What You Need to Know about Style Guides

Imagine that your company is planning to expand into foreign markets. You need to translate a lot of documents, marketing materials, and a website. Starting a blog for promotion purposes would also be nice. You assign these tasks to several reliable professionals, but at the last moment you decide to check everything with an independent specialist. And suddenly it turns out that the texts that correspond to the originals on the surface nevertheless evoke completely different emotions and associations. In addition, you learn that the translations of different texts contradict each other: in catalogs, prices are indicated in local currency, and on the website — in dollars; in printed booklets, your company name is translated, and in the online store, which was handled by other contractors, it remains in the original language. As a result, you lose a lot of time and money addressing all of these issues.

Such problems may arise not only because of the inconsistent actions of multiple contractors. Even if the entire project is handled by one localization company, but the volume and terms leave the company no other choice but to divide the work among several specialists, it is very possible that discrepancies might still occur.

However, the task of maintaining a unified style and consistency of translations is not new. And the solution to it was found long time ago — a style guide.

We’d like to emphasize that we are not talking about eliminating the possibility of «masterpieces» that were half-machine-translated, half-completed by people with questionable education, such as «hydra-reinforced wheel steering» or «modern cotton-leather materials» (whatever those might mean). No translator with any degree of self-respect will allow this to happen, regardless of whether they have a style guide at their disposal or not. We are talking about how we can attain a high-quality translation instead of just a mediocre one.

What exactly is a style guide?

A style guide is a document that contains the client’s instructions regarding the specific style (the name speaks for itself here), tone of presentation, layout features, and other issues for which there are no strict rules in the target language. What should the tone be like: reserved and formal, or casual and conversational? Can slang be used? How should the prices be localized? Should linguists adhere to the metric or imperial system of units? Is it important to keep the date format uniform? Should the names of organizations and initiatives be translated?

Clear instructions will help the translator choose the style of presenting the information, create or maintain a recognizable image of your company in a new market, and at the same time take into account the interests of the target audience and cultural specifics of the country for which the translation is intended. The work of the specialist team will be streamlined, the linguists will not have to contact you regarding every minor question, and there will be much fewer contradictions in the translated documents.

What are the advantages of utilizing a style guide?

A style guide will help you achieve:

  • professional text formatting;
  • creating a recognizable brand voice in a new market;
  • faster translation with the same high quality.

So, first of all, a style guide helps you maintain a unified professional presentation across multiple translations. Have you ever created presentations for your work? Then you know that even the best report can be easily ruined by choosing the slide colors that don’t match. The same happens if quotes suddenly change shape in booklets, press releases, and on the website, if product names are translated in one location, but not in another, and when prices jump from currency to currency. Such carelessness gives the impression that the work was done in a hurry, and this does not add any reliability to the company image or credibility to your products.

What You Need to Know about Style Guides

Secondly, when you create texts for your clients, whether they are electronic newsletters or paper catalogs, you make sure that you maintain the general style and tone of the presented material. It can be friendly, sometimes even informal, or it can be official and very formal. You can take liberties and make jokes, or you can stick strictly to the point. All this is the voice of your brand. It allows readers to subconsciously distinguish you from your competitors. Therefore, it is very important to maintain a uniform style across translated texts. A style guide comes in very handy here as well.

The ideal scenario, of course, would be to assign to each client one translator and one editor who will know everything about the company. But then important and urgent news that need to be published in another country may take a couple of days to translate, and the spring clothing catalog will only be ready by July. This is why translations are typically distributed between several people. Without a style guide, however, such approach will result in inconsistent translations, which can negatively affect your reputation. Of course, translated texts will still have to be corrected to some extent, even when a style guide is used. But if all the translators have the same idea of what your needs are, the time and money saved on final editing can prove to be quite significant.

When do you need a style guide?

As a matter of fact, a style guide is not always required. If you need to have a single agreement translated or, say, have several short and non-urgent product descriptions localized, all you need to do is indicate your main requirements and instructions verbally or in correspondence before the work on the translation starts.

