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Writing web copy for translation

When I first started writing copy for blue chips clients many years ago, it would often be translated into different languages. As well as the obvious need for writing clearly and avoiding British idioms and cultural references, there were other considerations. Most noticeably that anything translated into German would take up to 50% more space on the page.

By page, I mean on the magazine page, the brochure or the letter. This was the pre-internet era.

Today, many of those considerations still apply, although one or two have become less important and new ones have come into play.

For example on a web page you’re less bothered by space. So it would matter less if a page in German involved some scrolling down. Although from a marketing point of view you may prefer to get the gist of the message ‘above the fold’.

Where it gets strange with web copy in different languages is in the cultural norms. Rules regarding capital letters, underlines and bolds are very different, for example, in the Chinese and Japanese languages. Which, as you can imagine, makes web copy and links interesting. There’s even the matter of font size – oriental alphabets become illegible at a larger font size than western ones.

There’s also the matter of the way text is read – in Arabic it’s left to right. Which has all kinds of implications for the way text is displayed, justified and so on. It also means that the way Arabic speakers browse a page is different, which will again have implications on the way it’s designed, use of images and so forth. Then there’s the use of and significance of different colours in other cultures – worth a thought when you’re selecting what colour to choose for link text and so on.

All that’s even before you take into account the marketing message you’re looking to convey and the way in which you say it.

It’s no wonder that even many overseas websites just stick with good old English. (British English generally, rather than the American variety.)

And a for the automatic web translation software and the confusing, misleading, unintentionally funny results it can come up with, that’s a whole different blog post.


For more details of what to bear in mind when writing for international markets, please see my British Copywriter page.  If you’re based outside Britain and are looking for a copywriter who writes excellent British English, please contact me

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