Be careful of caution
xiaming / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

There’s an old saying in Italian: traduttore, traditore, or “translator, traitor.” It means that no matter how good a translator might be, something always gets lost in the translation. Certain linguistic nuances simply can’t always be accurately conveyed in a different language, and some shades of meaning are bound to escape the reader. Of course, if the whole meaning of the original text is not conveyed, communication fails.

This challenge is magnified if the original text is poorly written. And yet, I know that when translating – and certainly when writing – we’re often backed up against a tight schedule. When time is of the essence, we often have to choose between producing a masterpiece … or simply honoring a deadline. We just don’t always have the luxury of making sure our writing is perfect.

So how can we ensure that the meaning behind our communication still comes through?

Take just a moment to ensure that your writing is clean. Whether you’ll be sending your work to a professional translator or not, these five simple communication strategies will make all the difference in the world:

  1. Keep your audience in mind. This means adjusting your tone and style to appeal to your readers. Also remember that your readers (and translators) may not be experts on your topic, probably haven’t read up on your latest articles and, most importantly, don’t know what you’re thinking. So be sure to fill them in on any important details.
  2. Keep it clear. You most likely have background information that your reader doesn’t. Sentences like, “The CEO announced on Thursday he will start visiting all company plants,” may be clear to you because you know the CEO’s schedule. But for anyone else, it’s impossible to know if you mean last Thursday or next Thursday. This ambiguity unravels your communication.
  3. Keep it short. Long sentences are not necessarily evil, but they are more likely to confuse the reader. If you can’t avoid writing long sentences, maintain clarity by putting the important part of the sentence first, with any descriptive phrases or subordinate elements last.
  4. Keep lists consistent. Make sure all lists – including bullet points and numbered lists – stay similar. This is called “parallel structure.” Whether your bullet points are one or two words each or complete sentences, pick a format and stick with it. If your list is comprised of complete sentences, it helps to start them with an active verb – particularly if your writing will need to be translated. For example, in this listing, “Keep lists consistent” is preferable to “Parallel structures are a good idea when writing lists.” Starting with an active verb keeps the meaning clear and impactful.
  5. Keep a style guide handy. A style guide will help you maintain consistency. For example, do you use “%” or do you spell out “percent”? Do you say “red, white and blue” or “red, white, and blue”? A style guide will help you work through these choices and more, to keep your communication polished.

We’d all like to be impeccable communicators, but sometimes a lack of time just gets in the way. Fortunately, attention to detail can be learned. Carefully crafted writing will certainly result in gratitude from your translator – and more effective communication with your intended audience.


About the Guest Author

Maria Ortiz Takacs holds a Bachelors’ Degree in Translation from Universidad del Salvador in Buenos Aires, and a Graduate Diploma in Public Relations Management from McGill University in Montreal. She has worked in the translation field for 20 years and now owns her own translation company, MOT Translation, in Montreal. She can be contacted through LinkedIn at