Every translator will tell you the same thing: the translation of the text you’ve requested won’t stay the same length as the original. Linguists are well aware of this phenomenon of inflation, which is a natural side-effect of the passage from one language to another: words swarm. Technically speaking, it’s called the expansion rate. Here’s why.
Words have the gift of the gab, and when they head down the path of translation, they make the most of the opportunity to loosen up, to stretch their muscles, to expand and thicken up. So do you always end up with more words than you started with?
This increase in size from source language to target language, and which is specific to each language combination, is defined as the percentage of growth or reduction which appears in the text once it has been translated. It depends on the language being translated.
In practice, a translation from English to French has a growth rate of +20% and varies between +25% and +30% for German. As for Romance languages, it’s the other way around: the number of words gained in translation shrinks to around 10% when it comes to translation into French.
An overview of different growth rates
The rate varies depending on the chosen language combination. Growth rates are discussed in terms of negative and positive. The generally observed percentages are as follows:
|Source language||Target language||Rate of expansion|
It’s important to clarify that the count in Japanese always corresponds to the number of characters, which is not the same as the number of words. Rather, it’s a line of characters included between two spaces, an apostrophe or a punctuation mark.
The translator: a multilingual counterfeiter?
If the size of the target text is more substantial than the source text, does that mean that the translator isn’t being concise enough?
As translation is a method of textual transformation, words are constantly in motion to make sure the text is intelligible, grammatically correct, and semantically accurate. It’s a transformation that’s crafted and carried out based on an existing text, which is thoughtfully adapted. The expansion is therefore partly linked to thelinguistic constraints of the target language. It’s worth noting other factors, such as the domain of the text, how technical it is, any stylistic effects, the level of the language, the connotations… There are so many elements which can affect the rate of expansion.
Additionally, anglophones have a more compact language. They use more compound words and can express many ideas with one word, while francophones need to use several. In English, the use of articles is also reduced. For German, the result is even more glaring! That means, for example:
|Please = 1 word in English||S’il vous plaît = 3 words in French|
|Mineralwasserflasche = 1 word in German||Bouteille d’eau minérale = 3 words in French|
|Weltmeisterschaft = 1 word in German||Coupe du monde = 3 words in French|
Domesticating the page layout
Integrating the expansion rate of a translation means understanding what it does to the balance of the translated text. If the final document needs to respect a specific or defined page layout and you don’t want this to be a distressing experience, it’s important to take into consideration the language’s expansionist inclinations and to have it sent to graphic designers or other specialists, whether it’s to be printed out or shown onscreen.
Lastly, let’s conclude by remembering that the expansion rate is unrelated to transcreation. Transcreation is about refining a translation by integrating a real thought process about the commercial and cultural environment of the selected target. And that’s how the multipotentiality of the words and thoughts of the translator are expressed.
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