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What does it mean to write and translate in plain language?

What is plain language? Some people also call it “plain writing,” but whatever the term, what is it? You can find official guidelines for writing and translating in plain language, including in English, French, Portuguese –from Portugal or Brazil–, Malay, or German.

In this blog post, Cultures Connection examines the subject of clear language so as to help you better understand its meaning and purpose. Here we respond to two key questions:

– What is plain language?

– Why write and translate texts in plain language?

What is plain language?

Plain language is a set of best practices to be followed in the context of raising awareness of the wide variety of recipients of a message. It can be used for a public health message or information in the educational or transportation context, or even for marketing content. Here are the fundamentals:

  • Good communication. A document written or translated in plain language is one that everyone can understand. So regardless of age or education, anyone can read a plain language text because it is accessible. This is why it is essential to use words that belong to the common language so as to communicate a message to an entire population. However, plain language is not just about using basic vocabulary. It is a true type of communication that ranges from the organization of ideas, to lexicon and syntax –for example, active form sentences are preferred– to layout.
  • Official resources. The governmental agencies of some countries publish rules and recommendations for good practice. This is the case, for example, in Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway and Canada –see Termium, the Canadian government’s terminology and linguistic database. Sometimes, guidelines and lists are provided at the regional or state level. Governmental agencies circulate these resources to their employees in order to increase the use of plain language. Official resources include lists of words to avoid –such as rare words, jargon, or long words– and lists of recommended synonyms because they are part of everyday language. They also share tips for simplifying legal vocabulary, and give suggestions for organization and presentation to emphasize important information in a document.

Note: The Directorate-General for Translation of the European Commission has published a How to write clearly guide for the EU. This guide is available in 24 languages and can be downloaded directly from the Publications Office of the European Union. It is essentially a very good model of plain language.

  • Training for writers and translators. Translators, like writers, can be trained in plain language. The first step is to become familiar with the principles of clear language communication, and reading our article here is a good start. The second step is to become familiar with guides and lexicons in one’s native language and in the language(s) one translates. Then, writers and translators go one step further by getting used to using the recommendations. The more you use plain language when writing a new text or when translating, the more comfortable you are with using clear wording and sentence constructions. This develops the ability to adapt to writing and translating for all audiences.
  • Associations and quality standards. Moreover, national and international associations offer workshops to learn about clear language and practice the rules to follow. In addition, an international quality standard outlines the essential principles and guidelines of plain language.

Why write and translate texts in plain language?

Plain language writing and translation is of major interest to government agencies and hospitals, but not only. Companies that communicate about their products also benefit from this approach. Here are some good reasons to write and translate in plain language:

  • Easier and more targeted communication. If the message is aimed at the general public, it is essential to write and translate it clearly. Plain language text is text that enhances the user experience: the target audience enjoys understanding content easily and quickly. A pleasant and airy layout, accompanied by images, diagrams and drawings that facilitate reading and comprehension, is also essential. This is as true for an administration as it is for a company: it is better to reach the widest possible audience in order to make yourself known and to offer your services or products. Moreover, the public better memorizes a clear message than a complex content.
  • Health sector. Epidemics prove that a clear, well-illustrated and well-translated message is crucial in a public health campaign. Hospitals and clinics as well as pharmaceutical companies also use plain language to present medical services and care pathways, or to ensure that medication leaflets are easily understood. It is therefore important to know how to write a patient brochure, magazine or medical leaflet that is effective thanks to its intelligible and relevant content.
  • Governmental agencies. In principle, governmental agencies are at the service of the general public, both at the level of a city and a country. There used to be no shortage of complaints about texts that were deemed unsuitable or even obtuse. This is why administrations were the first, along with the medical sector, to write their contents in clear language. One of the missions of administrative services is to provide the public with useful information on services and rights, on subjects as varied as transport, schools, courts, and so on. When it comes to communicating with the entire population, the translation of administrative texts into clear language has also become essential.
  • Marketing and SEO. Why use plain language in marketing and SEO? A company thinking about a campaign message often thinks in terms of good advertising slogans, catchy phrases and current language. But is this approach appropriate for the target audience and does it make it easier to buy into the message? It all depends on the target audience. The action is not the same when you want to reach a large audience. If you use overly technical terms or unconventional syntax, you risk losing part of your target audience. Using words in a foreign language, for example, can be detrimental to communication because only part of the audience will understand the slogan or the marketing message. Similarly, in SEO copywriting and translation, to launch your new marketing campaign, it is better to use words and expressions that are used by the general population, for example in search engines (Google or else). To turn prospects into customers, you need to address them with the words and style that they use every day.

As you can see, it is time to plan a clear and effective communication when addressing a large audience. Administrations as well as companies must think upstream about users or customers and therefore adapt their message, so that information and marketing campaigns are successful. Writers and translators have useful tools at their disposal to learn plain language. In addition, plain language content for translation makes the translators’ job easier: clear content can avoid inaccuracies and misunderstandings.

Clarity, efficiency and accessibility are therefore the key words for a good multilingual campaign!

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This article has been written by Marilène Haroux

Marilène was previously an Academic and a Translator. At Cultures Connection she used to be the Vendor Manager as well as Bid Manager. Now Marilène is the Bid and Communications Manager.