8 tips for better content localization

If you have a global brand that caters to different countries and foreign markets, a localization strategy is a necessity — not just a “nice-to-have.” But what you may not realize is that your team needs to think about content localization before you even start writing.

Localization is more than just translating your content into different languages. It's about understanding the nuances of different cultures and how your content will be received by your target audiences.

Having a strategy for localized content helps your bottom line: If you can optimize your content for localization early on, you can reduce the time and cost associated with updating existing content to accommodate new markets as your business scales.

When you're creating content for global markets, there are a few things to keep in mind — these three questions can help you get to the root of them:

  • Does this content require any culturally specific context to be understood?

  • Is there anything that's unclear or ambiguous in this content?

  • Who are my target audiences, and what cultural or linguistic nuances should I keep in mind when communicating with them?

Here are eight tips for making your writing digestible for a global audience. 

1. Avoid idioms, expressions, and metaphors with cultural meanings

When you're writing for a global or international audience, it's important to avoid idioms, expressions, and metaphors tied to specific cultures.

For example, American English contains a lot of expressions related to baseball — like “hit a home run,” “touch base,” “strike out,” or “a ballpark estimate.” But baseball isn’t played in very many countries worldwide. Including these expressions in your content can confuse audiences unfamiliar with baseball and any ideas tied to those phrases will likely be lost.

Similarly, the meanings of cricket-related British English expressions, like “bowled over,” “stumped,” or “sticky wicket,” might not be obvious to audiences unfamiliar with the sport.

Even when idioms aren’t related to cultural nuances, they can be difficult to translate. Even though most cultures have beans, cake, and salt, the intended meaning of expressions like “spill the beans,” “a piece of cake,” or “take it with a grain of salt” are far removed from their literal meanings.

Lastly, humor tends to be very difficult to translate across cultures, as successful humor often relies on the author and audience having shared cultural context. Worse still, what is considered funny in one target market might be offensive in another. Unless humor is especially integral to your brand, it might be best to avoid jokes entirely.

When you’re writing for a global or international audience, it’s important to avoid idioms, expressions, and metaphors tied to specific cultures.

2. Use inclusive language

Avoid words and phrases that could exclude or alienate certain groups of people. All teams — even those that aren’t involved in content localization processes — should aim to be as inclusive as possible, but inclusive language becomes even more important when writing for a diverse global audience.

For example, rather than using gendered terms like “man-made,” “chairman,” or “mankind,” use “synthetic,” “chair,” or “humanity.”

Another example: in cybersecurity, the terms “whitelist” and “blacklist” are increasingly being phased out in favor of terms like “allowlist” and “blocklist,” because color-coding “white” and “black” to mean “good” and “bad” is reminiscent of racist ideologies.

These kinds of changes aren't just more inclusive, they also make content easier to localize. “Allowlist” and “blocklist” much more clearly convey the intended meanings than “whitelist” and “blacklist,” with less culturally specific context required. 

3. Keep sentences simple

In general, it's easier to translate simpler sentence constructions into other languages. Overly complex sentences can create ambiguity and confusion, and make it more likely that whoever is localizing your work will translate something incorrectly.

Additionally, simpler sentences will also help ensure that non-native English speakers can more easily understand your writing.

If you have long, complex sentences, try breaking them into shorter sentences, or breaking them into bulleted lists.

If you have long, complex sentences, try breaking them into shorter sentences, or breaking them into bulleted lists.

4. Opt for active voice over passive voice

Most English-language writers are already familiar with the staple advice to write in active voice instead of passive voice. However, this advice takes on a new dimension in the context of localization, because not all languages have a passive voice, and for languages that do have a passive voice, passivity isn’t always expressed using equivalent sentence constructions to those in English.

In English, as in other languages, there are definitely reasons to use the passive voice. For example, the writer might want to emphasize the recipient of an action rather than the agent of an action. In general, though, sentences written using the passive voice tend to be longer and more complicated to translate.

5. Introduce a style guide to keep terms consistent

Your organization probably has specific branded or technical terms that it uses frequently. Ensuring that everyone on the team uses these terms consistently and correctly is hard enough in just one language, so it’s no surprise that localization presents even more challenges.

Translating branded terms can be especially complex. You can take a transliteration approach, and try to recreate the sound of the original name in the new target language.

