The 21st century world is a small place and business is increasingly international by nature. Competitive pressures mean it’s ever more important to communicate clearly with potential customers and suppliers, wherever in the world they may be, and whatever language they communicate in.

If your business, or the company you work for, is planning to export more, having to think seriously about translation and localization is just a matter of time – it’s not if, but when (and, by extension, how).

As with most business decisions, cost is a key factor when translating. You need to strike a balance; pay too little and you risk cutting corners, getting the message wrong and damaging your reputation (whilst making foolish foreign-language faux pas along the way). Pay too much, possibly for deliverables or processes you don’t need, and you will have to answer some difficult and awkward questions from your company budget holders, finance dept or stakeholders.

You need to be sure that you are not simply paying a cost, but making an investment – so there needs to be a targeted strategy. Become an expert yourself, or work with experts who can help you, and design an approach to translation that minimises your risks and maximises your chances of securing a great return on that investment.

Think localization, not translation

We should at this stage make the distinction between translation and localization (often abbreviated to “L10N”).

Simply put, translation is about the words, localization is the process in which those words sit. Translation is tactical – simply taking your source, and reproducing it in the target language. Localization is strategic – not only translating, but addressing the context of that translation, and targeting it specifically and effectively at a desired foreign audience, for a desired purpose. When it comes to localization, here are the principles that we at 3di follow.

Simply translating can leave the target audience feeling a little cold – like the text they are reading has obviously started life in another language (not good if you are trying to build a connection and make sales). Even in markets where English is widely spoken as a second language, you may still need to communicate in the audience’s native language. Particularly, if you want to achieve the connection and emotional response needed to generate meaningful sales, or to ensure correct and safe use of a complex product.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
Nelson Mandela

There are times when simple translation will get the job done, maybe when your business is just starting out, budget is extremely limited, or the risks associated with misunderstandings are low. But as the stakes become higher (e.g. your brand image relies on effective communication of technical information in foreign markets, or you are actively selling to non-English speakers), you will want to consider localization as a more sophisticated and effective strategy. This transition is what happened for our long-standing customer Raymarine.

Localization takes care to make the overall experience feel native to the target audience. It is about making the product or service work just as elegantly in the target language as it does in the source, in order to have the same impact on the customer as you would expect in your home market. It involves adapting graphics to target markets, modifying feature sets and content to suit what specific markets need, adapting design and layout to properly display translated text and using correct local formats for dates, addresses, and phone numbers.

Here are just a few small examples of how localization as a way of thinking, a strategy, can help you to navigate the pitfalls of translation:

Examples of translation risksHow applying localization thinking avoids them
Did you know that in China, the number four is considered very unlucky?Make sure it’s not a prominent part of your product or service for that market.
In large parts of India, owls are not associated with wisdom (as they tend to be in Western cultures) but with foolishness and misfortune.Bear this in mind when choosing graphics in e-learning or training design.
The world-over, for technical products, the most sensitive content relates to key terminology – product and feature names, key concepts and UI strings.Identify key terms first and take extra care over them before you embark on translating all the less sensitive content.
Unfamiliar accents can get in the way of understanding or engagement, even if the speaker is speaking your language.When selecting a voice-over artist for e-learning narration, ensure they are a native speaker and that their accent won’t get in the way.
If you have legacy content written over many years for your home market there’s a good chance it’ll be way too much for what your new markets will need. Expensive and unused.Create a lean, global base of content, that becomes your starting point for new market translations. Efficient and focused on specific needs.
Advertising copy and creative text are particularly valuable and risky. Simply translating can go very, very wrong.For some of your most valuable content it will be worth applying the approach of Transcreation – copywriting in the target language, using the source language as a reference for what the intended impact should be.

When will localizing make the difference?

So, when to localize? When to pull the trigger?

Good question, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. However, as a starting point, ask yourself:

  • Am I trying to operate in multiple markets at the same time?
  • Is my product new and revolutionary to the market?
  • Is my brand already present in a particular market?
  • Do I operate in a tightly-regulated industry?
  • Do my products need to comply with strict local laws?
  • Has my boss asked “Why don’t we just use Google Translate?”

If you answered yes to any of the above, then you should already be thinking about localization, not simply translation.

If you want to operate efficiently across multiple markets, you need a centalised, strategic plan for delivering local language versions that are effective.

If your product is revolutionary or cutting-edge, or if you are trying to communicate a brand new idea, you need to clearly convey this to a new, uninitiated audience to make sure they get it.

If you want to maintain your brand image and reputation abroad, you need to communicate these assets in the local language and avoid embarrassing cultural misunderstandings.

If you need to comply with strict regulations and local laws, it is imperative that you understand them, and then localize your product packaging and documentation accordingly.

If you are getting pressure to consider just using Google Translate, you need to be thinking about all the issues that localization addresses – and you never know, one conclusion may well be that for some of your content and some of your markets, using Google Translate or a similar technology may be the right thing to do.

How to get started with localizing

Firstly, identify the countries and markets that are important to you. Market research and investigation can help you narrow this down. Remember that some countries are “two nations separated by a common language” – so different variations of a language may be required. Speak to a Brazilian in European Portuguese, and they will immediately feel that the message was not created with them in mind. Speak to them in Brazilian Portuguese, and you are much more likely to get them on side.

Next, decide what your priorities are. Do you want to generate new sales? Make supporting existing products more efficient? Introduce foreign markets to a product they have not seen before? Provide e-learning modules or a knowledge portal for your employees or partners overseas? Deciding what you want will help you to weed out what you don’t really need to translate yet. And slimming down the source material is a good way of saving money and getting straight to the point.

Then, speak to someone in the know. Many translation companies struggle with really thinking about and advising on localization issues. They struggle with complex software or e-learning files, and don’t think strategically about recommending and implementing an efficient localization process.

That’s where 3di can help – from initial consultancy, right up to delivering large-scale, multilingual localization projects. By talking to us, you can clarify your localization needs, design a strategy and put it into action.