Writing for a global audience is a distinct challenge that can vex even the best in the field. Doing it successfully requires different skills than normal writing. Seemingly innocuous sentences can pose major challenges for international readers, so if a writer needs to make sure that their words can be understood by many diverse groups of people, he or she cannot simply write as they normally would.
Consider the following sentence:
“Work’s been wearing me down and I really need a change of pace, so I’ll be at the beach two weeks.”
This statement, while informal, would not sound out of place in everyday conversation, and a native speaker can easily discern its full meaning: the person speaking is tired from the constant effort required of them in their professional life and wants to regain some energy by taking a vacation by the sea. Its seeming simplicity is deceptive, though.
There are three distinct features within it that could confuse someone whose primary language is not English.
- To start, the basic message of the statement speaks to a cultural context that some cultures lack. English-speaking countries tend to place a lot of value on both work and specifically-allotted vacation time, distinguishing clearly between the two. However, this is not consistent across all cultures.
- In Japan, for example, dedication and loyalty are extremely valued qualities among employees. As such, expressing fatigue in this way and announcing an intention to leave work altogether for two whole weeks is rarely done. Japanese readers, therefore, are more likely to be shocked by the statement than to have the casual accepting reaction that the speaker likely intended.
- This difference in interpretation can radically affect the tone of a text and become distracting or even offensive in certain situations. When composing a text meant for people from many different cultures, try to identify statements where this clash might happen. Though you’ll never be able to avoid all potential instances of this problem, you should be able to minimize them by being careful.
Next, you must examine the phrase ‘work’s wearing me down.’
- You know that it describes a kind of professional exhaustion, but in reality, a person’s work is a conceptual action, not an actor itself.
- Phrasing this sentiment through this kind of abstract personification is a poor choice when writing for diverse readers; it can be difficult to translate due to the extra layer of interpretation it demands. Most readers could figure out what you meant, but they might not be entirely sure of their guesses.
- From your point of view, it may be difficult to imagine the expression meaning anything else, but this is because cultures tend to have a set of stock iterations of personification that become unconscious knowledge to natives.
Finally, the last few words of the statement pose unique problems due to their casual omission of a preposition.
- English allows for grammatical oddities like this from time to time, but not all languages are so flexible, and an international reader may not understand that this can be done. In this case, native speakers know that there is an unspoken ‘for’ preceding the ‘two weeks’, and that this means we can expect the original speaker to be gone for that length of time.
- If, however, a reader is not familiar enough with the English language to intuit this strange construction, and they may wonder how they are meant to parse the sentence. Does it mean that the speaker will be away within the next two weeks? Does it mean that they will be leaving after two weeks have passed? Is ‘beach two weeks’ some specific naming convention for places that the reader does not know? There’s no easy way for them to find out.
Writing global content that is well-suited for international publication and therefore translation requires a good grasp of the subtleties of language in terms of:
- cultural context
- word choice
Successfully managing these three areas will make reading the finalized content and document translation easier (and more enjoyable) – your translators and readers will thank you for it!
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