What struck me most when rebuilding Supply and Services Canada’s plain language guides (Plain Language: Clear and Simple and Pour un style clair et simple) was that the French guides aren’t simply the English guides, translated. Although both guides teach the same underlying principles—understanding your audience and the purpose of your document; planning and organizing your document before writing; achieving clarity at the word, sentence, and paragraph levels; implementing a design that supports readability; and user testing with your intended audience—the differences in content between these guides drove home that plain language is language specific.
“Well, obviously,” you might be thinking. Different languages have different grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, each rife with opportunities for ambiguity that have to be tackled individually. The French guides, for instance, address appropriate usage of the indefinite pronoun “on” in plain language, which isn’t a consideration in English. Studies have also shown a “language-specific rhetorical bias” when it comes to using (and by extension, tolerating) the passive voice.
What’s more, the audiences are likely to be vastly different. Even within Canada, French and English speakers have different cultural backgrounds, and those who have neither French nor English as their first language are more likely to learn English than French, meaning that publications in English have to be more sensitive to the needs of ESL speakers than those in French to FSL speakers. A document in plain French, if translated into English, may no longer be plain.
So, being a bit of a workflow nerd, I wondered where translation best fits into the plain language process. Translators have complained that translation is often an afterthought, not considered until the document in the source language is complete. In many cases, though, given that the clarity of the source text can determine the quality of the translation, working with a fully polished text makes sense. Yet, the inherent differences in audience would imply that, for documents that we know will be available in more than one language, developing separate texts in parallel, from the outset, would most effectively get the message across. This approach would be a nightmare for translation revisers and designers of bilingual documents, however, and it certainly isn’t the most budget-friendly option. Would the most efficient approach be to translate after plain language editing but before design, then do parallel testing sessions for the source and target languages?
If you or your organization translates plain language documents, tell me—what do you do? How well does your system work, and what would you change?