Have you ever asked yourself the question: What makes a text sing?
Why do some texts make you tune out after the first few lines while others suck you in and keep you engaged until the very last word? And what does this have to do with translation, you may ask?
A lot of thought goes into a well-written text. So it only makes sense that translators need to be good writers, too. Otherwise, even the best story might end up ruined by poor word choices and lackluster sentence arrangement when it is transferred into a foreign language.
Earlier this month, I participated in a three-part webinar series by business writing coach Ron Finlay. Writing constitutes a large part of my business, whether it is producing new copy for press releases or website content, blog posts, or finding the right words for a German translation. All of these tasks require creative thinking and copywriting skills. A good text doesn’t just happen by accident – in any language.
If you are working with words, copywriting workshops should definitely be part of your CPD profile. Paying attention to copywriting strategies can improve the quality of a translation as much as any other text. Below, I have summarized a few considerations that are important for both copywriters and translators.
Good authors pick their words with care. I just did. At first, I had written “Good authors choose their words with care.” Then I noticed the repetition of choose with the word choice in the header, so I decided to opt for pick instead. Other decisions might involve whether to use common words or more scholarly words. Should the offer be advertised as complimentary or free? Should people be invited to participate or join in? The right choice often depends on your target audience and your brand voice.
This determines the level of distance between reader and author. Consider the difference between these two sentences:
Our new product requires no…
With our new product, you won’t need to…
When translating the second sentence into German, you would have even more viewpoints to consider: Would you address the reader formally as Sie or informally as du, or would you stay more neutral and use man?
As with word choice, the viewpoint will be affected by the target audience and the overall tone your brand wants to convey.
Most people find long sentences hard to process. A general guideline for average audiences is about 18 to 20 words per sentence. For translators, this means that sometimes, it may become necessary to split sentences apart. This applies especially to languages such as German, which have many long words and often require convoluted sub-clauses where a simple gerund will do in English. When in doubt, follow the KISS principle:
One of the easiest ways to improve any text, whether it be marketing copy or a business report, is to nix nominalizations. Note that I said ways to improve instead of improvements to – see what I did there? Nominalization means using a noun instead of a verb, adverb or adjective: he took the decision instead of he decided, it is causing me great difficulty instead of it is very difficult, etc. This usually results in vague, overblown copy that seems removed from the reader, which makes it hard to establish a connection. And if there’s no connection, there’s no engagement, which means no motivation to keep reading. Eliminating nominalizations is a wonderful exercise for German translators, as Germans love to nominalize words!
Another style aspect to consider is whether to use contractions such as we’ll, can’t, don’t, etc., in a text. This is a consideration both for copywriters and for translators who translate into English. While it may seem like a small detail, it will affect how formal the copy sounds, which will reflect on your brand image.
Syntax, or word order, describes the arrangement of words and phrases within a sentence. This influences how the message that’s contained within a text is perceived by the reader. Words can be placed for maximum impact, or they can be buried. You know a writer used good syntax when you read a text that flows well, when there is a certain rhythm to it that makes it a pleasure to move from one sentence to the next.
Syntax is also important for clarity. When you read copy that’s easy to understand, the author probably spent some time thinking about the perfect word order. Translators need to do the same. It is not enough to transfer the words from language A into language B; they also need to put in the right order until they come together to form a harmonious composition. That, my wordsmith friends, is how you make a text sing.