Localization: The Art of Making Your Global Message Local

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I remember clearly the expression on my fellow translators’ faces the first time I used the word “Localization” to describe the type of work I was doing. Back then—and it wasn’t that long ago really—I couldn’t even find a resource to look for the translation of the English term “localization” in my own language. The irony of it!

Although the term is getting more circulation these days, and more people are now working within the localization industry, it is still not that unusual to meet people at dedicated conferences or events who are still confused when they hear “localization” when they are expecting to hear “translation”.

So what is the difference between “translation” and “localization”?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, translation is “The process of translating words or text from one language into another”. Similar definitions can be found in linguistics textbooks too, and that is normally the general idea most people have of what “translation” is. Many also argue that translation is not about words, but it is rather about what the words are about. In that sense, the subject-matter knowledge of the original text to be translated is, in fact, the very essence of translation, as Kevin Hendzel points out in his article on this topic. As he perfectly describes:

“We translators can spend decades of rigorous effort in the lead-up to our translation careers—and certainly during such careers—developing the crucial subject-matter expertise essential to the translation enterprise.

This process involves learning highly complex concepts in science, technology, philosophy, law, finance, business, music and dozens of other fields through immersion in the lab, lecture hall, classroom, production line, fabrication plant, trading floor or boardroom.”

However, when it comes to launching a new product into a foreign market, the knowledge of highly complex concepts of very specific and technical fields might not actually be enough to guarantee the success of that campaign.

For that purpose, translation has to be supported by what has been known as “localization”: that is, according to businessdictionary.com: “The practice of adjusting a product’s functional properties and characteristics to accommodate the language, cultural, political and legal differences of a foreign market or country.”

These adjustments extend also to your product’s marketing message if you decide to spread the word in new countries. Some practical examples might help to understand the importance businesses must place in localization when it comes to global marketing campaigns.

When a well-known fast-food company specializing in fried chicken meals decided to expand their franchise in China, all was going well until their well-known slogan “Finger Lickin’ Good” was translated to mean the equivalent of “eat your fingers off”! A Swedish vacuum company chose the catchphrase “Nothing sucks like an (name of company)” for their marketing campaign in the United States, where the term “sucks” is slang for something annoying, of low quality, or simply characterized by a negative connotation. It’s no wonder the choice of wording in this case didn’t manage to convey a strong message about product quality or instill confidence in performance in the potential customer. Unsurprisingly, the product never really took off in the US. Although it would be difficult to blame their lack of success in that market on their failure to choose a suitable slogan, this accident certainly didn’t help the company image.

“It won’t stain your pocket and embarrass you” was the slogan of a world famous pen-making company, emphasizing how its pens wouldn’t leak. However, the translation in Spanish “no manchará tu bolsillo, ni te embarazará” wasn’t able to convey exactly the same meaning, as “embarazar” means “to be pregnant” rather than “to embarrass.” The slogan was therefore understood as “it won’t stain your pocket and get you pregnant.”

Seemingly, “Fly in Leather” used by an American airline to introduce its new leather first-class seats in Mexico ended up encouraging passengers to “Fly naked” in the destination language. And a famous beer-producing company had their slogan “turn it loose” translated in Spanish in such a way that it was understood as slang for “suffer from diarrhea.”

These are just some of the many examples of translations gone hilariously wrong. But as well as giving us funny anecdotes for the next localization conference, some marketing blunders could cause serious repercussions—particularly when they cross the bar of legality.

For example, in many countries in the world it is illegal to use comparative advertising: that is, when you advertise your brand of soap powder as “washing your whites whiter than Brand XYZ”.  This could become a serious matter for those companies, turning to the Internet to establish their worldwide presence through online advertisement, and therefore immediately and automatically reaching different audiences with different levels of standards and attitudes when it comes to comparative advertising. As highlighted in “Comparative Advertising Doesn’t Always Work Overseas”, while for the United States Law comparative advertising is permitted and, in fact, encouraged by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), as long as the assertions made are truthful, non-deceptive, and can be reliably substantiated, in many other countries comparison is not allowed at all.

And the same can be said when taking into account local cultural, religious and political references. An Italian car manufacturing company had a close experience of what can go wrong when a marketing campaign is carried out in any given place without the support of a proper research into the cultural, religious and political aspects of the area in question. The company released an ad in Italy in which actor Richard Gere drives one of their high-end cars from Hollywood to Tibet. The problem was, though, that Gere is not so popular in China for being an outspoken supporter of Tibet and the Dalai Lama, and consequently the Chinese market responded quite loudly online to express its dislike of the car!

From this picture it’s quite clear that for a company or an organization intending to run their marketing campaigns globally it is crucially important to avoid slips that could risk the company’s name or legality, in that area or market for years to come. When planning a marketing campaign one of the first steps should be to consult a localization service, with the right resources and expertise to successfully resonate in a new country or region and deliver the best possible message. Saving money at this stage of a project might result in having to spend more money later on, in trying to repair the company’s image and rectify their professional presence within a given market.

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