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Plain Language: How to Avoid Being Lost in Translation

11/29/2017 by Sara Leonhartsberger

Although technical terminology is often vital for certain fields, such as the medical profession, a disconnect between intended message and audience comprehension has been observed when such terminology dominates the document. Particularly in governmental documents or business’ terms and conditions, legal jargon fills the page, complicated sentence structure and terminology barring readers directly affected by the stated policies from understanding them. As miscommunication became prevalent in this exchange of knowledge, leading to frustration on both the communicator’s and receivers’ side, a movement for a new process for writing and translation emerged: plain language.

Plain language is the practice of using the most direct language possible to convey meaning. Its goals are primarily driven by “customer-facing language”; language use is determined by what an audience can most easily, quickly, and completely understand from reading a document.  According to the United States’ Plain Writing Act of 2010, the objectives of plain language are for the audience to “find information, understand what they find, and use what they find.” While the goals of plain language may sound particularly beneficial from the audience’s perspective, businesses can also benefit through shifting from complicated terminology to plain language. When the audience can understand the policies or offers that directly affect them, they are able to act upon them, leading to an engagement with the business that otherwise would not exist. For example, if an education advocate used the phrasing “High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process,” intuitive understanding is difficult with a public audience. However, if the advocate used the phrasing “Children need good schools if they are to learn properly,” the message becomes far clearer. Parents, school administrators, and the general public would be able to process and engage within the debate.

With translation, a balance between word-for-word translation and audience comprehension mirrors the plain language debate. While clients desire for the translation to most closely resemble the source material, translators must always consider the effective engagement of the audience. What word or phrasing, although perhaps not the direct translation, will best communicate the intended message of the client? As translators, balancing faithfulness to the source materiel and effectiveness of reaching the target audience is a top priority, ensuring that neither client nor audience is “lost in translation.”  

 Source for education example:

"Before and after"Plain English Campaign. 24 July 2012. Retrieved 29 November 2017. 

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