Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
The Dumbing Down of Translation
June 18, 2012 - By: - In: Language - Comments Off on The Dumbing Down of Translation

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.

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