Brevity or Clarity?

Or creativity, or directionality? — just to name a few unique qualities that separate the good and poor translations.

Two distinctive fundamental skills are needed in translation.

First: understanding the source language.

Second: writing up in the target language.

The second one requires that a translator must also be a good writer in their own right.

And it’s not that you only need to be good at writing certain type of text. You need to be good at writing as many types of text as the ones you translate.

Apart from conveying a message, good writer-translators also strive for the following:


This is when you are working with texts for one-page fact-sheet titles, online ad titles or navigation buttons, tag lines, or anything for which its publication platform places premium on ‘column inches’ or display time, or subtitles for a video clip.

To say the same thing, the word number ratio between English and Chinese is around 1:1.70. It also takes longer to read Chinese in its traditional form than in simplified form. Both make it even more critical to be economical when writing up a translation in Chinese.

Or clarity:

This is when you are working with legal documents, where unambiguousness is paramount and printing is not expensive.

Translators can be called as a witness in law courts. It’s not much joy having to defend some sloppy writing that open yourself up for different interpretation.

Besides, clarity is one major quality that all good translation should possess.

Or creativity:

This is when working with materials used for marketing. For example, brochures for investment real estates, web pages about apartments targeting international students, or newsletters about promotional deals for a hotel chain.

Your write up still need to stay on message and be faithful to the narrative — these types of materials always have a narrative by design. But you get to play your words around emotions, cultural undertones, and go for ‘equivalents’ that really push your readers’ psych button.

How many ways can you say “Super Sale” or “Crazy Deal” in your language? Write your heart away.

Or directionality:

This is when you are working with user manuals, government directives, survey forms, or website navigation menus or links.

These materials are usually action-oriented. You need to make sure readers of your language not only understand your writing, but understand enough to action as expected and directed.

Some ‘directions’ in English are clearly directions to English speakers, but not so much for Chinese readers. For example, when instructing people to pick a ‘best answer’ for a multiple choice question in a consumer survey, if they’re not sure which one to pick, most English speakers can understand that ‘best answer’ here means “one that is closest to what they think”. This is exactly how it should written up as translation in Chinese. Should it be literally translated, ‘best answer’ will stress out any Chinese speaker, trying to guess ‘the best’ among all possible answers by all people. So much the discrepancy in people’s mind frame across culture.

So, brevity or clarity or else? It really depends.


Gather my wisdom while gathering my knowledge.