Category Archives: review

Translating a website? 6 ways to make it more readable

Online reading is different from reading on paper. Because website readers like information snacking. They want to grab and go.

So what does this mean for the website translator?

We must pay attention to readability.

These six guidelines come from Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works by Ginny Redish. What follows after each heading is about how I personally (attempt to) apply these tips.

Some of Catherine's favourite books

1. Give people only what they need (page 94)

I would not edit out much of my client’s website but there is one sentence which invariably deserves to be deleted: the welcome message.

Source text: Welcome to our site!

Proposed translation: [none]

Why not leave out these four useless words to make the useful words more prominent?

On the Les Feuilles Volantes blog (in French), Sara displays much more attitude. She talks about not translating the opening message on French-language brochures since they are typically of little interest to readers.

2. Use “you” (page 172)

Don’t use the third person when talking to your online audience.

Source text: Clients enjoy our hotel’s spacious rooms.

Proposed translation: You’ll enjoy our hotel’s spacious rooms.


Source text: Parents should check their children’s heads for lice on a regular basis.

Proposed translation: Check your child’s head regularly for lice.

If you are writing for an organization, use “we” (page 178)

Source text: Company ABC has been making desks for 25 years.

Proposed translation: At Company ABC, we’ve been making desks for 25 years.

Using “you” and “we” makes the copy sound much more like a conversation.

3. Use your web users’ words (page 195)

Do not confuse your readers.

I liked Nick Somer’s example in “The empowered translator” on Betti Moser’s blog:

The references to Bavarian dialect are all very well if you happen to know German, but they probably won’t add much to a Korean’s understanding of the text. Forget “Kaiserschmarrn” and “Palatschinken” plus explanatory translator’s note in brackets. Won’t “traditional Austrian desserts” work just as well?

As I wrote in my previous post about my own website copy, I used words that my reader would understand. I avoided words like “source language” and “transcreation” and other examples of translationspeak. I’m talking to direct clients, not agencies, so I use words they know.

This also means that I try to ground abstract concept nouns and replace them with concrete and understandable words.

4. Use lists to make information easy to grab (page 206)

Source text: Bring sunscreen, running shoes, a hat and a bottle of water.

Proposed translation:


  • sunscreen
  • running shoes
  • a hat
  • a bottle of water

Wouldn’t hurried customers find this bulleted list much easier to read?

5. Make links meaningful (page 318)

Redish is against writing “click here” and “more” as link text. We should use the content of the link instead.

Source text:

We offer

  • group lessons (read more…)
  • private lessons (read more…)
  • telephone lessons (read more…)

Proposed translation:

We offer

  • group lessons
  • private lessons
  • telephone lessons

Website readers know what links look like. If a word underlined, it is a link.

6. Break down walls of words (page 107)

No large and intimidating blocks of text. Keep paragraphs short. Use headings to divide your text into user-friendly chunks.

Headings can be

  • statements
  • questions
  • action phrases

To my surprise, Redish advises against using nouns as headings! So “Getting here” is better than “Directions”?

Letting Go of the Words is recommended reading if you’re interested in writing and translating web content. Mine is full of post-it notes that serve as helpful reminders.

Translators, can you recommend other resources about writing for the web? (You might be interested in my post about Matthew Stibbe’s free e-book 30 Days to Better Business Writing.) What techniques do you use to make your web writing more readable?

(If you liked this post, leave a comment and subscribe to Catherine Translates.)


Axe the concept noun: demonstration by William Zinsser

I’m halfway through On Writing Well by William Zinsser. On page 76, Zinsser gives a perfect explanation of why I dislike the word dispositif; this is French for device, plan, machine, mechanism, or even worse, system.

Dead sentences

Zinsser provides us with three sentences which contain concept nouns as eerie as dispositif. These examples sound like some of my source texts:

a) The common reaction is incredulous laughter.

b) Bemused cynicism isn’t the only response to the old system.

c) The current campus hostility is a symptom of the change.

Living sentences

Zinsser rewrites them as:

a) Most people just laugh with disbelief.

b) Some people respond to the old system by turning cynical; others say…

c) It’s easy to notice the change—you can see how angry all the students are.

He inserted human beings in there. I believe a good translator would have done the same. The reader now has something to hang on to, to visualize. Zinsser says, “Get people doing things.”

I try. I attempt to ground the reader instead of dishing out the English equivalent of the abstract concept.

Whenever I come across dispositif I ask for its actual meaning. Last time, dispositif was an Excel spreadsheet…

Brian Clark’s SEO Copywriting presentation on International Freelancers Day 2010

I floated in and out of several presentations on International Freelancers Day and entirely reserved myself for SEO Copywriting Made Simple for Freelance Writers.

THE presentation I was waiting for.

I’d like to produce website translations which are attractive to both people and search engines. Some basic SEO training is in order.

Part I Keywords

This is my interpretation of Brian Clark’s advice about creating effective SEO copy:

  • Find your keywords by thinking of the searcher’s question. What actual language would they use?
  • Put keywords in your title to obtain a higher search ranking.
  • Put keywords in your meta-description to obtain the click.

