How Bad Is Translation Expansion in Russian (And How To Curb It)

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We say that a text “expands” if its translation takes up more space on the page or screen than the original content. Expansion causes problems for layouts created without localization in mind as the translation will be truncated to the point of being unintelligible, or the design will need to be re-worked to accommodate the expanded text. Consequently, developers are encouraged to leave enough space in the user interface to accommodate expansion.

Russian is supposed to expand greatly and wreak havoc on your user interface. But does it really expand that much? Let’s look at a few numbers first.

Longer Words, Shorter Sentences

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Russian is a synthetic language, with words containing both lexical (meaning) and grammatical information. Compare, for instance, the English “space ship” vs the Russian “космический корабль” (kosmichesky korabl’). The suffix ichesk turns this word into an adjective, while the ending expresses the masculine grammatical gender. English has lost most of its inflections, which may explain some of the length difference.

At the same time, the difference is not as dramatic as you would think. Based on a corpus of 40 million words published between 1970 and 2002, the length of an average Russian word is 5.28 characters. Based on a corpus of 3.5 million words, the weighted length of an average English word is 4.57 characters. However, the length of an average Russian sentence is only 10.38 words, as opposed to 17.16 to 24.27 words in English, depending on the genre.

Why does Russian get the bad rap of being an expansion nightmare then? I contend that some of the expansion comes not as much from the inherent properties of Russian as from unfortunate translation decisions. Let us look at some examples of verbosity in translation and ways of curbing expansion for each of them.

Different Tools for Emphasis

AxEnglish uses what is called cleft sentences for emphasis. An idea that may be expressed in one sentence is split (“cleaved”) into two clauses to bring out certain information. Adhering to English syntax in the Russian translation will contribute to expansion. Russian has other, more succinct tools for emphasis, such as placing the new, important information (“rheme“) at the end of the sentence.

English: What I learned that day is the importance of family ties.
Verbose translation: То, что я поняла в тот день, — это важность семейных связей.
Succinct translation: В тот день я поняла важность семейных связей.

Swap Verbs For Nouns

Apple and orange juiceRussian is much more tolerant of verbal nouns to describe processes. This can help avoid bulky temporal clauses in translation. Moreover, this lets you replace long Russian conjunctions with one-word prepositions (see highlights below).

English: After the application has been filed, the candidate receives a confirmation letter.
Verbose translation: После того, как заявка была подана, кандидат получает письмо с подтверждением.
Succinct translation: После подачи заявки кандидат получает подтверждение.

Other constructions that may benefit from nominalization in Russian include с “тех пор, как” (since + clause) vs  (since + noun) and “для того, чтобы” (in order to + infinitive) vs для (for + noun).

These are just a few brevity techniques that come to mind in connection with translation expansion in Russian. Perhaps adherence to English syntax is to blame for this expansion at least as much as any inherent features of Russian. I would love to hear any examples of long or short translations you can think of in comments.

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