Developing a style guide is fundamental for translation and localization, but finding time to do it and deciding what to include can be a challenge.
Have you ever been asked to create or update a style guide for your translation projects? We know developing a style guide is fundamental for translation and localization, but deciding what to include can be a challenge. Finding time to work on this document while juggling competing priorities can turn into a never-ending task!
Figure 1: Outline of NCI’s Spanish-language translation style guide developed in OneNote
Shortly after we began working on a traditional style guide at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health, we realized freelancers couldn’t wait for these formal guidelines. The solution was to create fast style tips (QuickTips) to respond to our team’s immediate needs. We hope sharing our experience and lessons learned will help you get started writing your own tips.
Beginning with a Traditional Style Guide
Over two years ago, we became the new Spanish team at NCI’s Science Writing and Review Branch. We inherited a backlog of translations that ranged from scientific news blogs and fact sheets to videos and social media content. However, the first step was to improve quality assurance by defining a process for consistency in terminology, style, voice, and tone across all translations. Developing a style guide for Spanish translations became a clear priority.
We received a 90-page legacy translation style guide that read like a grammar book, and most of the examples were not applicable. After doing some research and consulting other style guides (see the sidebar), we set out to develop a more practical guide that would include short bullet points, a list of dos and don’ts, and specific examples from NCI’s content. (Note: The examples provided in this article are in Spanish, but this approach can be applied to other languages.)
Based on the style issues that came up during translation reviews, we organized the guide into the following sections (see Figure 1 above):
- Basic Rules
- Types of Content
- Plain (Clear) Language
- Style Norms
- Publication Titles
- Uppercase and Lowercase
- Numbers and Symbols
The Attachments section included lists with the names of institutes, federal agencies, and programs and studies, as well as common and preferred phrases and useful translation resources.
Inspired by William Strunk and E.B. White’s Elements of Style, we included 10 basic rules for working with translations. These rules provide actionable steps and set priorities for a consistent style, voice, and tone in translations. Basic rules also serve as key points to help translators stay on track:
- Understand before you translate.
- Give preference to terms in Spanish.
- Use consistent phrases, terminology, and style.
- Use reference materials and include sources for new or difficult terms.
- Don’t use regionalisms.
- Avoid passive voice.
- Follow style and punctuation rules in this guide.
- Use usted in general; use tú in social media.
- Use language that’s simple, clear, and logical.
- Review before you deliver or publish.
Figure 2: The introduction explains the purpose of the guide and points to specific resources for general spelling and grammar questions.
To keep our style guide brief, we started by clearly stating its purpose: solving common style and terminology issues during translation. For users looking for answers on general spelling and grammar, we identified specific resources. (See Figure 2.)
We were excited about how the new style guide was developing, but progress slowed as more translation requests and other special projects came up. Did we mention we were a team of two working with two part-time freelancers? Does this sound familiar? With competing priorities, we knew developing a traditional style guide would take longer than expected.
A Faster Solution: QuickTips
Then we thought, “What if we share a few tips regularly Is that doable?” This is how QuickTips was born! Focused on improving consistency to speed up quality assurance reviews, we began sharing brief tips on style and terminology issues every month.
It was easy to implement QuickTips on the fly using a few bullet points and a simple glossary format. Without the urgent need to write a traditional style guide, these informal tips were developed during quality assurance reviews or whenever style issues came up. (See Figure 3.) For example:
- Use médico for doctor or physician.
- For M.D. or Ph.D., use the title doctor or doctora: “la doctora Casablanca.” Do not abbreviate as “
- Use medicamento instead of fármaco for plain language.
Figure 3: This first edition of QuickTips shows style and terminology issues from recent jobs in a simple format, as well as sections from the traditional style guide.
Using clear language and a friendly tone, this approach helps communicate and fine-tune style and terminology issues on a regular basis. While reviewers can always track changes and add comments, these are often not shared with everyone. Flagging style issues or terms and phrases for the entire team improved consistency in translations. After they are shared in QuickTips, translators and reviewers can be on the lookout and implement changes immediately, making the overall quality assurance process more efficient.
After more than two years, we have found that QuickTips offers these benefits:
- Simple template to create, update, and share
- Highly relevant and specific tips
- Greater consistency in style and terminology
- Standard way to address style issues
- Easy to integrate into quality assurance
Starting Your Own QuickTips
If you’re wondering what to include in your QuickTips, remember this: focus on answering frequently asked questions and addressing common mistakes found during quality assurance reviews. Most of the time, translation style guides are either too short or too long to be practical.
