The Dumbing Down of Translation

by Translation Guy on June 18, 2012

Keep it simple, stupid.

In my last post, I reported on the new sophomoric lows in the level of language used by the US Congress, as revealed by a Flesch-Kincaid reading ease test of the Congressional record.

For blogging bottom-feeders like me, trashing Congress is an easy play for more readers, as sure-fire as baby pictures and cat videos.

But I have to admit that in real life, a dumbing down of the Congressional Record is a good thing. Fact is, for any writer aiming to get read, aiming low is the way to go when it comes to Flesch-Kincaid. Simple writing earns a low score, and the attention and understanding of readers, graduate degree or no.

The Flesch-Kincaid measure is simplicity itself, a calculation of the ratio of syllables to words, and the ratio of words to sentences. A low score doesn’t always mean that a text is easy to follow, but it’s always a useful yardstick for keeping things short, which keeps things clear.

Personally, I hate it, since it consistently reveals the floridity of my bombast, but we use it here at 1-800-Translate sometimes to make sure that our translations are simple enough to meet client and requirements and our audiences’ desire for clear communication. Brief is always best, especially when translating public health and medical information, which is where we most commonly employ these tools.

In the translation business, clients are often told that target-language expansion is due to the requirements of accuracy across language and culture. True enough. But I’ve always thought that the penny-per-word way in which translators are paid is not a good way to encourage brevity. (Note to any translators ready this: I’m not talking about you. It’s those other guys.)

Here’s how to calculate a reading score in English using the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level methodology:

(0.39 x Average Sentence Length) + (11.8 x Average Syllable length) -15.59. Score equals grade reading level.

Before you make a rush for your calculator, there’s an easier way to do it in MS Word. Go to Options/Proofing, and check the “Show readability statistics” under “When correcting spelling in grammar in Word.” More here.

Huerta Reading Ease is the one we use most often for Spanish and is calculated as follows:

206.84 – (0.60 x Syllables per 100 words) – (1.02 x Sentences per 100 words)

And here’s a link to an online service that offers these two and other readability tools for French, Dutch and Swedish. I just got off the phone with Jost Zetzsche, who provided this link to the Hohenheimer Verständlichkeitsindex (

MS Office provides automatic readability with spell check in many languages, but not all, but I can’t find a complete list even after spending almost 10 minutes looking for it on Google. I would be grateful to readers for links to other readability guides.


  1. Shobha Reddy says:

    Thanks for the links and formulas, they’ll come in handy

  2. Liz says:

    Sure, sure, talking about those others guys…

  3. Useful tool, thanks for describing it.

    “But I’ve always thought that the penny-per-word way in which translators are paid is not a good way to encourage brevity.”

    That’s very true if you are paying your translators by the target word. But do you really pay your translators for the target, not source word? Paying for the source words seems to be the industry standard, and it doesn’t have any negative effect on brevity.

    “In the translation business, clients are often told that target-language expansion is due to the requirements of accuracy across language and culture.”

    I agree, it’s all about accuracy. With my language combination, English to Russian, when you translate something like “leader” (meaning “a manager”), it’s basically impossible to convey the entire meaning by just one word—whether it’s a literal translation “лидер” or something like “руководитель.” We simply need more words to convey the full meaning, so something has to give—accuracy or brevity.

    • Ken says:

      Good points, Roman. But I think it’s true for most writers (including translators) that language gets tightened, not loosened, in additional passes, which can really add to the amount of time required to complete a text.

  4. Marko Mamula says:

    This blog does admittedly need more cat videos, but a good post nonetheless.

  5. Great links, thanks.

  6. I have to wonder if that’s how simplistic the calculation for Flesch-Kincaid is, how Hemingay would score? It’s been decades since I read him, but I remember his style being rather brutally simplistic but engaging.

  7. I’m not sure If I can put that much faith in mathematical calculations for readability, but its interesting regardless.

  8. Dana Gaya says:

    Is brevity always best?

    • Ken says:


  9. Kathy Evans says:

    Awesome post, even though I originally only came for the baby picture.

    • Ken says:

      The system works!

  10. The penny per word method doesn’t encourage brevity I’ll willing admit while cloaked by the anonymity of the internet.

  11. Lorretta says:

    I tried surfing Google to find a complete list as I swear I read one once, but alas it is gone or reshuffled somewhere off into the dark corners of the interwebs.

  12. Cassy says:

    Another great and timely post here. Thanks for sharing the formula and for the easier way of doing it on MS word.

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