Translating with Design in Mind: the Space Challenge

When working on texts destined to be published in a strongly visual context (e.g. website, magazine, brochure, illustrated book, etc.), one of the challenges is space. Because the same story in two different languages will always result in two different lengths, the layout, font size, and other visual parameters need to be adjusted significantly.

English is concise, flexible and snappy. So much can be said with so little. In comparison, Latin languages can be fairly unwieldy, using long words, complex structures, and the various endings (gender, singular/plural) add many characters to each line of text. French also has the particularity (or peculiarity) to require a space before some items of punctuation (question and exclamation marks, colons, semi-colons…).

A month ago, I translated a major art gallery’s website. While the pages’  layout presented no issue, the navigation bar caused some head-scratching: there was hardly any margin around the tabs in the English version. How could the French translation fit? Having worked in web design in the past, I was well aware that this would be a major problem for the webmaster and therefore tried to think of the shortest possible terms, but the choice is restricted by the fact that users will expect to find standard words (e.g. “exhibitions / what’s on”, “about”, “contact”, “getting there”, etc.). Coming up with new fancy terms likely to confuse users was not an option. Despite spending much time looking at other galleries’ website for alternatives and inspiration, it was simply not possible to suggest translations that could fit and the navigation bar would have to be customised for the French part of the site.

Magazines, with their obvious paper format restrictions are probably the trickiest. Not only the main body of the articles must fit (neither too long nor too short), the captions and titles must fit harmoniously too. When working on Eurostar’s trilingual magazine, Metropolitan, I had to somehow ensure that my translations were the same length as the originals. As French texts tend to be 20% longer than English ones, it was much easier to translate into English than into French, and to stretch the English versions if necessary than to shrink the French ones. In particular, four- or five-line paragraphs briefly announcing an exhibition or event left little room for manoeuvre and inevitably incurred losses in the French translations.

Once again, translation is not simply a matter of replacing a text with another. It requires planning and coordination, and the earlier your translator is involved in the process, the easier your webmaster or magazine/brochure designer’s job will be.

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