How long is your language?

How long is your language? Help for translations on HowToWriteBetter.netIf you ever have to write website or other text in English that is to be translated into other languages – then either fitted into a text grid, or if it’s a video narration, recorded to picture, you’ll know just what a terrible nightmare it can be.

That’s due to the fact that languages take different amounts of space and time to say the same thing. If you know what those differences are, however, you can plan around them at an early stage so you minimize the discrepancies.

So your diligent writing friend here decided to do a little research to find out exactly how much longer or shorter than English some of the world’s main languages are, so when this issue arises in our business lives we will all have a handy guide to refer to.

All I found via my trusty Google was endless vague approximations in blog posts and websites, often vigorously argued against in the comments. After an hour or two I was no further forward. Frustration flourished. The dogs and cats left the office and hid upstairs. Mommy was swearing again.

If you want something done properly, do it yourself.

Right, I said through gritted jacket crowns: I will conduct my own study using the wonder tools of the internet, a calculator, and several cups of strong coffee.

For my research sample I took randomly a 297 character paragraph from one of my other articles, as follows…

Given that events in your business – and those of your customers – are likely to be changing as rapidly as everything else, there shouldn’t be a problem for you to find enough material. If you should find yourself short of ideas, look beyond your own immediate business and examine related issues. 

Not a long piece but enough to give us a fairly realistic indication. I have included the “plus” or “minus” number of characters (including spaces) for all 48 languages, but for those written in highly disparate writing systems and script I haven’t calculated the percentages as I don’t think they would reflect the differences accurately. (Please correct me if I’m wrong here…)

Bear in mind that this is applicable mainly to the written word rather than the spoken word, as some languages vary in how quickly or slowly they are spoken. However given that the word counts roughly tallied with the character counts when I did the calculations, we can assume that these figures are a reasonable estimate for audio and video scripts, too.

Languages longer than English, in descending order

French (+96) 33 percent longer

Filipino (+85) 32 percent longer

Albanian (+61)  21 percent longer

Greek (+60) 20 percent longer

Malay (+56) 19 percent longer

Romanian (+45) 15 percent longer

Polish (+44) 15 percent longer

Indonesian (+36) 12 percent longer

Swahili (+33) 11 percent longer

Welsh (+33) 11 percent longer

Bulgarian (+30) 10 percent longer

Portuguese (+27) 9 percent longer

Belarusian (+23) 8 percent longer

Catalan (+23) 8 percent longer

Italian (+22) 8 percent longer

Maltese (+21) 7 percent longer

Macedonian (+19) 6 percent longer

Russian (+18) 6 percent longer

Spanish (+15) 5 percent longer

Afrikaans (+13) 4 percent longer

Latvian (+11) 3 percent longer

German (+9) 3 percent longer

Vietnamese (+8) 3 percent longer

Languages shorter than English, in descending order

Hungarian (-56) 23 percent shorter

Turkish (-50) 20 percent shorter

Estonian (-35) 13 percent shorter

Dutch (-26) 10 percent shorter

Finnish (-22) 8 percent shorter

Slovak (-21) 8 percent shorter

Lithuanian (-19) 7 percent shorter

Czech (-16) 6 percent shorter

Croatian (-15) 5 percent shorter

Serbian (-15) 5 percent shorter

Norwegian (-12) 4 percent shorter

Languages roughly the same length as English

Danish (+2)

Swedish (+2)

Icelandic (+1)

Slovenian (-1)

Ukranian (-7)

Languages written in script

Arabic (-69*)

Chinese (-207*)

Hebrew (-75*)

Hindi (-5*)

Japanese (-154*)

Korean (-165*)

Persian (-46*)

Thai (+5*)

Yiddish (+23*)

Well, there you go. Not exactly scientific but it gives us a reasonable idea. And I quite enjoyed putting this together…I really must get out more! (Hope you find it useful, anyway.)

photo credit: woodleywonderworks via photopin cc




  1. Here in Canada every label and the ingredients in foodstuff must be printed in our two official languages – French and English – and French takes (as you calculated) 33% more space. That’s one of the reasons given for not selling into Canada (besides our small population – smile).

  2. It’s funny Trudy … after reading your comment I looked at a container of acetaminophen (paracetamol) on my desk that I bought in Canada in September, and decided to measure the two language versions of the dosage information. Obviously they were both in the same type font and size.

    The English language version was just under 5.5 centimetres long, and the French language version was just over 7 centimetres … about 30 percent longer than the English!