However, you will definitely need a style guide if you are maintaining a constant presence in the market of another country. Let’s say you have a regularly updated product catalog or you publish the latest achievements in your field. In such cases, you will need those translated quite regularly. So as not to reiterate your instructions every time, compiling a style guide might be worth your while.

A style guide is also necessary when you have to work on a large or long-term project. Localizing a large catalog or your entire website calls for structured written instructions.

For video game localization, a style guide becomes an absolute must, since it allows the translation team to take into account many (although not all) important nuances in advance. For example, how should the names and geographical locations be translated? What about descriptive nicknames and names? Are there any limits on the number of symbols in the translation? What are the specific requirements for audio files? These and many other questions are answered by a properly compiled style guide.

What should be included in a style guide?

The scope of a style guide may vary. Companies with extensive translation experience usually have larger style guides: for example, Facebook’s style guide comprises more than 30 pages, and that of another IT giant — over one hundred. However, if a company is just starting to work with new markets, 6–8 pages that contain the most important information would usually suffice. It will be easier for localization participants to remember the instructions from a brief style guide. Later, you will be able to add details that will be important in the course of your work.

Style guides are usually divided into two parts. The first part includes everything about the voice of your brand, and the second — technical requirements and layout rules.

The first part should provide a clear idea of what style you prefer. This is usually not so easy to formulate, so you can choose a slightly different approach. Tell us about your company’s values, mission, and target audience: age and education, occupation, and level of familiarity with the topic of those for whom the translation is intended. This is what determines your «voice» in the first place — and it will also help the linguists in letting you know which features should be preserved across translated texts, and what should be changed so as not to evoke a negative reaction from the target audience.

Here you should also indicate what your brand should be associated with. Loyalty to tradition or cutting-edge technology, dynamism or thoroughness, accessibility or elitism. If you know your competitors, you can list them and indicate whether it is important for you to maintain texts in a similar key or, on the contrary, to differ from them as much as possible.

If you translate documents of different genres or create product lines that target different people, you may want them to sound different. For example, if you want marketing materials to be more creative, and legal materials to be strict and dry; whether you wish to address your readers formally or informally; all this should also be mentioned in the first part of the style guide.

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The technical part includes recommendations on formal issues.

  • Punctuation. At least — the type of dashes and quotation marks, since this question is eternally controversial in most languages. Although the Buzzfeed media portal, for example, even takes into account such nuances as the order of characters in this rather rare combination?!
  • Regional standards. This primarily concerns the format of time and dates; for example, whether the month or day should be specified first. This also includes specific rules for phone numbers and addresses.
  • Translatability. Whether it is necessary to leave in the original language, translate or transcribe the names of companies, product lines and models, articles and so forth.
  • References to the interface of your programs if they are present in the text. Whether they should be left in the original language, duplicated in the target language, or perhaps this issue should be clarified for each individual project.
  • Other important details. 

Who creates a style guide?

There is only one recipe for developing a good style guide: if both the client’s representatives and linguists from the country of the target language are working on it together.

As a rule, it is better to leave the technical part of the guide to the translation agency. There, it will be handled by qualified and experienced native linguists who will be able to identify controversial issues and make a professional decision with regard to them.

However, it would make most sense if the first, general, part of the style guide was created by you. It is best if this task is handled by someone who specializes in text content and has a clear understanding of your marketing strategy.

What You Need to Know about Style Guides

What’s next?

When all the issues have been resolved and your style guide is ready, send it to localization providers. And don’t forget to send a copy to the contractors who joined the project later on.

However, you should not assume the style guide to be pure truth carved in stone. Style guides work best if they are reviewed and adapted from time to time. For intensive translations, it is recommended to do so every six months or every year. If you rarely localize your content, the document may last 3–5 years.

If you work with a regular provider, ask them to suggest changes and additions to your style guide. There is a very good chance that they will have questions and suggestions that should be added to the style guide.

Clear instructions and streamlined work equal high quality of your texts. And this is a matter of common interest to both parties!


Text: Polina Skurikhina, Anna Markovskaya

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