Welcome back, dear readers!
Missed me and my wonderful contributors? I have just returned from a much-deserved 20-day vacation, during which time I did not work at all nor post on social media and on the blog. However, before and after those 20 days, of course things were/are hectic, so that is why I have been absent from the blog. Bear with me for a while, and I promise it will be worth it. I have been working in the background, inviting people, having post ideas, so I will come back with our regular editorial calendar at full speed.
And now let’s return in great style with a dear and talented colleague I had the pleasure of meeting at last IAPTI’s Conference, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in April, Joanna Richardson.
Plain Language and Translation: Think of the Reader
My work: plain language instructor for professionals
While not actually working as a translator, my job for the past 15 years at Argentina’s largest law firm, teaching lawyers how to write in plain English and editing their published work, has kept me closely in contact with the difficulties that professionals face when writing in English as a second language.
Translating complex legal texts into English, and making them understandable for foreign clients is a daily challenge, but don’t worry, plain language can help!
What is plain language?
|A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.
Source: International Plain Language Federation
How did it all start?
Quintilian was talking about plain language back in Roman times. But the modern plain language movement kicked off in the 1970s, when grassroots consumer rights associations started to ask their governments to improve their documents. In the UK, in 1974, two elderly ladies died of hypothermia after not being able to fill in a form for fuel subsidies: the Plain English Campaign, still going strong, came into being as result of this tragedy. In the USA the New York Tax Law was revised into plain language in 1978 in response to consumer pressure.
Plain language around the world
Today, the UK is a leading example of this trend and the government website gov.uk has won awards for both design and plain language. In the USA, the Plain Writing Act was enacted in 2010 and around the world, both English-speaking and other, there are many instances of plain language legislation and its positive effects for citizens, and how it saves money for both private and public institutions. The two NGOs: Clarity and PLAIN (Plain Language Association International) have many examples of plain language worldwide on their websites. And the Center for Plain Language, a US-based NGO, also has many examples.
The EU is one international organization that has been aware of this problem for some time. In 1998 they published a booklet on clear translations called Fight the Fog, but the situation deteriorated as the EU grew and took on more languages. In 2011 the booklet was updated by plain English expert Martin Cutts, author of the Oxford Guide to Plain English, and was published in 23 of the EU’s languages: How to write clearly. This booklet can be downloaded free here and has lots of tips on how to avoid EU-speak and improve translations. But even so, it is not mandatory in the EU so many of the suggestions go unheeded. For many languages this is still their only plain language resource.
Plain language for translators
We are not talking about plain language in literature, but official government documentation, forms, contracts and legal writing, the sort of things that citizens have to deal with every day on and offline. These kinds of documents are often written in very complex language and when they are translated, things only go from bad to worse.
Who are these kinds of official documents written for?
The people who have to read them are pushed for time and these days, generally reading them on a small screen. We need to think of our readers today, particularly when translating. Getting the message over to the reader without losing their attention is a constant challenge. And plain language is a great tool.
Bear in mind these 8 recommendations for plain language in translation:
- Write short sentences – even if this means chopping up an excessively long sentence and rewriting it into 2 or 3 sentences.
- Use active voice – the passive voice is useful but is always longer and less direct. It fails to mention the doer, so can be ambiguous.
- Avoid nominalizations – like information or application. Use the verb form like inform or apply to make your writing stronger.
- Avoid sexist language – in English it is not acceptable to use the male pronoun to refer to both genders and the modern tendency is non-binary, using the gender-neutral pronoun they in the singular.
- Use everyday words – and if you must use jargon, explain it.
- Avoid the negative – it is not a clear way of thinking.
- Use personal pronouns – address your reader directly.
- Avoid shall which has an ambiguous meaning that lends itself to confusion. Use must for obligation and the present tense when something is simply a statement.
So, next time you are translating a government form or a financial document, first think of your reader and translate it into plain language!
What an insightful post, Joanna! Thanks a lot for your kind and rich contribution!
About the author
Joanna Richardson is a British national who has made Buenos Aires, Argentina her home.
With a background in literature and translation, since 2002 Joanna has taught plain English writing skills to Spanish-speaking lawyers at Argentina’s leading law firm, Marval, O’Farrell & Mairal.
More recently she has applied her expertise from the clear communications field to coach professionals in public speaking.
Joanna enjoys creative writing and making chutney in her spare time.