Doesn’t your heart writhe in spasms of agony when you witness acts of literary funambulism? These filipendulous deeds of writing showmanship end up producing a sense of floccinaucinihilipilification. It’s enough to make even the most measured among us groan “Hey dude, can’t you say it in layman’s terms?”
Sure, I get it: you probably want to engage as broad an audience as possible. Nobody wants to alienate their readership by producing content that’s as impenetrable as the Great Wall. There’s a fine line between well-written content and firing off $10 words willy-nilly. This applies to translation as well as any other profession that uses language; clarity is king.
And what about fields that require a stricter use of specific terminology? When traversing the jargon-filled pathways of the legal, technical, and medical fields, what’s a regular person to do?
For one, have you ever heard of the KISS principle? No, it doesn’t have anything to do with rock n’ roll (although, on second thought, maybe it does). It’s a US-Navy design principle expressed with this colorful acronym that means “Keep it Simple, Stupid.”
Now, nobody’s going to say the Navy couldn’t improve its bedside manner a bit, but the idea still stands. Avoiding unnecessarily convoluted blabber can be both the pinnacle of elegance and functionality. It also keeps your message simple and concise.
Know your audience. Unless the original absolutely calls for it, unduly ornate language can do more harm than good.
Let’s try to keep it simple!
But if you prefer to watch a video instead, click here:
This post was updated on March 2021
Going into layman’s terms
Now, you may be an expert in many fields. Perhaps I’m addressing a very knowledgeable individual, a Renaissance man or woman. But chances are, regardless of your wealth of knowledge, you are absolutely as clueless as anyone else on many things. Fret not, that’s absolutely normal! What this also entails is that we all lay people in some realm or other.
In layman’s terms, a layperson is someone who is not well-versed in a particular field of knowledge. For instance, if a piece is written with wall-to-wall technical terminology about cellular cleaning mechanisms, non-biologists would be pretty confused.
Here, try on this little segment from the Fight Aging blog: “TGFB-INHB/activin signaling regulates age-dependent autophagy and cardiac health through inhibition of MTORC2”
Now, say that out loud real quick three times. Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it? There’s really not much way to explain what’s going on in this sentence unless we unpack it thoroughly. That means that whoever is communicating in layman’s terms must have complete knowledge of the issue at hand — otherwise, we risk a double whammy of confusion.
I’ll try to explain the sentence in simple terms; mTORC2 is a protein group that regulates certain functions of an organism. Autophagy is a term that refers to a cell’s own cleanup and repair process; take it as a natural “sweep and clean” where a cell recycles useful stuff and throws away debris. Researchers found that boosting this protein complex apparently ups the cleanup and repair process, leading to improved heart health. This happened even in older hearts, which recovered some of their younger capabilities.
Why do we need things told in layman’s terms?
One of the principal factors would be reach. Not everything is meant for specialized readers. Take the example of science communication. Wikipedia defines it as:
“Science communication is the practice of informing, educating, sharing wonderment, and raising awareness of science-related topics.
Science communicators and audiences are ambiguously defined and the expertise and level of science knowledge vary with each group.
Two types of defined science communication are science outreach (typically conducted by professional scientists to non-expert audiences) and science “inreach” (expert to expert communication from similar or different scientific backgrounds). An example of inreach is scholarly communication and publication in scientific journals.”
Now, science outreach best exemplifies the concerns of this article. Do you know the science and technology magazine Wired? They’ve been doing science and technology outreach since the 90s. Now equipped with abundant social media and YouTube presence, they can deliver in spades.
An example from Wired
One of their most popular series is “Expert explains one concept in five levels of difficulty.” In these 10-minute to half-hour episodes, layman’s terms have their moment in the sun. Experts quickly introduce themselves and attempt to educate or converse about the subject with different interlocutors. Conversations are structured as a dialogue with participants facing each other; the structure often goes as follows:
- Part 1 – The expert converses with a kid. Here, he uses very simplified terminology and concepts to get the point across.
