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March 28, 2022

Content ops stakeholders: Localization (podcast)

In episode 115 of The Content Strategy Experts podcast, Bill Swallow and Sarah O’Keefe discuss content ops stakeholders in localization.

“Using baseball examples isn’t going to work well in a country where baseball is not a thing. So you have to think about that. Does your text, does your content, do your examples work and are they appropriate in your target language and culture?”

– Sarah O’Keefe

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Sarah O’Keefe:                   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 continue our series on content ops stakeholders. And this time we’re focusing on localization. Hi everyone. I’m Sarah O’Keefe and I am here with Bill Swallow today.

Bill Swallow:                   Hi there.

SO:                   So this podcast is part of an occasional series that we’re doing on stakeholders in content ops projects. We’ve done a few different stakeholders already, and you can find links to those episodes in our show notes on or wherever you get your podcasts. In this episode, we want to focus on stakeholders in localization. And I guess the first question then becomes, Bill, who are the localization stakeholders?

BS:                   Well, it’s a lot more than people think there are. We could start with the localization project managers so the people who are essentially running the entire localization operations for your company. Then you have your regional marketing people, so those who are promoting products and services in the target markets that you’re trying to reach with your content. Then of course you have the actual translation team or localization service providers, whether you’re using internal or external resources. Those are also stakeholders there. Another group that somewhat gets overlooked are the internationalization developers. So anyone who’s working on products or websites who have to account for any translated content. Those people have a rather large stake that is often kind of left in the dirt behind. And then of course you also have your content consumers. So those who are ultimately going to be reading, listening to, or viewing your content.

SO:                   And I know that a lot of times when I talk to these groups of stakeholders about some of the work that we do, they’re very interested and they would love to have better content, better content ops, better information flowing into the localization function. But what they typically say is, “Well, we don’t control that. The people upstream from us, the content authors, the information architects are the ones determining what this content looks like when it goes to localization.” And so I guess there certainly IA and content authors have an effect on localization.

BS:                   A big effect. Essentially, anything, a content author or an information architect does impacts the localization process, whether they are conscious of it or not, it can come down to how they write, so the style that they use in developing their content. It could come down to the infrastructure that the authors use, so which tools they use and how they use them. The time at which they send content off for any kind of translation work. There are a whole bunch of different factors that come into play here. And Sarah, you’re absolutely right. A lot of times these stakeholders are kind of well left holding the stake, so to speak. They receive stuff that may not be in the best format that may not be written well, that might be somewhat confusing to translate. And they may be given next to zero time to turn it around. So they have a lot of concerns.

SO:                   So we’ve already used at least three words to talk about this function, right? We’ve said localization several times, you mentioned the translation team, the linguists, and also internationalization. So what are those three? I mean, if you’re not somebody that lives in the space, what is the difference between translation, localization and internationalization?

BS:                   I think the easiest way to think about is that localization is the general term for all of it. It’s the process of being able to take content that’s written in one source format. Let’s say, I’m not even going to suggest a language here and then taking a look at the processes and the needs for being able to develop that content in a format and in a language that another person in another part of the world would be able to consume that content appropriately.

BS:                   Internationalization is kind of the backbone of the entire translation process or I should say the entire localization chain. Internationalization is basically the things that you bake into how you develop something that accounts for a need to change to a different language, to a different market, switch formatting and so forth. So that’s all, it’s kind of all of the technical bells and whistles that you bake in behind the scenes that allow you to easily produce content for multiple different audiences. And then the translation process is what we’re all accustomed to when we think about developing content in a different language. It’s the act of actually rewriting the content in a target language.

SO:                   Yeah. I like when I talk about internationalization, I tend to fall back on talking about currency, because if you think about it, if you develop a product, let’s say in the US, and it is dollar based and you want to bring that into the European Union, you will almost certainly have to support euros as a currency inside your product. Well, that’s not really a translation problem per se. There’s also going to be translation, but the idea that you can’t just bake in dollars as the only currency that your product understands is important, right?

SO:                   That’s that kind of internationalization layer. Then you’ve got the linguistic layer, the translation, and then there’s a separate one using baseball examples and US content isn’t going to work well in a country where baseball is not a thing. So you have to think about that. Does your text, does your content, do your examples work and are they appropriate in your target language and culture?

