Category Archives: Translation of visuals

A picture is worth…how many words again?

You are familiar with the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words,” even though the original phrase indicates ten thousand words. Fred R. Barnard made that claim in 1921 and added according to the Chinese proverb 一畫勝千言.” As with most advertising claims these days, this one is of dubious reputation, but the point remains that an image can convey a lot of information in a compact and attractive form.

The point stands, however, that a picture, an image, a well-fashioned graphic can be worth a long explanation. With the current popularity of webinars, most corporations and businesses resort to a lengthy PowerPoint presentation to introduce their products or services. This presentation ordinarily includes tables, graphics with text and charts besides text. When a translation is requested, the focus rests solely on the text component, thus ignoring the graphic content and its power. Why?

Maybe the reason for this disconnect can be found in the mental image that the customer has of the whole presentation: while text, written in English, has to be translated to be understood, graphic elements, on the other hand, are presumed to have a universal meaning. Even if the customer is aware that some graphics are just text elements shaped in a fancy graphic way, he wants to showcase the apparent power of the table, report, figure, etc. Well-designed graphics and reports take hours to create. So, what if a screen capture of a report is in English? The non-English reader will surely understand its power, goes the assumption.

There are very practical reasons for leaving such graphic elements untranslated, among them the time and expense to recreate them in one or more foreign languages. But there should be a clear explanation in text about the untranslated/untranslatable graphic element, leaving nothing to chance interpretation.

Another area of entrenched confusion is the design of interfaces. The interface designer assumes that the localization or translation of the elements —such as tool bars, menu items and layout— will undoubtedly mimic the English design. Not always. A comparative cross-cultural study of users’ perceptions of a webpage, completed in July 2008, points to differences in reading style: the American style is more analytical (they categorize elements) whereas the Chinese and Korean styles are more holistic (they view things as a whole). I suggest reading the study for a more precise description of these conclusions as it is not possible for me to do it here for reasons of space.

The first step towards the translation of images for a non-English–reading audience is to accept the fact that they view the same thing differently from you. They form a mental image of your image that departs from what is normally accepted in America. Since you nor I are mind readers, I offer this practical approach:

  1. Use graphics that complement your text.
  2. Resist the temptation to use graphics for show.
  3. Do not use graphics that are text heavy, such as tables or reports —rather, use a portion of a report to illustrate a feature or function as described in the text.
  4. If you have your webpage translated, adapt it according to the design preferences of the foreign language.

It is worth noting that good graphic design calls for a balance between visual content and written content. The presence of a visual element should be justified to avoid overloading the page with distractions. A holistic approach to document, website or presentation design helps us to write only what’s necessary and use visuals only when they support your written content. As Napoleon has reportedly said, Un bon croquis vaut mieux qu’un long discours, or “A good sketch is better than a long speech.”


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Filed under Advertising, Interface design, Translation of visuals