Plain Language: A New Market for Translators?

By Mónica Vega, Project Manager – Senior

A few years ago, I was astonished by some news that I heard on the radio about the reading comprehension of Spanish youngsters. According to that alarming information, the first Pisa report about digital reading highlighted that Spanish students were 24 points below the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) average.

As a translator accustomed to work with these media, I could not ignore such relevant news but, although I generally try not to retain much of them in my memory, the above-mentioned one was probably very shocking to me, because I suddenly remembered it when I read a similar article in 2013. In this occasion, there were more reasons to be alarmed. In the preview of a Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) report, Spain was at the bottom place among the OECD countries in reading comprehension and mathematics. To be accurate, Spain held the penultimate place in the reading comprehension ranking.

Bad news, even if the details were even worse. The findings of the study positioned the Spaniards in a level equivalent to misunderstanding the electric bill or a book like Don Quixote.

Although I could have given my dark side full rein thinking about the subsequent reduction of professional competence, as a Spaniard, book lover and advocate of my mother tongue, I developed an interest into knowing the possible reasons for this deficit and also the solutions and measures that were taken to solve it.

A combination of some failures in our educative system, along with an excessive simplification of social language, seemed the most direct reasons to me. Nowadays, youngsters communicate each other via smartphones or computers, so they can be more precise and use icons or images instead of words; so the economy in language reaches its climax in these days.

However, when thinking about this matter, I tried to change the perspective of the question: how would it change if I see this issue from the text point of view? What happens if texts are too complex?

Although this last approach was not my favorite one, it led me to investigate which measures were being taken into place regarding the difficulty of the reading comprehension when considered as a handicap. During my research, an analysis about the gap between the vernacular and academic texts by Daniel Cassany, Professor of Speech Analysis in the University of Pompeu Fabra, took my attention. We can access to reading from two different worlds: one is personal, simple, comfortable, free and self-managed; the other one is academic, mandatory, ruled, imposed and very far away from the first one. Reading comprehension starts as a processing of the code, then the construction of the meaning and, finally, the development of a self-ruled activity. The apparently complex academic texts are very different from the ones that youngsters (and not so young readers) often use. SMS, chats, blogs or comics, amongst others, are now the common intermediaries between the message and the recipient.

Some countries, including some Spanish-speaking ones, foresaw these increasing problems in comprehension and took the appropriate measures by choosing a simplified model for written language: a way of translating the obscure and confusing language into a simple and direct one. This could also be considered a way to reduce the richness of a language forced by the current circumstances that seem unstoppable.

This has been called plain language. Although I will not detail what this approach consists of (I will provide some references at the end of my post for those interested in this matter), we could summarize this trend as a proposal for simplifying the original text and converting it into a more understandable content by using a common vocabulary and clear, direct and concise sentences. The most important thing is that reader understands the text over richness in expression.

This movement has strengthened and good results have been reached in getting ‘complex’ meanings closer to people with poor comprehension. Although this is not a social solution —despite many countries are intensively working in this approach since the beginning of the century—, as translation professionals we have a potential work field here where we can act on.

Based on the translators’ skills and their ability to transfer information from one code system to others, we could provide a legible and simple alternative for fairly complex texts —for example, administrative or legal documents— to those people that cannot understand them properly.

Although these guidelines cannot be applied to all translation fields, as they would be a contradiction regarding the inherent guidelines of our job, we could not (or, better said, we should not) stray from the original writer style and destroy her expressive richness in the pursuit of a simple and readable text for all audiences; this is possible to be accomplished in some fields, such as legal or informative scientific translations (i.e. scientific texts conceived for a wider and non expertise audience). We could be asked to make a plain language translation. As experts in our language and linguists, we could include within our services the translation of texts according to plain language guidelines, in those specific cases in which understanding takes precedence over expression. I think we could even offer a translation into plain language for those businesses or entities that have to distribute specialized and obscure documents amongst their employees, who are not always able to understand them properly.

By way of illustrating, find below an English example extracted from the page This is an original paragraph about an electronic toll system written by an engineer:


Make sure that the account holder’s name on the account is the same as the name of the customer to whose account the transaction should be attributed.


Make sure that this account is for the right customer.

Don’t we mentally do this translation to understand this text before translating it?

In spite of it, I rejected this approach at the beginning since it could encourage, to some level, this trend to simplifying the language and causing the reading comprehension problems that we see nowadays; after investigating more deeply into this matter, I think translators could blaze a trail in this field and act as intermediates to get some specialized and complex jargons closer to a significant number of readers with important deficits. It could be another additional resource amongst our skills and, at the same time, it could be an aid too in our daily work, since we also need to convert specialized texts into simpler ones in order to understand them completely and be able to provide a version in our mother tongue.

Therefore, we can demonize plain language as a way of promoting a severe communication problem in our society or we can take advantage of this reality and put our two cents into making texts more accessible to readers. You decide.




Plain Language Association International:

Plain Language Commission:

Asociación Lectura fácil (Easy Reading Association):