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Particularities of web texts in translation

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Web specialists largely agree on the basic characteristics of web texts: individual paragraphs and the text overall should be short, because reading on screen is slower than reading on paper and people tend to “scan” web pages to check quickly if they contain anything useful.

A web page should be able to stand alone: even occasional users should not need to consult other pages on the website to understand the context. The choice of wording is important, because web users rely on keywords for finding the information they are looking for through search engines. Linking the most suitable words to other pages is also an art of its own.

One of the experts in this area is Gerry McGovern. He rates websites according to how well they enable users to complete the “tasks” that bring them to the site, whether the task is to find information, buy something or fill in an administrative form. “The latest research into web habits shows people are becoming much less patient online – they want to reach a site fast, get the job done and then leave”, writes the Internal Comms Hub. Apparently, the average website visitor stays on a site for less than two minutes. In those precious seconds, the text should provide the information needed, with possibly something extra that the publisher wants to communicate – in a credible manner.

The easiest and cheapest way to satisfy customers’ (or website visitors’) needs is to let them do it online, thus avoiding a lot of human work (information services, sales, etc). But, as McGovern says, self-service is only cheaper if it works – in other words, organisations must find out what their website-users really need and build their website around that. This advice applies mainly to the contents and structure; it has relatively few implications for translators, though finding good, unambiguous translations of labels and navigation menus are a crucial part of the web-translator’s work.

According to Marsa Luukkonen, web texts are used in a similar way to printed quickreference books or manuals. Like reference books, websites should make fact-finding easy – employing additional tools such as menus and links. In contrast, brochure or marketing-style texts should be avoided on websites, because they do not satisfy the specific needs of the user.

In short: texts should be short, gain the interest and confidence of the reader within seconds, and include words that make the page rank high on a search results list.

Most of what has been said about writing for the web is valid for web translation, too.

Other characteristics of a good web text relate to time. First, web publishers must ensure that their pages are up to date and of current relevance – in line with user expectations. This is only possible if web texts are concise and lend themselves to frequent updates. This is particularly important in the case of multilingual websites, but a difficult objective to achieve. Updating a detail may be simple in the English original, but having it translated into other languages may require much more work because of the gender of words in many languages (masculine or feminine), number (Slovenian has dual in addition to singular and plural), declination of nouns, adjectives and numerals in Finno-Ugrian languages and the concordance des temps in Romance languages, to name just a few of the features which the translation requester may not think of.

In addition to playing a role in catching the attention of search engines, the choice of individual words is important also for drawing the attention of the reader. Website users typically scan titles, subtitles and highlighted parts for the information they need. Clear wording in menus is essential for a good website, says Luukkonen.

Jakob Nielsen12, a specialist in the usability of websites, talks about the “3 nasties”:

  • bland, generic words
  • made-up words or terms
  • starting with blah-blah and deferring the information-carrying text to the end.

These are also the nasty features of any text that is difficult to translate. A set of such characteristics can be used as an indicator to measure the quality of Commission web texts, be it originals or translations.

© European Union

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