The Word Lab
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writing cross cultural content

When writing for a cross-cultural audience it is important to keep a few things in mind. While we all know that shorter, more simple sentences are easier to translate, there are other writing habits that can impact the localization process. So be straightforward, for a piece to resonate best for a global audience, maintain simple sentence structures and avoid unnecessary flowery language or culturally specific sayings, and you’ll be off to the races in no time. See what I did there? Let’s get down to it and try to smooth the way for your next localization project.

Plurals

Plurals are often overlooked when writing as a cause for confusion. However, in many languages, the way a sentence is structured depends on it. Additionally, it is sometimes unclear if a word is plural or not. Also, try to avoid making words plural by adding (s) at the end. For example, “Please select the file(s) to download”,  would be better translated as, “Please select one or more files to download”.

Pronouns

Use a noun when possible instead of unclear pronouns. It can be misleading because words like “it” can be used in multiple ways.  Alternatively, “A sentence can be misleading…” as opposed to “It can be misleading…” is both clear and easier to translate.

Lists

The best way to approach lists is to maintain consistency. Remember to fully introduce a list and make each item a complete sentence or phrase. List items should always be grammatically parallel.

Symbols and Abbreviations

Symbols can be difficult to translate (such as & an #) and should be avoided when possible. If they are required, make sure to define them clearly. Keep abbreviations to a minimum and when needed, be consistent. Again, make sure it is defined when it is first used. Phone number structure also varies widely around the world, making them a unique challenge. Avoid using letters to “spell out” a phone number.

Terminology and Consistency

Unfortunately, the way we use the English language is not always straightforward. For written pieces requiring translation, using simple consistent terminology is key. Your writing style should be consistent throughout your document including how you handle structure and punctuation marks. Glossaries and style guides play a vital role in the success of your localization process. These documents allow translators to work with pre-approved translations of company-specific terminology.

Culturally Specific

Avoid using culturally specific terms or examples to avoid costly reworks. Some words have no translation at all cross-culturally or have completely different meaning in other languages (ex. billion). Take a look at this interesting article on Scientific American about untranslatable words.