- Part 2 – Typically, they talk with a well-educated teen. Now concepts are typically up to the level of a high-school curriculum.
- Part 3 – A college student. Here, the complexity level starts ramping up.
- Part 4 – The conversation moves on to a grad student.
- Part 5 – The expert chats with another expert with an even deeper knowledge of the subject. This part of the segment usually turns into an interview or QA session.
Now, watch this sample clip with biologist Neville Sanjana. Did you manage to hold on as the intensity and complexity ramped up? Was it possible for you to internalize complex concepts told simply? Was there any point during the episode where you lost the plot completely?
It’s very likely that having things explained in layman’s terms opened up new avenues of knowledge for you. Then, as you started to gain proficiency in the terminology, things weren’t quite so labyrinthine anymore. That’s the magic of using simple language to elucidate complex issues. This is of primary importance in areas like science communication.
The motto: an unengaged audience is a bored audience. A bored audience clicks away from whatever you have to say sooner rather than later.
Layman’s terms and translation
This is where things may start to get slightly heated. Look, no experienced translator worth their salt is going to do a double-take when they see some jargon. Those who are specialized in the medical, academic, technical, and legal fields may as well add another language to their resume: Jargonese. This mystical, oft-forgotten tongue permeates these professions to an all-encompassing degree.
Those unprepared souls who encounter Jargonese among their travels may experience many issues, like:
- Impenetrable, a walled-off language that’s saved for a chosen few.
- Abstract, opaque terminology that makes readers dizzy even if they’re sitting down. Fainting spells are not uncommon!
- The opposite of layman’s terms. Snamyal smret? Nyet! Obfuscation, mystification, and infuriation!
This is when a translation may take one of two turns. You, as a client, may approach a translator in order to get them to produce as faithful a version of the original content as possible. This is common, and part of what any translator would consider their wont.
Consider the situation well, though. Is the translator knowledgeable in the subject matter at hand? Do they specialize in that field enough to accurately convey the original meaning? Even further: do they have good research skills?
For argument’s sake, let’s say “Yes”
Then you’ve got two options; either keep the original as-is in a new language or simplify it. As you consider your audience and who you are addressing, you may encounter varying scenarios. Sometimes the target audience is exactly the same as in the original, but overseas; in some cases, you may be wanting to target a slightly newer demographic, but with roughly the same information.
The good thing is that translators have to be good writers the language they’re translating to. That comes with the job. So, gone are the days of stereotyping translators as these stodgy old language purists. Translators can also tailor their work for your particular needs.
Let’s take the example of our own translation service. It’s pretty straightforward, so you just click on the source and target languages, and you’re taken to another screen. There, you’ll be asked a few questions which are not just there to make the translator’s life easier:
- The context of the project
- The audience that will utilize the translation
- How formal/informal the translation should be
- The purpose of the translation
- Links to helpful videos and audio, if any
Why are these questions there? Well, it may be the case that you want alterations from the original, as discussed above. What if, say, you want to have a Jargonese-heavy section converted into layman’s terms? This may not just be a requirement borne out of the needs of your audience, even!
OneHourTranslations has this informative bit on the matter:
“It’s true that many countries today are mandating that certain entities use only clear and easy-to-understand language when dealing with the public.”
That’s right! In some places, rules and regulations apply that mandate a Jargonese-free public speech. Knowing the context, level of formality, and the purpose of your translation takes on a whole new meaning!
Things don’t have to be so set in stone.
So, if the article’s done its job, you should have a firmer grasp on what this whole layman’s terms thing is about. If you consider your audience carefully and know your brand or message well, things get easier; you’ll know whether to go in hard or to tone down the jargon appropriately.
Not only that, but you also may avoid unintended consequences if your message is going to be displayed as part of any official communication! Best to know any official regulations beforehand.
The main takeaway is: not even translations are as rigid and unmodifiable as they’ve been made out to be. Context, tone, and target matter. That’s the intersection between translation and writing.