In Plain Sight: Translation and Plain Language

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How plain language can ease the translation process

We’ve all come across a text, online or in print, that has stumped us. It uses words we don’t understand (jargon or uncommon terms). There is a complicated syntax that can’t be untangled. The text attempts to convey complex ideas in a dense manner. Whatever the cause, when your content is difficult to understand, you risk losing your audience. Whether you’re a business attempting to sell products or services, a nonprofit organization trying to persuade potential donors, or a scientist sharing information, it’s important to write clearly and concisely.


Plain language can also help make the translation process easier and, potentially, less expensive and time-intensive. A text that is written in plain language will be easier to understand and therefore faster (and possibly less expensive) to translate into other languages. This benefits both the translation customer and, ultimately, the reader. But what exactly is plain language and how can you apply it in practice?

What is plain language?

Plain language seeks to make content easy to understand and accessible to a wide audience. It prioritizes simplicity and straightforwardness. It uses everyday words, clear sentence structures, and concise explanations, while minimizing jargon and complex terminology. Nor does it dumb down content. Instead, the focus is on making the information more digestible. A Nielsen Normal Group study showed that even domain experts like medical professionals and scientists preferred plain language.


The nonprofit translation organization Translators without Borders provides eight key principles that translators (and writers) should adhere to when working on projects. These principles include:


  • Present a clear and consistent “peak” message (a peak message is the most important message being conveyed)


  • Be clear about the purpose of the communication and use strong verbs


  • Reduce sentence length


  • Use familiar words and terms


  • Use the simplest verb tenses, like the simple past and simple present


  • Use inclusive pronouns like “you” and “we”


  • Use the active voice as much as possible


  • Use bold subheadings frequently to break up long chunks of text


Another important aspect is good writing. There are many factors that go into good writing. Clarity is essential. A message that is muddled will not be easy to understand. Good organization is also crucial. Present your material in a clear manner, with the key points given in a logical order. Readers, especially online, often skim material, making it more important to highlight the essential takeaways.


Be sure to break up sentences and paragraphs into smaller chunks. Mix longer sentences with shorter ones. This not only makes it easier to read, it also breaks up the tedium of a series of longer clauses. Another tactic is to use lots of white space. This can break up a wall of text and make it more approachable for readers.

The institutional embrace

Many companies, governmental agencies, and nonprofit organizations have adopted this approach as well. The list of entities adhering to plain principles includes Pfizer, the World Health Organization, and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). What these institutions have found is that by embracing plain language, they are able to better communicate their ideas and principles to a broader audience. This enhances the work they do.

The importance of plain language in translations

There are many reasons to apply these principles to the source texts used for translations. Following are some of the most important considerations:


  1. Enhanced clarity: One of the most significant benefits is enhanced clarity. When source documents are written in plain language, they’re more clear and concise. This makes it easier for translators to understand the intended meaning and reproduce it accurately in the target language. Plain language helps to reduce ambiguity, ensuring that the translation conveys the correct information.


  1. Improved consistency: Plain language promotes consistent terminology. This consistency is especially valuable in translation projects, where maintaining uniformity across multiple documents is essential. In addition, translators can more easily match the tone and style of the source text when plain language principles are followed.


  1. Faster turnaround: Clear and concise content may require less time and effort to translate. When a document is written in plain language, translators can understand the meaning more easily, resulting in faster turnaround times. This can be especially helpful when deadlines are tight.


  1. Reduced risk of errors: Source content that is complex or ambiguous can lead to translation errors. Plain language mitigates this risk by ensuring that the source text is as unambiguous as possible. When the source text is clear, translation errors are far less likely.


  1. Greater accessibility: Plain language doesn’t just make content easy to understand; it also makes content more accessible to a wider audience. This is crucial in a global context, where documents often need to be translated for diverse readerships. Making multilingual content more accessible can also improve inclusivity.


  1. Cost-efficiency: The use of plain language can lead to cost savings in the translation process. Clear and concise content may require less time for translation. This can be especially advantageous for businesses and organizations looking to manage their translation budgets effectively.


Plain language is an effective tool for ensuring clear communication. It helps businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies to convey their messages more effectively. Plain language can also serve as the basis for accurate translations, allowing organizations to streamline the translation process and improve the overall quality of communication. It can help to reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings, errors, and misinterpretations while making information more inclusive and accessible to a global audience.


If you’re looking for information about plain language and how it can help your translation process, get in touch with GLS today.

By Jim Cohen