How important is readability?
A simpler text will be more widely read and better comprehended. Here are two classic studies, quoted from Wikipedia.
In 1947, Donald Murphy of Wallace’s Farmer used a split-run edition to study the effects of making text easier to read. They found that reducing from the 9th to the 6th-grade level increased readership 43% for an article on ‘nylon’. There was a gain of 42,000 readers in a circulation of 275,000. He found a 60% increase in readership for an article on ‘corn’. He also found a better response from people under 35.
In 1948, Bernard Feld did a study of every item and ad in the Birmingham News of 20 November 1947. He divided the items into those above the 8th-grade level and those at the 8th grade or below. He chose the 8th-grade breakpoint because that was the average reading level of adult readers. An 8th-grade text “will reach about 50 percent of all American grown-ups”, he wrote. Among the wire-service stories, the lower group got two-thirds more readers, and among local stories, 75 percent more readers.
George Klare’s studies showed that “an easier style of writing may result in (a) greater and more complete immediate retention, (b) a greater amount read in a given time”.
A recent study of web writing for low literacy users showed that “Lower-literacy users exhibit very different reading behaviors than higher-literacy users: they plow text rather than scan it, and they miss page elements due to a narrower field of view.” This is not a marginal problem: in the US, it is estimated that 30% of web users are of lower literacy. User testing showed that when text was simplified and optimized, readers were much more likely to successfully complete it, they took much less time to do so, and their satisfaction was much higher. While these results were most significant among readers with lower literacy, even high literacy readers showed major improvements in all three areas. The study concluded that usability doubled a website’s ability to achieve its goals. Another study confirms that highly educated readers strongly prefer simpler texts.
Readability is, of course, only one criteria. It is crucial that a translation be accurate, and that it employ good style. A well-written text has a certain flavor that is impossible to define. The purpose of these tests is not to dismiss or downplay the relevance of these factors, but simply to introduce another way of looking, one which, to my knowledge, has not previously been applied to Buddhist texts.
Testing Readability of Sutta Translations
I ran a range of tests comparing the SuttaCentral translation by myself with the same text translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translations are chosen as the standard of comparison due to their excellent style, consistency, and widespread acceptance as highly readable and accurate translations.
Test results consistently rate the Sujato translation as significantly more readable. On the whole it is about two grade levels simpler.
Below is a table with the results. It goes without saying that such tests are only a rough approximation. Nonetheless, they are widely used in fields where comprehension and readability are critical. They strongly correlate with comprehension.
The Anguttara Fours is the test text. This is the most recent of the Bodhi translations.
For the test, footnotes and the like, as well as numbers, were removed. The last texts were left out, as they trail off into repetition series. Each service gives slightly different results, due to different ways of counting words, and so on.
The statistical results show that the Sujato translation is simpler in virtually every metric, including word length, number of unique words, number of complex words, and unusual words (i.e. not found in Dale-Chall word list). However the greatest difference is in sentence length. The average sentence length in the Sujato text is a little over three-quarters that of the Bodhi text. Sentence length has been consistently found to be one of the most important aspects of readability, and hence is weighted highly in most of the grade tests.
Not only is the Sujato text more readable, it is about 83% of the length. This is because it tends, on the whole, to omit more repetitions, and also to use less wordy phrasing.
|Tested on AN 4.1–4.248|
|Flesch Reading Ease||68.8||60.0||Higher is easier to read.|
|Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level||7.5||9.7||Average US student grade level. For all grade levels, lower is easier.|
|Gunning Fog Index||10.7||12.5|
|Automated Readability Index||8.9||11.3|
|Average Grade Level||9.4||11.0|
|Word Count||64994||78282||This is about 83% the number of words to translate the same texts.|
|Lexical Density||47.1%||43.8%||This measures the ratio of content words to grammatical words. Lower is easier. However under 50% is quite low already. I suspect Bodhi’s is lower because he tends to use less direct phrasing, eg. “with the breakup of the body” vs. “when the body breaks up”.|
|Characters Per Word||4.8||4.9|
|Syllables per Word||1.4||1.5|
|Average Sentence Length||15.3||19.5|
|At Readability Score|
|Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease||70||63.9|
|Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level||6.9||8.8|
|Automated Readability Index||7||9.2|
|Average Grade Level||8.5||10|
|Characters per Word||4.6||4.6|
|Syllables per Word||1.5||1.5|
|Words per Sentence||13.9||17.9|
|Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease||67.9||61.8|
|Flesch Kincaid Grade Level||7.6||9.5|
|Gunning Fog Score||10.5||12.5|
|Coleman Liau Index||11.3||10.9||The same test on two other sites rated the Sujato text as more readable, so I suspect this is a flaw in the testing program.|
|Automated Readability Index||7.8||9.9|
|No. of sentences||4244||4015|
|No. of words||64225||79706|
|No. of complex words||7837||9777|
|Percent of complex words||12.20%||12.27%|
|Average words per sentence||15.13||19.85|
|Average syllables per word||1.46||1.47|
|Tested on AN 4.1 and AN 4.2 only|
|At Readability Formulas|
|Number of words NOT found on Dale-Chall Word List||76||106||This site only tests up to 600 words. However I included it as it was the only one to do the Dale-Chall test, which is among the most sophisticated and reliable of all tests.|
|Percent of words NOT found on Dale-Chall Word List||13%||26%|
|New Dale-Chall Grade Level||7–8||11–12|