Everyone thought I was nuts to take on the scriptwriting job doing sales-training videos for the European division of a major US car manufacturer.

"You write it in English so ze boys in Detroit can understand und approve it," said the German producer on the phone to me. "Zen I shoot the video and do one edit. Zat's all zey vant to spend."

"Fine," I ventured. "So what's the catch?"

"Zat one edit gets voiceovers in 11 different languages," he continued, sniggering a little. "Ze translations are all different lengths. So your original has to work in chunks mit long gaps in English, so it can flow at 90 miles an hour in Greek.

"It's a bloody nightmare," he said finally. "Still vant to do it?"

I let out a long sigh, stared at my sparse-looking bank statement and said yes.

Here, then, is some advice based on my painful experience.

Allow for different language lengths

Strictly speaking, this is more of a design issue. But as we saw, it can affect the words, too.

If you intend to use the same visual template for more than one language version, ensure that your design allows for differing amounts of text (or spoken speech.)

Bear in mind that English is the just about the shortest of the world's commercial languages. So if your text is a tight fit in English, you'll be way over length in many other languages. You need up to three times as much space for some of them. So keep your English version short and sweet.

If accuracy is essential, use the lowest common denominators

Sadly, figurative speech doesn't translate. However, translators valiantly attempt to do it, often with unfortunately amusing results.

Here's an example from one of my earlier articles, "How To Write Right To Your Customers' Hearts." My original paragraph:

Probably the most important part of getting your writing right is to really know what makes your customers (or any other audience) tick. Customer analysis techniques are great for getting hard facts and data. But if you want to write so you touch their hearts, you need to back up the formal information with something a bit more emotional.

The Spanish translation that appeared on a South American Web site:

Probablemente la parte más importante de escribir bien es saber realmente que es lo que a sus clientes (o cualquier otra audiencia) les llama la atención. Las técnicas de análisis de clientes son buenas para poder obtener hechos e información. Pero si quiere escribir para llegar muy cerca de su corazón, usted necesita respaldar la información formal con algo emocional.

How Google translated it back into English:

Probablemente the part most important to write or is to really know that is what to his clients (or any other hearing) it calls the attention to them. The techniques of analysis of clients are good to be able to obtain facts and information. But if he wants to write to arrive closely together from his heart, you need to endorse the formal information with something emocional.

Phew. Lucky it wasn't instructions for heart surgery. Had I been writing my piece for multiple languages, I would have written it like this, with simple syntax and all figurative speech stripped out:

To write effectively, it is most important that the writer knows the customers (or any other group you're writing for) very well, and understands how they think. It's possible to get useful facts and information from customer analysis techniques. However, if the writer wants to appeal to customers emotionally, emotional writing must be added to the formal information.

Boring, isn't it? But it wouldn't be open to quite so many misunderstandings. Yes, they can be funny. But in a marketing or sales context, they can be costly, too.

Be aware of how other languages work

You notice in the paragraph above that I've removed my beloved "you" in favor of "the writer." This is especially important if you're writing for languages like Spanish or Portuguese, where often they don't talk to "you," but to the third person.

I believe that's why things went wrong with the translation of that article on the South American Web site. The translators haven't been able to figure out that "he" and "you" are the same person.

Try as far as you can to organize your grammar and syntax in the English version so that they're as simple as possible. That makes it easier for translators to get it right.

In part two of this article, we'll look at the following:

  • The importance of different language structures
  • Multilingual ad copy—a tricky one
  • Translating humor—even trickier

Until then, au revoir!

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Suzan St Maur (www.suzanstmaur.com) writes extensively on marketing and business communications and is the author of the widely acclaimed Powerwriting.