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How to write for translation

Writing is hard. Whether we are writing to inform, persuade or entertain, we’re constantly renegotiating our word choices and sentence structures so that we can get our message across in clear, concise ways.

But what about when you’re writing a text that will be translated into a different language?

Well, that’s easy, you might say. I’ll send it off to a language service provider like Ethnolink and they can do the heavy lifting.

And sure, that works. Here’s a secret, though – translation can be an imprecise art. Even the best NAATI-certified translators can trip up if they’re not working with a clear source text.

Think about it: a single word in English can have a variety of meanings. Even the word ‘blue’ comes up with six different definitions on Google!

Meanings rarely translate neatly across languages, and the perfect 1:1 translation only exists in your translator’s dreams.

You want to be sure that your words are conveyed in a different language as accurately as possible, right? That’s where writing for translation comes in.

At Ethnolink, this is something we’re often asked about. To help our clients understand what it means to write for translation, we recently hosted a webinar where we explored six questions we are often asked. Read on for the key takeaways from our CEO, Costa Vasili, and Multicultural Communications Adviser, Rachael Coulthard.


What does ‘writing for translation’ even mean?

Quality translations begins with a quality source text. The clearer the source text, the clearer the translation.

Minimise potential distortions by using plain English – simple, unambiguous language will ensure that your message gets across loud and clear.

Here are some great examples of words commonly used in our writing which can be simplified:

If possible, keep in mind the cultural and linguistic differences between the source language and target language(s).

For example, in many European languages, gender is in the spelling.

This means that it is actually impossible to write the French word for ‘happy’ or ‘healthy’ without specifying gender! You can see how that might make it difficult for a translator who works between those languages.


Why should I write for translation?

Translation is all about communication – not just with your target audience, but also with your translator.

And just like when you’re communicating with any other person, misunderstandings can sometimes arise.

If you want to be sure that your audience receives your message, you first need to be sure that your translator does as well.

By writing for translation, your translators won’t be scratching their heads, wondering if they have interpreted your message correctly. That saves you time – and minimises the potential for costly translation mistakes.


What is the difference between plain English and Easy Read?

Plain English is about communicating clearly and effectively. It’s more than using simple words. It’s also about creating short, uncomplicated sentences, and putting together paragraphs that flow logically and cohesively.

When you write in plain English, you’re helping people quickly find and extract the information that they need.

Easy Read is built on similar principles, but it is primarily developed to support people living with disabilities that may cause them to struggle to understand written information.

This could mean including illustrative pictures in your work and using fewer words. Or having large font sizes, cushioned with lots of white space.

Writing for translation is about using plain English. (But that doesn’t mean you can’t create Easy Read documents in other languages, as well!)


How do I write for translation?

The most important thing to keep in mind while writing for translation is this: the clearer the source text, the clearer the translation. But how, exactly, should you go about doing that?

Here are some Rachael-approved tips that are both simple and actionable:

  • Use plain English.
  • Try to use active voice as often as you can.
  • The first time it appears, write out acronyms in full, followed by the acronym in brackets.
  • Avoid using jargon or slang, which may introduce ambiguity to your writing.
  • Approach humour with caution. Sarcasm is hard enough to convey over the written word, but some cultures don’t even use it at all! Your intended wit may instead be considered offensive.
  • Don’t reach for the thesaurus – this means avoid synonyms. Find one term to represent a concept, and stick to it.
  • Write for accessibility. The Australian Government identifies a lower secondary education reading level (Year 7) to be the most accessible for Australian audiences.

There are some fantastic tools out there that can help enhance the clarity and accessibility of your writing.

Grammarly is a great resource widely used by professionals. Another useful (and free!) website is the Hemingway Editor, which analyses the readability of your text and identifies problem areas.


Is there anything else I should consider when writing for translation?

Surprisingly, the words you put on a page are not the only things that matter when it comes to writing for translating.

The types of images you include and the layouts of the document matter, as well.

For example, if you choose to include flowcharts in your document, keep in mind that they can be ‘read’ differently in other languages.

Speakers of right-to-left languages, such as Arabic and (sometimes) Japanese, may instinctively view a flowchart from the opposite direction than English-speakers. You don’t want them to think that using your detergent will make their dirty laundry dirtier.

Another consideration is to use images that are culturally appropriate for your target audience(s).

Culturally adapted imagery helps your audience identify the value your information has for them. It also fosters inclusivity by showing them that your message is relevant to their experience.

Images are a powerful medium; don’t forget to translate them, too!


Do I need to think about the layout of my document?

In one word: yes.

Text expansion is something to look out for. It’s when the length of a text increases during the translation process.

That can be frustrating. The document that you carefully designed to look clean and readable in English may instead look cluttered in another language.

You can minimise this issue by including a generous amount of white space on your document. This will help accommodate any text expansions or contractions when the text is translated into other languages.

We also highly recommend going the extra mile for your audience by hiring a professional who is well-versed in multilingual typesetting.

You’ve put hours of work into writing and designing your document, then having it professionally translated — don’t let that all go to waste!


Our team at Ethnolink loves talking everything to do with translation and multicultural communication. If you have any questions or would like a copy of the webinar, reach out to Rachael (!

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