Local on a global scale... What exactly is localisation?

When content is being transferred between languages and cultures, sometimes translation on its own just isn’t enough. With some types of texts, the format and even the content may need to be adapted to ensure that the original message is communicated effectively to the target audience.

illustration translations

Are translation and localisation not the same thing?

If you listen to some language service providers and ad agencies out there, you might think that “localisation” is just a cool new way of saying “translation”. But the two services are actually different.

Translation is all about accurately transferring the content of the source text into the target language. It requires the translator to think about the tone of voice and ensure that the numbers, currencies, units, dates, times and so on are converted to the standard format used in the target market.

Localisation builds on translation and involves taking the linguistic adaptation of the target text one step further to account for the cultural characteristics of the target audience. It might be the case that the tone of voice used in the source text isn’t appropriate in the target language. Different rules regarding formal and informal language may apply in the target culture. Or the phrase used at the end of a letter could be way too flowery if translated directly. Let’s take a look at the elegant end to French letters... A literal translation of “Veuillez croire, cher Monsieur, à mes sentiments cordiaux et respectueux” is just not going to work in English. A simple “Yours sincerely” or “Yours faithfully” will do the job in the UK depending on who you’re writing to. Anything else would be completely over the top and you may find that an even simpler “Best wishes” works better for less formal correspondence.

What content should be localised?

Localisation tends to be required mostly for texts that need to have a certain impact and speak directly or indirectly to customers. Examples include:

  • Press material
  • Websites
  • Brochures
  • Advertising
  • Software/apps
  • Brand names

Having said that, specialised technical texts aren’t always straightforward either. It’s often wrongly assumed that machine translation output can be used for them without any post-editing because a literal translation will be sufficient. No doubt you’ll have seen the results of that approach in instruction manuals and apps translated from all different languages. It’s a shame you can’t tell what the instructions are going to be like until you’ve bought the product...

The funniest localisation fails

Brand names obviously have the biggest potential to become localisation fails. Since they’re often left untranslated in marketing materials, it’s so important that localisation specialists are brought on board to check that a new brand name is going to work for an international audience. The sooner the better! When things go wrong, brand names can end up being splashed around the internet – much to the world’s amusement.

It’s not enough for the linguist working on this kind of project to be a native speaker of the language used in the target market. They also need to live in the target country and have the relevant cultural literacy. Otherwise, there’s a danger of brand names accidentally having unpleasant or even vulgar connotations. A few years back, Coca-Cola had to change the name of its new ice tea product – “Fuze Tea” – for some markets just before its international launch. Those of you who are familiar with Swiss German will have already realised that the original brand name is just too similar to a certain vulgar slang term. So it became known as “Fuse Tea” in Switzerland as well as in Turkey, Georgia and Kazakhstan.

Here are some other examples you might have heard about:

  • The “Toyota MR2” wasn’t ever going to work in French-speaking countries because it sounds like the Japanese sports car has the swear word “merde” in its name.
  • Things weren’t plain sailing for the Lada Nova either. In Spanish, “no va” isn’t a great name for a car because it means “doesn’t go”. No wonder the car became known as the “Caribe” in Latin America and the “Corsa” in Spain.
  • The popular Finnish beer brand “Koff” may end up being the butt of some jokes in English-speaking countries because it sounds like “cough”. Sure, the words don’t look the same on paper because the spelling is obviously completely different, but the fact they are pronounced the same is enough to cause a problem. After all, who’s going to want to go to the pub for a cough?
  • Clairol’s “Mist Stick” curling iron may have been a best-seller in the USA, but it didn’t exactly fly off the shelves in German-speaking countries. That could well have something to do with the fact that “Mist” is slang for “manure” in German...

Have you come across any funny mistranslations or localisation fails? Do you have experience of checking that international brand names will work globally? Email us at freelance@apostrophgroup.ch – we’d love to hear from you!

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