“Text expansion” is what happens when you translate a written piece of text into another language. End result? The translation is a different length than the original. To begin with, it is a strange term. What on earth? But when you think about it, or if you’ve ever been faced with this problem before, it really is a simple concept.
Sometimes text is longer. Sometimes it is shorter (known as text contraction). This is due to the lengths of the words themselves, the fact that good translations are almost never literal, and some languages require differing quantities of words to say the same thing. In addition, some cultures use phrases and terms that are different from the source language based on local context and traditions. Looking at English text in comparison with any Scandinavian or German translation and the problem literally jumps off the page. Translations from English to Spanish usually take up about 25% more space. Translate into Finnish and the text shrinks up to 30%!
WHAT DOES THIS IMPACT?
Issues like those listed above are more than a mere inconvenience. In printed layouts, expansion and contraction obviously cause major problems. However, it can also cause significant headaches for online UI designers. Text expansion significantly alters the process of implementing voiceovers and subtitles used in audiovisual presentations and social media.
The German language is notorious for its compound words that are quite long. More than almost any other language, German strings words together to comprise a unique vocabulary. In technical and academic fields, this is even more pronounced. To quote the American humourist and writer Mark Twain, “some German words are so long that they have a perspective.” The longest word in German? There are a few contenders.
Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz. This actually won a “word of the year” award in Germany. It is 63 letters. Translated literally, this means “beef labelling regulation and delegation of supervision law.” In English, you might write this as “German beef labelling regulations.”
Siebentausendzweihundertvierundfünfzig. In other words, 7,254. There are several ways to handle numbers in foreign languages. As German proves, translations of numbers can be tricky. They can also take up lots of text space.
Kraftfahrzeughaftpflichtversicherung. This is probably the longest German word in (sort of) common use. It means automobile third party insurance.
Although extreme examples, you can see how certain languages take up more room than their English counterpart.
Social media is an issue you have to consider as a separate category altogether. With that said, text expansion plays a key role in how social media accounts are received by consumers. For example, most Germans really don’t like Twitter. There is a reason. 140 characters is not a lot of space to say much. Particularly in German.
App developers can never be too early in planning for this kind of event.
Text space is also important for SEO, localising your website’s content and it will absolutely impact all of your social media strategies as well.
Facebook, for example, is a place where text length is less of an issue, but it might not be accepted in a certain country. Again, most German speakers choose not to partake in this form of social media and therefore should not be the main focus of time and money invested into a Facebook campaign.
Text expansion can also affect budgets. If the translator is charging you by the word for what they supply as opposed to the word count of the source material (we don’t!), reaching new customers in other languages might actually cost you more. While this may be measured in pennies on the small scale, charges can really add up over time.
AN IMPORTANT PART OF LOCALISATION STRATEGY
Text expansion can also wreak havoc on localisation strategies. Localisation is a process designed to benefit both the business and the consumer. On the business end, it allows your website to appear before competitors’ for relevant search queries in a target region. There are many actions that can be taken to properly implement this kind of campaign. This begins, for example, with adding a country extension (like .uk, .de) to company URLs for domestic traffic. It also concerns the website’s translated name and content. This is where text expansion can be a big issue for those who are inexperienced with localising.
When designing apps for cross-border use, localising becomes even more essential. Developers, while mainly English speakers, require standardised terms to maximise efficiency.
Translating code itself is a specialisation that involves not only spoken language but programming skills as well. Translators will not necessarily know how to translate command text strings or to which locations. They will need instruction on how to translate simple phrases for buttons (for example). This is an area where text space becomes increasingly complex unless meticulously planned from the onset. This is also why companies who can afford it almost always outsource such services to experts.
In order to avoid encountering these issues, there are ways to plan accordingly. The first option, of course, is to hire a consultant to work with you. The kind of problems you’ll be dealing with will all be familiar issues that they handle every day. Especially when you start out, consultants can teach you the basic skills to gain confidence in your methodology.
Aside from enlisting outside assistance, there are some common strategies employed by translators to dodge text space issues.
Create a “dummy” translation via an online service (even Google translate). While this will not serve as a final version, it may give you a general sense of how much space the translated words will take up.
Create style sheets and layout forms (starting with your website) that plan for language expansion.
Try to think in symbols that are universal. For example, the red cross connotes health care internationally. Use appropriate maps and graphics to boot.
Think of how your message will translate across social media. For example, Twitter might not be appropriate for some audiences because of text length. Could an Instagram campaign be substituted instead?