• Mina Song

How to avoid a localization disaster

Remember the last time you picked up a user guide for your new gadget and put it aside right away, realizing it was one of these manuals? It’s written in your language and it kind of makes sense, but it really doesn’t. It’s one of these guides that puts you into a linguistic limbo, you can never seem to follow it, while you’re forced to read because you’re new to this kind of product. In most cases, you'd give up and turn to the internet for help.

It hurts to think about the money, time, and all other resources that went in as I’ve seen in my past projects – only to end up with these sad texts that nobody wants to read.

When you think about expanding your business abroad, it’s one of the first things on your mind. You want to have all the important texts translated right for your new market, and you’ll do everything to make sure you’re not paying for one of these translations. Sadly, this is very often what happens in many localization projects. Why?

One of the challenges in localization is that you’re often dealing with a language (or languages) you don’t speak fluently. It’s something that you don’t have a choice but to get an expert to handle it for you. And when you shop for something that you don’t really know, like me buying jewelry, it’s hard to tell overpriced junk from something worth the money. When you don't know, you make mistakes, and some of them can lead to a disaster that leaves you unusable translations and bills to pay.

Here, I want to give you some tips that will help you navigate better around this topic and understand what proper localization can do for your business.

So what is localization? How is it different from translation?

While the terms are often used interchangeably, localization and translation are two different concepts. Localization is a process of tailoring your business offer for a new (usually foreign) location, and translation is an essential part of it.

If you consider them as a simple means to facilitate sales in a foreign country, think about this. Localization affects how your brand is perceived in the new market and how consumers experience your product or service. Depending on what you are selling, it can give your business a decisive competitive advantage if done well. Bad localization probably won’t kill your business, but it may hurt more than you’d like to allow.

Successful localization is actually not that hard or expensive to achieve. You just need to keep a few things in mind and avoid some common mistakes.

· 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 is always your priority. Planning is the key, and localization is no exception. I see many of my clients get so concerned about the digits on the bill in front of them, but they are completely blind to the hidden cost of ill-planned execution that can be far worse.

First of all, you need to define what you’re localizing and why. You need to have a set of guides that ensures consistency for the information and messages you communicate, whatever the language you engage in.

Then categorize. Identify what must be localized right away and what should remain as-is always. Some materials can wait for now, but you will want them to be localized eventually. Have a list for each category and allow as much time as possible if you want to save money without sacrificing quality.

Your provider should ask you the right questions and at least encourage you to share your vision as much as possible in the early stage. If you have a unique requirement, be clear on it and check if this can be delivered within the timeline and budget.

If you’re not sure how to identify your requirements and how much time you should expect for translation and the post-processes, you can hire a consultant to help you. A few hours to a few days of consultation will be more than worth the money if it can mean you will have a well-defined style guide and a localization road map. Once you have them, you can expect consistency without being stuck with one provider for everything. This kind of flexibility also saves you time and cost.

Whatever you do, have a list of requirements and expectations defined before you start your project.

Find a way to build trust

You should feel that both parties are on the same page to build a level of trust. If you do not or cannot trust your provider, things can get messy very quickly.

Whether it stems out of mistrust or an honest attempt to be thorough, many clients consult an online translation tool to find if there are any mistakes. I actually saw some of the project managers at localization companies do this.

“Mina, I checked your translation with Google Translate and it says this word should be this, are you sure your translation is correct?”

It would have offended me in my early years. Now, I take it as a sign that I need to communicate more and better with this client and reassure that they are in good hands. But if you feel the need to use a free translation tool to validate the work you pay professionals for doing, whatever the reason, something is wrong. And you have to address it. Not everyone will be okay with this. And the danger is that this can affect the quality you’re getting from your provider.

What happens when they notice you trust machine translation over theirs and they will have to defend linguistic choices their translators make all the time? They will turn on the conflict-avoidance mode, asking translators to go for the safest translations word for word, and not to be creative.

You’d be surprised to know how many times I told my managers direct translation won’t work in this context and they refused to pass it to the client. Because the client cannot be reasoned with, they said. I do not agree with the dismissive attitude personally, but I get why, too. The way they see it, it means more time spent on the project that they will not be compensated for, and clients do not seem to appreciate the effort anyway.

That’s how you end up with content reading like it’s machine-translated with potentially several small or big issues, without ever realizing it. As far as the provider concerns, they gave you what you wanted (or deserve). But what’s the point of localizing anything if you are the only one happy and it doesn’t really speak to your audience?

Get native eyes to review

Let’s imagine a tourist in Korea. He greets everyone in Thai style because he’s for some reason convinced it’s the Asian way. He’s trying to be polite in his mind, but I don’t have to explain why this can be offensive. Most people will not think too much of it, though, and overlook the innocent (if ignorant) mistake.

For business, there is no excuse for not doing your due diligence when you play for profit. I mentioned that localization affects the way your brand is perceived, and that’s how it works. A language embodies the people who speak it and their customs. Translation as a part of localization should reflect it and a good translator will come up with options whenever there are possible conflicts. Listen to them.

This is also why I’m not concerned with the rise of advanced machine translation and the game of productivity big translation companies are playing. There is an emotional aspect in the job, subtle but critical to success, that simply cannot be covered by an AI.

Have a native person to review what’s done and ask for honest feedback. How does it sound? Is it friendly, polite, does it match your brand image? You might need to pay them for an hour or two, which won't be significant because you won’t need a linguist or other experts for this. One or two people who are familiar with the kind of product or service you offer will be enough. It can give you an insight that might help you avoid a disaster, and you’ll be glad to have spent that $ 10-20. If this is the first time for your business, then this review should be done as soon as you have some localized texts in.

Use the right font!

I’m joking, but not really. Visual presentation is important. You can have perfectly localized texts and still ruin them by using an outdated font and careless line breaks. You can at least have your localization provider to handle the line breaks.

There are some fonts for each language, typically used on limited occasions. (There are a couple of them in Korean; it's fine if you’re using them for academic publishing but would look out of place and cheap on a web page, for instance.)

And please, use a font that doesn’t make your texts look pixelated on screen. It happens more than you might think.


There are ways you can ensure quality and value out of your localization efforts you invest in precious resources. Remember that it’s a delicate process that requires organization and expertise. You will work with professionals, 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 unwilling to) pay extra. When you do that, their response will also give a good measurement of the potential for collaboration.

I hope you find this helpful, happy localization!

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