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Translating a website? 6 ways to make it more readable

by Catherine Jan on May 15, 2011

 

Online reading is different from reading on paper. Because website readers like information snacking. They want to grab and go.

So what does this mean for the website translator?

We must pay attention to readability.

These six guidelines come from Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works by Ginny Redish. What follows after each heading is about how I personally (attempt to) apply these tips.

1. Give people only what they need (page 94)

I would not edit out much of my client’s website but there is one sentence which invariably deserves to be deleted: the welcome message.

Source text: Welcome to our site!

Proposed translation: [none]

Why not leave out these four useless words to make the useful words more prominent?

On the Les Feuilles Volantes blog (in French), Sara displays much more attitude. She talks about not translating the opening message on French-language brochures since they are typically of little interest to readers.

2. Use “you” (page 172)

Don’t use the third person when talking to your online audience.

Source text: Clients enjoy our hotel’s spacious rooms.

Proposed translation: You’ll enjoy our hotel’s spacious rooms.

or

Source text: Parents should check their children’s heads for lice on a regular basis.

Proposed translation: Check your child’s head regularly for lice.

If you are writing for an organization, use “we” (page 178)

Source text: Company ABC has been making desks for 25 years.

Proposed translation: At Company ABC, we’ve been making desks for 25 years.

Using “you” and “we” makes the copy sound much more like a conversation.

3. Use your web users’ words (page 195)

Do not confuse your readers.

I liked Nick Somer’s example in “The empowered translator” on Betti Moser’s blog:

The references to Bavarian dialect are all very well if you happen to know German, but they probably won’t add much to a Korean’s understanding of the text. Forget “Kaiserschmarrn” and “Palatschinken” plus explanatory translator’s note in brackets. Won’t “traditional Austrian desserts” work just as well?

As I wrote in my previous post about writing web copy, I used words that my reader would understand. I avoided words like “source language” and “transcreation” and other examples of translationspeak. I’m talking to direct clients, not agencies, so I use words they know.

This also means that I try to ground abstract concept nouns and replace them with concrete and understandable words.

4. Use lists to make information easy to grab (page 206)

Source text: Bring sunscreen, running shoes, a hat and a bottle of water.

Proposed translation:

Bring

  • sunscreen
  • running shoes
  • a hat
  • a bottle of water

Wouldn’t hurried customers find this bulleted list much easier to read?

5. Make links meaningful (page 318)

Redish is against writing “click here” and “more” as link text. We should use the content of the link instead.

Source text:

We offer

  • group lessons (read more…)
  • private lessons (read more…)
  • telephone lessons (read more…)

Proposed translation:

We offer

  • group lessons
  • private lessons
  • telephone lessons

Website readers know what links look like. If a word underlined, it is a link.

6. Break down walls of words (page 107)

No large and intimidating blocks of text. Keep paragraphs short. Use headings to divide your text into user-friendly chunks.

Headings can be

  • statements
  • questions
  • action phrases

To my surprise, Redish advises against using nouns as headings! So “Getting here” is better than “Directions”?

Letting Go of the Words is recommended reading if you’re interested in writing and translating web content. Mine is full of post-it notes that serve as helpful reminders.

Translators, can you recommend other resources about writing for the web? (You might be interested in Matthew Stibbe’s “30 Days to Better Business Writing”.) What techniques do you use to make your web writing more readable?

(If you liked this post, leave a comment and subscribe to Catherine Translates.)

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Maria May 16, 2011 at 07:50

I also like “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.

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Royce Lowe January 14, 2013 at 15:11

Been using it as long as I can remember. Wonderfully concise and downright sensible.

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Patricia Lane May 16, 2011 at 09:42

Great post, Catherine. Makes me want to pick up the book (Redish should give you a commission!)

What techniques do I use to make copy (web or print) more readable? I strive to resonate with the reader by targeting the senses. For example, instead of just stating a fact (‘with this ink cartridge, you can print 30,769 pages’), I’d use an image (‘a print run as high as the Eiffel Tower’).

This triggers pre-existing visual knowledge in the reader’s brain that boosts comprehension and retention – and makes the copy more fun to read!

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Giulia May 16, 2011 at 18:31

Hi! Your blog has been nominated for our Top 100 Language Lovers 2011 competition.

Good luck!
Giulia – On behalf of the bab.la and Lexiophiles team

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Silvina May 16, 2011 at 18:33

Hello Catherine,

Zinsser’s book was a required reading in my first graduate class: Research & Writing. I still have it on my nightstand.

This is great information. After 4-5 years in the academic world, it has not being easy to simplify my ideas when I write. Your post introduces useful habits in a very simple, understandable (readable) way. The truth is that, nowadays, people seem to be in a hurry and lists appear to be the best way to convey a message in a way that it will actually get to them. I know that, unless is an academic paper, I do not read a website or blog post that is not concise or has no few graphics; visuals are a must :)

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catherinetranslates May 17, 2011 at 10:53

@Maria, yes, The Elements of Style is great! “Omit needless words.”

@Patricia, that’s a good example of an effective translation. You don’t just substitute one word for another, but make sure the customer understands the benefits of the ink cartridge.

@Guilia, I’m delighted to hear about the nomination and just glad to participate.

@Silvina, I’ll have to check out that Zinsser book, thanks. Yes, I’d say that academic papers and news articles don’t have to be so “readable” but when a website is trying to catch the attention of an online surfer, the copy must be user-friendly and not be too demanding.

Thanks to everyone for taking the time to comment!

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Derric Hallman June 25, 2011 at 11:33

Hi, I agree with Silvina “Your post introduces useful habits in a very simple, understandable (readable) way. The truth is that, nowadays, people seem to be in a hurry and lists appear to be the best way to convey a message in a way that it will actually get to them.”

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Catherine Jan February 2, 2012 at 22:06

Thanks, Derric.

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