January 2018
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Designing for Translation

Tuesday, January 2, 2018
Designing for Translation

Learn to effectively design training materials that can be converted more easily into multiple languages.

You've just heard from your lead instructional designer. The facilitator guide you so carefully designed is being translated into Portuguese. But the translation takes up about 20 percent more space than the English. Now there's no white space, and the guide looks visually overwhelming and difficult to follow. How did this happen? And what can you do to avoid future challenges like this?


Talent development professionals spend a lot of time creating training programs to upskill their teams. And while the thought of translating that content into multiple languages tends to come near the end of the process, there are steps to take while creating the content to ensure that your training materials not only look professional, but offer better comprehension and retention for your global team members.

As with all projects, the more time you spend up front setting your expectations for success, the easier it becomes. The same is true for translation projects. One of the most important things you can do is to review why you're doing the training in the first place. Second, design for translation. That doesn't mean radical changes to the way you currently design. But there are certain concepts you can keep in mind. Finally, work with your translation provider early in the process for a final product that meets your needs.

Training material goals

If you're at the point where you are designing training materials, you've already identified the learning objectives. Let's say you're creating a retention policy for corporate records. That applies mostly to your U.S. team members, but you have facilities around the world with employees who also need this training.

One option is to only offer the training in English. Most of your employees who need this training are comfortable using English in their corporate positions, but put yourself in their shoes. How would you like to try to learn something in your non-native language? Even if you speak it every day, your level of comprehension is not going to be the same as if you learned it in English. If you're taking the time to create good training materials, take the time to put those materials in a language that's most accessible for your team. Their retention of the material will increase substantially.

Another option is to translate only part of the training. You decide that a web-based course is the best option for getting across this material. However, cost is an issue, so you're only going to translate the voice-over but not any of the on-screen text.

That may be just as confusing as only providing the material in English. Listening to one language and reading another on-screen is not the best learning experience for your team members. This is a great opportunity to talk with your translation provider to see what options you have to create a compelling learning experience that meets your budget.

Keeping your learning objectives in mind—and how those objectives are delivered around the world—will result in a better learning experience.

Laying it out

It takes a lot of time and effort to create great training materials. You need to consider learning styles, how the material will be delivered, whether it's instructor-led or web-based, how to measure comprehension, and so on. There are ways to design with translation in mind. With some extra attention at the beginning of the process, your translated materials will look as good as the English—and will have the same impact.

Text. One of the most important things to take into account is text expansion and contraction. German and Portuguese tend to expand the most, by about 20 percent. On the other hand, languages such as Japanese, Chinese, and Korean contract by almost 20 percent. Adequate white space to allow for this expansion and contraction is essential.

Arabic and Hebrew read right to left, not left to right. In most cases, the entire layout will need to be flipped if you're translating into one of those languages. Consider simple layouts with all text left-aligned in English. That will make flipping the layout to read right to left much easier and result in a finished piece that looks just as good in Arabic as it does in English.

Language. Hitting a home run. Better late than never. A dime a dozen. Hey, what's up?

An American audience will know exactly what you mean when you use those phrases. But how do you translate "a dime a dozen" into Thai? Thailand's currency is measured in bahts. How will your team member in Morocco get your point if he only has a vague idea of baseball and no idea what a home run is?

While slang, idioms, and sports analogies can be a great way to connect with your American audience, they can be extremely difficult—or impossible—to translate. You don't have to entirely remove them from your training materials, but if you know the material will be translated, keep them to a minimum.

Acronyms, crosswords, and word clouds. There's no question that acronyms can be a great learning tool, especially if you're helping someone understand a process. But translating acronyms is next to impossible. It's easy to translate each word, but the odds of the acronym's letters remaining the same in another language are very slim.

There are ways to work around this. You can keep the acronym in English and only translate the words, but that can make consistency difficult, especially across multiple training projects. Challenge yourself to create a training program that doesn't rely too heavily on acronyms.

Crosswords and word clouds also can present difficulties. Crosswords usually need to remain in English or be removed entirely. Word clouds will change completely and usually need to be laid out from scratch because the translated words will not retain the same length and width as the English words.

Avatars. The use of avatars (animated figures)in web-based training courses is quite common, and there's no question it can enhance learning. If your material with avatars will be used in other countries, consider the gender and racial diversity in your selections. Does your avatar have a name? Will that name be translated or do you want to retain the American name? "Mary" works a lot better across the globe than something like "Skyler."

Images. Training designers select images with care to enhance the learning experience. As much as possible, maintain an image and text as separate elements. When the text is editable, it's easier to extract it from the file for translation. Another option is to mask the English with the translation, but that presents challenges when a word is placed on a curved image or crosses over a gradient.

