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Writing for a global audience April 8, 2009

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Business practices, Random musings, Translation Sites.
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As the world grows smaller, the Plain English movement is becoming more and more popular. The Plain English Campaign, which is based in the UK, has been in existence since 1979, but it is really starting to gain in popularity due to globalization and the Internet. Whether it’s called Plain English or Plain Language, the idea behind it is the same. In a nutshell, Plain English ensures that readers all over the world will understand a text by teaching authors to avoid stilted jargon and complex sentence constructions. Plain English advocates the use of “plain English” in public communications and tries to avoid the use of “gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information” in government departments and official organizations, but it isn’t a bad idea for multinational companies or companies who want to do business overseas to learn about it either.

The Northeast Ohio Translators Association is planning a presentation on Plain English on May 30th. We are also inviting the local tech writer group, Northeast Ohio STC. I am very excited about this presentation, because I think it will give translators insight into the minds of the authors of our texts and will illustrate how Plain English might make our jobs easier.

WikiHow has a featured article called “How to Write for a Global Audience.” As it explains:

If you’re advertising or writing about a carbonated beverage, what do you call it? Soda? Pop? Fizzy drink? Mineral? All of these terms are “correct” depending on where your readers are. Today, there is a greater chance of your work being read by someone on a different continent, especially if you write online. It’s predicted that by 2011, there will be 1.5 billion people with Internet access, with most new users coming from Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Problems can also arise within the same language depending on which country the text is targeted (as we all know, Brazilian Portuguese is not the same as Portuguese in Portugal, Spain and Mexico have very different languages, etc.). One cited example in the WikiHow article is the use of rubber: “asking to borrow a ‘rubber’ in the U.K. will get you what in the U.S. is called an ‘eraser,’ whereas the same request in the U.S. is likely to be interpreted as a slang word for ‘condom’.” Authors need to be aware of all possible cultural quagmires – as should translators.

As translators, it is (hopefully) ingrained in us to use the proper terminology based on the target audience and know when to best use passive and active voice in a text. We are also instantly cognizant of cultural differences that may present a problem and know how to best convey ideas that might not have a cultural equivalence in the target language. I was also taught to mirror the author’s register (meaning if the author uses informal language the translation should as well and vice versa) and to avoid using colloquisms and contractions whenever possible. But the article also includes tips that you might not realize.

Ah, if only the authors of the texts we need to translate would learn more about Plain English…

As an aside, although they don’t focus on Plain English per se… if you are interested in learning more about globalization and global marketing I can recommend two good books: Business without Borders: A Strategic Guide to Global Marketing by Donald A. DePalma and The World is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman. Both books are suggested reading for Kent State University’s Localization class.

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Comments»

1. Karen Tkaczyk - April 9, 2009

Nice topic! I’ll have to look into that for NITA.
I’m working with someone who does not use plain English at the moment and I want to revise everything with about a 25% reduction in volume. It’s a bit frustrating.
The rubber/eraser difference still trips me up. My children are at the frequent rubbing out/erasing age so it crops up frequently at home and school. As does jumper/pullover. I tell my boys to put their jumper on and get weird looks from passing adults.

2. Mike Unwalla - April 10, 2009

Quote: Plain English ensures that readers all over the world will understand a text by teaching authors to avoid stilted jargon and complex sentence constructions.

I disagree. Plain English is not good for international readers.

Plain English says nothing about the use of syntactic cues, which help to make the structure of a sentence clear.

Plain English (indirectly) encourages writers to use multi-word verbs instead of their one-word equivalents. Many international readers struggle with multi-word verbs because the meaning of the verb is not the sum of its parts. For example, compare these words:
* ‘put up with’ and ‘tolerate’
* ‘fall out’ and ‘disagree’
* ‘put of’ and ‘delay’

Plain English does not tell writers to use a word with its primary meaning.

The best guidelines that I know about are in ‘The Global English style guide: writing clear, translatable documentation for a global market’ by John R Kohl, 2008 (ISBN 978-1-59994-657-3). For a review of the book, see http://www.techscribe.co.uk/ta/global-english-style-guide.htm. (Although the book’s title contains the word ‘documentation’, the guidelines apply to most business texts.)

3. MT - April 20, 2009

I personally think that the Plain English movement has good intentions but isn’t appropriate for most (translational) purposes. If you would bother to translate something from English into French for use in France, then I think you should “translate” something from UK English into US English for use in the United States as well. English is *sooo* different country to country (and it’s more than just spelling…) that it’s best not to pretend it’s more cohesive and consistent than it is; the Plain English thing tries to ignore this simple reality.


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