When languages are translated from one to another, we witness what is termed text expansion or text contraction. For example, if a document with 1,000 Arabic words is translated into English, it would on average convert into 1,250 words. This is text expanding. Reversely, if an English text of 1,000 words is translated into Danish, it would on average convert into 900 words. This is text contracting.
Knowing how languages expand and retract is important in the translation business for a few reasons. For one, some translation agencies will charge clients per “target” word (i.e. the number of words in the finished translation). It is therefore useful for a client to get an idea of how much this could cost them. Most translation agencies however only ever charge per “source” word, i.e. the number of words contained in the document that is being translated. One issue translation agencies face with this is that documents are not always in a format that allows them to calculate the number of words. For example if a document is faxed, in a graphic form or even handwritten it is very difficult and time consuming to count the number of source words. As a result, most agencies will charge per target word. Again, having an idea of how text expands and contracts allows them to provide estimates to their clients.
Text expansion and retraction is also important for Desk Top Publishing and artwork. A designer needs to know how some translated text may or may not fit into an already existent artwork file. Whether a text expands or not will impact factors such as too much/too little space, increased/decreased number of pages, too much/too little white space, etc.
Text expands and contracts in different ways and for different reasons. Grammar, syntax, word usage, terminology, sentence structure, etc all play a part. Subject matter also plays a significant role in the degree of text expansion or contraction. For example, average, well-written German technical, legal or scholarly text translated into English expands 20%. Parts lists or Material Safety Data Sheets can expand as much as 40%, while the average educational transcript expands only 30%.
Here is a sample of some of the expansion and contraction dynamics of various language combinations: