Category Archives: Linguistic Tips


Taux de Foisonnement – Expansion Rate

by Peter Corless

“Expansion rate.” Like the titular creature of the 1958 movie The Blob, it can be a horrific monster.

Anyone who has had to design web or mobile UI/UX for various international audiences has run into it. So has anyone who has made different language versions of the same web banner ad or multi-page brochure or book layout. Our own CEO, Michel Lopez, has written in the past on the subject. His observations bear revisiting.

Expansion Rate, Defined

When you go from one language to another, and you end up with more characters, even more words, that is the expansion rate for translation. Across the industry, it is usually defined by the percentage of additional words needed to describe something from one language in a different language. For example, when translating from (US) English-to-French, you will typically find that the text “expands” by about 15% – 20%.

Conversely, when you would go from French-to-English, you would see a contraction rate of 13% – 17%. That is usually less of an issue, but still may set visual or editorial professionals needing to deal with truncated translated content twitching.

To give a hat-tip to our industry colleagues over at Kwintessential in the UK, they have a rather handy table of what you can expect for expansion or contraction rates between twenty languages (and regional variations).

Character Expansion

It is not just word-based expansion that authors and designers need to worry about. As the W3C notes, in their document for translation expansion for the web, Chinese and Korean characters often require about twice the visual space (width) per character as Latin-alphabet languages.

Look at the very title of this article: “Taux de Foisonnement – Expansion Rate.” In English, it is “Expansion Rate” (14 characters total, including one space). But in French we have «Taux de Foisonnement» (20 characters, including two spaces). That’s an expansion rate (and converse contraction rate) of +43% (–30%).

It Even Happens in Same-Language Localization

Even localizing text from US English to UK English will see some expansion, often in terms of character-count. For example, the typical alteration of “armor” to “armour” and “color” to “colour.” But there are exceptions. While American “soccer” (6 characters) is shorter than British “football” (8 characters), the American English word “elevator” (8 characters) is twice as long as the British “lift.”

It can cut both ways, idiomatically. The abbreviated American vernacular “gas” is half-as-long as the British “petrol,” but the full word “gasoline” is longer. Which you use may depend on the context of the content, such as whether its use is conversational or technical.

How a Translator Can Help

Don’t just shrink the font size to cram everything into the space available!

When visual real-estate and reader comprehension matters, high-quality human translators and editors can make sophisticated and subtle decisions on how to fit translated content for space. Their toolkit is their linguistic expertise: making idiomatic language and phrase substitutions, removing excessive or repetitive verbiage, using simpler (but still precise) words to convey the same meaning, rewording passages entirely (if need be), and any other necessary modifications.

For these issue aren’t solved by the science, but by the art of translation.

Have you ever run into issues of expansion or contraction in your own translation projects? Have you ever had a project expand like The Blob past the boundaries of your dialogue boxes and page counts? How did it affect the quality of the end products? If you have had past experience, or a current translation project requiring the keen eyes of our linguists, let us know! Email us at

When Pigs Fly & Other Idioms

by Peter Corless

idiomascots-4We spotted this very nice article on Visual News, How Other Countries Say “When Pigs Fly” and Other Idioms. It features the work of London-based illustrator and writer Genevieve Edwards.

“When pigs fly” or “when pigs have wings” are idiomatic English ways to exaggeratedly say “It’ll never happen.” Because pigs are obviously seen as absurdly non-aerodynamic and heavy. Benjamin Star also points out in his article how Mike Meyers in Wayne’s World put it, “and monkeys might fly out of my butt!” Another classic way to say express the same idea is “when (or until) hell freezes over,” such as the name of the reunion tour and live album of the recently deceased Glenn Frey and the Eagles.

Genevieve Edwards’ illustrations include the following phrases and their closest English equivalents:


It’s just too much!

by Peter Corless

6041561292_704f0fba09_b The word “just” alters in meaning greatly in English. Primarily, it means “fair,” especially when dealing with an ethical decision or legal ruling. This comes from its origins in Latin, iustus, which had various senses and uses of “just,” “lawful,” or “true.” It all derives from the Latin root ius, meaning “law” or “right.”