My keyword research experiment: Let’s say the title in French is about “personnes agées.” Should I refer to the elderly, seniors, senior citizens, or retirees, in terms of SEO?

I used Google Adwords to find the number of worldwide monthly searches for each term.

  1. elderly -> 1 220 000 (but searchers may largely use this as an adjective)
  2. seniors -> 1 000 000
  3. senior citizens -> 165 000 (that’s it?)
  4. retirees -> 74 000

Now let’s see what a translation of “maison de retraite” would lead to:

  1. nursing home -> 1 500 000
  2. old folks home -> 1 500 000 (people still use this term?)
  3. assisted living -> 673 000
  4. retirement home -> 110 000
  5. home for the elderly -> 60 500

Conclusion: I’d consider using “seniors” and “nursing home” as keywords to get a higher ranking in search results.

(This keyword research took twenty minutes. Researching the keywords and coming up with the headline and meta-description could take me a whole morning.)

Part II Content

Brian continues his talk by insisting on value:

  • C R E A T E   A   G R A N D   P I E C E .
  • Develop cornerstone content. Be useful and relevant. Your work should answer your searcher’s question comprehensively.
  • Consider creating a content landing page if you’ve made a multi-part resource. This page acts as a table of contents and may get bookmarked for later reading.
  • No keyword stuffing!
  • Link out to external sites (around once every 120 words) and cross-link throughout your own.
  • Put keywords in your anchor text.

Since the English content must engage the English-speaking reader, I’ll have to do more than just translate. I’d have to weed out anything useless, maybe add something which needs more attention, and make sure the videos and images are appropriate.

When it comes to linking out to a related site in French, my client and I would have to decide if that’s useful or not. Or we may have to come up with a relevant site in English.

Part III Links

Brian Clark moves from creating the text to promoting it. He advises viewers on how to encourage others to link to your work:

  • Guest writing. Contribute relevant posts on other blogs.
  • Participating in social networking.
  • Tweeting out your work because Google likely recognizes retweeted links (probably after three retweets).

This gives me some food for thought about possibly offering additional social media services…

To conclude his presentation, Brian Clark mentioned two free documents which are available from Copyblogger:

a) 5-Part Guide to Keyword Research

He takes one subject—mixed martial arts—and shows how the keywords “MMA” would attract fighters and “UFC” would attract fans of the sport.

b) SEO Copywriting Made Simple

28 pages of copious SEO writing advice.

Brian Clark sums up this report like this:

“A good copywriter needs to have a flair for writing content that’s inviting to share and to link to. She needs to have top-notch skills to optimize the page, so search engines know what it’s about and who might want to read it. And she needs to know how to write copy that converts readers to buyers.”

Replays of all the International Freelancers Day presentations

You can now see this video for yourself! I found out three hours ago that the replays of all the talks are now online.

Catch a few other sessions as well. Let me know what you think.

Thanks to Ed Gandia, Steve Slaunwhite and Pete Savage, from The Wealthy Freelancer, for organizing such an inspiring event.

Book review: 30 Days to Better Business Writing

Matthew Stibbe’s free e-book called 30 Days to Better Business Writing is an excellent resource for copywriters and creative translators alike. Download it from Bad Language and get straightforward advice about writing web copy, press releases, interviews, and more.

Did you notice I wrote the word “get”? According to Stibbe, “get” is not only authorized but encouraged.

Readability advice

His most useful lesson to me was Day 24: Write Readable Web Copy. Be gentle on your reader and make online writing clear.

His main points:

  • be brief
  • use short words
  • write short paragraphs
  • use bulleted lists

I try to follow this advice when translating websites, especially the home and about pages.

However, this can be a challenge to implement when dealing with a long-winded source text. Just last week, I translated a 73-word long sentence that took up four lines on the page…

As William Zinsser once said:

There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.

Sub-headings also keep the reader on track

Stibbe writes: “Use meaningful sub-headings to break up the text. They are landmarks for the reader.” In my experience, clients are generally pleased with the sub-headings I’ve suggested, even if they were non-existent in the French version.

The all-important first sentence

The opening sentence is the reader’s invitation to the party.

Stibbe’s Day 5 exercise is about coming up with seductive first lines. An amusing exercise. My subsequent homework meant brainstorming about future blog entries. I tried out several “ledes” on different blog stubs and the results were not bad.

Stibbe says we should use the “inverted pyramid” technique for website copy, going into more detail about this format in Day 6: Pick the Right Structure. He explains, “You give the highest level of detail first—when and where the fire happened—and then add layers of detail and information as the text continues.”

Starting out strong makes complete sense. Your main point should be “above the fold” so if readers just breeze through your page, at least they will leave with the crux of the matter.

Avoid buzzwords

On Day 12, Stibbe gives a list of words to be deleted from all your current assignments. It includes “offline” and “touch base” to my surprise. He insists, “Buzzwords and business clichés are the opposite of effective writing.” The word “solution” appears to be particularly annoying and overused.

