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Writing for internationalization

Robert Mills • 4 minutes

This video is the nineteenth in our Content Strategy Advent Calendar series.

Here, Andy Welfle from Facebook discusses writing for internationalisation. Or as Andy would say, internationalization.

Content strategy advent calendar: Day 19 – Writing for internationalization by Andy Welfle.

Video transcript

Hi there. I’m Andy Welfle, a content strategist at Facebook. I want to talk to you today about writing for internationalization. In other words, for translatability.

People use our product in more than 70 languages. That means what we write has to be simple to translate and easy to understand in any language.

While my examples focus more on writing for interfaces, these tips can be helpful for any project where your words in any form will be translated.

Rule number one, keep sentences simple. Honestly, this is great advice in general. Stay away from more complex sentences involving clauses, compounds or more than, say, ten words. The more complex your sentences get, the more chance there is that something could be misinterpreted.

Let’s take this error message for example (“Oops! Something with the server went wrong, and we cannot process your request. You should try again in a few seconds.”). It’s descriptive. We know there was an error with the server and it gives an action that you can take. But it’s 21 words long and will take forever to read and understand. Let’s go with something more like this. (“Something went wrong. Please try again.”) Two, three word sentences. Short and to the point.

Another rule that you can follow is that when you’re writing strings, keep the actor and the object clear from each other. You’ll want to do this anyway, but it’s especially important for translation. The actor and the object of a sentence can often be confused or lost altogether when translating.

Check out this example, after you send somebody a message. “The message has been sent.” Who sent you the message? Or who said the message? You, the interface or is the message the thing that sent something to somebody. It’s clear to you and it’s clear to me, it’s probably clear to someone who reads this in your language, but the meaning could quite literally get lost in translation. Try distilling it down if possible, “message sent.”

You’ll also want to strike a balance between descriptive words and colloquialisms. There’s so many words that carry a particular nuance in other languages. Hawaiian for example has 139 distinct words for rain. Similarly, there are all sorts of phrases that have become second nature to us in the US that make no sense in other languages. For some reason a lot of them have to do with baseball. Knock it out of the park, a home run, a strikeout for example.

When you’re writing try to use words that have a specific meaning in your context, yet are universal enough to be understood. For example if you’re writing an instruction for a button on a mobile device, perhaps rather than ‘press the button’, you’d want to say ‘tap’.

Press could refer to the media, ironing clothes etc. While tap does have other meanings, like a beer tap perhaps, it’s a bit more clear that you’re referring to the action that you want the user to perform. Especially on a mobile device where you wouldn’t click something, you’d tap something. There’s really no hard or fast rule for this. Use your common sense and a basic knowledge of linguistics and it should guide you there.

Finally you’re going to want to provide context as much as you can. Depending on how your content gets localized, the translator may not have the full context that you do. It really helps if you provide a simple context document. A list of your content strings with some internal notes explaining what a string is intended to do. Your translator will thank you, trust me.

If you’re writing a string for a button that says, for example, send her a message, perhaps the context that you include could involve saying ‘send a message to the person whose profile you’re looking at. Include a gendered pronoun if it exists, but allow for non gendered pronouns if they prefer.’ It’s a bit longer and a little less succinct but it makes it so much easier for a translator to capture your original intention. And remember, this is an internal document for their eyes only.

It’s exciting to work on something that’s going to be used in other countries and by people who speak other languages. As a unilingual english speaker, it can get really frustrating for me to put my words into somebody else’s hands. I lose a little bit of control over the experience. But with clear communication between you and your translator, you can build a seamless experience for those who don’t speak your language.

Thank you very much for watching and enjoy your holidays.

About Andy

welfle_pencils2

Andy Welfle is a content strategist in the Bay Area of California, working on search products at Facebook. In his spare time, he writes for a blog and co-hosts a podcast about wooden pencils and other analog writing tools. Chances are, you can talk to him on Twitter.

Content strategy advent calendar: Day 19 – Writing for internationalization by Andy Welfle.

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