Writing Training Materials That Will Be Translated


a) Keep it clear, not simple

Simple speech is often hard to understand. Which of these lines is simplest? Which is clearest?

He went into town. He wanted to buy some food.
He went into town, because he wanted to buy some food.
He went into town to buy some food.

The simplest one is the first, for it has single-clause sentences and no subordinate clauses. However, the reader’s brain must search its repertoire of logical connections to find one that connects the two in a meaningful relationship, as seen in the second sentence. The third is the most efficient to a native speaker, but is not simple, for it contains a prepositional phrase that probably will not translate into some other languages. Sometimes a translator or a reader misses the intended connection between simple sentences.

Easiest to translate: He went into town, because he wanted to buy some food.

b) Capitalize titles

The English rule is simple: Capitalize every word except definite and indefinite articles and conjunctions and prepositions of fewer than four letters. “The Bunny Ran Into the House and Back out Through a Hole in the Wall.” Even so, many English writers now capitalize every word in a title, because they cannot remember the rule, or to make titles easy to read. Some languages only capitalize the first word in a title. What makes best sense to local readers?

c) Emphasize words with grammar, not with italics or bold lettering

Use of italic type to emphasize words is boring and quickly loses its effect. Besides that, most languages do not emphasize by raising their voice, and so italics in printed translation do not work. Bold lettering or uppercase words and indicate poor writing, as though the author were trying to shout certain words. Here are some parallel phrases, emphasizing “George”:

George did it.
It was George who did it.
It was done by George.

The first is conversational and should appear only in a quotation.
The second is elegant English, the last utilitarian. Be aware that some languages have no passive voice (‘it was done’), so it is easier to translate from the active voice (‘he did’)

d) Do not insult uneducated folks’ intelligence

When writing material for less educated folk, do not write in a condescending way. Often they are poor readers and hate to read long documents. Keep a document as short as possible, without violating the rules of clarity stated above. Unwise writers often overdo repetition and give long explanations geared to a third grader. For example, a well-meaning writer wrote a book of over 20 pages about Communion for barely literate Hondurans. None of them read it, until we condensed it to one page. The condensation did not omit anything vital; it got right to the point of what was important, and the readers appreciated that.

e) Write as though writing a letter to a particular trainee

Have a trainee in mind as you write. Select one who is not a particularly good reader and who will not bother to read a long, abstract document.

f) Field test every study before making it widely available

Revise anything that trainees did not find helpful or could not understand.

g) Write with definite actions in mind

Give preference to activity and to verbs more than to abstraction or to nouns.

h) Use local vernacular rather than trying to please erudite critics

However, do not try to sound stupid, use bad grammar, or talk like a child.

i) Use art and symbols that are relevant to local culture

Much symbolism does hold the same meaning from one culture to another.

j) Make sure study questions require thinking through a task or concept.
Avoid simply having readers parrot back what they have just read. For example, if dealing with a Bible truth, tell the reader what to find in a verse before he reads it, so that when he reads he will be searching for something definite. This makes the reading an active study in which the reader takes the initiative to learn.

k) As soon as practical, have local folk write new materials in their own language

You can serve as a writers’ coach and content advisor.


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