By Sarah Mitchell published March 9, 2011

Lost in Translation? An 11-Step Checklist for Localizing Content

We’ve all had a giggle over a bad translation. Examples of unintentionally funny gaffes on assembly instructions and product descriptions abound on the Internet. But it’s not funny when it happens to you.

What can you do?

As the old saying goes, the devil is in the detail. With that in mind, here is the checklist I use when localizing content. Make sure each of these points is checked off your list before you launch content in a different country or geography.

Paper

American standard paper is 8 ½ x 11 inches. The rest of the world operates on an A4 paper size, 21 x 29.7 cm or, roughly, 8 ¼ x 11 ¾ inches. It’s a small difference with a huge impact. American-sized documents do not easily fit into envelopes or binders in other countries. Your documents must be resized – and possibly redesigned – to ensure they print properly in your foreign market.

Hole punches

America uses a standard 3-hole punch. Most other countries use a 2-hole punch and are not aligned with the American standard. If you’re providing content to be inserted into a binder, make sure you’re punching the holes in the right place.

Spelling

Many words are spelled differently in the United States than in other English speaking countries. While American audiences tend to find these differences charming, foreign audiences bristle at the “arrogance” of not taking spelling into consideration. You must go through your content with an editorial eagle-eye to find these differences. Set your spell checker to the language and country where you plan on publishing and make the changes required.

Spelling traps include:

  • Words ending in ‘or’, e.g.  color versus colour
  • words ending in ‘ize’, e.g. optimize versus optimise
  • Medical terms, e.g. pediatrician versus paediatrician
  • Botany/gardening terms, e.g.  cilantro versus coriander
  • Food terms, e.g. zucchini versus courgette

Slang/colloquialism

Running afoul of local slang and colloquialisms can be embarrassing. I discovered this firsthand when I announced to a group of my British male colleagues that I was feeling particularly ‘spunky.’ I meant full of energy; they interpreted it as having a heightened libido.  I was horrified when a mature gentleman asked to borrow a rubber; he wanted an eraser. In South Africa, I couldn’t find a ‘robot’ and got lost on my first day of work. I had no idea I was looking for a traffic light. You get the picture.

Abbreviations and titles

If you’ve ever read a foreign newspaper, you know how frustrating it can be to encounter abbreviations or titles you don’t understand. Government,  law enforcement, medicine and the legal profession use different titles for the same job in different countries. For example, attorney, lawyer, barrister, judge and solicitor all refer to professionals employed in a court of law. Do your readers in every country know what people hold jobs with MP, DC, GP or DO abbreviations in their title?

Units of measure

While most of the world comfortably operates on the metric system, the USA is still using the old Imperial system for weight, measurement and temperature. Your documents will be meaningless to people who don’t how long a yard is, what 80 degrees Fahrenheit feels like, or how much 45 pounds weigh.  Use an online metric conversion program to make life easier for your readers.

Cooking

If you’re publishing recipes, cookbooks or anything to do with food preparation, you’re going to want to spend some time localizing your content. America – and to a lesser extent Britain – still uses Imperial measurements while nearly everyone else is on the metric system. A good online cooking converter will help you convert ingredients, temperatures, weights and volumes. Keep in mind the way food products are packaged can trip you up, too. Asking for a ‘stick of butter’ is sure to confuse anyone outside the USA. A fluid pint varies in volume from country to country. A punnet is common in Australia but unknown in the USA (it’s a small basket often used when selling fruits).

Number formats

A dead give-away your content hasn’t been localized is if your telephone numbers reflect the American standard of (123) 456-7890. In Australia, we have 2-digit area codes and 8-digit phone numbers and note them like this (01) 2345 6789. Our postal codes are 4-digits long. Make sure your documents are changed to reflect these differences. It’s  important to make sure your online forms can handle different formats for critical numbers. I’ve given up ordering online more than once because an American website insists on a 5-digit zip code and won’t let me complete an order.

Currency

While business is pretty good at getting their pricing translated into foreign currency, they often fall down when expressing the value of things. Dollars and cents have no meaning in many parts of the world. Even more confusing, many people have no point of reference for a quarter, dime or nickel. I wish I had a quarter for every time someone asked me how much a dime or a nickel was worth!

Fiscal Years

The financial calendar varies widely from country to country as do tax years. If your content deals with finances, make sure you’re not confusing things by referring to the wrong business calendar. This is especially important if you’re running year-end sales or promotions.  Don’t expect your local market to share your fiscal year or tax year.

Accents

Americans love accents but the world does not reciprocate the feeling. If you’re producing videos or podcasts for foreign markets, hire a voice-over specialist with a native accent even if it’s the same language you speak. Your audience will appreciate the consideration. More importantly, they’ll be able to easily understand the point you’re trying to get across. You want them focused on your content, not the way the narrator is speaking.

A couple of notes on translation

If you’re distributing your content into a foreign-language market, get a native-speaking translator. Don’t rely on free Internet translation services: they give literal translations but don’t consider the way people actually speak. I once heard the late founder of the Body Shop, Anita Roddick, speak about a debacle with a major rollout of a ‘mother and baby’ line of products. The South American translation, performed in the U.K., offended everyone when the product names took on a profane slur against motherhood.

If your plan is to publish only in countries using the same speaking language, you still need to employ local services to ‘translate’ your content. Spanish speaking countries vary greatly in their usage of the language. China has several different dialects. People from Brazil have a tough time understanding people from Portugal even though they all speak Portuguese. The worst language offences occur in English-speaking countries where spelling differences, slang and colloquialisms can render your content useless. At the very least, it shows a lack of consideration for your potential clients.

For an example of my latest localization project, read the Australian edition of Chief Content Officer.

Do you have a good story about localization or any points to add to this checklist?

Author: Sarah Mitchell

Sarah Mitchell is Head of Content Strategy at Lush Digital Media and founder of Global Copywriting. She develops content marketing and community engagement strategies for clients in a variety of industries. Sarah works in Perth, Western Australia and frequently speaks on topics related to Content Marketing and Social Media. She's also the Australian editor for Chief Content Officer magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @globalcopywrite.

Other posts by Sarah Mitchell

Join Over 150,000 of your Peers!

Get daily articles and news delivered to your email inbox and get CMI’s exclusive e-book Launch Your Own Content Marketing Program FREE!

  • http://www.clickwinningcontent.com.au Melinda

    Great article Sarah. I would also add that if you’re localising content from another language into English, use a native English speaker or get a native English speaker to do a final edit once it has been translated.

    • http://www.globalcopywriting.com/ globalcopywrite

      Thanks, Melinda. I totally agree. I would recommend the same even if the content is going to another country with the same language. When I worked in the UK I used to get teased as being bilingual – English English and American English.

  • Pingback: The Day in Links – March 10, 2011 « PR COG'S GEAR GRINDINGS()

  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.merriman Chris Merriman

    The ZIP code (and not allowing enough characters for an international phone number) certainly rang true. It was somehow even more annoying when there was actually a field for the country – it looked as though it had just been added on, without anyone even attempting to enter a non-US address/contact details.
    Thanks for the article, found it via your posterous feed.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_XYF3QSKFNHJ6PSNNHJBRFTT7AM Joe

    Canada uses American paper sizes and has its own spelling tradition.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_XYF3QSKFNHJ6PSNNHJBRFTT7AM Joe

    Canada uses American paper sizes and has its own spelling tradition.