These days, just can also mean “without deliberation,” as in the Nike slogan to “Just do it,” or the “Just say no (to drugs)” campaign. In both these cases, it infers implicitly to not think too long do the right thing.

Photograph_of_Mrs._Reagan_speaking_at_a_"Just_Say_No"_Rally_in_Los_Angeles_-_NARA_-_198584You can also use it to show how you barely achieved a goal, or that something happened in the recent past, “He just finished his assignment by the deadline,” or “I just saw a ghost!” It also can mean to discount or minimize something, “He’s just a jerk,” or “I just need a moment of your time,” or, of course, said with a shrug, “Just sayin’.

There is a drawback, however. Many people use the word far too frequently, even apologetically, in their language. For instance, “I just need a moment of your time,” may seem polite, even self-deprecating. Similar expressions, “I just need to step out for a moment,” or “I just wanted to get your opinion,” likewise add to the tone. Over time, it leaves the impression of being far too mousy, humbling the requester in regards to the person they are addressing.

In fact, business strategist Ellen Petry Leanse suggests to do with far less use of the word “just” in such usage. She believes it damages credibility and confidence in a work environment. You don’t need to “just make a request.” Make a request. It’s stronger language. More confident. Clearer.

Speaking of clarity, often an expression with “just” can just… well… dangle ambiguously. “He’s just so…” or “She’s just…,” or “It’s just…” are often left unexpressed, for a variety of reasons. There may be logical thoughts or emotional feelings that conflict or are difficult to describe. The listener may be able to intuit partly or understand deeply how the speaker feels, even if the situation is not expressly clarified.

Whether you like it or not, this word is everywhere in modern English. If you’d like to know more about this expression to better localize your dialogue to vernacular English, just watch this YouTube video from Go Natural English!

It’s an Italian thing…

by Peter Corless

Italian_Osteria_Scene,_Girl_welcoming_a_Person_entering,_detail,_by_Wilhelm_Marstrand_-_Ny_Carlsberg_Glyptotek_-_Copenhagen_-_DSC09272Italians have a number of popular idiomatic expressions. From having “short arms” to speaking “without hair on your tongue.”

The origin of the former phrase, Avere le braccine corte (“to have short arms”), came from the idea someone’s arms were too short to reach for their wallet when it came time to pay for something, such as a meal at a restaurant. It’s derogatory, used to describe someone really cheap and stingy, implicitly at the expense of others. (Hopefully the women pictured above will find a way to amenably afford their meal. Though the woman in the green seems to have rather foreshortened forearms!)

In English this started appearing in the 1950s in slang as “having deep pockets but short arms,” which additionally implies that the person has quite a bit of wealth, but little compunction to use it. In English, the “short arms” is often left out, leaving us mostly talking about rich folks as people with “deep pockets,” which isn’t derogatory by itself.

The other mentioned idiomatic expression, Senza peli sulla lingua, “to speak without hair on your tongue,” means to speak frankly and be brutally honest with you. In English, we might say “Don’t mince your words.”

You can find many roundups of Italian idiomatic expressions around the web. Here are a few good ones at The Local, and the other at Matador Network. What’s your favorite?

I Have a Duck to Half-Sell You

by Peter Corless

Eurofighter_Typhoon_(hi_res)In French, the word simply means “duck.” Yet in English, “canard” has come to have two meanings: one derogatory, and the other technical.

If the 1905 book “French Idioms and Proverbs: A Companion to Deshumbert’s ‘Dictionary of Difficulties'” is to be believed, the word originated from some now long-forgotten French anecdote about ‘half-selling a duck’ to someone: “vendre à quequ’un un canard à moitié.”

The original crime would have to be recreated with some imagination: A marketplace. A shady, shifty-eyed con-man. He ostensibly offers a duck for your supper feast held in one hand, takes your ducats with his other hand, then suddenly turns and ducks off into the crowd.

To call someone or something a canard is to call them (or it) a cheat, a swindle, or a lie.

