A Simple Guide to Successful Localization – Avoid Disaster
Updated: Jun 9
Have you ever noticed it's so hard to find a good user guide? Growing up, I never considered translation as a potential job because I thought it was a job anyone who speaks a foreign language can do. It's not like a writer, for instance, that takes "real" talent. When I did start translating, I told myself my work would be perfect and as if it’s originally written in Korean. If only it was that easy.
I quickly learned this work is more than me on the keyboard and there are so many ways for it to go wrong. You wouldn’t believe how often perfectly good translations get butchered by a client-side editor with a big ego. Sometimes the project manager sits on messages because they didn't want to bother clients, which creates misunderstanding between the client and translator. Of course, there are also translators who don't take the job seriously and think it's okay to be unprofessional.
The quality of translation is subjective. Often, it’s just unnatural, weird, or funny to read. No real harm done and difficult to spot or dispute. It can sometimes be more obvious and damaging to the brand image —“This company clearly doesn't care to provide comprehensive information in my language. If this is already bad, how about when I need service or help? Do I really want to spend my money on them?” Not the way to lose a prospect, especially after spending a hefty budget on localization, but that happens more often than you might think.
“You localize to make sure your offer has a chance to compete in the new market as it would in your existing one. Forgetting or underestimating it would be your first mistake.”
Know your localization agenda—translation is a step to achieve it
Localization is a process of tailoring your business offer for a new (usually foreign) location, in which translation plays an essential part. Not many companies regard localization as anything other than a supporting tool for sales in a foreign country, and this is where they are mistaken. Bad localization may not kill your business (at least not right away), but people will always look for alternatives and happily move on.
It doesn’t have to be hard or expensive to pull off successful localization. Here are a few pointers I learned from my experiences:
· Have a clear vision of your localization needs and challenges
· Find a way to build trust with your provider
· Get native eyes to review
· Use the right font!
Have a clear vision of your localization needs and challenges
No matter the size of your business, cost optimization would be your top priority. Like everything else, planning is the key. When you get a quote on your project, always think about the hidden cost, beyond the proposed digits. This is especially true when you are new to localization. Without a good system or previous experience, you may blow the whole budget and be left with what's not that much better than machine translation. Sometimes companies go with the bad translations and hope the headquarter won't notice.
To prevent a disaster, you need to define what you’re localizing and why. Have a set of guides to ensure consistency in the information and messages you communicate, starting with any writing in the language of your home base. This will be the guideline for your team and also translation agencies (or freelancers if you work directly with them).
Then categorize and prioritize. Identify what must be localized right away and the list of names or slogans that should not be translated. Maybe you don't need to localize everything now but you know the time will come later. Make a clear list and allow enough time when you schedule, more so if your budget is tight. Rushing translation and desktop publishing can cost you 2-3 times more unless you’re willing to sacrifice quality.
Your provider should ask you the right questions and encourage you to share your vision during the brief (and PLEASE have a brief). If you have a unique requirement, be clear on it and check in advance if that can be done within the timeline and budget.
Suppose you’re not sure how to identify your requirements and how much time you should expect for translation and post-processes. In that case, you may consider talking to an expert. It can be as short as an hour or a few days of consultancy because you will only need one good system; you can reuse it for other localization projects regardless of language. It will also help you figure out budgeting, whether to hire a translation agency or find independent linguists, how to validate/screen them, along with security considerations.
Having all of these in place will assure consistency, which will become a challenge as the business extends to more markets. It will also eliminate the need for relying on one provider for everything and allows you more flexibility.
It's important that you feel that your provider and you are on the same page. Confidence that your project is in good hands and that they know what they are doing. If you do not or cannot trust your provider, things can get messy very quickly. If this is an issue, it should be attended to before launching the project.
Please don’t use an online machine translator. Don't use that as a base for asking quality checks or questions. This is not the way of being thorough. Micromanagement is bad, but this is another level of bad.
“Mina, I checked your translation with Google Translate, and you didn't use the word I see here... are you sure your translation is correct?”
First of all, let me point out that you might be feeding confidential information by checking the translation using one of these free search engine services. If you don't own content, you've probably signed an NDA, and this breaks that agreement. If you have the ownership, then do tell your provider about it. You'll be surprised to know so many people are not aware of what "data collection" means.
Second, translators don't take it well. After years in the field, I don't take it personally. Explaining the reason is usually enough to clear the air. Most translators are underpaid and they compensate for it by taking more work. They do not want to spend time defending their work against Google Translate. The last thing you want is to give an impression that they will get more complaints with actual, human translation.
You can be direct when in any doubt or having questions. Just show respect for their time and efforts.
Sometimes agencies freak out whenever the client makes a query regarding word choice or change request because they consider this as a complaint. This is not productive at all when, as is often the case, only the client-side checker and the translator speak the language.
The solution here is effective and respectful communication. In my opinion, the role of a manager is critical to make sure everyone can focus on the quality without turning it into personal attacks.
In a good localization team, the translator would offer explanations when they made an unconventional choice before anyone asks about it and the manager wouldn't withhold that information until it's necessary to share it. When hiring a localization agency, it is a good sign if the agency actively forwards any questions regarding the context from the translators and their opinion about legacy translation.
Get native eyes to review
By review I mean checking how the translation sounds to natives. Note that most native proofreading focuses on obvious grammatical and structural errors, rather than natural fluency. Have a native person review the translation and ask for honest feedback. How does it sound? Is it natural and does it align with the brand identity?
Holiday visitors who think the Buddhist Thai style works in all Asian countries would only risk an embarrassment. There is no excuse for not doing your due diligence when you play to profit. I mentioned that localization affects the way your brand is perceived, and that’s how it works. Language embodies the people who speak it. The audience is different, what can be offensive or culturally sensitive is different. A good translator will point out and come up with solutions whenever there are possible conflicts. This is another purpose of having a native review. It doesn't have to be a linguist or other experts. Someone who is familiar with the brand or product would be enough. If you haven't localized before, this review should be done as early as possible so you can provide additional instructions if needed.
This is something advanced machine translation cannot do. There is an emotional aspect in the job, subtle but critical to success.
Use the right font!
I’m joking, but only halfway. It's such a shame to see perfectly localized texts looking so cheap in an outdated font, a size too small or too big, with terrible line breaks. (I have a lot to say about line breaks.) Visual presentation is important. Let the texts shine and grab the attention they deserve!
There are ways you can ensure quality and value out of your localization efforts and all the precious resources invested. It’s a delicate process that requires organization and expertise. You will work with professionals, so let them help you the best they can. Encourage communication by listening to them and respecting what they do. Be honest about your concerns and give them at least enough time if you can’t (or are unwilling to) pay extra. And their response will also give a good measurement of the potential for collaboration.
I hope you find this helpful. Happy localization!