, and helping small businesses explore new opportunities.

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