Readability & Translation

I’m not a translator because I thought reading French technical manuals would be as riveting as Zola. I’m a translator because of an internship in a usability lab, where we ran rapid iterative tests and redesigned everything from websites, pamphlets, indices, and instruction sheets to reduce the time, or clicks, users needed to find information. Usability taught me the importance of having just the right word in just the right place.

Usability goes hand in hand with readability, which emphasizes the reader’s ease of understanding. Translators don’t often get to dictate the structure or register of a source document. But we are largely responsible for ensuring that our translations are effective, efficient and satisfying for target audiences.

One method of assessing readability has gotten a lot of media attention lately: the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Readability Test. Microsoft Word readers are likely already familiar with the Flesch-Kincaid grade level readability measurement, as the results pop up at the end of spelling and grammar checks. The grade level component is computed using the following formula:

0.39 (total words / total sentences) + 11.8 (total syllables / total words) – 15.59

Research shows that the reading level of a document impacts how that document will be received. Sales and marketing teams, for example, are strongly discouraged from writing above a 7th grade reading level. And Boomerang‘s study of factors that influence email response rates found that grade level has a significant impact on response rates and recommended using a 3rd grade reading level to optimize response rates.

Translators, in particular, should be aware of the reading level of both their source text and target text, if only to ensure that we’re aware of the ideological decisions behind our translations, because the choice between “improving” a text and remaining “linguistically neutral” is an ethical one.

But to accurately compare source and target reading levels, translators need assessment tools adapted to each language. (Imagine what happens when a French to English translator produces a target text – you’d expect the same number of sentences, but you’d also expect the English to be somewhere around 20% shorter overall.)

For an accurate picture of the French reading level, we need a French language assessment tool — the best known being the Kandel & Moles model, which is computed as follows:

LisibilitĂ© = 207 – 1,015(% mots concrets) – 0,736(nombre de syllabes pour 100 mots)

(Spanish translators could use the Fernandez Huerta assessment, Swedish translators might use LIX, Dutch translators could use the Douma formula, etc.)

Even if these tools don’t change the way we translate, they give us invaluable and objective insight into the decisions we make in translation and allow us to work with greater confidence.

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