We suggest leaving out explanations on basic grammar, punctuation, or spelling rules that trained translators already know. Instead, list reference materials that your style is based on. (If you haven’t identified reliable sources as reference materials, it’s time to choose them. See the sidebar for some examples.) Then, identify any differences with those style rules and provide examples. If you find you’re simply copying and pasting from grammar or style manuals, you’re creating redundant content.
When writing QuickTips, keep these six features in mind:
- Simple: Write for a five-minute read.
- Explanations: If needed, add brief and clear explanations. For example: “Use sobrevivientes (vs.
supervivientes) and supervivencia (vs. sobrevivencia) for consistency in our content and because of usage in the United States.”
- References: Support decisions with reliable sources that your style is based on. For example, we use the Diccionario de cáncer del NCI, Cosnautas, Fundéu, or consult with experts. Establish an order of priority for these sources so translators can use them to confirm their choices. Don’t copy paragraphs with rules or definitions if translators have access to the referenced material. Otherwise, include a screenshot (see Visuals below).
- Visuals: Use an easy-to-follow format (see Figures 3 and 4). You can add a few highlights in yellow, crossed-out text in red, and occasional screenshots to grab attention or reinforce messages. Don’t use fancy symbols so you can work across platforms without format problems.
- Examples: Include examples from recent jobs to demonstrate how to apply tips. If possible, do this during the quality assurance review so you can copy and paste. For example: “Hay casi 17 millones de sobrevivientes de cáncer en los Estados Unidos.”
- Searchable: Tips should be easy to find. Save them in a single document so content is fully searchable.
Figure 4: A recent edition of QuickTips shared on Teams, a collaboration platform, provides access to live updates on style and terminology.
Frequency and Format
Any time is a good time to work on QuickTips. Simply open the document in your favorite application and write tips with the features mentioned above. Based on your needs, you can share these tips monthly, weekly, daily, or immediately. In our case, we started with monthly emails and now share tips live. Pick an application that works best for your team (SharePoint, Teams, OneNote, Google Docs, project management tools such as Trello or Monday, etc.). Regardless of the chosen application, save all QuickTips in a single document. Besides serving as a backup, you can make global changes, spellcheck, and even create a more polished version of QuickTips at the end of the year.
QuickTips versus Traditional Style Guide
While we created these tips to deliver fast guidance, we ended up with an unexpected bonus: making progress on a more targeted style guide. For example, we recently had questions about the use of articles preceding common drug names. First, we addressed these immediately through QuickTips, then we added the topic to the traditional style guide.
Once you start writing QuickTips, you may decide you don’t need a more formal document. Or you may notice areas you want to expand on in a manual or guide. You can also use QuickTips to share focused content from your traditional style guide.
We hope our approach to a style guide makes it easy for you to get started right away.
Examples of Useful Style Resources
Cómo traducir y redactar textos científicos en español
Diccionario panhispánico de dudas
El arte de escribir bien en español: manual de corrección de estilo
Las 500 dudas más frecuentes del español
Libro de estilo interinstitucional de la Unión Europea
Libro de estilo de la lengua española
Manual de estilo Chicago-Deusto
Manual de estilo de la lengua española
Manual de Traducción del Servicio de Traducción al Español de las Naciones Unidas
English and Other Languages
Digital.gov Bilingual Glossaries, Dictionaries, and Style Guides
Federal Plain Language Guidelines
Mónica Adler is a bilingual health communications and plain language expert with over 20 years of experience. She has a BA in translation from the School of Languages and Linguistics at the Universidad del Salvador in Argentina, and an MA in international relations and marketing from George Mason University. She enjoys turning complex content into messages that are clear and easy to understand. Her expertise includes adult learning and education, materials development, and communication strategies such as websites, apps, social media, and videos. She works for Publicis Sapient as a senior translator and communications associate at the National Cancer Institute. firstname.lastname@example.org
Carolina Torres Spencer is an experienced health communications professional with a passion to promote healthy behaviors related to the prevention of diseases, particularly among minority populations. She has a BS in clinical laboratory science and medical technology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a master’s degree in public health from George Mason University. She is experienced in web management, materials development and adaptation, project management, digital communications, and social media. She works as a bilingual communications specialist at the National Cancer Institute managing content on cancer.gov/espanol and social media enterprise accounts in Spanish. email@example.com