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Style Matters

(Originally published October 2011)


Why does style matter in translation? Striking a balance between substance and style, considering both what is said and how it is said, can make all the difference in ensuring that your messaging is consistent, effective, and meets the needs of your target audience no matter what the language. It is essential to be clear and consistent when working with a language services provider (LSP) regarding style preferences and specifications. So, what are some factors that affect style or are a matter of style preference?



What Can Impact Style?

1. The purpose of the translation: The purpose of the translation, whether it is to market, to engage employees, to inform, or to give legal consent, can significantly impact what style is optimal or preferred. Therefore, you may need more than one set of style specifications depending on the purpose of each of the types of documents that you need to have translated.


2. The target audience: Be sure to specify the following regarding your target audience in order to identify style preferences: the target locale, level of education, average age, and other relevant demographic information. For example, if the translation is for a target audience that primarily resides in the U.S., the style used in these translations will likely be different than if the target audience resided in another location.


What Style Preferences are Key?

1. The importance of form of address: In many languages, it is critical to determine if the form of address needed is formal or informal, which can affect grammar and the style used. In some languages, such as Chinese and Japanese, the formal versus the informal vary significantly, so it is even more important to clarify which is needed prior to the start of the translation project. It is also very important to identify whether formal or informal are needed for Spanish because it affects the grammar used and it would be important to be consistent once the form of address is chosen. In some instances, such as legal text, formal is generally the more obvious choice. However, in material like web content or marketing brochures, using formal versus informal is more a matter of preference, depending on your target audience, the tone or mood you are trying to convey, etc.


2. What register is preferred: Depending on the purpose of the translation and the demographics of your target audience, it may also be important to specify at what reading level or register you need your translation to be written. When considering register, it is also important to review and in some cases revise the source or original version because if it is written in a higher register, it may be much harder to translate to a lower register if that is what is needed.


3. What should be translated and what should be left in the original language: Clarify whether or not to translate certain items, such as names of events, programs, products and job titles. On the other hand, if these items need to be in both languages, then specify the style or format to be used such as whether the translation or the original text comes first, is separated by parentheses, etc. In some cases, for example, the preference may be to have the text translated the first time it appears with the English in parentheses and then use the translation from then on. However, if the English terms is more commonly used, such as for a certain organization name, then it may be best to have the English the first time it appears with a translation in parentheses and then use the English that point forward.


4. What needs to be localized: When needed, indicate whether proper names used in examples can be changed to more locally appropriate names for that target language. This may also be the case for geographic names. Other items that may need to be localized or changed include examples or images that are culturally or regionally bound like a sports reference, for instance, to baseball or American football that may not exist in another country, etc.


5. Disclaimers regarding links to content that is not translated: In some cases, it would also be good to indicate whether there are links to websites or other content that will not be translated. In many such instances, it would be best to provide a translated disclaimer in parentheses that lets the reader know that this text is in the original language. For example, if a link is in English and the translation is in Spanish, the disclaimer would read: (en inglés).


6. The preferred style for numbers, dates, time, currency, and measurements: Be sure to specify what style is preferred for numbers, dates, time, currency, and measurements. For example, if the translated document will be used in the United States, the preference may be to retain the U.S. style. On the other hand, to give the translation a more local appeal, it may be preferable to change these to the common style for that particular language or locale.


7. How to handle acronyms and abbreviations: Clarify the style needed for acronyms and abbreviations such as whether to spell them out in parentheses the first time they appear, and whether to keep the original acronym or abbreviation versus using a target language equivalent.


8. Which capitalization rules to use: The style for capitalization of headings and titles varies for different languages. It is typically more appropriate to use the capitalization rules of the target language, so be sure to consult with your language services provider if you would like to make an exception to the capitalization standard for that language. For example, the English capitalization style for the heading of this section “What Style Preferences are Key” would typically be “What style preferences are key” with only the first word capitalized when translated into languages such as Spanish or French. So, be sure to specify which capitalization rules are preferred.


9. How gender forms should be expressed: The he/she or s/he forms, which are often used in English to be inclusive when referring to a general audience, may be less common or more cumbersome to use in another language. Check with your LSP to determine what is best for that language, particularly if you have specific concerns regarding gender pronouns or if more than one option is available in the target language.


When balancing style and substance in translation, clarify matters of style early and often to ensure consistent, quality translations that meet expectations and communication goals in any language!

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