Writing for international audiences

Writing has a huge potential audience now as we have many ways to access the written word. If not done well, though, writing for a global audience will not reach some readers.

Who is the audience?

When writers are writing, they may not automatically have their worldwide audience at the front of their mind, or that their words may be used in translation.

For example, it is natural for a writer to focus on an English-speaking audience if that is the language they speak, read and write in. While native English speakers often read in phrases, international readers often tackle a sentence word by word.  The potential for confusion increases with longer sentences. If writers take this into account as they write, their text will be accessible to more readers.

How do writers do this?

Plain Language and Global English can help meet the needs of the target audience.

Plain Language and Global English have a lot of key areas in common. Recommended points include:

  • Use short and complete sentences
  • Use active voice or passive voice appropriately
  • Be consistent in spelling, capitalization and formatting
  • Use a common list of approved words
  • Prefer strong direct statements
  • Cut out unnecessary words and repetition
  • Be aware that humour does not always travel well
  • Proofread before sending out for translation, to avoid costly mistakes.

The idea is not to ‘dumb down’ but to be clear and concise and to explain any phrases or words that could be new to the reader. This can occur in surprising places, and we also need to watch for regionalisms and cultural references which may have different meanings, or nothing comparable once translated. For example, these show that a writer is being considerate of a larger audience:

  • Looking out for seasonal references, particularly when working for Northern to Southern hemisphere projects.
  • Being aware of nouns that are vague e.g. ‘local’ or ‘in our area’ unless the location is clear.

Reading through content on screen, on paper and even reading content out loud can highlight areas that are not clear.

Things to be aware of

Many international style guides use American English as the default option. British audiences do not usually take issue with this, but it does not always work the other way around. A quick visit to some internet writing or editing forums, or Amazon reviews, will reveal British English speakers being told by American English speakers that they have made spelling or grammatical errors in their books! Also, some cultures consider the active voice to be rude or condescending, and others find the passive voice to be impersonal and awkward. A favourite read on language and culture is The Meaning of Tingo by Adam Jacot de Boinod, who used to be a researcher on the quiz show, QI.  (www.themeaingoftingo.com).

What about translation?

Giving your translators the tools and permission to adapt to the target audience can help better reach that audience. Good feedback with the author can speed the translation process up and lead to better terms (and it can lead to smoother work on future projects).

A text can expand in translation, sometimes by up to 30%. Keep this in mind because it can significantly alter costings of a project and it can make formatting for webpages a bit of a headache.

Consider giving the translators a credit. This helps develop a good relationship with your translators. And, just as important, it makes it clear to readers that the content has been adapted and sets the expectations of the international reader.

Why bother?

Clear writing with well chosen words is a delight, and can aid communication and understanding.

Writing for an international audience is not vastly different from any other editorial task, and becomes natural after a while, if you consider it to be a normal part of quality control.

Mara Livingstone-McPhail was a bookseller, reviewed books on BBC radio and organized a book events in inner-city schools before being lured to London by the team who now run Chicken House Books.  A freelance editor, proofreader and writer, she reads every day for as long as she can keep her eyes open.

Responses

  1. Couldn’t agree with you more on plain English and use of active voice. As a medical publisher this is an interesting topic. Our mostly UK-authored books sell in markets where practice guidelines and clinical practice are different. But UK doctors are so steeped in local NHS Trust guidelines that they can often not think beyond their local hospital, let alone the other side of the world. Our guideline is: only say ‘in the UK’ if what happens here is the exception; and try to quote variations seen in major markets like Australia where these are significant and easily referenced.

  2. Interesting article. I’ve often wondered about the role of a translator and the task of translating a novel into another language. It’s not a straightforward case of translating words, sentences, paragraphs. It’s an entire story so there must need to be a creative process running alongside the technical one.

    I disagree with the assertion that UK readers do not normally take issue with the default use of American English. I know from interactions with other readers that many UK readers are sick to the back teeth of the increasing use of American spellings, grammar and vocabulary, particularly when British authors do it.

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