English is the shortest language
Same content - different text length for translation
Which languages are the longest and have the most words?
In order to get to the bottom of this phenomenon, we have selected two sample texts with which we want to compare some selected languages. In this way you can see in concrete terms what the number of words and text length is all about when translating into different languages, and how it happens that much more space is needed for the same content in Spanish, for example, than in English.
European languages in comparison
Example 1: legal text
Our first sample text is a legal text for the European Economic Area. The advantage here is that the text was published in several European languages that can be easily compared. We do not know whether the text was initially written in one language and then translated into the other, or whether the texts were written in parallel in the different languages.
The following table serves only as an example, because depending on the type of text, there may be differences. When it comes to translations, it also plays a role which language is used as the source language.
|language||Word count ||Characters without spaces||characters with spaces||Letters per word*|
|Word count, ascending||Letters per word*, ascending||Characters with spaces, in ascending order|
|Finnish 18,864||English 5,364||English 154.101|
|Hungarian 19,985||Spanish 5.462||Slovenian 159.502|
|German 22,118||French 5,581||Hungarian 163.164|
|Polish 23,214||Bulgarian 5.659||Finnish 164,792|
|Slovenian 23,407||Italian 5.675||German 168.399|
|Dutch 24,136||Slovenian 5.946||Dutch 169.421|
|English 24,698||Dutch 6,147||Bulgarian 170.001|
|Bulgarian 25,988||Polish 6.476||Polish 170.468|
|Italian 27,127||German 6,752||Italian 178.005|
|French 28,350||Hungarian 7.317||French 183,505|
|Spanish 29,538||Finnish 7,899||Spanish 187,806|
Finnish and Hungarian: few words, many letters
From the tables it can be seen that Finnish expresses the content with the fewest words; however, the individual words are the longest with an average of 7,899 letters. This is because Finnish is an agglutinating language. In agglutinating languages, for example, there are no prepositions before nouns, but the words in question are transformed by cases. Other words, such as verbs, are adjusted with the help of affixes so that the basic word can add a large number of letters depending on the person, tense and case.
Hungarian is comparable to Finnish, because the Hungarian language is also an agglutinating language. As Uralic languages and part of the Finno-Ugric language family, Hungarian and Finnish are also related to each other. Other languages, such as Japanese, Korean, Turkish, Malay, Swahili and Basque, on the other hand, are not related to Finnish and Hungarian, but are also among the agglutinating languages.
Although German is not an agglutinating language, it can be seen from the tables that it also goes in the same direction as Finnish and Hungarian: In comparison to the other languages, few words are used in the text, but they consist of a relatively large number of letters.
Italian, French and Spanish: many words, few letters
Italian, French and Spanish, on the other hand, use many words to express something. In our sample text, however, the individual words are rather short compared to other languages, with an average of 5.462 to 5.675 letters.
In terms of the number of words, English is in the middle of our comparison languages and has the shortest words with an average of 5,364 letters. The overall length of the text when translating into English is also the shortest. The Romance languages Italian, French, and Spanish have the longest text length.
When translating from English into Spanish or French, the text will usually be longer. In our example, the Spanish or French text is around 20% longer than the English one. It is only understandable if the text suddenly no longer fits into the layout after translation. Another factor here is the letter width: some letters take up little space (like the I), while others take up a lot of space (e.g. the M or W). Depending on which letters are used most frequently in the respective language, this can also influence the space required in the layout.
Example 2: general language text
In the second example we take a look at the intercontact blog, because in contrast to the very precise language of legal texts, our blog is characterized by a more general, everyday language. Our sample blog article was first written in German and then translated into the other languages. This is not a word-for-word translation, but a freer translation.
|language||Word count||Characters without spaces||characters with spaces||Letters per word*|
|Word count, ascending||Letters per word*, ascending ||Characters with spaces, in ascending order|
|Polish 591||English 5.195||English 4,205|
|German 619||Spanish 5.367||Italian 4,315|
|Italian 651||French 5.424||Polish 4,330|
|Dutch 675||Dutch 5.492||Dutch 4,361|
|English 682||Italian 5.661||German 4,548|
|Spanish 742||Polish 6.360||Spanish 4,703|
|French 802||German 6,380||French 5.132|
With the exception of Polish, all languages in our blog post need more words than German; apart from French and Spanish, however, the languages use fewer characters here. And in all languages the individual words contain fewer letters on average than in German; With 5,195 letters, the English words are on average the shortest, while in German a word has an average of 6,380 letters.
It is noticeable that the words in the legal text consist on average of more letters than in our blog post. This difference is particularly clear in German. Here, a word in the legal text consists of an average of 6,753 letters, whereas in the blog article it only consists of 6,380 letters. This is because we use general language terms on the blog, while the legal text is more technical. And especially in German, a word usually gets longer, the more specific it is.
Despite the fact that our blog article was translated from German, the English text is shorter. Spanish and French, on the other hand, need more space for the same content.
Let languages take their natural course during translation
To a certain extent, the translation can take into account space limitations. It is best, however, to let languages take their natural course. This is the only way to make a text sound appealing in the respective foreign language. And what's the point of a translation that costs time and money if it doesn't reach customers in the end?
Our tip: Do not finish the layout until after the translation. The translation does not have to be pressed into a certain form and the foreign language words can develop their full effect.
* rounded to three decimal places
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