For example, KFC is called 肯德基 (kěndéjī) in Chinese — a word which doesn’t have any meaning on its own in Chinese, but approximates the sound of “Kentucky” in English.

Alternatively, you could take a transcreation approach, and try to recreate the meaning of the original name in the new target language. For example, in Quebec, KFC is called PFK — which is an abbreviation of “Poulet Frit Kentucky,” which means “Kentucky Fried Chicken” in French.

Working through all the nuances of these different translation approaches can be very time-consuming, and you don’t want to have to waste time litigating the same decisions again and again.

Worse still, if different people pitch in on localization efforts outside of a universally decided-on workflow, the same terms might be translated in completely different ways!

A style guide is an important addition to your marketing strategy and defines written standards for everyone in your organization. When used correctly, a style guide ensures that your business has a consistent voice and vocabulary no matter whose writing chops are behind that clever social media post or informative web page.

A style guide is an important addition to your marketing strategy and defines written standards for everyone in your organization.

6. Anticipate differences in length and formatting during translation

When localizing written content, it’s not enough to just think about how the text will change in translation, you also have to think about how those translation changes might affect the formatting of your text on the page.

Consider the directionality of your text: English is read left-to-right, but this isn’t true of all scripts. For example, Arabic is a right-to-left script. Modern Hangul is usually written left-to-right, like English, but it can also be a top-to-bottom script.

Some scripts may require more or fewer characters to express the same concept, and the ways in which those characters are spaced can be very different. In German, compound nouns are formed without hyphens or spaces, which can lead to very lengthy nouns, like “Nahrungsmittelunverträglichkeit” (meaning “food intolerance”). Written Chinese is a partially logographic script, which means that a single character can represent an entire concept. In English, the word “elephant” is eight characters long, but in Chinese, “象” (xiàng) is just one character.

These kinds of differences between scripts can significantly affect how text appears when published. Because formatting can make or break the end user experience, you’ll want to plan accordingly. 

7. Be aware of regional language variations

When preparing content for localization, you need to account for different languages, but you also need to account for different regional or dialectical variants. Vocabulary, grammar, spelling, and pronunciation can vary substantially between local markets, even when using the same language. Here are just a few examples:

  • American English words are often spelled differently than those in UK and Australian English (e.g., “realise” vs. “realize,” “flavour” vs. “flavor,” and “theatre” vs. “theater”).

  • Castilian Spanish and Latin American Spanish use different personal pronouns to address groups of people (i.e., “vosotros” vs. “ustedes”), which leads to the same verbs being conjugated differently.

  • Simplified Chinese characters are used in mainland China and Singapore, whereas traditional Chinese characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau (e.g., “头” vs. “頭”).

There are countless examples of these kinds of regional variations. While daunting, knowing that these differences exist will allow you to plan for them, and prevent costly mistakes. Clearly defining your target audiences and regions in the earliest stages of planning your digital marketing and content initiatives can help.

When possible, you should avoid putting text directly into images.

8. Be smart about images

Images are extremely useful for SEO, supporting text, and making a piece of writing more visually appealing. However, localizing supporting images requires a similar strategy to that of text-based content.

Broadly speaking, visual language can differ across cultural contexts. Visual metaphors can cause cross-cultural confusion in the same way as their written counterparts. While owls are considered a symbol of wisdom in many Western cultures, the same cannot be said for how owls are viewed in India — the word for owl in Hindi, “उल्लू” (ulloo) also means “idiot” or “fool.” If you intend to include pictures or illustrations of people, you should also be mindful of whether the demographics of the people being portrayed are relevant and appropriate for the intended audience.

When possible, you should avoid putting text directly into images. To localize an image with text on it, you’ll need to create a new version of the image with different copy. You might even need to redesign the image entirely if the length of the localized copy is substantially different from the original text. To avoid this headache altogether, you might opt to use subtitles below the images to inject supportive, relevant content.

An AI writing platform can help you write better content for localization

If your company is expanding its global reach, you'll need a localization strategy. With so many different factors to consider, designing and implementing a comprehensive content strategy that considers how to translate various types of content can be difficult.

Writer is an AI writing platform that can aid your organization’s localization strategy by automatically flagging issues like unclear phrasing, insensitive terms, and off-brand language. With the right preparation and tools, you can make sure your brand is well received by new audiences in international markets.

Check out the official Writer integration on the Contentful Marketplace.

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