The other utility for this French word is in aeronautical engineering, going back to the dawn of powered flight. Most planes have a horizontal control surface on their tail: a tailplane. A few, though, have these control surfaces near their nose instead. Used to pitch the aircraft up or down, these forward control surfaces are known as canards.

wright_flyer_1903-02515The original 1903 Wright Flyer had canards. The coinage of the term occurred three years later, in 1906, when Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont launched his 14-bis, also dubbed the “oiseau de proie” (“bird of prey”), from the fields of Neuilly-sur-Seine. However, what he saw as a “bird of prey” was seen by others as a “duck”-shaped aircraft, with a long neck and wings in the rear. The observers’ coinage stuck, and thus, a forward control plane has been known as a canard in aeronautical engineering ever since.

In a way, these forward control surfaces, these aeronautical canards, do “cheat.” You see, normally a tailplane has to force the body of an aircraft to pitch up or down. It is not very energy-efficient, though it is easier to control. The forward control surfaces make it very easy to pitch up-or-down. In fact, it can make it too easy.

The Eurofighter Typhoon (pictured at the top of the article) is a modern variant of such aircraft. Its canard design makes the aircraft far easier to pitch than a tailplane design. However it requires computerized controls, known as “fly-by-wire” systems, so that the aircraft doesn’t pitch head-over-tail and tumble out of control.

All of this goes to show that a word in one language may have a literal meaning (“a duck”), yet when it becomes a loan word in another, it can have a multitude of meanings. Whether for technical documentation or for idiomatic prose, you should consider experts on your next translation or localization job. Otherwise, someone might half-sell you a duck!

The Beatles, in Translation

by Peter Corless

The BeatlesWith the newly-announced release of the music of The Beatles on various streaming services, such as Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Prime, Google Play, and more, it’s worthwhile to look at how The Fab Four sometimes used foreign lyrics in their music.

In their early career, long before they became pop icons, The Beatles traveled to Hamburg, Germany, where they played in a variety of nightclubs. This period, from 1960-1962, would help make The Beatles more of an international sensation than many of their Liverpudlian contemporaries. However, at this time The Beatles performed in English.

It would be after their breakout hits, on a tour in Paris in 1964, that the Beatles would hurriedly record only two of their hit songs in German. “She Loves You,” became “Sie liebt dich,” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” translated into “Komm gib mir deine Hand.”

Though The Beatles generally disliked the idea of making foreign-language versions of their songs, they did at times incorporate other languages in their lyrics, which often displayed their naïvety.

For example, on the song “Michelle,” Paul plaintively speaks French, admitting to the titular young French lady he is addressing, “I will say the only words I know that you’ll understand.” Which are these:

Michelle, ma belle
Sont des mots qui vont tres bien ensemble
Tres bien ensemble

Michelle, my beautiful girl
[These] are words that go together well
Very good together

The Beatles also subtly used the French tune Frère Jacques in “Paperback Writer” as somewhat of a joke. They sang these words in the background during the height of the of urban legend mania regarding hidden lyrics in Beatles music regarding “Paul is Dead.”

During The Beatles’ forays into Eastern mysticism, John incorporated a Sanskrit phrase into lyrics of “Across the Universe:

Jai Guru Deva Om
जय गुरुदेव ॐ

Glory [victory] to Guru [Teacher] Dev [Divine Being], (divinely affirmed)

It referred to the time The Beatles spent with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, between 1967-1968. Though the song was written in 1967, it did not appear until later, in 1969, long after The Beatles disassociated themselves from the Maharishi.

Probably the most difficult foreign language construct in The Beatles’ music occurs in “Sun King.”

Quando paramucho mi amore de felice corazon
Mundo paparazzi mi amore chica ferdy parasol
Cuesto obrigado tanta mucho que can eat it carousel

When for much of my love of a happy heart
World paparazzi my love, chica ferdy [green girl], umbrella [or ‘for the sun’]

This thanks, very much, cake and eat it, carousel

If it doesn’t make any sense, it wasn’t really supposed to in the first place. The Beatles cobbled together a pastiche of Italian, Spanish and Portuguese as more of a lark, for the sound of it, than to have any sort of sensible meaning.