BS:                   And just like currency. There’s another really accessible example of internationalization. And that’s the use of time zones and being able to send a calendar invite from one person to another, in any region. If you’re setting it for 2:00 PM your time, it should not show up on their calendar at 2:00 PM their time. Otherwise, you’ll never connect. So there is that extra layer of internationalization behind the scenes that says, “Hey, what time zone am I in?” And then add or subtract hours until you get the correct time for the meeting.

SO:                   Yeah. I mean, there are other examples of this. I was talking to somebody, a few years back, at a conference in India and they politely said to me, “So your logo has an owl in it. And that’s interesting. And why did you choose an owl?” And I said, “Well, in the U.S., owls connotate wisdom and intelligence and various positive of things.” And I said, “So what does the owl say to you in Indian culture?” And he looked at me and kind of cringed because he didn’t want to give the answer. And I was like, “No, really it’s okay. So, well, what does an owl mean in Indian culture?” He says, “Death.” And something about being silly. I mean, it was very … it was a negative thing it’s as if we picked a, I don’t know, a rat or something as our logoed animal. Right? And so that was a really good example where we didn’t think too hard about the implications globally of picking a particular visual or a particular animal. So we have something that in a non-US context in certain other cultures doesn’t necessarily work exactly.

BS:                   And that’s really where the style guide is important. And being able to make these decisions both visually and with authored content about how things are being represented. There are a lot of different issues that come around different imagery, whether it be using hand gestures, I suggest you don’t. Using colors a certain way. Even certain layouts can be a little problematic when going to certain markets.

SO:                   And so related to that, the most common pushback we get, let me say, you’re going to need to do translation or localization, or you need to really have a strategy around globalizing your product. Right? If you want to sell your product in these other markets, you have to think about other languages and what we get less these days, but certainly in the past five or 10 years, we got a lot of, well, localization is expensive. So we’ll just ship English and the people who are buying our products speak English, which, I mean, if you’re only shipping in English, then that’s probably true.

SO:                   But you’ve just limited your market to the people who are willing to buy a product in their country that is only available in English. So it’s a bit of a chicken and egg, but I wanted to ask you a slightly different question, which is not is localization expensive because it is, but why? And what can you do about it? And is it really just expensive? Or is it that you need to … How can you best leverage that? If you’re going to spend the money, how do you make it as valuable as possible what you’re producing?

BS:                   Well, if you’re going to spend the money, it’s best to spend it the right way. And that’s to look at your entire chain of how the translation process, the localization process runs. The one thing you don’t want to do is spend a lot of time and money upfront, authoring your content, the way you feel it should be authored for where you are in the world. So if your company is United States based, you don’t want to be just authoring for a United States’ customer or audience. You want to take into account with the baseball references that Sarah mentioned and so forth, you don’t want to use a lot of these local idioms, anecdotes and so forth in your content, because it makes it more difficult to translate. Likewise, you don’t want to spend six months developing content and then throwing it over the wall to some poor translator saying, “Hi, we need this back on Tuesday.”

BS:                   That’s going to be expensive for a couple of reasons. One, it’s going to incur a markup for a rush rate. Two, you’re not going to get their best work. So there are going to be errors, and there’s going to be a lot of cleanup. And if there isn’t cleanup, you have another expense of having to essentially deal with the damage that your content causes down the line. It could result in incorrect procedures. It could result in offending somebody. So you need to make sure that you’re doing things the right way. And you’re including all of these stakeholders in the localization process from day one of when you’re developing content.

SO:                   Yeah. And I think it’s important. And I fall into this trap as well. You know, very often we start talking about localization and what we talk about is global markets like, “You started in the US, and then you’ve decided you want to sell in Europe. And therefore you need localization.” However, there are somewhere in the vicinity of 30 to 40 million people in the United States whose primary language at home is Spanish. Well, 30 million people is a pretty good size European country. So you might think hard about whether your first language, your first localization effort is in fact not a different geography, it’s the US market, but in Spanish, because that is a big chunk of people that you are probably not going to reach with an English only approach.

BS:                   Definitely. And Spanish is just one really good example. There’s another huge Chinese market and others in the United States alone, not withstanding any regional differences as well. When it comes down to talking about specific items in everyday life, we have different terms and we talk about them differently, depending on whether we’re in the Northeast, the Midwest West Coast. It’s also important to look at the expense of localization in how long it takes to get localized product and localized content out to those who need it. If your process isn’t as efficient as it could be, you could see a significant delay in shipping to other countries or even other regions or other target language markets, because you’re waiting for the localization work to finish. Whereas if you planned for it upfront, you can bring that time in. And you can kind of not necessarily spend less money, but you can realize the fruit of labor earlier.

