Brevity: The Soul of Globalization

By Robert Sprung

Keeping word counts to a minimum can be a real plus.

“What do you read, my lord?” “Words, words, words.” Modern package designers and documentation professionals are as frustrated as Hamlet was by the profusion of text. Professionals today are grappling with copy being translated into 20 or more languages and being crammed onto labels, lidstock, instructions for use (IFU), and marketing collateral.

The challenges are considerable. If you have a product with 50 words of English copy that barely fit on its label, how do you redesign the label to accommodate what could be 1000 words in 20 languages? Some solutions are clever, but none are really satisfactory. Some companies have tried accordion-style folding or other extended labeling. Others push for more icons to replace text. But many icons are recognized in only one geographic area, like Europe, and the text is then reinstated with the graphics to address regulatory concerns in other markets. Others try to use e-labeling to move copy from paper to CDs or the Internet.

While it may be technically possible to simply add more pages, the larger IFU may not fit in the old box. This causes a fundamental redesign of the product and its packaging.

Translating label text into 20 languages is costly. It is directly proportional to the number of words. And that cost does not include the probable package redesign or the costs of replacing and managing the inventory of new labels.

At the most basic level—for both packaging components and instructions for use—the greater the amount of text, the greater the number of problems and the associated costs. There are three basic ways to reduce the number of words:
1. Translate into fewer languages, or adopt regional labeling (fewer languages on each component).

The simplest solution is to cut out certain languages. If the economic argument is not there, and the translation is expensive, companies are increasingly implementing minimal sales levels needed to warrant putting the extra language on the label. Other companies are setting up regional groupings—Pacific Rim, Americas, and Europe packages, for example. This solution can be elegant if implemented correctly, but generally requires sophisticated labeling software and tight inventory controls.

2. Reduce the number of words in the source language (fewer English words on the package).

This solution was recognized 15 years ago by some of the large software companies that were already doing most of their business overseas. When a senior financial officer at Digital Equipment issued a directive that all documentation should simply be cut by 20%, the move saved the company millions of dollars each year. Twenty percent fewer words in English meant a corresponding cut in translation costs, paper, and printing.

Another approach is to train technical writers to omit needless words. The verbose writer is the start of a long chain that ends in thousands of needless words and potentially tens of thousands of dollars in needless translation costs. Sometimes the problem isn’t verbosity, but the structure of document architecture. In an effort to be user-friendly, some user manuals will repeat text unnecessarily (e.g., chapter summaries).

3. Reduce the number of words in translation.

As a last resort, one can look to the translation company to minimize the number of words. This is often easier said than done, since text—particularly technical text—tends to expand in translation. This is not necessarily the fault of a verbose translator. Languages like French and Spanish require articles and prepositional phrases that add to the word count (“user manual” becomes “manual of the user,” literally). Nonetheless, good terminology-management software such as Trados can help keep translators focused on brevity.

In a followup piece, we will look at the problems of verbosity in both marketing copy and software interfaces—two areas where too many words can kill the message, or the product.


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