How to write a good source file

When writing, your intended audience is important. This is especially true when you are writing for an international audience. When you are preparing a document that is to be translated, this is exactly what you are doing. It is good to write with your entire audience in mind. The garbage in, garbage out principle applies to translation, as it does to many things in life, so producing a quality source text will lead to better outcome and fewer translator queries.

When you are writing to your international audience, it is good to avoid mentioning things that are specific to your culture that are not widely known outside of it. Unless it is vital to your purposes, a mention of your national dish will generally not be well-understood by your audience, even though a good translator will do their best to provide a brief explanation.

It is also important to avoid ambiguities.

Think like a lawyer. If there is something that can be interpreted two ways, chances are your translator will be forced to commit to one of them in the translation, which may not be the one you intended – or worse, translators into different languages may interpret the passage differently and you may end up with two different interpretations in two different languages.

Humor is also to be used with caution.

It is difficult to translate jokes well, because they often rely on puns or cultural references that do not exist in your target language. Even jokes that are accurately conveyed may not seem funny, or may even seem insulting to your target audience.

Acronyms are another danger zone.

Generally speaking, when you write, keep your audience in mind – your whole audience.

If you use them, be sure to provide expansions, at least the first time they are used. This way the translator (and your readers) can be sure of what they mean. It is also recommended to specify whether you want the translators to create new acronyms in their language, or simply keep the same ones and provide an explanation. For example, if you refer to one of your internal departments in French as Service de Gestion d’Equipe as SGE, do you want it to remain SGE in your English text, or change to TMD (Team Management Department). You need to know the answer to this, because otherwise the translators will be forced to choose, and it’s really you that is in the position to make that call.

Also to be avoided is the use of company-specific jargon.

This is especially true for texts to be used outside your company. While such terms have a clear meaning inside your company, they are not easily understood by outsiders. If your text is for internal use, and the company terms are important, provide your translators with a glossary of the terms and equivalents used by your branch in the target country. Otherwise, even if the translators produce good translations of your terms, they may differ from what is used by the foreign branch of your company, and therefore be less recognizable to them.

In typeset documents, plan in room for text expansion. Depending on the languages involved, text can expand up to 30%, and you don’t want your translations to look crowded. It is time consuming and costly to fiddle with your layout for each language after translation, so be sure to keep this in mind when designing your original document.

In the main body of your document, be sure to write as clearly as possible. Phrase ideas so the meaning is clear and unambiguous by keeping modifiers close to the subject they are describing. For example, the sentence “After years buried in the ground, Jim found the time capsule.” makes it sound like Jim himself was buried in the ground for years. A better sentence would be, “After it had been buried in the ground for years, Jim found the time capsule.” By adding “it”, it becomes clear that the time capsule is what was buried, not Jim. Of course we can always recall the humorous reminder of this problem, that was given to us by Groucho Marx, “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.”

Finally, it is good to keep in mind items that need to be slightly adjusted to accommodate your foreign reader. For example, can they call you with the number you list in your file, or will they need to know to add country codes or other international dialing conventions? If they need additional information, provide this for their convenience. Also, does anything need to be added to your address to receive international mail? Provide this in your source file as well.

Generally speaking, when you write, keep your audience in mind – your whole audience. By following these tips, you will end up producing a better document, which will lead to better translations.

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