The texts I am writing will be translated by people who are not experts in the topic and in some cases by a machine with next to none human editing afterwards.

What strategies should I employ to ensure that the final reader will be able to make sense of it?

  • 2
    As a victim of machine translation I strongly advise against its professional use. I'm German and many instruction manuals and websites of international companies are machine translations or by people not fluent in the target language and they usually have two effects on me: (1) they hinder comprehension and (2) they make me doubt the quality of a product: If a company cannot afford the money to pay for professional translation, they probably didn't have the money to develop a decent product either. I NEVER spend money on a service or product advertised through non-native level language.
    – user5645
    Feb 26, 2014 at 7:46
  • @what: Just to be fair, I tend to buy from China fairly often and they often have terribly written english descriptions... still the products are consistently as expected and as described. Of course the same does not hold for European businesses, but do realize that if a business pays for expensive translations/manuals/etc. then in the end you always do end up paying for it. Mar 1, 2014 at 3:13

3 Answers 3


Let me add some tips regarding computer translation, although I believe Rob Hoare's answer is great:

  • Write the original in a 'popular' language for the simple reason that those are most tested and most optimized. If for example you will be using Google Translate then it's mostly like the the node distance to any language is smallest from English (or maybe sometimes Spanish). They used to give some indication of this in the past, but now have forsaken this in favour of a simpler user experience.
  • Use short sentences and use commas purely for clauses and lists, do not use commas where dashes could be used as well.
  • Place the English term behind expert terms in square brackets like suggestopedia [DNTenglish: DNTsuggestopedia] when first used, then remove those from the original and hand translated versions, and do a replace in the computer translated versions for DNT with '' (nothing) leaving suggestopedie [english: suggestopedia] (The DNT is there to make the word invalid so it won't get translated). True, it takes a bit of hand work, but as those terms sometimes get mistranslated this allows the reader to figure that out for himself. (Sadly sometimes the word order get's mixed up leaving the note in the wrong place, it might be a good thing to add a remark warning readers of this together with the general warning regarding computer translations)
  • If using Google translate, be aware of the fact that it is a system that has 'learned' languages by being fed thousands and thousands of hand translated documents. Those documents were mostly formal and literary works, thus those are the kind of language styles it is most fluent at translating. Just to put the "Use standard, formal language" a bit into context.
  • This doesn't fall within the scope of Writers SE, but build a feedback mechanism for readers to improve upon the machine based translations. And make sure to always add some reference to the original version of the text.

Oh well, just a few thoughts :)


The European Union has a detailed guide to Writing for Translation (pdf).

Some of the key points they cover:

  • Use explanatory headings and summaries, and limit each paragraph to one idea
  • Make sentence structure unambiguous
  • Avoid long sentences with a complicated structure
  • Use vertical lists
  • Avoid empty verbs and ‘nominalisation disease’
  • Use the active voice
  • Beware of noun strings
  • Always use the same term for the same concept

For technical writing, there is more to consider. Many open source projects are translated by non-experts, so have recommendations on how to write, such as: Gnome Developer - Writing Documentation for an International Audience.

Some further tips from a machine translation company:

  • Keep the structure of your sentence clear, simple, and direct
  • If possible, avoid colloquialisms, idiomatic expressions and slang
  • Spell correctly
  • Avoid ambiguity and vague references
  • Use standard, formal language
  • Use the definite article even when you don't want to

You can't guarantee the reader will make sense of your translated text without a layer of human intervention.

If anything, you should have two: one who is an expert in the field, to make sure content wasn't lost in translation, and one to read for native-language coherence.

Translating text is not like changing fonts. You must have a human read it at some point. A machine may perfectly render "Sei una testa di cipuda" into "You are an onion-head," but it loses the actual sense of "You're an idiot." Or "calzaiuolo," which literally means a cobbler or shoemaker, but has the slang sense of "has bigoted social attitudes stuck in the past."

  • 4
    All of that is true, but I get the impression that OP doesn't have control over the translation and is asking about "defensive writing". Having been there, I sympathize. Feb 26, 2014 at 2:04

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