These sorts of artistic linguistics often make translating song lyrics a problematic and technically difficult feat.

John Lennon explained later the idiom of “chica ferdy,” (verde), for “green girl” was a dismissive mocking Liverpudlian expression. Also, the last line implies the idiomatic “having your cake and eating it too.”

Speaking of that, if you love The Beatles, and you love streaming your music online, now you can truly have your cake and eat it too! Enjoy.

Why is ice-cream called “glace” in France and “crème glacée” in Canada?

by Laurette Pene Reinhardt

In Europe, it all started with Marco Polo: the explorer “discovered” ice cream during one of his adventures in the Far East and came back to Italy with this brilliant invention.


France had to wait until the 16th century when Italian Catherine de Medici married the French king Henri II and brought this delight to the French court.

When it was first introduced, ice cream, “glace” in French (from the latin “gelus” and “glacies”), was nothing else than flavored iced water, but the French became very keen on that refreshing treat and other types of ice cream were elaborated (with yogurt and cream).

By the end of the 17th century, the oldest café in Paris was offering more than 80 flavors to the customers. The word “glace” became widely used to designate all sorts of “frozen edibles” (“glace à l’eau”, “glace au lait” etc.) and to this day “glace” is still the generic word to describe “ice cream” in European French.


The history of “ice cream” is totally different in Canada as it is linked to the development of refrigeration and pasteurization processes and to the boom of the American ice cream industry at the end of the 19th century.

French Canadians discovered ice cream through Americans and translated “ice cream” literally as “crème glacée”.


Nowadays the differences still exist because the Europeans developed their terminology around “glace” whereas the Canadians did around “crème glacée”. In particular, this is why we can now find “yogourt glacé” in Canada and “glace au yaourt” in Europe.

How can languages affect the way we think?

by Laurette Pene Reinhardt


Have you ever heard that the Germans’ high organizational skills are reflecting in their complex, yet rule-complying grammar? Or that people who speak a language with no future tense are happier? What about languages that do not have numbers?


These are stories we hear about the differences between speakers of different languages. But the extensive research that has been conducted on the link between language and behavior or psychology tends to prove that indeed, speakers of different languages are cognitively different.

Let’s have a look at some concrete examples from TED talks and other articles.


Stanford psychology professor Lera Boroditsky (an expert in linguistic-cultural connections) noted something interesting about the differences between English speakers and Spanish, French or Japanese Native speakers regarding blame. In English, one will often say that someone broke the vase, even if was an accident, but others languages (like French or Japanese) tend to put the vase as a subject with a reflexive verb (literally “the vase broke itself”). This shows a different focus and as a result, English speakers tend to remember the person responsible for the breakage more than French or Japanese speakers, who tend to focus more on the result: the vase is broken. For more information, see this article in the WSJ.


An article in the Scientific American describes a study done with the Piraha tribe in the Amazon who has no number words at all! According to the study, they have only three words for numbers: “around 1″, “some,” and “many.” It turns out that not having words for numbers doesn’t affect their ability to conceive of different amounts of things, but only their ability to remember specific amounts.

Comparatively, a study at Yale University described in the Atlantic showed that those who speak languages without a future tense, like Mandarin Chinese for example, tend to see their lives as a whole, as opposed to seeing it as a timeline. In this way, they tend to take better care of themselves. Languages with weak or no future tenses tend to be more thoughtful about the future because they consider it, grammatically, equivalent to the present.


Another example is the differences regarding gender. In Hebrew, gender markers are all over the place, whereas Finnish does not mark gender at all. A study related in Edge showed that as a consequence, kids who spoke Hebrew knew their own genders a year earlier than those who grew up speaking Finnish. (Speakers of English, in which gender referents fall in the middle, were in between on that timeline, too.)

Many studies have then proved that indeed speakers of different languages tend to think and behave differently, not only due to their history and culture, but also due to the terminology or the language structure they use.

Language learning is therefore not only a great way of communicating with others from all other the world, but also a way of adopting a new perspectives and a different focus on the surrounding environment.

