Type Writer writing "It starts with one word"

As content developers, rarely do we consider the effects of the way we structure content on the translation process. I had a really interesting conversation about conditional text this week with two people who are translation experts.

Just saying the words, “conditional text,” makes most translators groan. And with good reason. Conditional text can wreak havoc on your translation process.

What is Conditional Text?

Conditional text is used in a document when you want certain content to appear in one version and other content to appear in another version. A very good use case for conditional text is a price list that lists dollars for the U.S., the equivalent in pounds for England, and the equivalent in yen for Japan.

For customers who print their content and also make it available via HTML, figure and table captions are often conditionalized. That way, “Figure 1.” only appears in the printed version and “the figure below” (or above) appears in the online version.

In this case, there would be two conditions:

Condition A = print

Condition B = online

For condition A, a sentence might read:

Figure 1 shows an illustration of a girl sitting on a park bench.

For condition B, that same sentence might read:

The figure below shows an illustration of a girl sitting on a park bench.

If we were to write the sentence one time, using conditional text, the sentence would like this:

[Figure 1] [The figure below] shows an illustration of a girl sitting on a park bench.

When you render the content, you select which condition (A or B) to produce. You never have a final document that contains both conditions at the same time.

How Do I Translate Conditional Text?

When you send your conditionalized content to translation, you can no longer have a single version of the source content (one version that contains all conditions). Using conditional text in a different language is not a simple matter of substituting the words “Figure 1” and “The figure below” with the equivalent in German, Swedish, Dutch, Japanese, and so on. Instead, the translator needs to translate each condition separately.

Instead of having one version of the source and different versions for each language, you now have a one-to-one relationship: one source file for one translated language file.

Looks Like a Problem

If you are starting to sense a problem, you are correct. The more conditions you have, the more versions you need of the source. And the more languages you have, the more overall versions of the file you will have to manage.

Imagine a scenario such as the following:

translation conditions in many languages

If you have four conditions and seven languages, you end up with 28 different files that all need care, feeding, and management.

What To Do?

In my ideal world, we would write everything in such a way that we didn’t need to use conditions. Writing would be generic enough to be reused and re-purposed without modification, including conditions. And, to some extent, I think that we could do a better job of writing more generically.

However, my world is never ideal and the reality is that conditions have a place in our work. My advice on using conditions would be as follows:

  • Only use conditional text when you absolutely need to.
  • Keep the number of conditions to a minimum (try for no more than two).
  • Conditionalize at a high level. For example, a conditionalized paragraph or topic is better than a conditionalized sentence.
  • Have a robust content management system (CMS) that will help you track versions, languages, and conditions.
  • Make sure your CMS and TMS (translation management system) play nicely together, so that the machines do the work, not you.
Val Swisher
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