Rendering a message adequately from a source to a target language isn’t just what translation and localization is about. In fact, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Sometimes, trying to comply with character limits is what translators struggle with the most. Some contexts where character limits can be found are:
There are different ways and tools to count characters. Some of them are:
This is the most basic way in which characters can be counted. You only need to copy and paste the text and click on the “Word count” section to display the number of characters (with and without spaces), words, lines, paragraphs, etc., (as shown below). By default, the program shows the total count of the text. If needed, it is also possible to select just a part of it to see only the statistics of that section.
The Internet provides users with a wide range of websites with free tools, for instance, Word Counter, Character Count Online, Character Calculator, among others.
CAT Tools have built-in features to count characters. This is the case of, for example, Trados Studio. When a new file is added, the software counts its number of words and characters. Trados also displays the character count per segment and it allows users to verify that translation segments don’t exceed a certain number of characters, or that the translation doesn’t exceed the source length by more than a previously defined percentage. By positioning in a segment, the number of characters with spaces included is displayed by default on the lower right corner (as shown in the image).
Go to File > Options > Verification > QA Checker 3.0 > Segments Verification:
Here you can check for segments where the source is shorter or longer than the source by any given percentage. You can also decide if you will receive a Warning, Note or Error message when the segment doesn’t meet what has been specified and you can even decide if you want to ignore segments with fewer words than a given number. Furthermore, you can specify if the restriction will be based on words or on characters.
In case you want to set a fixed limit, instead of a limit based on the length of the source plus a percentage, select “Length Verification” instead of “Segment Verification”:
Here you can set up a fixed limit, e.g., 50 characters, and you can also decide if you will receive a Note, Warning or Error message. You can also check if the target segments comply with the file’s specific limits. Besides, you can check the limits in all segment contexts (in any part of the text) or rather in a specific context (when the file has a structure and you only want to check characters in a specific section).
Furthermore, as CAT Tools, QA Tools have some features available to make sure translators respect character limitations. In Linguistic ToolBox (LTB), for example, it’s possible to check that the length of the translation doesn’t exceed the length of the source by more than a certain percentage, while allowing translators to control the limitation both in number of characters and number of words. Additionally, it’s also possible to check that the length of the target text isn’t shorter than the source by more than a defined percentage (when similar lengths are needed, as in the case of dubbing projects).
Open the Linguistic ToolBox, select your language pair combination and load the LTB configuration as you would normally do. Then go to the Segment Checker tab. Here you can set up a check for segments where the source is shorter or longer than the target by a given percentage of words or characters. Also, you can set up a fixed limit to check for source and target segments longer than a specific number of words or characters.
At the same time, there are other tools (not necessarily related to the translation field), such as DragKing (a free and open-access tool) where, as soon as a word, sentence or paragraph is selected, the character count of the selected text is displayed.
As shown in the image below, if a translator needs to check the number of characters in the “Programs” section (including the title), DragKing can be set up to display a window indicating the number of characters, words and lines, which allows users to check across segments. As the image shows, we can see the total count of the four segments that make up the “Programs” section (336 characters, 57 words, 4 lines).
Restrictions applied to a text fragment won’t necessarily match the CAT tool segment. Let’s think about a translation project in Trados related to social media, where the restriction is applied per paragraph. In the software program, the paragraph is divided into different segments, so a character limit per segment can’t be applied because it won’t work. In this case, even though the character restriction is applied to one paragraph, the paragraph is divided into 5 segments. Consequently, it is more convenient to use another tool such as DragKing, as shown above.
Even more complex are the cases of subtitling, where character restrictions apply per line, not per segment. Also, sometimes limits not only don’t coincide with a segment, but also within the same segment there may be two subtitle lines. Again, it is a good idea to resort to additional tools like DragKing or use a specific subtitling tool like Subtitle Edit. Tools like these allow users to control the characters per line and per second.
In the selected segment (the one with the purple tag 43), there are two distinct lines (the arrow is pointing to the subtitle “line break”), but Trados shows the total count of the segment (66 characters), including the two lines. As the count of a single line is needed, it can be checked with DragKing:
Just by selecting the line that we want to check, the count will automatically pop up. However, for subtitling, using a specific tool like previously mentioned is recommended.
In addition, there are also subtitle software programs where paragraph limits can be set, as well as limits per subtitle line and characters per second.
To reduce the number of characters, it is often necessary to capture the main idea and paraphrase to make it as concise as possible. In subtitling projects and social media posts, style and flow are paramount, so even though abbreviations help when complying with character limits, they can be conflicting for the reader. Therefore, using special techniques is key to avoid, whenever possible, omitting essential information. Let’s consider the following example:
The text below has to be translated without exceeding a 150 character with spaces restriction. The source text is a social media marketing message that aims at selling a service and has 140 characters.
It’s time to start fueling your customers’ futures with a highly modern experience:
✔️ Automate IT operations
✔️ Deliver multi-cloud control
The text has been translated without considering the limits
Es hora de comenzar a potenciar el futuro de sus clientes con una experiencia altamente moderna:
✔️ Automatice las operaciones de TI
✔️ Ofrezca control de múltiples nubes
The text has been translated and abbreviations have been used (not recommended)
Es hora de comenzar a potenciar el futuro de sus clientes con una exp. moderna:
✔️ Automatice las op. de TI
✔️ Ofrezca control de múlt. nubes
As it can be seen, the abbreviations used seriously affect the style of the text and may be difficult for the reader to understand. In addition, there is an omission of the adverb “highly”, which has an important emphasis in the sentence.
The text has been translated by using certain appropriate techniques (recommended)
Comience a potenciar el futuro de sus clientes con una experiencia altamente moderna:
✔️ Automatice operaciones de TI
✔️ Ofrezca control multinube
In this case, the beginning of the sentence was paraphrased without omitting key information, since the idea conveyed of starting to empower the future of customers remains the same. Also, another terminological choice was made from “múltiple nubes” to “multinube”, which has the same meaning. Then, the article “las” before “operaciones” was also omitted, without significantly affecting the style or meaning.
In cases of strict and absolute limits, some information from the source may be sacrificed in order to maintain the message concise and attractive (which can’t be achieved through abbreviations).
Regarding subtitles, certain information, such as connectors, can be omitted, but it’s also possible to move some information to the subtitle line that follows. Besides, you can turn the order of sentences around and use the canonical order, which usually takes up less space than oral speech does, as orality tends to be more vague and wordy. You can check out this article to see some good practices for subtitle localization.
The following example shows how to rearrange subtitles with a restriction of 36 characters per segment:
In Version 1, many lines exceeded 36 characters. In Version 2, several measures were taken to prevent this from happening:
If there are still some remaining errors after the translation and editing steps, they can be fixed at the final LSO (linguistic sign-off) stage. However, it is always advisable that limits are met during the first stages of the project so as not having to implement last-minute changes that may have an impact on style.
Overall, translators have a variety of tools and ways to check character counts. From simple options like Microsoft Word to specialized platforms such as Subtitle Edit, it is a good idea to keep up with the latest updates and software options to be able to choose the right one depending on the project we are working on.