Why does content expand when translated?

Different lengths

Which languages are longest and have the most words?

Why do translations come back longer than the original and exceed the layout? We decided to get to the bottom of the matter and help make your layout problems a thing of the past.

Comparing two sample texts in several different languages, we’ll illustrate why the same content in Spanish, for example, requires a lot more space than English. Read more to find out just how much the length of a text can vary in different languages.

A comparison of European languages

Example 1: legal text

Our first sample text deals with legal copy from the field of economics. The piece was published in several European languages, making it ideal for a comparison. It's unclear whether the text was written in one language and then translated or if the texts were simultaneously written in the different respective languages.

The following table serves only as an example, as there may be differences depending on the type of text. With translations, the original source language also plays a role.

Language Word count
Characters without spaces
Characters with spaces
Letters per word*
Bulgarian 25,988 147,076 170,001 5.659
German 22,118 149,345 168,399 6.752
English 24,698 132,480 154,101 5.364
Finnish 18,864 149,007 164,792 7.899
French 28,350 158,227 183,505 5.581
Italian 27,127 153,955 178,005 5.675
Dutch 24,136 148,362 169,421 6.147
Polish 23,214 150,335 170,468 6.476
Slovenian 23,407 139,170 159,502 5.946
Spanish 29,538 161,348 187,806 5.462
Hungarian 19,985 146,233 163,164 7.317

 

Word count, ascending
Letters per word*, ascending
Characters with spaces, ascending
Finnish 18,864 English 5.364 English 154,101
Hungarian 19,985 Spanish 5.462 Slovenian 159,502
German 22,118 French 5.581 Hungarian 163,164
Polish 23,214 Bulgarian 5.659 Finnish 164,792
Slovenian 23,407 Italian 5.675 German 168,399
Dutch 24,136 Slovenian 5.946 Dutch 169,421
English 24,698 Dutch 6.147 Bulgarian 170,001
Bulgarian 25,988 Polish 6.476 Polish 170,468
Italian 27,127 German 6.752 Italian 178,005
French 28,350 Hungarian 7.317 French 183,505
Spanish 29,538 Finnish 7.899 Spanish 187,806

 

Finnish and Hungarian: fewer words, more letters

From the table, we can see that Finnish gets the content across with the least amount of words but with the longest word length, averaging 7.899 letters. That’s because Finnish is an agglutinating language, which comes from the Latin word agglutinare, 'to glue together'. In this family group, parts of the language are strung together to form more complex words.

For example, there are no prepositions before nouns in agglutinating languages. Instead, the respective words change according to the case. Other words, such as verbs, are modified with the help of affixes, which means that extra letters can be added to a word depending on the subject, tense and case.

Hungarian is comparable to Finnish as it is also an agglutinating language. Hungarian and Finnish are related, as they are both Uralic languages and belong to the Finno-Ugric language group. Other languages, such as Japanese, Korean, Turkish, Malaysian, Swahili and Basque, for example, share no relation to Finnish or Hungarian yet still belong to the agglutinating languages.

As the table shows, although German is not an agglutinating language, it also follows the same pattern as Finnish and Hungarian. The text uses fewer words compared to the other languages but these words contain a relatively high number of letters.

Italian, French and Spanish: more words, fewer letters

In contrast, Italian, French and Spanish use more words to express a meaning. The individual words in our sample text are in fact quite short compared to the other languages, with an average total of 5.462 to 5.675 letters.

In terms of word count, English is in the middle range of our comparison languages and contains the shortest words with an average total of 5.364 letters. Overall, the text length in the English translation is also the shortest, while texts in the romance languages Italian, French and Spanish are the longest. That’s why a piece translated from English into Spanish or French usually expands in length. In our example, the Spanish and French texts are approximately 20% longer than the English equivalent.

Now, none of this is really important until you realise that your translated text no longer fits in the intended layout. Even the width of the letters matters. Some letters require less space (like l), while others need more (e.g. M or W). So, the letters that appear most frequently in a respective language will also affect how much space is needed in the layout!

Example 2: colloquial text

For this second example, let’s take a look at the intercontact blog. Unlike the very precise language used in legal texts, our blogs use more general, everyday language. Our sample blog article was originally written in German and then translated into other languages. Rather than being a word-for-word translation, it’s also much freer.

Language Word count
Characters without spaces
Characters with spaces
Letters per word*
German 619 3,949 4,548 6.380
English 682 3,543 4,205 5.195
French 802 4,350 5,132 5.424
Italian 651 3,685 4,315 5.661
Dutch 675 3,707 4,361 5.492
Polish 591 3,759 4,330 6.360
Spanish 742 3,982 4,703 5.367

 

Word count, ascending
Letters per word*, ascending
Characters with spaces, ascending
Polish 591 English 5.195 English 4,205
German 619 Spanish 5.367 Italian 4,315
Italian 651 French 5.424 Polish 4,330
Dutch 675 Dutch 5.492 Dutch 4,361
English 682 Italian 5.661 German 4,548
Spanish 742 Polish 6.360 Spanish 4,703
French 802 German 6.380 French 5,132

 

With the exception of Polish, all of the languages in our blog article have a higher word count than German. At the same time, most of them require fewer characters, with the exception of French and Spanish. When it comes to the number of letters used per word, German is at the top with an average count of 6.380 letters. Conversely, with an average of 5.195 letters per word, English terms are by far the shortest.

What’s noticeable is that the words in the legal text generally contain more letters than in our blog article. That’s because the legal text contains more technical terms, which are longer, and the blog uses shorter, more colloquial terms. The difference is especially noticeable in German, as the more specific a word is, the longer it becomes. German words in the legal text contain an average of 6.753 letters, compared to 6.380 letters in the blog article.

Even though our blog article was translated from German, the English text is still shorter. Spanish and French, on the other hand, require more space for the same content.

When translating into other languages, the words need to flow naturally

To a certain extent, space limitations can be taken into account in translations. However, it's very important that the languages sound natural. This is the only way to make a text sound appealing in the other language. And what's the point of spending time and money on a translation if it doesn't speak to your customers?

Our tip: only finalise the layout once the translation is finished. This way, the text doesn't need to be squashed into a particular format and the translated words can unfold their full effect.

 

 

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* rounded to three decimal points