Video. Videos are great tools to use when creating training, especially for visual learners. If you're using video, any text—whether on-screen, spoken as part of the voice-over, or spoken by the actors in the video—will require translation. When possible, avoid placing text near the bottom of the screen where subtitles may need to go. Also, if you choose to translate the audio for voice-over recording, be ready to provide the audio for your video as a separate track to make inserting the voice-over easier.

Units of measure. Units of measure can be tricky. References to inches, feet, dollars, and gallons are quite common in training materials. Almost every country in the world uses the metric system except the United States, so measurements may need to be converted to ensure the examples meet their intended purpose.

Web-based training. Web-based training is revolutionizing training and making more material available to more team members at a greatly reduced cost. Your design team may spend weeks or months designing a course in Articulate Storyline with hundreds of animations, complex interactives, and extensive knowledge-check questions.

It's getting easier to translate courses like this, especially in terms of extracting the text for translation. The challenge comes in the programming of the translated version. With expansion and contraction, animation timing needs to be updated and voice-over recording has to be precisely edited to match what's happening on-screen. One option is to reduce the number of animations in your training course; that will reduce the cost and the timeline of the translation.

Outside resources. Are you referring your trainees to reference material outside of the course? Training courses frequently make use of trade or journal articles or well-known books on the topic.

An easy way to check to see if a book has been translated into other languages is to do an Amazon search. Search for the title of the book plus the language name. In most cases, your search will take you to the Amazon page for that country.

If the article or book hasn't been translated, consider whether the English will suffice as a training tool, as it relates to your learning objectives.

Working with your translation supplier

As mentioned earlier, don't hesitate to get your translation provider involved during your design phase. It can offer suggestions to help make the translation process easier without making your design phase longer or more complicated.

For example, one of our clients designed a training module in Storyline. At the conclusion of the module, the client embedded a video that was not editable. Before translation began, we advised the client to separate the elements (avatar gesturing, sound effect, moving image) instead of combining them. That made translation and precise timing much easier when the project began.


If you are translating technical or industry-specific material, such as a training manual for a new surgical tool, let your translation provider know that ahead of time. Many translators focus on specific industries; they'll be familiar with the terminology and have an easier time translating the material.

Often, your training material that requires translation is only a small part of a larger project. You may be translating material across months or years as new material is developed. Or you have several different pieces—a video one month and a quick reference guide several weeks later, for example—and terminology that needs to stay consistent.

Talk with your translation supplier about creating a project glossary. Using translation memory software, your supplier can determine how frequently the same words and phrases appear. These popular phrases can then be translated ahead of time and reviewed by your in-country team.

Many clients elect to have their training material reviewed by in-country staff before it's introduced to the whole team. Set expectations for your in-country team to keep your project moving. Your reviewer already is juggling an extensive list of tasks, and translation review often ends up at the bottom of the list.

A good translation provider will have multiple quality control checkpoints. You want your in-country reviewer to focus on industry-specific language that the translation team wouldn't otherwise know. "Fuel" also can be "gas," "petrol," or even "accelerant." What's the most appropriate translation that will be immediately recognized by your team members? Training that talks in terms they understand will provide better comprehension and retention.

Designing training materials that are easily accessible directly contributes to any corporation's success. Be sure that the material you are developing will provide the training you need for your team members across the globe.

What Is a Corporate Language Policy and Why Do You Need One?

The world is as small as it’s ever been. More companies are global, with a presence in multiple countries. Communicating across cultures and languages is turning into a challenge faced by companies every day. Imagine a small manufacturing plant in Italy that’s acquired by a German distributor, which is then bought by a Chinese competitor. Most of the leadership teams speak English, but it’s not anyone’s first language. Opportunities for miscommunication are infinite.

You could just choose one language and require that all of your team members understand it enough to get the job done. It’s true that many other cultures around the world learn a fair amount of English, but you also have to consider what kind of message a monolingual policy sends to your team: It’s a subtle sign that diversity is not part of your company culture.

Legal requirements vary from country to country and may require translation of safety procedures, for example. But how do you keep track of which material needs translation into which languages?

A corporate language policy isn’t just about language or what to translate. The goal is improving communication and meeting corporate objectives. Here are some ideas to consider as part of a corporate language policy:

What languages will be used in which settings? English may work very well for communication among senior leaders. But if you have to teach a Russian factory worker how to stop a production line, the material will be much more accessible in his native Russian, even if he has some English capabilities.

Resources to use for intercultural communication. After you’ve decided what needs translating and into which languages comes the process of translating the material. It’s often not feasible to assign this task to someone internally. A professionally trained linguist is the best option. Have your in-country team review the completed translation to confirm the terms used will be familiar to your employees.

Integration with corporate objectives and other communication policies. How you decide what to translate needs to be closely tied to not only your company’s goals but also your internal and external communications policies for maximum effectiveness.

About the Author

Fred Meinberg is the founder and president of Techworld Language Solutions.

About the Author

Stephanie Reasons is the vice president of Techworld Language Solutions.

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