How to say “you” in Japanese?

by Aya Saeki

How many forms of “you” do you think Japanese has?


In a sense, there are so many words that can refer to the second person (あなた、お前、貴様、君、そちら、御社、お宅…), but none of them is a pronoun in the same sense as in most European languages.

When Japanese people need to directly address somebody, they usually use the person’s name with the appropriate suffix (if they know their name), or the noun that describes them, such as “mom お母さん/ママ”, “customer お客様”, or “doctor/teacher 先生”, to name a few.

However, the subject/object of the sentence is totally omitted when the reference is obvious, so those nouns are generally not even used.


For example


Your father will take you to the zoo today.

お父さんが1  動物園2  に3  連れてってくれるよ4

(Your) father1  zoo2  to3  take4  (you).


Are you coming, too?

お母さん1  も一緒に2  行くの3

Mom(=you)1  too2   go3?

The first word found in the English-Japanese dictionary for “you” would be あなた (pronounced ah-nah-tah). While everyone in Japan understands it as the second person pronoun, it is barely used in regular conversation (both written and oral).

One reason is that, as noted above, the obvious subject or object (I/you) is usually omitted. Hence, if you do use this term, it will sound awkward, or can even be rude, depending on whom you are addressing.


Standard translation:

I love you.


Love (verb).

Literal translation (awkward):

I love you.

わたしは1  あなたを2  愛してる3

I1  you2  love3.

This word あなた derives from the pronoun referring to a far place, almost like “over there.” It used to refer to “someone who is in that (far) place,” which was third person, but, over time, became to refer to the second person instead.

Back then, respect to the addressed person was attached to this term. An indirect reference to the person in front of you was an honorific form of address. However, as time passed, usage of this term has changed and its “value” has come down, to the point that it can no longer be used to address someone “superior” (in terms of age/social status etc.). 


Likewise, another term for “you,” おまえ, will be offending if your child says this directly to you, although it once meant “in front of honorable person.” Here, also in the same mentality of not referring the person in front but rather “me in front of you”, this word was used with humbleness. However, this word sounds very condescending today.

Japanese people choose the appropriate “ second person pronoun” according to the context – to use or not to use, if to use, which one?  This decision is acquired by learning, practice, trial and error.


If you are not sure of the form to use, just skip referring to the person in front of you. It’s the easiest way to avoid conflict!



How to say Hi in Japanese?

by Aya Saeki

Sometimes, the simplest question is the hardest to answer.

People often ask me how to say “Hi” in Japanese, and when I answer that there is no such word, they seem confused. If you check the dictionary, you can find a few equivalent words in Japanese, such as やあ or ねえ, but none of them can be used in the same manner as their English counterpart.


We don’t have a convenient word like “Hi” that enables you to greet anyone, anywhere, in a casual way. In a Japanese marketing context, you should always address your customer in a very polite and formal way.  

For example, many direct emails start in English with “Hi, (First name)”. If you use Machine Translation in this context, you are likely to encounter trouble in Japan because the word-to-word translation will sound rather rude (unless it’s in a gaming app where style is very informal). It needs to be well localized to fit Japanese customers, who are normally treated as “God.”

The initial greeting should just be “(First name) 様,” which consists of the customer name and an honorific suffix. Japanese shop/company to customer relationship is expected to be formal. If you want to sell your product, you’d better behave politely.

So, you don’t greet your customers with a casual version of “hello” nor address them just by their first name: you need to add some kind of suffix. Even if the customer is a child, you need an appropriate suffix, not honorific though, in accordance with their gender.


The phrase “customer 客” itself can be used to address the customer when it is accompanied by the honorific suffix, as in お客様 (actually, お is itself an honorific prefix, that’s a lot of honor!).  This phrase is also commonly chosen in translation instead of “you” in the marketing context, because addressing the second person as “you” directly is not polite in Japanese (we can talk about this topic in a future blog article).

To summarize, you can see how the costumers expect to be treated in Japan: 
お客様は神様です。(Customers are God.)