Expansion and Contraction in Translation: Why You Need to Be Aware

by | Dec 5, 2017 | Language, Translation

Not all languages are built the same way, and not all languages say the same things in the same way. A phrase that’s short and pithy in one language may be long and rolling in another. There are even times when a simple word in one language will have no real equivalent in another language — requiring instead, a not-so-simple explanation. And when you’re dealing with translation, this can make a major difference.

Page Layout

Whether it’s a printed document, a PDF, or a web page, page layout matters. When you lay out a page in the original language, you probably aim for a clean, simple, uncluttered look, short, concise headlines, and an overall look that is integrated both with the overall design of the document, and with any graphic elements on the page.

But translation can change all of that, if you’re not careful. A short paragraph with space around it can turn into a long paragraph that crowds nearby elements — and depending on the type of document and the way it’s laid out, the translated paragraph can even overwrite other text. Or a reasonably lengthy paragraph can suddenly shrink to two-thirds of its original size, leaving you with extra white space at the bottom. And that concise, three-word headline can turn into a verbose, multi-line monster that pushed the main body of text halfway down the page.

Headline or body text can wind up being superimposed over graphic elements, or even hidden behind them, turning your nicely laid-out page into a sloppy, amateurish-looking mess.

Multi-page Runover

With a website, you at least don’t have to worry about going past the bottom of the page. But if you’re dealing with printed documents or PDFs, you need to think about what happens if translated text becomes too long for a page.

Does the text on the next page get pushed down as well, and the page after that? And what happens to other elements on the page, such as graphics and tables? Are they in line with the text, or at fixed locations on the page? Will the text referring to given graphic get pushed down several pages, while the original image stays in place? How do you adjust for paging problems, and what can you do to prepare for them?

The moral? Understand the pitfalls, prepare ahead of time, and inspect all translated text in place, looking for problems and comparing the actual text with what you see on the screen.

Menus & Dialog Boxes

For software — whether it’s web-based apps, stand-alone programs, or games — you need to be very aware of changes to the length of menu selection labels, button names, dialog box text, or any on-screen text, for that matter.

Long words and phrases can result in extra-wide menus, or cut-off text on buttons or in dialog boxes.

You have to be very careful with pick lists of set width — if several items in the translated version begin with the same, overly-long prefix, for example, there may be no way to tell them apart on the list.

Vertical / Horizontal Expansion and Contraction

In “Expansion and Contraction in Translation: Why You Need to Be Aware,” we discussed some of the general language expansion and contraction problems that come up in translation. Now let’s take a closer look at how both vertical and horizontal expansion and contraction affect web design and desktop publishing.

Text Flow & Hard Breaks

First and most obvious, if the translated paragraph is longer than the original, it can push text in a PDF or a printed document onto the next page.

The first thing that you have to think about when that happens is whether the document is laid out with automatic flow from one page to the next, or with hard page breaks (forcing a page break, by using Ctrl+Enter in Microsoft Word, for example). If you have hard breaks, then even a little overflow onto the next page can be a disaster if you don’t catch it, with the tail end of a paragraph at the top of an otherwise blank page.

But even with automatic text flow, you can face serious problems. If text gets moved from one page to the next, there’s no guarantee at all that references within the text — to other pages, to illustrations, to tables and charts — will change accordingly. And unless the translator catches the reference and changes it, it probably won’t get changed. This means that a reference to “the illustration on the next page” may now actually refer to an illustration on the previous page, or that “see the discussion on page 17” may refer to a paragraph that’s now on page 20.

The Long & The Short of It

Typically, when you translate a paragraph of text, the result will be a paragraph that isn’t the exact length of the original. It may be just a little bit longer or a little bit shorter, but the difference could be much greater — even double or half the length of the original. And typically, whether you’re laying out a web site, a PDF, or a printed book, a paragraph is part of a page, and the page is part of a much larger document. What does the change in paragraph length do to a page, or to an entire document?

Sidebar Trouble

And if your document includes sidebars, text boxes, or illustrations with full paragraph captions, you need to be aware of how these will change. If elements such as these are pushed too far down, they can jump to the next page, or (depending on how they’re formatted) break, so that the descriptive paragraph accompanying an illustration may now be on the following page.

Width and Width Out

Sometimes, the problem is width, rather than length. If, for example, a table cell or a text box is set to expand to match the width of the text that it contains, translated text can overwrite or disappear behind nearby text or graphics.

And even when you can avoid overwriting, excessively wide text may look crowded. Contraction can also cause width problems — you may be faced with too much white space to the right or to the left of what had previously been visually well-balanced text.

All of which is to say that when design is important, you don’t simply translate text – you also translate layout.

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