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Managing Text Expansion and Contraction in Translation

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Last updated on August 9th, 2022 at 06:30 pm

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Text in Translation Services: Expansion and Contractions

Imagine your company has invested in a new marketing campaign. It’s been months in the making; the ad copy, the design, and the approval process. But after the document goes through Spanish translation, your designer begins the desktop publishing step before sending the document into your international market, and the copy no longer fits!

When written text is translated into another language, it’s common for the length of the document to change. This is called text expansion. But unexpected text expansion is a situation no business wants to find themselves in; with extra time and money spent on a campaign that looks dramatically different from the English version.

With proper planning and the inclusion of a professional translation agency, you can incorporate enough space in the design to accommodate text expansion from the start. Creating and designing your documents with translation services in mind saves time and hassle, while makes reaching international audiences easy.

What is Text Expansion in Translation?

It’s common for text lengths to expand or contract during the translation process because other languages may use more or less words-or in the case of languages like Japanese and Chinese characters-to express the same idea.

Text Expansion Defined

Text expansion happens when the translated language takes up more space than the source language does within a design. This can happen due to differences in phrasing, grammar, sentence structure, or terminology. Text expansion is common in services like Spanish Translation, French Translation, German Translation, and Portuguese translation.

Text Contraction Defined

Text contraction is the opposite of expansion when a target language takes up less space than the source language. Text contraction is common in services like Chinese Translation, Japanese Translation, Korean Translation, or Dutch Translation.

Predicting Text Expansion and Contraction

The rate at which language expands or contracts varies and depends mainly on what the source language and target language are. There’s no one formula for predicting expansion in translation due to the variety of variables, so it’s best to include a professional translation company from the start. A good rule of thumb is to know the longer a piece of text is, the less it will expand during translation. Conversely, the shorter a source text in English, the greater the rate of expansion will be during translation.

Variables include:

The subject of the text matters as well; whether it’s literary, technical, or a personal document such as a letter. Technical translations have specific and standardized vocabulary whereas literary translation allows more room for poetic interpretation.

Text Expansion in Translation Services

English text, which is standard for many designers to use as a placeholder, is a compact language, and expansion is common in translations. Many eastern European languages take up to 20% more space on a written piece than English.

Spanish is a more complex language than English, so text expansion in translation is standard. English also has many abbreviations that don’t translate into other languages. FAQ becomes “preguntas frecuentes” in the Spanish translation, so if the design is centered around the width of the three characters “F”, “A”, and “Q”, there will not be enough room for the Spanish translation, which is twenty characters including the space.  The same can be said for German, where several words can be clustered together into one compound noun.

On the other end of the spectrum, languages like Chinese and Japanese use ideograms, where often a single character can represent a word or an entire concept and there are no spaces between them, so contraction is common in the word count while expansion is common in text height.

Common Text Expansion Issues

Unexpected text expansion can raise challenges for marketers, copywriters, and designers. But expanded character count isn’t the only problem to be aware of.

  1. Compound nouns. The German language combine a series of smaller words into one large phrase. This presents design problems because while a sentence can be split up onto multiple lines, a single word cannot.
  2. Abbreviations are common in English, but they are not universal, don’t translate well and present unique translation and design challenges. Other languages, such as Arabic, don’t use abbreviations because it changes the meaning of the word or phrase. If you’re using an abbreviation in an English version of a written text, consider if the full version of the word or phrase would suffice, or if the meaning is hyper-localized to a specific audience.
  3. Above the fold. Text expansion can drag valuable information down below the fold on a marketing piece, placing it out of the direct line of sight for your audience. Website translation is a very intricate and technical service! 
  4. Font. Languages not based in Latin, such as Japanese, Arabic, and Chinese, generally must use different fonts than languages such as English, Spanish, and French. This changes the typesetting of the piece.
  5. Text Width. Languages such as Chinese, Thai, and Korean have scripts that are more complicated than Latin-based languages. Even if somehow the number of characters in a text stays the same, the spacing between those character may not due to the change during typesetting.
  6. Text Height. Languages with complex characters such as Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, or Korean require more vertical space for clarity and inclusion. These languages are composed of more complex characters than English, and in the case of Arabic, take up more space below the test baseline???may take up more space on the page even when using the same amount or less characters.

Best Practices for Text Expansion

Text expansion can cause words or full paragraphs to cross bleed lines, leave designated columns, and overtake design elements. Text contraction can leave a document looking improperly balanced with too much whitespace. Flexibility in design is important for successful translation services.  

  • Avoid abbreviations. While common in English, abbreviations are local and may not have a translated equivalent, throwing off the spacing of the entire text.
  • Whitespace is necessary.
  • Don’t squeeze the source text into small spaces or tight boxes.
  • Don’t use a font size that is so small it may be hard to read.
  • Avoid embedding text in graphics.
  • Use well defined paragraph and character styles for consistency across translations.
  • Plan ahead! By involving a profession translation agency like JR Language early in the process, your team is able to plan for the text expansion and contraction that comes with translation.

Standard Language Expansion & Contraction Rates

Language Translating from English Translating Into English
Arabic +20 – 25% -20 – 25%
Chinese -10 – 55% +20 – 60%
French +15 – 20% -10 – 15%
German +10 – 35% -20 – 30%
Hebrew -20 – 30% +20 – 30%
Italian +10 – 25% -15%
Japanese -10 – 55% +20 – 60%
Polish +20 – 30% -5 – 15%
Portuguese +15 – 30% -5 – 15%
Russian +15% -5 – 15%
Spanish +15 – 30% -5 – 15%
Swedish -10% +10%
Thai +15% -5 – 15%

Text expansion and contraction play an important role in considering and planning for design in multi-lingual websites, marketing campaigns, presentations, desktop publications, and any other forms of translated communication. Using a professional translation company like JR Language ensures the most accurate translation services and accommodations for text expansion from the start.

Victoria Wildow
Victoria Wildow
Since 2018, Victoria Wildow has put her problem-solving, technology-centered mind to use in her roles as a Translation Project Manager, Typesetter, and now Marketing Associate at JR Language. She is a graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Media Arts and Technology program. Victoria helps ensure our clients' various designs maintain the same look and feel in their new languages while also managing projects in various media. She loves learning about new technologies and is currently developing websites in her free time.