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During the FIT XIX World Congress held in San Francisco last week, I attended a very interesting presentation by Erin Lyons, called “The Simple Life – Using Plain and Controlled Language to Improve Translation Quality and Consistency.” Here are a few points that I wanted to share from this presentation.

1.      What is Plain Language?

It is communication that the audience can understand the first time it is read. This is defined by results: easy to read, understand and use. However, this does not mean that we strip the language down to a lower “level”, or take away necessary technical and legal info. It is more than editorial polishing.

 2.      Why is Plain Language important for translators?

It cuts out the bloat and creates shorter, simpler texts, sometimes cutting down the expansion factor by up to 25%. We select vocabulary that prevents interlinguistic pitfalls such as faux amis, semantics and such.

3.      Problems for translators

Very few writers have translatability in mind when writing documents but this is extremely important to bear in mind in a multilingual context. No one wants to waste a lot of time trying to translate difficult and wordy documents and plain language can eliminate these barriers and make the text communicate effectively.

4.      How Plain language can help translations

Plain Language requires a concrete message, rather than an abstract one. It forces translators to avoid ad verbum translations and helps minimize negative transfer.

5.      Tools for Plain Language translations

          Eliminate passive voice wherever possible

          Keep prepositional phrases concise

          Eliminate unnecessary modifiers

          Avoid circumlocutions or intentional ambiguity

6.      Examples of applying Plain Language

Negative economic growth – recession

Counsel – Lawyer

Restrained from – Must not

Lessor/lessee – Landlord/tenant

After reading this, it is “plain” to see that using plain language would make translating, editing and understanding many texts easier. Having translated some legal texts, such as claims I know I would prefer if legalese could become more “plain”.


Swedish Translation Services is a company owned by Tess Whitty, a freelance translator (English-Swedish), proofreader, editor, copy writer, localizer and entrepreneur.


  1. The passive voice can actually be desirable in certain contexts: when writing for the web, for example. Readers of web pages tend to skim, their attention focussing mainly on the left side of the page plus headings (the well-known “F”-pattern). So if we put key phrases on the left (e.g. at the start of the first sentence in a paragraph), then they attract attention better. If the keyword is not the sentence’s grammatical subject, then it can be moved to the front using the passive voice.

  2. Those of us working into English often need to bear in mind that our translations may be for non-native readers (eg tourism texts) or for translation into other languages. Plain English becomes even more important then. It can often help to ask the client if either of the above scenarios apply.

    Another point about Plain English is to avoid using too many abbreviations/acronyms, as these can make readers stumble.

    I have heard some Plain English authorities suggest reinserting hyphens into long compound words that are now written joined up, if readers may otherwise find such words difficult.

  3. Vince says:

    Good point. English (as spoken in the US) has turned into an ever-increasing morass. More and more the object seems to obfuscate. More examples:

    Momentarily = soon
    Not longer with us = died
    Passed away = died
    Left this world = died
    Without the wherewithal = lacking money
    Rendition = kidnapping
    Neutralize = kill or captured
    On and on. The increased use of euphemisms was even addressed by comedian George Carlin in the last book he published before he passed away, er, died.

  4. Catherine says:

    Thanks Tess, I’ve enjoyed reading your articles about FIT. I believe in using plain English, especially in FAQs or other documents that are meant to inform readers, not confuse them. If my FAQs cause readers to think too much and scratch their heads, then I’ve done a poor job. So if the source text is ambiguous and/or poorly written, I usually ask my client for clarification. I often get back a straightforward sentence that is easier to translate and more reader-friendly.

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  6. I read your article with interest.

    I understand a translator should have good writing skills in the first place. Sometimes such good skills may surpass the the ones of the original article writer. As a professional translator, I often wonder whether a translator should translate poorly constructed original sentences with many inappropriate words into plainly understandable sentences in a different language.

    I will be glad if you let me have your thoughts on the above case.

    • Tess says:

      I do think that a translator can improve the quality of the target text by using plain language, even if the source text didn’t, as long as we take the target reader into account and get clarifications from the client if the text is too diffuse.

  7. The plain language movement is strong among technical writers, so those of us translating for large companies that are implementing controlled languge should start to see plainer language that is easier to localize in their texts. For legal texts, I don’t see it coming any time soon. 🙂
    If you want more on this topic one great book is “The Global English Style Guide” by John R. Kohl.

    • Tess says:

      Thanks Karen! I also heard that there is a glossary/dictionary for Plain English. I tweeted it, but have to find it again.