How does language influence text length?

Why is the English translation of a German text shorter, and the Spanish version longer?

Clients often wonder why the translation of a text that they receive is often much shorter or longer than the original. Was everything translated correctly or did the translator omit/add some parts?

The text length does not show the quality of the translation, it may be quite different – depending on the specific language. For example, if a German text is translated into English, in most of the cases the English text will be shorter by about one-fifth. Even though it has approx. 10 % more words than the German text.

French texts that have been translated from German will be about 20% longer – the same applies to texts that have been translated from English into Russian. Comparing an English text to the Spanish translation i.e. the latter may be longer by about 25 % !

These differences are due to more than just one fact: In some languages words are simply shorter. The grammatical rules of languages are different and have to be observed. In some languages long sentences are necessary, whereas in other ones you may convey the same content in a much shorter passage.

When it comes to text length it is always important to know the layout specifications.  Some languages use individual long words (German, Finnish, Dutch), in English and Chinese these are much shorter, but the number of words is higher. If there is a limited column width, the English text may fit perfectly, but the long German words have to be divided which may have a disturbing effect to the layout. One example: the English “input processing features” is translated to “Eingabeverarbeitungsfunktionen” in a German text. The English text can simply be put into two lines if the column width is too short. However, the German text is not divided automatically which means more working on the layout.

Compounding the problem is the fact that Japanese, Korean, Chinese and other languages use more complicated characters than the Latin script. So even if the number of counts is the same or less in the translation, the needed amount of space will be more. In order to achieve an identical layout in the different languages, the graphic designers must dig deep in their bag of tricks: changing font size, style or character spacing, maybe also the margin are just a few possibilities in order to create an appealing layout.

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