If you work in any sort of business that produces content, you have probably come across the term “content localization.” You know it must be important, but what is it, and how can you use it to reach a wider audience?
What is Content Localization?
Put simply, it is the process of tailoring and adapting your content to foreign audiences around the world. You can achieve this through language translation, formatting, and the selection of dedicated images, symbols, colors, and icons that make sense for each region.
Depending on the content you produce, you may choose to focus on localization for one region (for example, before the release of your product in South Korea) or you may choose to make your content as accessible to anyone around the world as you possibly can (for example, before the release of a worldwide app on the app store).
The end goal of content localization is to provide a natural, intuitive, and seamless experience for each user, no matter his or her native language and culture.
Why is Localization Important?
Whether your consumers realize it or not, they will form subconscious opinions of your business based on first impressions. So, make those first impressions good ones.
You have probably come across badly localized content before. It may stick out in your mind as being awkward and clumsy, a bad reflection on a cheap company that didn’t bother to hire a good translator. Many readers jump to that assumption when they encounter choppy translations, culturally inappropriate images, and formatting obviously designed for a different language structure.
Worse, perhaps you clicked away from that badly localized web page so quickly you’ve forgotten it entirely. From a marketing standpoint, that content just ceased to exist for at least one reader.
Well-localized content, on the other hand, provides your users with a seamless and high-quality experience. Ideally, your consumers shouldn’t notice that the content was not originally written in their language or released in their country.
How Can You Localize Your Content to Reach a Wider Audience?
The backbone of a good localization strategy often comes down to language. While it’s not the only important factor, it does provide a base around which the rest of the details can be structured.
Adapting the Language
Film and TV
As a filmmaker, you would likely hire translators to write and translate text subtitles. You may even hire voice actors to record dubs for each scene.
You would release these “localized” versions based on the regions of origin and destination. For example, the American release of a German film would likely include the originally recorded German dialogue with English subtitles, as well as a version dubbed in English. From these packaged options contained in the American release, the end viewer can then choose whether he or she prefers dubs or subtitles.
Video games require the same content localization principles as film, but often with a broader, more worldwide audience in mind as opposed to a specific release for each region. Instead of providing the player with a choice of dubs or subtitles, game developers often choose one of those versions in particular and then add localized subtitles enabled by default.
For example, a modern Japanese game will probably ship with an English voice-acted version enabled by default. Additional options such as English subtitles with the original Japanese dialogue would then be available in the menu.
If a customer were to order the original Japanese release of that same game as a physical copy from a Japanese store, it is unlikely that game release would include English subtitles or dubs. Some gamers can and do order original versions as a way of enjoying the “authentic” experience. Most worldwide users will not fall into this niche group, however.
Finally, in games downloaded online, the player often chooses his or her native or preferred language. This usually happens before the game is downloaded or booted up for the first time. For these online downloads, the game developer would need to encode each localized version. This happens either within a single release or within a package chosen from the user’s selection.
Since most websites deal primarily in text, translation of that text is the first step toward localization.
Unlike film and video games, which draw users in with eye-catching graphics and a compelling storyline, websites rely on the clarity of language to convey their messages. If your translation is subpar, your user’s experience will be subpar as well.
This is why it is crucial that you hire native or near-native linguists to translate your website text. It’s tempting to hire cheaply and let Google’s automatic translation feature do most of the heavy lifting. In the long run, however, you would ultimately be doing yourself and your business a disservice.
Keep in mind that strict translation of words and phrases is only the beginning. Regional idioms, metaphors, and word choice, when well-implemented, offer a seamless and natural reading experience. Done badly, however, they are a jarring reminder that your content has been hastily translated. The latter may leave your customers wondering whether your business may cut corners in other areas, as well.
You may pay more upfront for a quality translator. However, your investment in good content localization will pay off in the future with much more appealing, marketable subject matter.
Apps and Programs
While a film or video game may have dedicated regional content tailored to each release’s destination, apps and programs coded for worldwide release face a different set of challenges.
