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Placeholders: How to Translate Around Them

Working with placeholders is a skill that not many translators have developed, but we all should. Because not all content is static, placeholders play such a huge role in most digital and automated text environments.

A placeholder (or placeholder text) allows for the insertion of dynamic content. It is a character, word, or string of characters that temporarily takes the place of the final data. It may also indicate where a programmer needs to add specific code that they have not yet written. As a result, placeholders need to appear in the translated text even if they are moved around for the sake of syntax.

What Placeholders Look Like

Example 1

In the verbal phrase

Printing page %0 / %1 

%1 stands for the total number of pages of a certain while %0 stands for the specific page number that is being printed at the moment the message comes up for the user. Both %0 and %1 are placeholders, and they are replacing the final data that users will see when this UI string goes live.

Example 2

In the noun phrase

Dear [user:first_name],

which is very normal at the beginning of automated e-mails, [user:first_name] stands for the first name of each e-mail recipient. When whoever in charge of sending an automated e-mail with a placeholder like this one clicks on “send”, the system will automatically replace the placeholder with the first name of each recipient.

Are Placeholders Translated?

If you find placeholders in the source string, the exact same ones must appear in the translation. You should treat them the same way you treat a tag. Some placeholders will include actual words, such as {{MoreInfoButton/}} to describe what the placeholder refers to.

However, when translating, the entire placeholder (including any actual words that you would normally translate if they were not in a placeholder) should be kept intact and untranslated. Therefore, you simply insert placeholders in the translation without altering them.

How Do I Know Where To Insert a Placeholder?

Any expert marketing translator working with UX/UI knows that the position of placeholders must make sense in the target text syntax even if the placeholder itself is left untranslated. In other words, the placeholder should appear where the final text it is replacing will be appearing.

For example, in the noun phrase “Please remove the {{item:colour}} bag to check out,” {{item:colour}} will be replaced by an actual colour name with adjectival function (it will be modifying “bag”). If we take Spanish as an example, because the unmarked or typical position of adjectives is after the noun (not before, as in English), the placeholder will have to be moved accordingly in the translated text. The result would therefore be: “Elimine el bolso {{item:colour}} para proceder al pago”.

In other words: context, context, context!

Should Translators Know How to Code?

In our opinion, everyone should learn some code (which doesn’t mean everyone should become a programmer!). Understanding code makes our lives easier in several aspects of our work as translators, especially when we work in the marketing and IT fields.

Many of the most popular tools used in marketing, like Google Analytics and WordPress, use coding languages like HTML and CSS (two of the dozen there exist to create digital assets) for functionality. HTML controls the content on a page, while CSS controls the design. A general understanding of these is always helpful!

  • Avatar for Silvana Piredda
    Silvana Piredda 1:11 am

    Great explanation! I work with placeholders almost on a daily basis and I think it’s something that requires translators to use a great deal of common sense because you have to weigh many factors, such as space constraints, gender (or gender-neutral) preferences, etc.

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