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December 2, 2019

The need for a localization strategy (podcast)

In episode 65 of The Content Strategy Experts podcast, Elizabeth Patterson and Bill Swallow talk about the need for a localization strategy.

“There may be things you’re writing in your source content that you don’t want literally translated. In many cases, there are stark cultural differences between one location and another. Writing something at all may be inappropriate for another audience.”

—Bill Swallow

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Elizabeth Patterson:     Welcome to The Content Strategy Experts Podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize and distribute content in an efficient way. In this episode, we talk about the need for a localization strategy. Hi, I’m Elizabeth Patterson.

Bill Swallow:     And I’m Bill Swallow.

EP:     And today we are going to talk about the need for a localization strategy. So I’m going to start with a really general question here, Bill. Why might companies need a localization strategy?

BS:     Well, before we dive into why a company might need a localization strategy, I think it’s important to dispel one of the more common myths out there. Despite a growing need for multiple languages and content going out to multiple regions, translation is still seen as a bit of a commodity or a commoditized service. In that sense, you would write content, throw it over the wall, sending it to the translators, waiting, and then you get it back and you’re all good. If only it were that simple. You spent a lot of time and effort and money developing your source content and the last thing that you really want to do is just throw it over the wall and hope that someone’s going to understand what you are doing and why, translate it appropriately, and send it back to you in a format that’s usable.

BS:     Ideally, you want to have some kind of prep behind that, making sure that the translators know what your intent was with the content, whether it’s technical information, marketing and so forth, how they should be translating it, what their specific audience is, not just the language but who are the people who are going to be reading this in that language. Where are they located? Because that also has a high impact on the success rate of your translated content. But if you just throw it over the wall and expect a translator to understand all of these things, you’re really doing yourself a disservice and you’re not taking advantage of all the value that you’ve put into developing the content from the beginning.

EP:     Right. So I guess my question here is, say you are considering a localization strategy, but you’ve got some more time before that’s actually going to happen and you need something translated, so you need something done quickly. What are some options if you need something done quickly while you’re working on putting a localization strategy in place?

BS:     Probably the best option is to at least meet with your translator ahead of time, give them information that gives them the context that they need in order to understand the purpose of the content. If you don’t have a localization strategy in place yet, it may not necessarily be written in the best way for them to translate, but they should be able to understand with that context you provided how best to translate that content and send it back. Now, that’s just speaking in terms of voice, tone, audience appropriateness, that type of thing. So the translator at least has that information, but there’s a whole layer of other things that really ideally should be done before you send something out for translation.

EP:     So how might you prepare for that translation then, and what might your localization strategy look like?

BS:     Sure. There are a lot of factors that go into developing a localization strategy. The first thing is knowing exactly where your content is going, what languages do the people speak, where in the world the content is going, so what are the cultural implications of sending content that way. That way, you can kind of start collecting a body of knowledge that you can share with the translators and say, “These are the people that we ideally want to be targeting with this information. We understand that there might be cultural concerns above and beyond just the language concerns and the local idioms and whatnot that you need to be mindful of,” and work with the translator at that point to develop a plan for that content. There may be things that you’re writing in your source content that you might not want to have literally translated or even remotely translated in some other term. In many cases, there are stark cultural differences between one location and another, so writing something at all may be inappropriate for another audience.

EP:     Right.

BS:     And then there’s the whole technical side of things. How is your content written? What tools are you using to develop this content? Are you leveraging and maximizing the efficiencies in those tools that can then help the translation process move along more quickly.

EP:     And even in addition to writing, I mean, you have to think a lot about the images and things that you’re using within your documentation because that can have cultural implications as well.

BS:     Oh, images are a huge one. There’s the subject matter of the image. I do remember, I used to work in translation, and I remember receiving feedback from a particular translator about at that point, my other company’s client had sent over an image that had a woman holding a baby. And for that particular language they had to change the direction. So in order to make the title flip and everything, they just flipped the image, so they transposed it from right to left to left to right. So suddenly, you have this mirror image of a woman holding a baby and the wedding ring that was on her finger is now on the wrong hand as far as the published thing goes, and having an unwed mother in that particular locale was pretty much a taboo subject, so things like that you need to be mindful of. I mean, it’s something that you normally wouldn’t think of, but fortunately the translator caught it when they saw the image before it went out to the public.

BS:     In other cases, with images, if you’re using any kind of call-outs or things like that on the image, it’s important to remember that if the text is embedded in the image file itself, it’s going to be a lot more difficult to translate and could be impossible to translate that particular file. The translator would have to recreate it and impose the translated text either on top of the source language text or create a brand new image with that translated text in there. And then of course, anytime you change that text, the same process needs to happen. So that’s a lot of rework that really you can avoid generally by using a different system. A lot of people choose to use numbered call-outs where they just have numbers in the image and then they put the text in text below the image. That way, you’re not translating the image at all. It’s just a pass through at that point.

BS:     There are other considerations with imagery, such as colors. Colors have very different meanings in different cultures that you need to be aware of. Same thing with hand gestures. If you’re using hand gestures in photos or in icons, those can be problematic as well because not everyone … Well to be blunt, not everyone uses the same rude gesture.

