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Transcend's Journey to Plain Language

In the early 1990s, Transcend was one of very few certified translation services in the nation. As such, we quickly became the translation provider to many courts, class action attorneys, and consumer and health organizations. Our clients wanted to make sure their information would be translated faithfully and accurately, mirroring the English source document. And, we were proud of our ability to translate complex legal and medical information to other languages without sacrificing nuance or detail.

Then we got the call. The head of a department with whom we worked closely told us they had just completed usability testing on vital English-language health documents. The results were bleak. The testing showed that most consumers could not read or understand their printed information (in English). Worse yet, most said they wouldn’t even bother to try reading them. They would toss them in the trash bin.

"Did we believe," the director asked, "that readers of these same documents in the 17 translated languages experienced this fate?" The question was passed on to Maria Mindlin, our resident certified linguist and reading expert. Maria explained that certified translation did not automatically equal comprehension. The answer would depend on the readability of the English document as well as each language group’s literacy and familiarity with the topic. (The English source document in question was long, written at a 14th grade level, and contained fairly complex tables.) Whether in English or Farsi, we predicted that these documents would go largely unread.

Transcend made a U-turn. Now, before starting a translation project, we would ask the client if they were satisfied with the readability of the English document. This was a question that most clients hadn’t considered. By logical extension, they had also not considered if the money spent on translation would produce information that most consumers could read. Readability was of great importance to many courts, government agencies, and legal services offices who knew from first hand experience that the English documents were not accessible. Here are some examples of plain language “conversions”:

This: Becomes this:
Voters claiming to be properly registered but whose qualifications or entitlement to vote cannot be immediately established upon examination of the index of registration for the precinct have a right to vote a provisional ballot. You have the right to vote here today. Even if a poll worker thinks you are not properly registered, s/he must give you a “provisional” ballot.
The above-named child or minor wishes for consent of the juvenile court to marry. I ask this court for permission to marry.
Proof of continuing coverage shall be furnished to the other parent annually or as coverage changes. The parent maintaining coverage shall authorize the other parent to consult with the insurance carrier regarding the coverage in effect. The parent with coverage must give the other parent:
•  Proof of coverage every year
•  Permission to talk to the insurance company about the insurance

The Judicial Council of California was the first state to convert court forms and legal information to plain language. And Transcend was the lucky partner in this endeavor. We started where the need seemed greatest: domestic violence. The goal of the Judicial Council was to create court forms and instructions that were clear, concise, and correct, and that most users could understand and fill out on their own.

The feedback from the courts and data from a double-blind readability study were encouraging:
•  Court clerks reported fewer questions and fewer errors on the forms. [1]
•  Pro se litigants reported greater confidence and self-reliance. [2]
•  The plain language materials proved more economical to print and translate. [3]
•  More respondents could understand and comply with plain language notices.
•  Court expenditures were reduced. [4]

Transcend’s expertise in readability means we can evaluate documents for readability, create and test plain language documents, and share the benefit of our experience with other courts and agencies from other states. We know, for example, that readability is increased when we:
•  Match the reading grade level to the average consumer’s reading proficiency,
•  Use familiar words and phrasings (if specialized terms must be used, they are explained),
•  Avoid foreign, archaic and noun-heavy phrasings,
•  Use active voice and direct address, and
•  Present information intuitively.

Go to our Before & After Plain Language page for examples.

If your agency is considering plain language, you will find helpful tools and information in our library.

If you would like Transcend to work with your agency, send us an email.

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[1] Professor Richard Wydick, Plain English for Lawyers, reports, “Understandable government forms require less staff time to explain and reduce the number of errors by those who fill them out.” Professor Wydick refers to the Australian research by Gordon Mills and Mark Duckworth, The Gains from Clarity (1966) (cost benefit study of plain language documents).

[2] The Legal Aid Society of Orange County uses Plain Language instructions in their “I-CAN!” kiosks and web site that provide assistance to self-represented litigants in civil areas such as small claims, domestic violence, landlord tenant disputes, answers to complaints, and fee waivers. The “I-CAN!” Project Manager, AJ Tavares, reports that, “Plain language has been a success as it allows people to understand better what they are supposed to do. They are less intimidated by the forms and information and less overwhelmed with what to do next.”

[3] The Administrative Office of the Courts of California experienced a 43% reduction in translation fees (which are billed on a per word basis) when they transitioned the Domestic Violence forms to plain language. Fewer words also meant fewer pages for printing.

[4] In Missouri, Family Court Judge Dennis Smith reported dockets for paternity cases where no one appeared. After the introduction of a plain language notice, at least one parent appears in 50% of the cases. For more information, go to the Missouri Case Study page.