In 2016, a team from Google visited 11 countries to review translated Help Center articles and customer support emails with experts in each language. We wanted to know how we could improve English source content to result in better translations.

As it turns out, one recommendation was consistent across every single market:

Use shorter, simpler sentences. Cut out words and info that aren’t essential.

Fortunately for writers and editors, that’s about the easiest fix possible. Breaking sentences up and using bullets where appropriate are painless ways to improve translation and comprehension.

English sentences tend to get longer when they’re translated. When they’re overly wordy to begin with, we really burden our international users. As a journalist in Thailand told us:

“In Thai, there are no spaces between words, only between sentences. So sentences become too long very easily, and it can affect the meaning.”

We were distressed to learn that we make it so difficult on our Thai users to get information they need. What (painfully) drove that point home even more was a comment from a blogger in Dubai:

“If I don’t understand in Arabic, I have to switch to English, see what it means in English, then translate it back into Arabic.”

Nooooo!

We want Google’s Help articles to be written at the fifth- to seventh-grade reading level so they’re easily understandable in any language. The quickest way to get there is to use short sentences. (We measure grade level with the Flesch-Kincaid readability formula. Then, for overall writing quality, we use Acrolinx.

Here’s a great example of an easy fix that results in a huge improvement. From a Google Maps Help article:

English: 36 words (10 words over our editorial guidelines). Reading level: Grade 13 (as in college-level. Too high!)

If you’re going where the Internet is slow, mobile data is expensive, or you can’t get online, you can save an area from Google Maps to your phone or tablet and use it when you’re offline.

Thai: Essentially one looong word.

หากคุณกำลังจะไปในที่ที่อินเทอร์เน็ตช้า ข้อมูลเครือข่ายมือถือมีราคาแพง หรือไม่สามารถออนไลน์ได้ คุณสามารถบันทึกพื้นที่จาก Google Maps ลงในโทรศัพท์หรือแท็บเล็ตและใช้งานขณะออฟไลน์ได้

German: Will it ever end?

Bevor Sie sich an einen Ort begeben, an dem die mobile Datennutzung teuer ist oder Ihnen keine oder nur eine langsame Internetverbindung zur Verfügung steht, können Sie einen Kartenbereich von Google Maps auf Ihrem Smartphone oder Tablet speichern und ihn sich offline ansehen. 

Now, if we take that blabby sentence and do little more than break it up (OK, and format it for scannability), it’s like magic! Imagine the possibilities when you apply some actual editing to simplify even more.

Revised English: 38 words, two sentences, reduced to *second-grade* reading level.

You can save an area from Google Maps to your phone or tablet and use it when you’re offline. Offline maps are useful when:

  • You can’t get online
  • The Internet is slow
  • Mobile data is expensive

Thai: Readable without the aid of eyedrops.

คุณสามารถบันทึกพื้นที่จาก Google Maps ไปยังโทรศัพท์หรือแท็บเล็ตของคุณและใช้มันเมื่อคุณออฟไลน์แผนที่แบบออฟไลน์มีประโยชน์เมื่อ:

  • คุณไม่สามารถได้รับออนไลน์
  • อินเทอร์เน็ตช้า
  • ข้อมูลมือถือที่มีราคาแพง

German: Readable without eyeballs falling out.

Sie können einen Bereich aus Google Maps auf Ihrem Telefon oder Tablet speichern und verwenden, wenn Sie offline sind. Offline-Karten sind nützlich, wenn:

  • Sie können nicht online gehen
  • Das Internet ist langsam
  • Mobile Daten sind teuer

That’s a lot of words to say not to use a lot of words (oh, the irony), but teams across Google are using these findings to refine our editorial guidelines.

On our Help content team, writing short sentences is now top priority for our articles. It’s the simplest, best way to make huge (yuge!) improvements in readability.

Jon Ann Lindsey

Jon Ann Lindsey

Content Strategist at Google
Jon Ann Lindsey manages the Content Strategy team for Google's consumer-product Help Centers.
Jon Ann Lindsey

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