Plain English Campaign

A reader asked me whether the Plain English campaign has affected my work as a translator. This campaign is mainly aimed at the literature produced by the government, at all levels, to ensure that crucial information is easily understandable by all. AskOxford gives a very good example:

Original: In the event of your being evicted from your dwelling as a result of wilfully failing to pay your rent, the council may take the view that you have rendered yourself intentionally homeless and as such it would not be obliged to offer you alternative housing.

Plain English: If you are evicted from your home because you deliberately fail to pay your rent, the council may decide that you have made yourself intentionally homeless. If this happens, the council does not need to offer you alternative permanent housing.

Although their recommendations do call for the use of simple words, and particularly seem to discourage the use of words of Latin origin, which I have a soft spot for, I think it is very sensible within this particular context of administrative communication, which people of all education levels must understand if we want society to function well.
It hasn’t affected my work at all. When it comes to style, I follow the source text and I get my instructions from my clients and although some of my translations require a clear and concise way of writing (instructions on how to use a printer, for example), most of the work I do involves creativity and a lively, dynamic style which is meant to engage readers, not just inform them.
The campaign gives Golden Bull awards to particularly obscure pieces of prose; the following are among the 2007 winners:
"Moving forwards, we as Virgin Trains are looking to take ownership of the flow in question to apply our pricing structure, thus resulting in this journey search appearing in the new category-matrix format. The pricing of this particular flow is an issue going back to 1996 and it is not something that we can change until 2008 at the earliest. I hope this makes the situation clear."
– Virgin Trains for a letter about problems booking online
"Passenger shoe repatriation area only"
– BAA for a sign at Gatwick Airport

"Every Autumn a combination of leaves on the line, atmospheric conditions and prevailing damp conditions lead to a low adhesion between the rail head and the wheel which causes services to be delayed or even cancelled. NI Railways are committed to minimising service delays, where we can, by implementing a comprehensive low adhesion action programme."
– Translink for a sign at Coleraine railway station

By |2016-10-18T15:49:20+00:00December 12th, 2008|Language|2 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Judy Jenner December 12, 2008 at 11:30 pm

    I am all about simplifying challenging lingo, especially, as you point out, when it is supposed to be understood by folks who don’t have a graduate degree in English. The Germans should work on that too, and try to reform the “Beamtendeutsch” (=bureaucrats’ German)– at least the spelling/grammar is now easier thanks to a reform in the 90s. Some of the forms and government communications from Austrian and German public agencies are very difficult to figure out; but at least they provide them in several languages!

  2. John Rawlins February 28, 2009 at 10:39 am

    I translate from Spanish to English and always try to use plain English. Many of my source texts are needlessly complex and difficult to understand. As a translator, I believe it is my job to improve the clarity of meaning wherever possible. In some cases, my translations can be less than half the length of the original. So far, no client has ever complained that I have made the translation too easy to understand.

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