How to write for translation (and it isn’t easy unless you know how)

Much as English is one of the top three most widely used languages in the world, not everyone speaks it. If you need to write materials to be translated into other languages, here are some of the dangers – and remedies…

Allow for different language lengths

Strictly speaking, this is more of a design issue. But it can affect the words, too. If you intend to use the same visual template for more than one language version, ensure that your design allows for differing amounts of text (or spoken speech.)

Bear in mind that English is the just about the shortest of the world’s commercial languages. So if your text is a tight fit in English, you’ll be way over length in many other languages. You need up to three times as much space for some of them, e.g. Greek and Finnish. So keep your English version short and sweet.

If accuracy is essential, use the lowest common denominators

Sadly, figurative speech doesn’t translate. However translators valiantly attempt to do it, often with unfortunately amusing results. Here’s an example from an article of mine that appeared on the US marketing website,  My original paragraph:

Probably the most important part of getting your writing right is to really know what makes your customers (or any other audience) tick. Customer analysis techniques are great for getting hard facts and data. But if you want to write so you touch their hearts, you need to back up the formal information with something a bit more emotional.

 The Spanish translation that appeared on a South American Web site:

Probablemente la parte más importante de escribir bien es saber realmente que es lo que a sus clientes (o cualquier otra audiencia) les llama la atención. Las técnicas de análisis de clientes son buenas para poder obtener hechos e información. Pero si quiere escribir para llegar muy cerca de su corazón, usted necesita respaldar la información formal con algo emocional.

 How Google translated it back into English:

Probablemente the part most important to write or is to really know that is what to his clients (or any other hearing) it calls the attention to them. The techniques of analysis of clients are good to be able to obtain facts and information. But if he wants to write to arrive closely together from his heart, you need to endorse the formal information with something emocional.

 Phew. Lucky it wasn’t instructions for open heart surgery. Had I been writing my piece for multiple languages, I would have written it like this, with simple syntax and all figurative speech stripped out:

To write effectively, it is most important that the writer knows the customers (or any other group you’re writing for) very well, and understands how they think. It’s possible to get useful facts and information from customer analysis techniques. However, if the writer wants to appeal to customers emotionally, emotional writing must be added to the formal information.

Boring, isn’t it? But it wouldn’t be open to quite so many misunderstandings. Yes, misunderstandings can be funny. But in a marketing or sales context, they can be costly, too.

Be aware of how other languages work

You notice in the paragraphs above that I’ve removed my beloved “you” in favour of “the writer.” This is especially important if you’re writing for languages like Spanish or Portuguese, where often they don’t talk to “you,” but to the third person.

I believe that’s why things went wrong with the translation of that article on the South American Web site. The translators haven’t been able to figure out that “he” and “you” are the same person.

Try as far as you can to organize your grammar and syntax in the English version so that they’re as simple as possible. That makes it easier for translators to get it right.

Ad copy and brand names: only by experts, please

There are some lessons to learn here about writing for branding and ad copy in multiple languages:

1. Get the homework and background research done by marcom experts in every language market you’re going to. One Spanish-speaking country will have words and interpretations that are different from those of another Spanish-speaking country. Brazilian Portuguese is different from the Portuguese in Portugal. Parisian French is slightly different from Belgian French and Swiss French and Québécois French. And that’s before we even get started on languages in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and beyond.

2. Make sure that your translations are done not just by translation experts in each language but by translation experts who understand how to write ad copy. Insist on this when you hire the translation agency. They may think it’s OK to use a native-speaker journalist or other professional writer who isn’t a trained copywriter. That’s not good enough if you want to get bang for your buck in the foreign ad spend.

3. It’s impossible to judge the quality of translations into languages you don’t speak, so get them double-checked by an appropriate native speaker. Don’t leave it to the translation agency; play it safe. Preferably, get a native-speaker copywriter (perhaps from the local ad agency?) to run through it and tighten it up if necessary.

Any questions? Jot them down here in the comments section and I’ll answer them as efficiently as I can!

More help for your writing in any language:

“Super Speeches”…how to write and deliver them well

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English




  1. Hi Suze, to be fair to the translators who did the Spanish version I think they did get the ‘you’ thing right and had a pretty good stab at adapting the figurative language. The translator who messed up was Google with its literal, word-for-word translation!


  1. says:

    How to write for translation that works (and it isn’t easy unless you know how)…

    Although the English language is one of the most widely used in the world, there are times when you need to know how to write for translation into other languages. Pro bizwriter Suzan St Maur shares her own experience and tips……