Hey... Hey, you! Guess what?
You're one of three billion people with Internet access.
NOTE: Only about a third of those people speak English.
So think about it: If you're publishing English content online, the majority of Internet users can't understand it. It means nothing to them. It's gibberish.
Believe me, I know what you're thinking: One billion people is plenty for me. And hey, maybe it is. Maybe your target audience only speaks English (that's my audience's primary language, after all)...
But then again, what if you're trying to appeal to a global audience -- an audience that speaks different variations of English (e.g., Australia, Scotland, Ireland, England) or completely different languages altogether? What then?
Well, if you are in fact creating blog articles, white papers, landing pages, email newsletters, etc. for an international community, you have to write with future translation in mind...
Let me say that again: You have to write with future translation in mind.
Okay. So here's what I mean by future translation... It breaks down into two categories:
1. Professional Localization
2. Web Translation
Let's explore these options.
First of all, don't let the lingo intimidate you. "Localization" is just a fancy word for translation. Here's the technical definition:
"The adaption of a product, application, or document content to meet the language, cultural and other requirements of a specific target market, or locale."
In other words, professionally localizing your writing means hiring a certified translator to meticulously analyze your content and revise it so that a specific audience can easily understand it and draw value from it.
Is it expensive? Sure it is. But if you need to take this route -- and some businesses legitimately do -- then you can find a localization experthere.
And that's all I'll say about this translation option because, aside from a few high level copy changes, there's little you can do from a writing standpoint to alter the outcome of localized content. That's what you're paying a professional for.
Option two, however, is different: It has everything to do with you and how you write...
A web translation is the output you would get from Google Translate or Bing Translator. It's a word-for-word text replacement used the world-over by non-native speakers and desperate foreign language students. But students who use a web translator usually fail the test...
Why do they fail?
I'll explain with a quick story: When I was a kid, my babushka always tried to translate Russian sayings into English for me. One of my favorites was:
"Done deed. Play brave!"
That was her way of saying: If you finish your homework, then you can enjoy yourself guilt-free.
Unfortunately, translating a rhyming Russian idiom -- word-for-word -- into English only mixed up the message. As you can tell, in this case, it yielded something fairly incoherent. (But boy do I love her for trying.)
The point is that unless you shell out big money to have your content professionally localized, a web translator is how the majority of people will take in your message (Facebook even has automated web translators built into posts). And if your copy is written without web translation in mind, it'll most likely spit out an inaccurate rewording and confuse your end-reader.
Hence all the F's in AP German...
So how do you ensure that your content is optimized for now-ubiquitous web translators? Follow these 5 rules and you'll be well on your way to writing highly translatable, easily consumable copy:
1. Use Global English
Global English is plain English. That doesn't mean you should dumb down your writing -- not at all. It means you should strive to make your writing clear and friendly, as if you're writing to someone you've known for years.
Clear and friendly -- that's what you're aiming for. You achieve it by:
- Writing short, complete sentences -- and if the concept you're trying to explain is hefty, you might want to use bullets to break down your point in a clear and organized way.
- Limiting your adverbs and adjectives.
- Using active voice (e.g., replace 'we will be arriving' with 'we will arrive')
To that last point, you should always strive to find the simplest way to communicate a message. So if you can use one word instead of three, use one word! For example, replace:
- 'look at' with 'examine'
- 'carry on' with 'continue'
- 'put up with' with 'withstand'
- 'at this point in time' with 'now'
2. Remember the Basics
Does each sentence have a subject and a verb?
Is your punctuation on point? What about your tenses?
Ensure that your writing makes sense by reading it aloud. If it sounds off to you in English, imagine what Google or Bing will make of it in another language.
3. Avoid Regional References
Jargon, slang, pop culture references, even Latin abbreviations will confuse people who aren't from that region.
For example, "911" means nothing to an Italian citizen, so using it to express an emergency situation would be pointless or, worse yet, confusing to Italian readers.
4. Respect Numbers
There's no getting around the fact that dates, phone numbers and currencies are interpreted differently from country to country.
If you need a global audience to understand your message, listing out all the relevant variations would save your audience effort and time.
For example, if you know your content is going to be consumed in the US and Europe, include prices in USD ($) and EUR (€).
5. Be Consistent
At the end of the day, consistency is king.
Pick a constant voice and tone, but more importantly, commit to a specific set of writing rules. If you live in America, use American-English spelling and grammar. Doing so ensures that web translators will be consistent, as well.
DISCLAIMER: Here's the thing... Even if you religiously adhere to these principles, your web-translated content still won't read perfectly in another language. That's just the nature of the beast. Unless you pay for it, a translation is never going to be flawless.
With that said, following these guidelines can still make a tremendous difference for global audiences. International readers may not digest your content exactly as you intended, but they are more likely to walk away with the same information and value as your English-speaking readers...
And that, ultimately, is what's most important.