Translation Word for Word

by Translation Guy on March 9, 2009
0 comments

Translators could work a lot faster if they translated word for word. But sad to say, that’s not the way translation works. It’s the little nasties like syntax and style that stand in the way.

Those are some of the things that make machine translation so bad (and translators so mad!). And for some reason, translation often expands, especially when translating from that language of brevity, English.

(At this point you are probably asking, if that’s true, if English is so concise, then why does TranslationGuy write so long? My only excuse is that I used to be a speechwriter, and have the ADD to show for it, which is apt to make me go off subject and start writing in tangents, which in turn reminds me of a story…)

Anyways, some languages need a lot more words than others when translated from English. We were wondering about that, because those extra words can really start to pile up when they have to be stuffed into layouts designed for English. It drives the DTP crazy… or should I say crazier? The rule of thumb is to allow for an expansion of 40% for English layouts to be localized in other languages, which in twenty years in this business, I’ve never, ever seen done. After all, it’s only a rule of thumb.

Script translations for recording sessions and subtitles can be even more challenging. Most likely you’ve heard it listening to Spanish radio, where sometimes the announcers are going a mile a minute in order to make a Spanish-language script translation fit into a thirty second English-language spot.

So we decided to figure out just exactly how much English-language word counts expand when translated into foreign languages. Here’s what we got:

Translated Language

English Words

Differential

Translated Words

Arabic Translation

1000

1.22

1220

Chinese Translation

1000

1.67

1670

Danish Translation

1000

0.99

986

Dutch Translation

1000

1.17

1170

Finnish Translation

1000

0.81

810

French Translation

1000

1.22

1222

German Translation

1000

1.04

1036

Greek Translation

1000

1.20

1200

Hebrew Translation

1000

0.85

850

Hungarian Translation

1000

0.88

880

Italian Translation

1000

1.10

1101

Japanese Translation

1000

2.00

2000

Korean Translation

1000

0.89

890

Lithuanian Translation

1000

0.88

880

Norwegian Translation

1000

0.97

970

Polish Translation

1000

0.95

953

Portuguese Translation

1000

1.17

1171

Russian Translation

1000

0.94

940

Slovenian Translation

1000

0.98

980

Spanish Translation

1000

1.18

1182

Swedish Translation

1000

0.97

970

Vietnamese Translation

1000

1.44

1140

As you look over this list, you can see how related languages have similar word counts. The Romance languages tend to run particularly long. I should add that written word-count differentials don’t always reflect the time required for a read. I should further add that these word counts are calculated using MS word, and the ratios for Japanese and Chinese are based on character counts for operational reasons.

And, of course, it depends on the way the source text is written, since some subjects ― and some writers ― go long (this blog being a great example).

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