Where does translation fit into plain language? An information-gathering post

Where does translation fit into the plain language process?

What struck me most when rebuilding Supply and Services Canada’s plain language guides (Plain Language: Clear and Simple and Pour un style clair et simple) was that the French guides aren’t simply the English guides, translated. Although both guides teach the same underlying principles—understanding your audience and the purpose of your document; planning and organizing your document before writing; achieving clarity at the word, sentence, and paragraph levels; implementing a design that supports readability; and user testing with your intended audience—the differences in content between these guides drove home that plain language is language specific.

“Well, obviously,” you might be thinking. Different languages have different grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, each rife with opportunities for ambiguity that have to be tackled individually. The French guides, for instance, address appropriate usage of the indefinite pronoun “on” in plain language, which isn’t a consideration in English. Studies have also shown a “language-specific rhetorical bias” when it comes to using (and by extension, tolerating) the passive voice.

What’s more, the audiences are likely to be vastly different. Even within Canada, French and English speakers have different cultural backgrounds, and those who have neither French nor English as their first language are more likely to learn English than French, meaning that publications in English have to be more sensitive to the needs of ESL speakers than those in French to FSL speakers. A document in plain French, if translated into English, may no longer be plain.

So, being a bit of a workflow nerd, I wondered where translation best fits into the plain language process. Translators have complained that translation is often an afterthought, not considered until the document in the source language is complete. In many cases, though, given that the clarity of the source text can determine the quality of the translation, working with a fully polished text makes sense. Yet, the inherent differences in audience would imply that, for documents that we know will be available in more than one language, developing separate texts in parallel, from the outset, would most effectively get the message across. This approach would be a nightmare for translation revisers and designers of bilingual documents, however, and it certainly isn’t the most budget-friendly option. Would the most efficient approach be to translate after plain language editing but before design, then do parallel testing sessions for the source and target languages?

If you or your organization translates plain language documents, tell me—what do you do? How well does your system work, and what would you change?

5 thoughts on “Where does translation fit into plain language? An information-gathering post”

  1. It’s such a huge topic, Iva! I’ll put together a few thoughts and let you know. They’ll be based on my experience as a translator and “clear communication” specialist, and on process improvement teams.

  2. Both design and translation are best engaged in the planning stage. As you suggest, the “translation” will actually be development of the product in a different language and cultural context.

  3. Your post touches on so many fascinating topics, Iva!

    Since my reply is quite long, I’ve posted it on Google Drive:

    You’ll see a few comments about these 5 aspects:
    1. How language-specific is plain language?
    2. If the original is in plain language, will the translation be, too?
    3. Where does translation fit in the writing process?
    4. Examples: translation in plain language (reader-focused) projects
    5. Short conclusion: the writing process

    I hope it will bring your information gathering to a good start!


  4. Dominique makes many great and useful points. One of the points that I would disagree with is that the translator is only focused on translating and does not have the subject matter expertise. This can be true with many translation companies that put any translator on a project. We are a translation company with a division in Health Literacy. We have been in the English and foreign language field for a long time because it brings the whole content lifecycle full circle. If we are involved in the writing of the English pieces, we have all that information then to share with the translation team (the specific team that is chosen based on their experience with Plain Language and their subject matter expertise). It is so important for translators to get all that background information on the target audience – who they are, the goals of the writing, the desired behavior/action you want the reader to take, etc. At this point, the translation team can also help “localize” your document. I have seen one too many food pyramids not take into account the cultural nuances of a group. For Disease Management booklets, we may localize with the foods that are suggested, change the names to reflect the reader, change the content in a testimony to reflect the culture. But above all, testing is the key – for English and for the other languages. We can never know if something is clear enough if we have not actually tested it with our audience.

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