The Long and Short of it

“Is that all he said?” asks Bill Murray in amazement.

In his role as a bored Hollywood actor in the Japanese movie Lost in Translation, Murray is baffled when the interpreter tells him that the Japanese director’s lengthy, impassioned stream of instructions just means: “He wants you to look at the camera.”

The movie scene is very funny and skillfully portrayed, with a touch of exaggeration that highlights the comical.

I don’t think that this interpreter would last long with Lichi Translations, at least not with the skills she demonstrated in the film. We demand a little more from our interpreters. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

You don’t need to be a linguist to know that languages differ considerably – in intonation, syntax, alphabet, characters, etc.

One aspect easily overlooked is the difference in length between the original and the translated text in terms of word count and layout on the page.

In translation from Hebrew to English, the number of words increases dramatically. For example, the Hebrew word ‘כשהגעתי‘  becomes three words in English: ‘when I arrived’. You must bear this in mind and not be surprised when a 200-page book in Hebrew numbers 300 pages in English.

Even between two European languages, such as Spanish and German, the text can differ in length, although to a lesser extent, and this must be allowed for.

In Asian languages the differences are even more significant.

Chinese, as everyone know, uses characters. Although a character resembles a letter in size, it represents a whole word or even a phrase.
Two Chinese characters normally create one word and, as a result, there are more characters than words in English, but they take up much less space on the page.

In contrast, Japanese uses both Chinese symbols and (very wide) letters, and therefore the text takes up more space.

These differences are particularly problematical when a written text has to be translated and fitted into an existing format, such as a website, brochure or user manual. In this case, the font has to be enlarged or reduced and the graphics adapted according to the ‘wordiness’ of the language and the space it takes up on the page.

So how much does this cost us?” you must be asking. 
Well, how do we fix a price? 
According to the length of the original text or the translated text? 
According to the actual physical page or the volume of the translation?

At Lichi Translations, we price mainly according to the text after translation, in units of 250 words. Sometimes, unfortunately, there are surprises or misunderstandings.

Clients may expect a one-page contract in Chinese to remain a one-page contract after translation into English. A page is a page, isn’t it? Definitely not!

The differences can be dramatic, and the client needs to be prepared for that in terms of mindset and budget.

So maybe you won’t be starring on the film set of a Japanese ad in the near future, listening to a self-important Japanese director firing instructions at you, but when you have a text to translate from one language to another, allow for the fact that length and word count may differ considerably.

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