Major app stores generally distribute to users in many different countries. For simplicity’s sake, the programmer, not the end-user, assumes the burden of determining an app’s localization.
This means that, instead of the user choosing his or her preferred language or preference between dubs and subtitles, the developer needs to code the app so it will display already translated content on the user’s device. The user should not need to take any further steps.
To meet growing localization demands, developers usually attempt to code apps and programs with no pre-set, assumed language at all.
Instead, placeholder values are coded into the app wherever text would appear to the user. This placeholder message would then be replaced by the correct phrase according to the end-user’s device language settings.
How does this work in a real-world example?
An app that uses a welcome message to greet users might contain something like this in its code:
Placeholder variable: “Welcome Message Display”.
The developer will likely use hundreds – if not thousands – of these placeholder text variables throughout the program.
Within a separate language localization file, the programmer links the placeholder to an actual welcome message to be displayed. For this example, assume the programmer’s native language is English.
He or she would edit the language file and add (in the correct syntax for the programming language): “English: ‘Welcome'”.
Once the app is finished and ready for further localization, translators for each destination language can provide their translations for each phrase within that language file.
In an app localized for English, Spanish, and German, for example, the file would look something like this:
- “English: ‘Welcome'”
- “Spanish: ‘Bienvenidos'”
- “German: ‘Willkommen'”
An app with hundreds of language options would include them all in a similar manner.
Finally, the app is released, and a user in Germany downloads it. His phone’s language settings default to German. His welcome message will therefore read “Willkommen” right off the bat, with no effort or input on his part.
Due to the complicated nature of localizing an app or a program to be compatible with hundreds of languages, across dozens of development platforms, user operating systems, and varying device settings, much effort and frustration can be saved on the front end by hiring quality translators.
Few things turn off potential users like choppily translated content that uses unfamiliar idioms, metaphors, and systems of measurement.
Clear, concise translations also make it much easier to determine when bugs are affecting the user experience or when the actual content of the app needs to be addressed.
Language is Just the Beginning
Regardless of the content you produce, don’t end your localization strategy once you have obtained your translations and voice-acting clips. Even the most naturally flowing text can’t disguise formatting intended for a different language structure or a regionally offensive color scheme!
Consider languages that read right to left, instead of the Western way of left to right.
It’s not that these users can’t read in a left to right format. But don’t let that convince you against allotting some resources for proper localization formatting.
An English reader could successfully interact with an entirely right-aligned website, but he would enjoy a much more natural and intuitive experience with left-aligned text. The reverse is true for other countries. On an Arabic website, for example, users would probably prefer if the text flowed naturally from right to left and the images were placed in intuitive, right-aligned positions.
Colors and Symbolism
Assuming your content will be viewable around the world, you should have at least a cursory understanding of how it will be interpreted by regional audiences. Even good content localization plans often forget to address color schemes and symbolism found in icons, images, and splash screens.
Your self-help website’s happy yellow banner theme conveys optimism and joy to Westerners. In Greece or the Middle East, however, your viewers would probably be confused as to why you chose the color of sadness and mourning.
There are certain rules you can implement in order to play it safe with worldwide content, for example avoiding pictures of hands or religious symbols altogether. But doing so may rob your content of its emotional weight, leaving it dry and bland.
You can achieve a happy balance.
The trick? Understand your audience before your content goes live.
What may be a totally benign hand gesture in one are of the world is extremely offensive in another. If you know your content will be reaching audiences in the United Kingdom, for example, be wary of including images of the American peace sign, lest you be terribly misunderstood.
Forming Your Localization Strategy
As a content producer, your job begins and ends with understanding your audience and tailoring your content to their needs. In the end, it matters very little which exact path you choose. Just remember to save yourself time, money, and trouble by opting for quality translations and dubs from the very beginning. Your end goal is to get your message across, and there is no better way to make sure you do than with content localization.