The Whys and Hows of Translation Style Guides. A Case Study.

Last week, a marketing manager of a global investment company called me. He was referred to me by a colleague. They are launching the company’s website in Italy and had it translated into Italian by a global translation company. However, they were not convinced of the Italian translation and asked me for an opinion and for a review.

I started reading the translations. I could not find big mistakes, such as grammar or spelling. The main issue was that the text sounded too much like a translation. Sometimes I could not even understand the Italian without reading the English source. This lead to various misinterpretations. Moreover, it was translated literally, and Website menus and buttons were too long for the Internet layout.

It was evident that nobody visited the English website before or during the translation process. You could understand it from naïve mistakes, where charts were confused with tables, buttons mistaken for menus, and the translated metaphors had nothing to do with the image shown online.

Translators were not informed (and probably did not ask) about the intended destination, the target reader, the “ideal” client of the website. Who was going to read and visit it? Institutional or retail investors? Should the language be easy to understand for everybody, or specifically directed to investment professionals. What is the brand “tone”, formal or informal?

A 20 minute call with the client’s local team was enough to understand their expectations and draft a very short “style guide” for an effective translation into Italian: words not to be translated, reference materials, a description of the market they wanted to reach in order to launch their products in Italy. A professional translator can start from such information to hone the language for the purpose.

When talking about style guides or manuals of style, you may think they are too academic, while a simple short guide for effective writing is a valuable reference for translators and does not need to be too complicated. You can combine this guide with glossaries and reference material to do a better job, a translation that does not sound like a translated text, but as an original document improving the quality of the message, increasing the audience engagement, and even cutting costs.

WHY… a style guide?

A set of rules, a guidebook on client’s preferences and expectations improves consistency of language and tone, helps conveying the right message, based on the company’s brand.

From the client’s view, it increases efficiency speeding up processes (including internal review and approval), and it reduces costs because activities are not duplicated.

Most importantly, focusing on personas, e.g. the client’s ideal reader and visitor, and destination market, you can improve the quality and efficacy of the message, using the right language, and optimising localisation.

From the translator’s perspective, she can speed up research (of terms, references, etc.), while the reviewer saves time because he does’t need to ask things twice, if there is a list of standards and references.

WHAT… is a style guide?

It does not need to be complicated, but a short set of standards, highlighting the client’s expectation and preferences.

A short description of the company, its products or services, and its goals are of great help:

  • purpose and destination of the translation (sales material, press release, website)
  • target market (Italy, industry, competitors)
  • target audience (institutional investors, retail investors, professionals, young people, financial education)
  • the object of communication: brand reputation, marketing, sale
  • preferred tone of voice: formal, informal

A style guide should also specify:

  • the language or style to be used, for example long or short sentences, the translator should be more faithful to the source or depart a bit more from the original to favour interpretation instead of a literal translation.
  • words to be avoided or “problem words” that the client does not use they are in a competitor’s commercial. If there is not a glossary, the translator may prepare one for reference.
  • words not to be translated (e.g. job positions, English terms commonly used in financial jargon)
  • use of abbreviations, capitalisation, measures, currencies [Financial Translation is a Balancing Act as I wrote here].
  • any formatting rules, typographical conventions or variety of language (in the case of English or Spanish, this is specifically important).

Reference documents may also be included in the guide, together with the visuals, images, pictures that will be published with the texts. This is especially useful in case of metaphors, which may be very different in a foreign language.

WHO… writes the style guide?

A client buying translation services may not be aware of the importance of such guidelines, but he should have an important role in drafting the guide, supplying coherent reference material as well as explanations and information. Of course, clients should have a clear view of the message they want to convey.

The professional translator and reviewer should ask the right questions to collect the necessary information for a better translation, fit for the purpose.

WHEN… do you write a style guide?

You can write a style guide at any time, but it is a good idea to start developing one at the start of the project or at the beginning of the relationship with a new client.

The professional translator will update it over time, when the client provides suggestions or revisions with the final version of the translated document, revised by its local sales team, or when issues arises that need standardised processes, or words to be avoided in the future.

In my experience as a translator and reviewer, I drafted many style guides and read instructions prepared by other companies. Based on my experience, the structure of the guide is important. It should not be too long or confused, otherwise nobody will use it. It should be short and sweet, to the point, containing only the necessary information with a structure. Recently, I received a guide containing a long list of terms not to be used, or examples of sentences corrected by a revisor, with no clear intention or direction, referring to a very differtent type of document. Useless.

I collected a series of interesting posts on this subject, with many examples and suggestions to be applied during the next call with a potential client.

I hope you will find them useful!

On Style Guides and Client Glossaries:

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