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Text Expansion and Contraction in Translation – Causes and Examples

Posted by Anne Q. on April 13, 2021.

Text expansion or text contraction always occurs when you translate a document regardless of the language pairs. This is because there is no such thing as one-to-one correspondence in translating languages. When the length of text expands or shrinks, it leads to a lack or an abundance of white space that has a direct effect on the design of your documents, brochures, websites, or apps. Understanding the differences in length of languages helps you predict and plan ahead to get the best results for your translation projects.

In today’s post, we will discuss the definition and causes of text expansion and text contraction as well as give you some examples of how text Asian languages expand and contract when translating to/from English.

1. What is Text Expansion and Contraction?

Text expansion happens when the content in the target language takes up more space than that in the source language. For some languages, the difference is just a few words more to make the same statement. But for others, it might be up to 50-60% longer than the source texts.

In contrast, text contraction happens when the translations take less space than the original text. For example, the text length shrinks when translating from Vietnamese or Thai to English.


2. How Does Text Expansion and Contraction Affect Your Translations?

When reading a document, the first thing readers pay attention to is not the content of the document, but the layout or the visual of it. Text expansion and text contraction create an obvious effect on the layout of a document, especially high-visual ones such as brochures, leaflets, e-learning materials, etc. which require redesign to some extent.

When handling language pairs that have great differences in length, you should consider taking a further step – Desktop Publishing (DTP) to have your documents laid out by a professional desktop publisher. In most cases, when the text expands significantly, desktop publishers will try to change the size of words or fonts to make sure the text is neat and in the right position.


3. Factors that Cause Text Expansion and Contraction

It is not easy to predict exactly the expansion or contraction of texts between two languages as it depends on numerous factors such as the nature of the languages, content types, or writing styles. Below are some factors that might cause the expansion or shrink in text length.

Width of Characters

Compared to the Latin script, languages such as Korean, Chinese or Japanese which own a series of complex characters are likely to be longer in length. Even though the number of characters between the source and target languages is likely the same, the width required will be considerably different.

For example, the word “hello” is こんにちは in Japanese. Both have 5 characters but the Japanese version takes up much more horizontal space. 

Compound Words

A great number of European languages such as German, Dutch or Finnish contain large compound words to replace a series of smaller words. For example, the German term “Kraftfahrzeughaftpflichtversicherung” means “motor vehicle indemnity insurance” in English.

The long compound words mean a change in the layout might be needed. In English, if the whole phrase cannot fit in one line, it can be easily carried over to the next one. However, large compound words are not easy to write in the same line, complicating the layout of your document.

Types of Content

The types of content also have a significant impact on the text length in translation. For example, the length change in legal and medical translations is likely to be dramatic as these types of content require the utmost accuracy, i.e. translators cannot add or cut words, even the tiniest detail to adjust

Meanwhile, literary translations depend heavily on the writing styles of the authors. Translators’ jobs are to make sure the translated books have the closest writing styles to the authors. Therefore, it is quite challenging to estimate the text expansion or shrink of a book translation project.


The abbreviations that are used in the source language might not exist in the target language. That means the translated version will have to use the full-length form which takes up more space. Even if the target language has abbreviations for a specific term, their length can still be different.

For example, WHO (World Health Organization) is translated into TCYTTG (Tổ chức Y tế Thế giới) in Vietnamese. The TCYTTG abbreviation is not widely used in Vietnamese and most people don’t understand its meaning without a note or specific context.

If your document contains a large number of abbreviations, it would create considerable text expansion or shrink.


4. Examples of Expansion and Contraction

Below are some examples of text expansion and contraction when translating from or to the English language.

From English To English
Burmese +15% -5% to -15%
Hindi +15% to +35% -15%
Japanese -10% to -55% +20% to +60%
Korean -10% to -15% +15% to +20%
Thai +15% -5% to -15%
Vietnamese +30-37% -30%

However, you should keep in mind that the actual amount of text expansion or shrink varies depending on various factors as mentioned. Therefore, it is highly recommended that you consult a professional translation agency to get a better prediction of text length changes.


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