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Text Expansion and Contraction

May 7, 2010

You may have noticed that it can take more words to say something in one language than in another. For example, it takes three words in French (s’il vous plaît) to accomplish what you can with one word of English (please). And in general, French and other romance languages are wordier than English. A document with 1,000 English words translated into French will convert into approximately 1,150 target words, a 15% increase in the document’s word count.

This is referred to in the translation industry as text expansion and contraction. In other words, the number of words in a document usually increases or decreases when the document is translated. While we can’t give an exact prediction of the final word count, translation companies use ratios based on typical expansion/contraction rates for different languages pairs. For example, in English to German translation, the word count typically contracts by 20%, and therefore this is the ratio that most companies use. If you have ever seen a German compound word like Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänsmütze (Danube steamboat shipping company Captain’s hat) you’ll understand why.

Calculating expansion or contraction during translation is not an exact science. Depending on subject matter and terminology, and also the quality of the writing, the text may expand more or less than the ratios predict. That is a major reason why Morningside—and most translation companies—provide the estimated cost, and not the exact cost for translating a document. But Morningside always utilizes the most conservative ratio when providing estimates to avoid any unpleasant surprises when the invoice arrives. Because of this, the actual cost for getting a document translated by Morningside is often lower than our estimated cost.