SO:                   So we’ve talked a little bit about how localization essentially has implications for nearly everybody in the content chain. Who’s the stakeholder for localization? I mean, it might be easier to say who’s not a stakeholder because if I write the content properly, the first time around and follow standards that will flow through all the way into the actual translation linguistic process. We infamously had a customer where the Spanish translation team got criticized because they used six different terms for the same thing in the Spanish content. So along the lines of car seat versus baby carrier versus infant seat and you need to pick one and go with it. So they got dinged when somebody reviewed the Spanish translation for using six different terms for the same thing, and this is terrible and we should fix it.

SO:                   Well, they went back and looked at the English source content. And what they discovered was that in the original English language, they used eight different terms for the same thing. So the translators, they had improved, it was still way too many terms, but the fact that they used six instead of eight was not really on the localization workflow. That problem started much, much earlier. So what does that look like? What kind of collaboration do you need across all of these different stakeholders who are either directly with a title like localization manager or indirectly as a content person involved or contributing to localization?

BS:                   I think the big thing to think about first and foremost is making sure that everyone is aligned on the purpose of developing this content for multiple different language markets and making sure that everyone understands what the key factors of success is for those markets, making sure that everyone understands the importance of having the correct vocabulary in place and using it consistently. So we’re talking about style guide here and language rules and writing rules, to bring in those internationalization developers who often get forgotten about. These are people who are going to build in the efficiencies that you can leverage as a content author to make sure that you are doing things consistently. So using things like variable strings for commonplace terminology throughout your content set, things like labeling notes and cautions, warnings, those types of things. If you can externalize that stuff and have it programmatically inserted, it makes it very easy to replicate it across the board in any language, because you can do that customization outside of the content. And then it’s reused automatically when you’re publishing.

BS:                   Another key aspect is to agree on the workflows that are involved and it cannot be develop your content and then throw it over a wall and expect it to come back perfect. There has to be some checks and balances throughout the entire process of developing your content so that the authors get the feedback that they need should they be doing something wrong at the time when they’re doing it wrong and not six months later when they are just grumbling about the fact that edits have come back and they thought they were done with this piece of the work. Having that timely feedback helps hone in on the process and making sure that not only are things being corrected, but that things are being built into the process to ensure that those mistakes don’t happen again in the future.

SO:                   Okay. So I’m told that machine translation is going to solve all these problems. And all we have to do is shove our text in and the machine will make it into magically into all the different languages. And off we go. So why aren’t we doing that?

BS:                   I got an Amazon Echo for Christmas and it still does not understand half the things I ask it for. So I’m not putting my money on machine translation if I can’t even get my device to play the correct song that I’m looking for. Machine translation will get you a part of the way, but the machine translation is only as good as the database it’s referencing and as good as the content is going in. Aside from those two factors, you can still get very close to 100% clean and appropriate, and you will still have to do some cleanup on the machine translation side after that work has been done. It really does require a person going through proofreading. And just asking the very basic question, is this clear and does it make sense?

SO:                   Yeah, because I think we’ve all seen some amazing machine translation by which I mean amazingly plausible, but totally inaccurate.

BS:                   Totally. I used to work in translation and on my desk at that job, I had a collection of little toys and gadgets that I’d pick up along the way if I was shopping in a grocery store or a toy store with my kids, I’d find this bargain bin item that was absolutely ridiculous. The copy on the box was just outrageous. The instructions on the inside were absolutely horrendous. And I’d keep those as a reminder so that when people started complaining about quality of translation and so forth, I can pick up these examples and say, “Well, how do you think that this got out the way it did?” And that’s because no one was no one was proofing behind the work that was being done. And it was just being rushed out the door as fast as possible.

SO:                   And that’s, yeah. And I think that’s probably a good spot to leave it. Machine translation has its place, but do you really want a machine translated set of instructions on a medical procedure that people are performing on you? I am going to pass on that one.

BS:                   Yeah. It’s a hard pass.

SO:                   Hard pass. So, well I think we’ll leave it there. Thank you, Bill.

BS:                   Thank you.

SO:                   And thank you to our audience. 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.