Eight plain language tips for writers and translators on International Plain Language Day

Two weeks after International Translators Day it’s time to acknowledge International Plain Language Day. TWB’s plain-language adviser, Kate Murphy sees a definite connection between the two. 

Kate Murphy, TWB's Plain Language Editor
Kate Murphy, TWB’s Plain Language Adviser

The theme of International Plain Language Day this year is “Access for all starts with plain language.” But I believe that access for all finishes with plain language too. Plain language is relevant from the writer’s first draft to the translator’s last review.

Plain language principles are relevant to anyone who works with words. That applies whether you write words, speak them, read them, or translate them. It applies especially if you translate words into marginalized languages, because your readers often have no other sources of information. 

As a writer or translator in the humanitarian sector, unless you’re advocating for and practicing plain-language writing and plain-language translations, you’re not promoting access for all. The alignment of International Translators Day and International Plain Language Day reminds us that writers and translators have a great opportunity to work together to improve access to information.  For sure, a clear source document helps a translator to produce a clear target document. But a translator who doesn’t actively apply plain language principles to their translation can unintentionally undermine the writer’s efforts to be clear. They’ll make it harder for readers to access the information they need. Similarly, a translator that understands plain language can convert a poorly written source document into a version that improves readers’ access to clear and unambiguous information. Close collaboration between authors and translators is an important step in producing clear documents. So for me, it’s entirely fitting that International Translators Day and International Plain Language Day align. 

Plain language is about much more than simple words

The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies suggests that 49% of adults in OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries have low literacy. The literacy levels in non-OECD countries are likely to be lower. Plain language will give those people greater access to information. But the hidden and often unappreciated value of plain language is that it reduces the reading effort for all readers, regardless of their literacy level. Plain language is for anyone who wants clear, concise information.

Whoever you are writing or translating for, plain language is always about more than simple words. A complex range of factors determines literacy levels and reading speed; vocabulary is only one of those factors. Fundamentally plain language is about the consistency and conciseness of your message. It’s also about the way you arrange the components to guide the reader through a logical flow of ideas that’s easy to navigate and understand. It’s about consciously using grammar and sentence structures that require the least effort from the reader.

In celebration of International Translators Day and International Plain Language Day, here are eight plain-language principles that writers and translators can use to give access for all.

Written by Kate Murphy, TWB's Plain Language Adviser.

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