I personally dislike “leverage” and anything which “pushes” any type of envelope.

The real question for me is about how to translate hype words from source texts. Do we tone down copy to make texts more credible? I have translated for a few companies who called themselves “leaders” who provided “solutions” in the “most innovative” manner.

Hostile position against long press releases

In Day 21: Write a Great Press Release, Stibbe continues his anti-buzzword speech while going back to the importance of brevity. He shows no mercy to press releases: “Keep them short and factual. 250 words should be the upper limit.”


What I would add to the book

Important words or concepts could be written in bold to help hurried readers.

Do revisions on hard copy and think about changing the font and font size to keep your eyes fresh.

Do your final revision after a good night’s sleep.

The mystery waffle

There is mention of being a waffle and talking waffly and waffling around. And it’s no reference to breakfast.

Free download

To conclude, I recommend that you download, print and bind this book. And do the homework! Matthew Stibbe is a cheerful and articulate teacher and you’ll have fun working through the well-chosen assignments. You’ll get insights about readability criteria, writing for impact, concentration, productivity, power naps, and more.

Sharpen your pencils and enjoy!

Me, my blogging goals, and a review of The Entrepreneurial Linguist

Hi! This is the introductory post to Catherine Translates.

Via this blog, I’d like to share what I know—and what I’m questioning—about the translation business. I started freelancing just under a year ago and am constantly revising how I want to shape my career.

Why not brainstorm with other translators and get more writing practice at the same time? I’ll be blogging on the 1st and 15th of every month.

Today’s topic:

  • The Entrepreneurial Linguist by Judy and Dagmar Jenner

Topics I’ll be covering:

  • Social Networking – my views on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Viadéo
  • 30 Days to Better Business Writing by Matthew Stibbe
  • Transcreation: How far can we deviate?
  • Strange entries in The Economist Style Guide

Topics rolling around in my head:

  • Your CV: Post it online or not?
  • Common French to English translation challenges and errors
  • Working from home and staying organized, productive and sane
  • Sound body, sound mind – sleep, exercise, sunlight and fresh air
  • Books that have influenced how I run my business

I hope to see you back!

Now for my review:

7 Questions to Myself about The Entrepreneurial Linguist

For smart business advice and a healthy dose of can-do enthusiasm, pick up The Entrepreneurial Linguist: The Business-School Approach to Freelance Translation by Judy and Dagmar Jenner.

The makers of Translation Times focus on how translators can approach, land and keep direct clients. They dig deep into marketing strategies that every freelancer should be aware of.

This newly-released guide sets the tone for how I’d like my own career to evolve.

Why did I buy this particular book amidst so many other translation books?

The title. I need to be more entrepreneurial to properly get my translation skills out there. I wanted clear no-nonsense advice about running a business.

What sections were the most useful to my own translation business?

Pages 104 to 105. How to spend $100. Unsurprisingly, having a proper website is top priority. The Jenners give practical advice about investing what’s left.

Pages 108 to 112. Direct-customer acquisition strategies. Their input is precious! They talk about researching potential clients, going to industry-specific events, and making yourself known as someone who provides solutions.

What advice would I add when pitching to potential clients?

The Jenners did not talk about offering a short translation sample for free. As for myself, I’ve tried this before and found reasonable success. I experimented with free samples after hearing about it at an SFT seminar in Paris.

I chose about a dozen potential clients and proceeded to either translate or correct three or four paragraphs from their websites. I sent them off by snail mail. A couple of them contacted me right away for work. A few clients have even emailed me months after they received my sample.

Major drawback: It’s time-consuming. You must realistically believe it will trigger off a profitable long-term relationship.

Corinne McKay’s blog entry called ‘Using a sample translation as a sales pitch’ from Thoughts on Translation delves deeper into this technique.

What do the Jenners pay too much attention to?

SEO. There are so many translation websites out there that search engine optimization means nothing to me. If someone does a search for “French English translations” I’ll be on the hundredth page. No one will find me unless they know my name (and how to spell it!) or my exact URL address.

I need to take my clients by the hand to my website and not waste time on SEO.

What will I do now?

Find out more about Gravatars and Dragon Naturally Speaking. Reread pages 108 to 112. Figure out my competitive advantage. Redo my business cards. Fix my website. Get ready for an upcoming trade fair. Reread pages 108 to 112.

What were my favourite lines from The Entrepreneurial Linguist?

“Trust us: your potential customers do not want to see your résumé [on your website].”

“You will have to be an entrepreneur first and a linguist second. Find the business, and then put your top-notch language skills to work.”

What could experienced translators get out of this book?

Tips on speaking at conferences, volunteering for translator associations, and creating regional associations.

If you’ve been translating for agencies for twenty years and would like your own clients, or if you want more marketing and Web 2.0 knowledge, The Entrepreneurial Linguist should be on your bedside table. I downloaded it for 17 USD from