Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Martin A. Schell
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In most cases, you can't anticipate the number of languages that your work might be translated into nor the skill of the translators. However, there is something you can do to ensure that your meaning will be conveyed more accurately throughout the world: write the original English version as clearly as possible.
When writing for a global audience, it is essential to adopt an attitude of inclusiveness that embraces readers who are unfamiliar with North American idioms and who may be incompletely fluent in our language. Simplifying your syntax will have minimal effect on your style but it will greatly enhance the ability of worldwide readers to understand your content.
If a reader's native language is not among the handful of languages that your document has been translated into, he or she would much rather read "Global English" than English that is full of buzzwords, euphemisms, and unexplained acronyms. In addition, translators often find that Global English is easier to work with than American English, thereby reducing translation time and errors.
Here are some specific Global English tips for authors of articles, reports, manuals, brochures, press releases, web content, and other forms of nonfiction.
1. Reduce ambiguity. If it's possible to interpret a word in two different ways, chances are that some people will see it one way while others see it another way. In addition to being aware of multiple meanings, remember that some words can function as multiple parts of speech. Be particularly careful about using once or since as a conjunction:
2. Simplify syntax by reducing subordinate clauses and modifier phrases.
3. Minimize the total number of compound nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs in your sentences.
4. Express an action as a verb rather than as a gerund. If a simple verb doesn't work in a particular context, an infinitive will generally be less confusing than a gerund.
Broadening Your Cultural Perspective
In addition to the four restrictive tips, here are three more suggestions which may serve to loosen up your usual writing style. These suggestions are designed to broaden your perspective and make you aware of some language patterns used in other cultures.
1. Use active and passive voices judiciously. The tradition favoring active voice in expository writing goes back at least a century. However, some languages prefer the passive voice because it supports a cultural ideal that discourages the use of the first person as a subject.
For example, in some Asian cultures, it can be taken as a sign of immodesty or even arrogance to say I have decided... or We expect... Instead, the preferred phrases would be the equivalent of It was decided... and It is expected...
If one or more of these cultures are essential segments of your intended audience, you can make the translation of your document easier by restraining your normal emphasis on the active voice. In any case -- if your audience is worldwide or if you don't know which languages your document will be translated into -- don't force yourself to convert every verb into the active voice.
2. Be clear even when you need to be indirect. In international communication, the risk of arousing disagreement with a clear statement is usually a better gamble than the risk of causing confusion with an unclear statement.
In situations that call for nuance, subtlety, or finesse, make sure that your indirect statements are clear statements: They should be easy to understand, or at least easy to translate. Consider the differences among the following three statements.
3. Restate some of your key ideas using different terms. Some writers (and many editors) prefer a tight style that uses words sparingly. However, when writing for a global audience, you need to build flexibility into your content so that it can survive the possible mistranslation of one or more terms.
Many of us have heard that Eskimos use several words for our single word snow. On the other hand, Japanese people who study English find our distinction see-look-watch confusing because their language uses a single word for all three verbs.
A lack of one-to-one correspondence between a term in your English-language document and its nearest equivalent in another language can easily result in mistranslation or misunderstanding. For example, in some Southeast Asian cultures, the concept of formality and the concept of politeness are closely intertwined.
However, you can never anticipate all of the possible mismatches that could occur between the vocabulary of English and those of the various languages your document might be translated into. A better approach is to build some redundancy into your content by making sentences overlap so that they support each other and produce a clear context for all of the paragraph's ideas.
In sum, it is always a good idea to write in clear, globally understood English. If your document is later translated, Global English will be easier for your translator(s) to work with. If you write for a global audience that includes people whose native language is not English, they will appreciate the fact that your document is easier to understand than most other English-language documents.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Martin A. Schell lives in Central Java, in his wife's native city of Klaten. He has been living continuously in East Asia (Japan, Thailand, and Indonesia) since 1984, working as an editor of Japanese-to-English translations, an English skills instructor at two universities, a teacher of gemology with students from six different continents, export agent, and a marketing adviser. He is now a freelance editor and webmaster. He is co-author (with David W. Paul) of Globally Speaking.