Text expansion and reduction in translation services

Imagine your company invested in a new marketing campaign. It has been months of work: creating the advertising copy, designing and going through the approval process. However, after the Spanish translation of the document is done, the designer begins the desktop publishing (DTP) stage before sending the document to the international market, but the new Spanish text no longer fits the design!

In foreign language translation services, it is normal for content to change size and this process is known as expansion or reduction. Now, the unexpected expansion of translated text is a situation that no company would want to encounter, as it means spending more time and money on a campaign that looks completely different from the English version.

In this sense, when starting translation services, it is also of utmost importance to take into account the layout stage and consult with the designer to prevent any inconvenience in the final design of the text and analyze the measures to be taken to adapt it. It is common and normal for translated texts to vary in comparison with the original text, so these variations must be considered in the initial layout stage, as well as in the graphic retouching of any images included in the text to be translated.

With proper planning and the help of a professional translation agency, you can include the necessary space in the layout to accommodate the expansion of the text prior to translation. Creating and designing your documents with translation services in mind will save you time and inconvenience, while allowing you to easily accommodate international audiences.

What is text expansion in translation services?

It is normal for texts to expand or shrink during the translation process because other languages may use more or fewer words or symbols, such as Japanese and Chinese, which are languages that use characters to express the same idea.

How is text expansion defined?

Text expansion occurs when the translated language takes up more space than the source language text within the layout. This can happen due to differences in wording, grammar, sentence structure or terminology. It is common for text to expand in Portuguese translation services, the same is true for French, German and Spanish.

How is text reduction defined?

Text reduction is the opposite of expansion and occurs when the target language takes up less space than the source language text. In Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Dutch translation services, it is normal for the translated text to shrink.

Predicting text expansion and reduction in translations

The percentage by which a language expands or shrinks varies and depends mainly on the source and target languages. There is no formula to determine the expansion that the translation of documents will have due to different variables. Therefore, it is best to have a professional translation company involved from the beginning. A good rule of thumb to follow is to keep in mind that the longer a text is, the less it will shrink during translation. Conversely, the shorter an English document is, the greater the percentage of expansion during translation.

Among these variables that affect expansion and reduction are the following:

  • Source language versus target language
  • Type of text
  • Document subject
  • Tone
  • Syntax
  • Common translation or certified translation

The subject of the text to be translated is also important; it influences whether it is a literary, technical or personal document such as a letter. Technical translations require a specific and standardized vocabulary, while literary translations give more room for poetic interpretation.

Expansion of the text and examples in different languages

English texts, which is the common language that many designers use as a replacement base, is a compact language and it is common for translations from English into other languages to be expanded. Many Eastern European languages require about 22% more space in a written document than English text.

Spanish is a more complex language than English, so text expansion is common in Spanish translations. Also, English has many abbreviations that do not translate into other languages. For example, FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) translates as “frequently asked questions” in Spanish. Thus, if the layout is centered on the width of the three characters that make up the abbreviation FAQ, there will not be enough space for the Spanish translation, which would be twenty characters including the space between the two words. The same is true for German translations, where many words can be grouped together to form a compound noun.

On the other hand, languages such as Chinese and Japanese use ideograms, where a single character can represent a word or concept in its entirety without spaces between them. In this sense, it is common for translations into these languages to tend to be reduced in word count, but it is common for text height to be expanded.

Common problems with text expansion

Unexpected expansion of translations can be a challenge for marketers, creative copywriters and designers. However, character expansion is not the only problem to be aware of.

  1. Compound nouns. In German, a series of small words are combined into a long sentence. This characteristic structure of this language represents a problem for the design and layout stage because while a sentence can be divided into several lines, the same cannot be done with a single word.
  2. Abbreviations are common in English, but they are not universal and are translated in different ways in each language, making them a unique challenge for both translation and layout. Other languages, such as Arabic, do not use abbreviations because it changes the meaning of the word or phrase. If you use an abbreviation in an English version of a written text, consider whether the full version of the word or phrase will suffice or whether the meaning of the abbreviation is localized for a specific audience.
  3. Heading. Text expansion can lower important information below the heading in a marketing document, making it out of direct view of your audience. Website translation is a complex and technical service that must be carefully reviewed to handle text expansion and contraction after publishing the translation on the site.
  4. Sources. Languages that do not have a Latin origin, such as Japanese, Arabic and Chinese, generally use different typefaces or “fonts” than those used in English, Spanish and French. This changes the formatting of any document or text.
  5. Text width. Languages such as Chinese, Thai and Korean have alphabets that are more complicated than Latin languages. Even if somehow the number of characters in a text remains the same, the spacing between those characters may not be maintained due to the change during the formatting stage.
  6. Text height. Languages with complex characters such as Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Thai or Korean require more space vertically for clarity and better text inclusion. These languages are made up of more complex characters than English and, in the case of Arabic, take more space on the page even if the same number of characters is used, and Arabic translations are written from right to left.

Practices for text expansion in translation services

Text expansion can cause words or entire paragraphs to cross bleed lines, go outside designated columns and overrun design elements. Conversely, reducing text can make a document look unbalanced with too much white space. Balance in layout is of great importance for successful translation services that look as if they were designed in the new language.

  • Avoid using abbreviations. Although common in English, abbreviations are local terms and may not have a translation equivalent and would take space away from the entire text.
  • Whitespace is necessary.
  • Do not compress source text into small spaces or tight areas.
  • Do not use a font size so small that it is difficult to read or collapse as an adaptive resource.
  • Avoid including text in graphics.
  • Use well-defined paragraph and character styles to maintain consistency in translations.
  • plan ahead! By involving a professional translation agency such as ABC Translations in the early stages of the process, your team can plan the measures for text expansion and reduction that occur in the translation.

Standard language expansion and reduction percentages

Language Translation from English Translation into English
Arabic +20 – 25 % -20 – 25 %
Chinese -10 – 55 % +20 – 60 %
French +15 – 20 % -+10 – 15 %
German +10 – 35 % -20 – 30 %
Hebrew -20 – 30 % +20 – 30 %
Italian +10 – 25 % -15 %
Japanese -10 – 55 % +20 – 60 %
Polish +20 – 30 % -5 – 15 %
Portuguese +15 – 30 % -5 – 15 %
Russian +15 % -5 – 15 %
Spanish +15 – 30 % -5 – 15 %
Swedish -10 % +10 %
Thai +15 % -5 – 15 %

Text expansion and reduction in translation services play a key role when considering and planning the design of multilingual websites, marketing campaigns, presentations, digital publications and any other form of communication that will be translated. Using the services of a professional translation agency such as ABC Translations guarantees that you will have the most accurate translation services from the start, as well as the pertinent adaptations for text expansion.

Nathan Woods

About the author

ABC Translations