According to my pals at Mirriam-Webster, a pivot is the central point, pin, or shaft on which a mechanism turns or oscillates. Similarly, a pivot language is the central language that is used to create all translations. For example, rather than translating content from U.S. English to French, and then from French to Japanese, and then Japanese to Russian, most translations stem from the same (pivot) language.
If U.S. English is your pivot, then you’d have U.S. English to French, U.S. English to Japanese, U.S. English to Russian, and so on. Essentially, all of your translated languages would pivot on U.S. English.
Usually, but not always, the pivot language is also the source language. The source language is the language used by the writer to create the original content. For example, if your source language is German, you might use German as your pivot language. This would create German to French, German to Korean, German to Swahili, etc.
Sometimes, though, your source language is first translated and the resulting translation is used as the pivot for all of the additional languages. For example, your writers create content in German. The German is translated to U.K. English. And the additional translations are based on U.K. English.
Important Factors to Consider
When you choose your pivot language, it is important to remember the four S’s.
In order for your translations to be meaningful, your pivot language should not contain idioms, jargon, new/hip ways of saying things, and so on. Your pivot language needs to be the standard version of whatever language you choose.
You would be amazed (or maybe you wouldn’t) at how important standardizing your pivot language has become. I have seen new, young, fresh, and hip companies that use an extremely familiar tone in their content. Sometimes, the tone is downright cheeky. (You see, cheeky is not translatable…) In an effort to be friendly and familiar with the customer, these companies create content that represents a conversation, rather than standard language.
As we all know by now, this type of language can be very difficult to understand if you have English as a second language. It can also be difficult, if not impossible, to translate. So, when you consider your pivot language, make sure you standardize it first.
All of your content should be simple and easy to understand. Your pivot language should be simple so that your translations are accurate.
Don’t use 42 words when 15 will suffice. The key to a successful and cost-effective translation is minimize your word count – both on a sentence-level and overall. The fewer the words, the lower the cost. The fewer the words, the easier to understand.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (and again). Say the same thing, the same way, every time you say it. Enuff said.
What’s a Hip Company to Do?
I know what you are thinking. “How can I maintain my significant level of hipness if I am saddled with a boring, standard, source language?” The answer is…well… maybe you can’t. It might not be possible to retain your cheeky, conversational tone AND use that language to pivot. Companies who have tried it have war wounds from the experience.
One thing to consider is using the standard language as the pivot, and treating your colloquial version as an additional translation. Sure, this means you are maintaining two versions of the source language. But, if you are translating into 18, 24, or 72 languages, you are much better off maintaining “colloquial” as a translation, than trying to create translations based on content that isn’t translatable to begin with.
What About That Stuff I Don’t Translate?
In the life of many translated websites, there is a certain amount of content that is never touched. In other words, many companies translate the first three levels “down” of their website (for example) and then the rest of the pages do not get translated. Or, they translate the webpages, but not the downloadable .PDF files. You get what I mean.
Usually, the reader is directed back to the pivot or source language for the rest of the content. If the rest of the content is colloquial and non-standard, you are really doing that international person a disservice. It is difficult enough to go from a native language to a non-native language. Going from a native language to a colloquial version of a non-native language can be downright frustrating.
Make sure that your “return” language, presumably the pivot, follows our four “S’s”, above.
Food for Thought
One of my brilliant customers gave me a terrific idea. He decided that the pivot language for his content would be U.K. English, rather than U.S. English. Why? His explanation is that most of his customers who have English as a second language are accustomed to U.K. English, not U.S. English. For example, the European community, some African nations, island nations, and so on. For these readers, U.K. English is much easier to understand than U.S. English. So, this customer pivots on U.K. English, and second-tier content that does not get translated is presented in standard, simple, short, and similar U.K. English sentences. U.S. English? It’s just another language to maintain.
I love it when my customers teach me something new.