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Working with text for audio files

Posted on 31st July 2014

I often copy-edit work for clients on translated texts, usually without sight of the original non-English versions, and the client and I decide before I start the work how much the content can change to ensure that the meaning retains the key points of the original but at the same time sounds 'native' in the English version.

This week I had to take those principles and apply them to an entirely new (to me) type of file: a translation of a voice-over for an advert.

What was interesting was the importance of how the words sound, which isn't usually an issue when I'm copy-editing or proofreading text to be read. The key issues I was advised of when starting the project were as follows:

  • The text should be easily pronounceable so that the speaker doesn't stumble. Also, short words are better than long ones.
  • Whenever you make changes, that portion of the text shouldn't take longer to speak than the original. Sometimes it can be shorter, but you don't want the original language version having text throughout the video and the English version having loads of silence. This meant I was counting syllables and having to delete words in some places to make up for more essential changes elsewhere.
  • If consecutive sentences begin or end with the same words, that usually sounds a lot worse than it reads. I think this also goes for consecutive words, so you wouldn't want to put 'she sells cells' (as in solar cells, though I admit that's probably not a common phrase anyway) as that would be a bit of a mouthful and not overly appealing to the listener.
I also found myself reading the file out loud (quite a few times) to make sure that the text sounded OK, which isn't something I usually do.

This blog isn't intended to be an exhaustive list of the finer details of what's included in writing/copy-editing text for audio, but is hopefully an interesting taster of what I learned this week.

Since working on the file, I've looked into the nuances of writing for audio a bit and found some useful websites, so whether you're reading my blog because you're writing some text for this purpose or because you're interested in copy-editing or proofreading it, these websites may be useful:

US-based University module on writing for audio

Rich Wilson's view of writing for audio

If you've got any other hints or tips to add, feel free to get in touch via my Facebook page or on Twitter.

Written by Kate Haigh.