Keeping it short

I would not have made this so long except that I do not have the
leisure to make it shorter.

—Blaise Pascal

As with all writing, conciseness takes extra effort in translation. Although what you write is pretty much decided in translation, how you convey that information isn't, and interference from the source language tends to result in lots of roundabout phrasings.

Ironically, if you charge by target output, then the more work you put into trimming the excess verbiage from your translation, the less you get paid. That's why I very much prefer to charge by source volume (if I do charge by target volume, I try to focus on quality and not worry about the final invoice).

Some translations that I do have strict length limitations. This happens when the translation needs to go into a brochure, or someplace else where space is limited. The restrictions are extreme for the occasional video subtitling job that I do.

Usually, the length restrictions are given in terms of the number of words, but today I did a job where the restriction was given in characters. There were several blurbs for an exhibition, and each blurb — title and body — needed to be no more than 800 characters long.

I found that having the limitation in characters rather than words made me focus on using shorter words and less wordy descriptions. I replaced ten-dollar words with their nickel equivalents in order to get the character-count down. This had the effect of making the language a lot simpler, and I think easier to understand.

Of course, this can be taken too far — like using lots of acronyms and jargon instead of proper writing — but I found today's job to be a useful exercise in tightening up my translations. I'm going to try to keep this frame of mind in my future translation work as well.

Incidentally, I was able to charge extra for the work of keeping the translations short, but the extra time it took probably made it less profitable than ordinary translation.

3 comments to Keeping it short

  • “interference from the source language”—I’ll have to remember that phrase.

    Charging by source length has a lot to recommend it. But I got my start in translation when most documents arrived on paper—some still do—and getting the source length would be a job in itself.

  • @Adam

    Very good point. When I started translating, I also got most of my documents on paper — in my case, as thermal faxes. Ah, the glory days of deciphering kanji from smudged ink blobs… 🙂

    Today, however, I get the vast majority of my documents in electronic, editable format (with some scans and non-editable PDFs), so in my opinion, clients who today insist on paying by target volume are just hidebound.

  • Ryan,

    I had similar experience – space limitations gave more freedom of word choice and segment structure transformation.
    That’s useful for a translator.

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