Multilingual style guide

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A text written for translation should be clear and unambiguous. It should not necessarily be the same text that will be published for the language in which it is written. For example, if you are writing original copy in English, you will want to prepare two documents:

  • A neutral English-language version as a basis for translation
  • A version for English-language publication

Typically, the version as a basis for translation will be different &mdash less exciting, more simply and colourlessly written, but more easily understood &mdash than the published English version. On can think of the relationship between these documents as one of translation between two variant of English: a rich, colloquial English and a simpler, more international English.


  • Avoid idiom and slang.
  • Write in short, clear sentences; avoid multiple long clauses.

The following are some "bad examples" of idiom and slang, all drawn from the first issue of Wikimedia Quarto, the Wikimedia newsletter.

  • "...quotes about Wikimedia...": quotes as a noun is slang, better choice would be "quotations".
  • " the black...": very much a colloquialism. Normally would be understood and translated as "profitable", but clearly that is inappropriate to a non-profit. A better choice might be "financially sound"
  • "Many hands make light work...": extremely colloquial, probably sent every translator searching for an equivalent idiom. There are a wide range of possible replacements, but one better choice might have have been "Broad participation shares the burden and makes a task easier." No, it doesn't exactly flow off the tongue, but it can be translated.

The following is a "bad example" of overly complex sentences, drawn from the same source.

  • "Mutual respect and a reasonable approach to disagreement are essential, and both of those are helped along enormously when we feel favorably towards each other just as a natural result of being volunteers together on this incredible ridiculous crazy fun project to change the world."


  • Use words with only one meaning. If necessary, disambiguate your meaning in a footnote.
  • Use words that will have natural translations in many languages, or are likely to be found in a dictionary. This sometimes means using flat words rather than context-rich words.
  • Avoid excessive elision. Leave in conjunctions and helper words where it makes the meaning clearer.

The following is a "bad example" of using a word with multiple meanings, drawn from the first issue of Wikimedia Quarto, the Wikimedia newsletter.

  • "...words from our founder...": words is used in a non-literal sense; better choices would include "a statement from our founder", "commentary from our founder", etc.

The following is a "bad example" of using words that will not have a natural translation, drawn from the same source.

  • Job titles on the newsletter include, among others, "Editor-in-Chief" and "Executive Editor". No explanation was provided of the functions of these jobs. It may be extremely hard for a translator to identify equivalent terms in a given foreign language.

The following is a "bad example" of excessive elision, drawn from the same source.

  • "We are an astounding global project that continues to grow at a staggering pace." Well, actually, no, "we" are not a project, "we" are people. Or in this case, since this was part of the "Letter from the Founder", "we" may be the editorial "we"... but wait, Jimbo isn't "an astounding global project". How exactly is a translator to deal with this? What exactly is the referent of "we"? In one's native language, one reads right past this and doesn't worry, but there may be no equivalent construction in a different language.