text contraction

Text contraction: not as messy as putting an apple in a vice.

Text contraction is a decrease in word count during translation. You’ll see it frequently when translating from Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, etc.) to English. And you’ll also see it when translating from English into many character-based languages (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc.)

Texts “contract” because 1,000 words in English don’t magically translate into 1,000 words in Chinese. In fact, a single Chinese character might represent two or three words in English.

But the crux of the matter—for designers, anyway—is that one Chinese character may take up only a fraction of the space of the English word(s) that it represents.

What this means is that our 1,000-word English text will “shrink” once translated into Chinese. In fact, a Chinese translation might occupy only 50–60% of the page space that an English text does.

Text Contraction in Translation: English to Chinese

Grand Rapids–based Oppenhuizen Law Firm hired RedLine to translate one of its brochures into Mandarin Chinese. As noted above, text contraction is almost a foregone conclusion when translating from English into a character-based language.

To take just one example, compare the following two strings. The English text (1) is translated into Mandarin Chinese (2).

  1. Only through verification can the investor invest with confidence.
  2. 只有经过核实,投资者才能满怀信心地进行投资。

Notice how the Chinese takes up less horizontal space? Now imagine the same thing over the course of a paragraph, several pages, or an entire book!

In other words, Chinese takes up less “real estate” than an equivalent English text. This is something that designers need to be aware of when setting type in foreign-language materials or bilingual documents.

A Chinese translation might take up only 50% of the page space of the English source text.

If you want to see an example of the opposite phenomenon, see our page on text expansion.




text contraction

BEFORE: A page in this bilingual brochure looks “unbalanced” due to text contraction. Both the Chinese and English text are in 11-point type, but the Chinese text takes up less space.

text contraction

AFTER: The designer has increased the font size of the Chinese type to 14 points in order to achieve a balanced look. Increasing the size of your text is one way to deal with contraction.

Contact us if you have questions about text contraction in translation and how it affects document design. Or visit our general translation services page to see the 20 languages that we regularly work with (Spanish, French, German, and Arabic, to name a few).