Limited text length: a translation challenge

Limited space

From time to time, clients will specify the maximum length of a translation.

This often happens when the space in their layout or web browser is limited, and we get that. Yet, it’s important to know that imposing a character limit makes it much harder to write natural-sounding, appealing text. This goes for both the source text and the end translation.

Find out how best to work with limited space and why some languages need more room than others.

Why different languages vary in length

It depends largely on the source and target languages. As a rule, English requires fewer characters than most other languages, partly because the individual words are shorter. However, that's not always the case with translations. The English version of a German phrase, for example, might need an extra clause – a little detour that would make the sentence longer. English also happens to be more verbal, meaning it uses more verbs than nouns, i.e. more words.

Speaking of nouns, it’s characteristic of German to string a list of words together to form one long word, or compound noun. We don’t do that in English, which means the word has to be broken down into separate parts. There’ll be more on that later when we talk about specialist text.

Typically, languages within the same family have many similarities in terms of wording and sentence structure. Languages from different families are a whole other story. Two of the major language groups are Germanic and Romance.

French and Italian belong to the Romance family, as do Portuguese, Spanish and Romanian, and are a subgroup of the Italic languages. German, Dutch, English, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, on the other hand, are all Germanic languages.
So, a translation from Dutch into French would result in a completely different sentence structure. Couple that with the different number, and length, of the words in French and the translation could easily end up being 30% longer than the original text.

To a certain extent, the translation process allows sentences to be squeezed into a particular format. However, it's important to note that this often results in text that sounds strange or contrived. It's much more authentic, and thereby more appealing for your target audience, if a language can be expressed in its own unique and natural way.

Why certain languages use longer words

Besides the sentence structure, a decisive factor in the text length is how long the individual words are. This is determined by the type of content and – last but not least – how literally or freely the translator is allowed to work.

When the topic is more generalised, the vocabulary tends to be simpler and shorter. That’s partly because common language is used in everyday life and is therefore self-evident. The communication style also requires a certain “economy of words” for it to sound natural. And, at the end of the day, overly long words cost time too.

In contrast, specialist text normally contains longer technical terms. German compounds are a perfect example of this. The more specialised the word is, the longer it becomes. Let’s say there’s a book lying on the table. It’s simply called a book (“Buch“). But this is not just any book, it’s an examination book (“Prüfungsbuch”) and, more specifically, a mechanic's examination book (“Mechanikerprüfungsbuch”). What's more, this examination book is not intended for all mechanics, but specifically for agricultural machinery mechanics (“Landmaschinenmechaniker”), so it's actually an examination book for agricultural machinery mechanics (“Landmaschinenmechanikerprüfungsbuch”).

Obviously, this is an extreme example and not something that would come up in everyday conversation. Truth be told, you could also rephrase the word in a number of ways, even in German. So there’s a little bit of leeway to play with. And, as always, certain texts don’t allow this, such as legal text, which uses set, specific terms that cannot be changed.

Limited space: SEO, social media, layouts and more

So what’s the point of all this? Can’t we just accept that different languages come in varying lengths and not give it another thought?

Sure. Well, sometimes at least.

It doesn't matter how long your text is when you have enough room. The problem arises when there’s a set target length, such as text for search engines, fixed layouts and social media. In these instances, part of the headline could be chopped off if the maximum display length is exceeded. Meta descriptions are even more critical. Here, the sentences must be structured in such a way that the most important words appear at the beginning. Get that wrong and they might not be displayed at all.

When all is said and done though, you don't need to worry about linguistic accuracy because a translation agency would never deliver incorrect text. Sometimes the translator just has to stick to the specified text length and find a way to make it work. However, for the client, it’s important to know that limiting the number of characters can have a negative effect on the language. When aesthetics are given top priority and the content is squeezed into as few short words as possible, the sentence doesn't sound right any more.

The bottom line: Make sure the original source text leaves some wiggle room

It would be wonderful if translations didn't need to conform to a limited number of characters at all. But, as we’ve seen, there are a number of cases where it’s essential. Obviously, translators aren’t allowed to omit content from the source text, but the nature of each language will mean it’s sometimes impossible to find a shorter word or phrase.

So, when you need your translation to fit a certain limit, try to ensure that the original text is shorter than the allocated space. And remember that a translation will almost always be longer than the original, particularly when the original text is in English or German.

Which languages are the longest? Find out in the next article.