Translation into plain language

What is plain language?

Plain language is easy to understand. That means: short sentences, simple grammar, no convoluted constructions, and using the active rather than the passive voice.
Plain language is an established convention in numerous languages. In English it is called plain English. Plain language does not mean childish language. Everybody should be able to read and understand information. That includes people with disabilities and foreigners.


Growing demand

There is growing demand for text in easily understandable language that is accessible to everyone. The German Equal Opportunities for People with Disabilities Act (Behindertengleichstellungsgesetz) was passed in 2002. Since then German ministries and public agencies have been required to offer text in two versions: accessible and conventional. On its website, the newspaper Augsburger Allgemeine offers a number of stories in plain language, while all the text on the website nachrichtenleicht is written in plain language.
The Social Code (Sozialgesetzbuch) of Lower Saxony, a German state, offers an example of legal German in plain language: “You can drive a car yourself. But you need a special car. The hard word for that is: disability-friendly vehicle. The Integration Office (Integrations-Amt) will help you.”


Difficulties translating into plain language

Translating into plain language is more difficult than you might think! That’s because plain language has its own rules. So a feel for language and word choice remain essential. The real skill is not to over-simplify the content of the source text, but instead to reduce the density of complex information – and avoid producing incorrect causal relationships for the sake of comprehensibility.
The translation industry is slowly responding to the dismantling of linguistic barriers, which is accelerating. A number of agencies specialise in translations from complex to plain language, and Caritas and the German Federal Association of Interpreters and Translators (Bund Deutscher Übersetzer) offer training to those who want to specialise in plain language.


Unavoidable loss of information – how to protect yourself from liability

Professor Christiane Maß of the University of Hildesheim is also working to professionalise plain language in Germany and describes the conflict between “readability and the right to information” facing translators: “This dilemma exists when you translate between languages...but is much more pronounced when translating into plain language.” Breaking down highly structured information into individual statements, adding further clarification and explaining terms unavoidably results in longer texts. And that’s something the intended audience for plain language is poorly equipped to deal with. As a result, concise text that is easy to read involves a loss of information.
That’s why the Lower Saxony State Office for Social Affairs, Youth and Family (Niedersächsisches Landesamt für Soziales, Jugend und Familie) uses the following disclaimer to protect itself from liability: “The plain language text is only for information. The text is only an extra offering. The text of the law is legally binding. The plain language text does not have legal force.”


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