EP:     Right. That’s definitely true. I remember when I was going through my graduate school program in technical communication, part of what we would look at in one of our lessons, especially when we were doing visual communication and design, we looked at images and colors and gestures that had different meanings in different countries and that was just really eye-opening to me, because I felt like I was aware of those things, but yet I learned so much more about that. And so when we talk about this localization strategy and how you can’t just throw it at a translator because there’s so much more to it than that, it makes a lot of sense cause there’s all sorts of things that you really have to be aware of, and it varies based on the industry, too.

BS:     Oh, absolutely. And it’s not to say that you can’t use these things, but you have to be mindful that they’re going to have a different meaning in a different culture, so you need to plan ahead and have an alternate set for that particular group. Now, if it’s something that’s built into the product, let’s say you have an icon in the product with a particular … for whatever reason you have a hand doing a gesture, you may want to rethink that in the original product design and change that to something that’s more universal. That way you don’t have to change the product UI and the screenshots and any documentation that goes along with it. You can just use the same information or the same icon throughout the entire process from the product to the documentation.

EP:     Right. So I think this kind of leads us into my next question. What are some common roadblocks that companies might run into when employing the localization strategy? Obviously, some of these challenges with imagery and gestures and that sort of thing can pose a roadblock, but what else my companies run into and how can companies best prepare for these?

BS:     The biggest one is having the sudden realization that you didn’t do your homework upfront, and that’s a tough one to get around. But really the only way to do it is to start. And at that point, usually that discovery comes at a very inconvenient time. So it comes at a time when either things are just about to go out for translation and someone raises an issue or worse, the translator comes back and says, “I can’t translate this,” or, “I can’t position this for the audience that you’re intending.” And even worse still you hear from a customer in that location that says, “What does this mean? I don’t understand,” or, “How dare you use this image?” That is probably the worst case scenario.

BS:     But some of the roadblocks there, again, is first of all understanding that you’re going to need one and the timing of that and being able to allocate resources to building that plan, to kind of walk back the reason why you’re translating and what you’re translating and being able to incorporate those changes that would facilitate translation. A big part of translation, especially in the software world, involves internationalization, which is basically the separation of all of the UI text and icons and so forth that are used within the user interface and having them in a place outside of the code that can be modified, so that way you’re not sending code files to your translators and expecting them to weed through all of the code to get to the strings that need to be translated. You have all of those strings and imagery and everything else in a separate set of files that can be modified and then brought back into the application. That’s critical.

BS:     And by the same token, you can internationalize a lot of your documentation and other content infrastructure as well through the use of templates. If you’re using any form of XML, you can certainly do that, using separate strings files and separate resource files, but basically being mindful of anything that’s going to be used and reused over and over and over again. Get it out of the meat of what you’re sending the translator and build it into some kind of automated workflow where it’s applied to the translation after the fact rather than having the translator translate the same label every single time they see it. That way they replace it once or they translate it once, you replace it everywhere.

EP:     Right, because it really doesn’t make sense to pay for them to translate the same thing over and over again.

BS:     Right. I mean, there’s definitely a cost there, particularly with a lot of the different … If you’re writing information that has a lot of warnings in it, chances are those warnings appear more than once. It doesn’t make sense to write it more than once and it doesn’t make sense to translate it more than once if it says the same exact thing every time. So being able to externalize that from the content and then be able to drop back in saves a ton of money and it saves a lot of time on translation as well.

EP:     Right. Speaking of saving money, how exactly can localization and employing a localization strategy help a company to maximize their return on investment? Because I think that’s an important thing to mention because in any company management is going to want to see the money. How are we saving the money? How are we making the money?

BS:     Mm-hmm. And really, you just hit on the two key points. There’s two factors in the return on investment in any kind of content or localization strategy. One, there is cost savings and there’s additional sales, so being able to grow money and save money. With localization strategy on the save money side, you can spend the time upfront to do things, quote unquote, “the right way”, to minimize the total amount of unique words that need to be translated by a translator.

BS:     Secondly, and I should say more additionally to that, being able to leverage your translation memory from one translation to the next, obviously for the same language, but being able to leverage that to make sure that you are using the same wording and phrasing when you add new content and that when you modify existing content that you’re very careful about only modifying what absolutely needs to be changed and not making subjective changes to the content to say, “I really think that we should have written this phrase this way. It’s not wrong the way it is, but I like it better this other way.” If you can avoid edits like that, unless they’re absolutely necessary or they add additional value to the content, leave it alone because otherwise you’re just adding cost to the translation process.

BS:     And as far as being able to grow money, a localization strategy should keep in mind not only the languages you need to translate into and the locations that you’re sending content to, but where you’re going to be sending content and translating content in five years, let’s say, so in the future and being able to plan for that upfront and be able to really target who’s going to be getting this content and why and planning your process accordingly.

BS:     By doing all of these things, you’ll start to streamline your content development process and your translation process, which will significantly reduce the amount of total time it takes to your content. That means faster time to market, which almost, you can’t put a price on that because you can enter a market quicker. Let’s say you’re going against a competitor in a particular market. Neither one of you has targeted that market before. If you have all your ducks in a row up front, chances are you’ll be able to beat them to the marketplace.

EP:     Right. And so localization or employing a localization strategy is really essential for your business to be successful if they want to grow.

BS:     Exactly.

EP:     Right. Well, I think that that’s a good place to end, so thank you, Bill.

BS:     Thank you.

EP:     And thank you for listening to The Content Strategy Experts Podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit or check the show notes for relevant links.