Squeezing a translation that’s too long into a space that’s too small – a cheat sheet for beginners

So you’ve overtyped the original Word document, but your translation is longer than the original text – and it won’t fit neatly into the available space. What can you do?

The most common trick is to drop the point size until the translation shrinks down into the available space. Sometimes this works out OK – but it’s often less than satisfactory. Changing the font size can often have a drastic effect, and the “look and feel” of the original can be completely lost.

Dropping the font size just by 1 pt can change the look and feel of the document.

Dropping the font size just by 1 pt can change the look and feel of the document.

How can we squeeze a long translated text into a small space (designed for a completely different language) while preserving the look and feel of the original?

Cheating is sometimes the only answer!

Rather than making one big change (such as reducing the font size), a more elegant approach is to make many tiny changes – stealing bits of unused space from all over the document until the new text fits more comfortably into the old layout.

There are many parameters in your word processor which you can adjust to shoe-horn a long text into a smaller space. Here are some of the basic ones you can change:

  • The spaces between letters and between the words;
  • The space between the lines;
  • The space between the paragraphs;
  • The space between columns;
  • The margins – top, bottom and the sides;
  • The size of any pictures, (or by cropping them);
  • Then (as a last resort) the font size.

Here’s an example

In the illustration below, the original English text fits nicely into a single page, but the equivalent German version [1] runs on for almost another quarter of a page – and with unsightly gaps between words caused by the justification.

Here are the tricks I used to squeeze the translated text back on to a single page (using Word 2007), while trying to preserve something of the “look and feel” of the original:

1. Condense the heading

The German heading runs to two lines (see above) – but it’s not so long that it can’t be squeezed into one line using Word’s Character Spacing function:

[Home|Font|Character spacing|Spacing|Condensed]

With a little trial and error, condensing the heading by 0.3 pt put it into a single line (without looking too squashed) and moved half a paragraph from the end of the document back up on to the first page.

2. Condense the body text

I selected all the body text and condensed it by 0.3 pt using Word’s Character Spacing function. This moved another 6 lines from page 2 back up to the first page. An added bonus is that condensing the text can get rid of any ugly gaps between the words:

Left: Before. Right: Condensed by 0.3 pt.
Left: Before. Right: Condensed by 0.3 pt.

It’s easy to overdo character spacing, and so some trial and error is usually required. The smaller the point size, the more careful you need to be. Here’s the same paragraph condensed by 0.5 pts… Not very pretty:

3. Reduce paragraph spacing


The spacing between the paragraphs of the original was 6 pt before and 6 pt after. I reduced each setting by 1 pt.

This reduced the page 2 “overflow” by another two lines. To my eyes at least – the change in the spacing between the paragraphs is pretty much undetectable:

"6 pt on 6 pt" or "5 pt on 5 pt" - Can you tell the difference?

4. Reduce the width of the space between the columns

[Page Layout|Columns|More columns]

The original had a two-column layout with a lot of space between them (1.25 cm). I reduced this right down to 0.6 cm (using the “trial and error” method!) until I got a useful result:

I figured that this drastic change would be less noticeable to the client than squeezing the paragraphs closer together or changing the font size:

This is a big difference. But will anyone notice?

This pulled up another four lines back on to the first page. Only 7 lines to go!

5. Adjust the margins

[Page Layout|Margins|Custom Margins]

If your client has strict layout specifications, or you know that the document is part of a series of similarly formatted documents, you might not want to meddle with the client’s margins. But I’ve often cheated on this, making very tiny adjustments – and (so far) no one has ever noticed! In this case, I reduced the bottom margin from 2.24 cm to 2 cm:

I could have reduced the left and right margins a fraction, but just making the text a little longer on the page was enough to pull a few more lines from page 2 back on to page 1.

6. Adjust the size of the picture

[Right click picture|Size]

The original picture in this document was quite large. The client had already shrunk it down to fit the layout. Here, I reduced the size of the picture from its original setting of 44% to 38%.

Side by side, the difference in the size of the pictures is considerable…

… but even smaller changes can free up a lot of space for the text. Remember, in most cases, the client has already fiddled with the size of any pictures to make the original text fit into the available space. You should feel free (in most cases) to do the same!

This change left me with only 3 extra lines still sitting on page 2!

7. Adjust the line spacing


The original English text had “Single” line spacing. There are lots of options for adjusting the space between the lines of text (“leading”). (I’m so old that I can still remember the days when typographers inserted thin pieces of lead between the lines of text to spread the text more evenly over the page.) Play with the various options until you get an elegant result – here I changed “Single” line spacing to “Exactly 13 pt”:

The difference between “Single” line spacing and “Exactly 13 pt” is hard to see:

Left: "Single". Right "Exactly 13 pt".

… but it was enough to bring up the last few lines on to page 1!

Mission accomplished!

The “long” German translation now fits (more or less) comfortably into the space originally designed for an English text. Maybe it’s never possible to get it perfect, but in this case it was done without dropping the size of the type – and the translated text still retains some of the “look and feel” of the original.

The final result - both on one page.

[1] Parallel English and German texts for the illustrations were taken from the Official Journal of the European Union http://eur-lex.europa.eu/JOHtml.do?uri=OJ:L:2011:080:SOM:EN:HTML

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2 Responses to Squeezing a translation that’s too long into a space that’s too small – a cheat sheet for beginners

  1. Pingback: Oh, no! My translation just won’t fit into that table! More super squeezing for translators | The translation business

  2. Jenn says:

    Those are some elegant solutions! I am rarely faced with this problem myself as I translate from French to English, but this does remind me of a rather sneaky trick that I learned about during my school days. It seems that if you have a paper which is just a little bit short for a page-length requirement, you can make it longer by doing a find and replace on just the punctuation and increasing its point size. I imagine you could similarly decrease the point size of the punctuation to make an overly large translation fit.

    And no, I did not use this method to defeat length requirements – although I must admit I used it for giggles to increase a paper from the minimum length to one comfortably mid-range for a particularly fussy professor. She did give me a higher score which amused me tremendously.

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