Translation tips for beginners

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Have you ever heard the term “lost in translation”? What this commonly used phrase essentially means is that there aren’t specific words to describe the feeling, emotion, or sensation when you’re trying to translate it into another language. (It’s also a really great Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson indie film.) Although a lot of language is universal, some language is cultural and can be difficult to translate.

Because of this unique translation challenge, it’s important to be mindful of this when you are hiring the services of a translator. Here are some tips when writing a document that needs to be translated.

1) Simplify, simplify, simplify

When you are trying to communicate with a global audience, brevity is the name of the game. A translation is difficult enough without adding superfluous words into the mix. When writing for a global audience:

  • Try to keep your sentences 25 words and below in length
  • Think intentionally about your sentences
  • Make sure that the translator will be able to tell what the subject of the sentence and the verb of the sentence are very easily.

2) Avoid cultural phrases and colloquialisms

Different cultures have completely different inside jokes and common phrases that we all say to each other. In America, we often say “that’s off base” to mean that you’re doing something that’s not quite right (to be off base is a baseball term), or that we “need to take a raincheck”, which is an old phrase meaning that we need to reschedule (stemming from the old days when they used to give baseball ticket holders their tickets back when the game was rained out).

Keep these kinds of phrases and colloquialisms in mind when you are writing a document that is intended for a global audience. There probably won’t be a term that will quite match up with what you are wanting to say, and the translator (who may or may not be 100% familiar with American culture) may not understand what it is you’re trying to get at. Avoid slang, jargon, or anything that could potentially be confusing to an international audience.

3) Use active language and avoid passive

Just like your English teacher always said, it’s much preferable to use the active voice rather than the passive when writing with a translation in mind. It’s much easier to understand when you write in the passive voice and the translator won’t have as much trouble trying to relay your message to the intended reader. So, instead of saying “the document was written by me”, say “I wrote the document”.

4) Be clear with any dates you put down

If you’ve ever been to a foreign country, you know that Americans do their dates backwards from many other countries. For example, 12-1-17 would mean December 1, 2017 to an American, but to a Spaniard or English citizen, the date would mean January 12, 2017. Be very intentional with your dates and be sure that you’re following the right formula (otherwise you might confuse someone greatly!).

Need Help with a Translation?

When you are looking for a translator, you want the work to be accurate, quick, and you want your professional to be credentialed. At ServiceScape, we have a network of translators who can handle anything from books and journal articles to corporate manuals and personal documents. We provide translation services from English to Chinese, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Vietnamese, Italian, and Portuguese. We also provide translation services from French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Korean, Swedish, and many more.

When it comes to the content of your documents, we know that you want them to get your message across clearly and that your words don’t get lost in translation—and we are committed to making sure our customers are always satisfied.

David Costello is the founder and CEO of, which is a freelance service marketplace where you can find exceptional editors, translators, graphic designers, and writers. He has a B.A. in Computer Science from Haverford College. In his spare time, he plays tennis, works on audiophile projects, and follows the Patriots.

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