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The truth about localization: What actually happens?

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Let’s say you have a product. After years of hard work and ongoing pivoting, things are going well, and you find yourself thinking: This could be big in Japan. But you have no idea where to start.

Or maybe you’re already juggling 4 (or 40) languages, trying to keep up with versions and rules and cultural norms. You’ve somehow kept above water with organized chaos or just simple chaos. But you know this won’t scale.

Perhaps you’ve been doing localization for a while. You have a system in place so nothing gets lost along the way. Tasks are delivered on time. Translations are technically correct. But you feel the results are somewhat… generic.

Whatever your issue is, I guarantee it can be fixed. It’s all about understanding how localization works. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to localization strategy because every company is different – but if you understand the inner workings of localization, you can build on that understanding to create custom workflows that are right for your company, and tweak and revise them as needed. You’ll also be able to quickly respond to changes and developments around you, making your localization infrastructure more flexible and agile.

Plus, when you know what’s supposed to happen, you can make sure things go as planned. You know what to expect. If things derail, you notice much earlier. In short – it’s a must.

This is true whether you’re using freelance translators, a translation agency, or in-house linguists. However, please don’t slap a localization task on some poor Italian speakers from customer service. I’ve seen this with more clients than I care to admit and it always backfires. Localization requires a unique skillset, honed over years of learning and working. Take it seriously, and you’ll be rewarded with fantastic results and a strong presence in local markets.

OK, but what even is localization?

Localization is the process of adapting a product from one market to another. In the context of this article, we’ll talk about how product texts or other types of copy are translated and adapted to fit the new market.

It’s important to note that to make a product sound and feel native, you may need to make extensive changes to your tone of voice, messaging, or even design. We’ll discuss this in detail below.


What to expect when I do localization?

On a super basic level, when you localize your content, this is what you expect to see:

Copy in one language → Copy in a different language.

Big whoop, right?

Wrong.

This is what actually happens, or at least, should happen:

Brand values and personality + Product or project needs + Specific copy needs (AKA Context) → Copy in one language → Local knowledge + Context → Context adapted to the target market → Copy in a different language (first draft) → Proofread copy in a different language (second draft) → Validated copy in a different language (third draft) → Notes and comments (after copy is implemented) → Finalized copy in a different language (final version)

Ahh! I know, it’s a lot. Don’t worry, though. We’ll go over everything. Scroll on to delve into the dark, dark world of professional localization.


Before we start: 4 assumptions we’re making

  1. Translators are a hard bunch (and I include myself in this definition). They’re used to being the smartest person in the room, and that often makes them less receptive to unusual requirements (like: “please make sure the translation reflects my brand”). The good ones are also busy, and that means they go through dozens of brands each month, or even week. It’s hard to keep track of so many voices and guidelines with such turnover.

    In the grand scheme of things, translators want you to get good results. They want to do their work well. But you need to give them the right tools, in a way that’s easy for them to use and understand. You also need to stand out from the brand crowd to get your guidelines some extra space in their brain. More on that later.

  2. Localization is a hard word to type. Also, say. I’ll be using translation and localization interchangeably throughout this post. I know there may be some purists claiming these are not the same. Please refer them to the nearest comment section where they can argue over semantics with others of their kin.
  3. You need your localized content to feel natural and local. You don’t, however, need it to be 100% word-for-word accurate. If you’re here trying to localize legal or medical texts this is probably not going to be a good fit. Sorry, it’s not you, it’s your content.
  4. You know how your brand should sound. Don’t – I repeat, DO NOT – start localizing before you’ve got your brand figured out. That’s a surefire way to lose control over the entire process from the get-go. When you send copy for translation with no brand brief, you’re basically letting translators have their way with your copy. And trust me – it is not going to be pretty.

Right. Now that we’ve established our frame of reference, here it is. The 8 steps you need to know in-and-out to go from ‘ah um loca-what?’ to Localization Pro.


Step 1: Your brand and goals

As I said, you should have your brand voice nailed down. It’s also useful to predefine your goals for both UX texts and copy. Once you do, you’ll use these insights to create a translation brief and style guide. They’ll also impact the copy you write.

Let’s assume you already know exactly how your brand should sound and have a clear spec document outlining what you’ll be working on and what your goals are. Good for you for being so responsible! You move on to writing your copy.

Step 2: Your copy

This is where you take all you’ve defined in the previous step, and write on-brand UX texts. UX writing is an art form in its own right, and I will not delve into the details here. Enough to say your texts should serve their intent and sound like your brand. 

So, once your final copy is functional, beautiful, action-driving perfection, you prep your strings for translation. This often includes copying them into a spreadsheet or a doc file. Other times, you’ll upload them into a CAT tool (that’s a software dedicated to improving translation and localization workflows). You get ready to send them out for translation. But wait! You also need to send…

Step 3: Your context

This is everything the translators should know about this project to get it right. In the very least, it should include a style guide and a brand brief adapted specifically to your project’s needs. Here are some things you may want to include:

  • Your brand’s personality and voice
  • Your goals for this specific project
  • Screenshots or the source layout the translated texts need to fit into
  • Who are you writing for? What’s your target audience?
  • Any specific linguistic instructions you want followed
  • Terms and phrases you want to translate in a certain way

You may be tempted to just dump every bit of information into a zip file and send that, but don’t. Your brief should be focused and easy to read. I’d even recommend having it professionally designed to keep it scannable and memorable. The more effort and thought you put into this brief, the bigger your odds are of getting good results.

Optional step 3.5: Translator training

Don’t expect your translators to work for free – pay them for training time. I strongly recommend you allocate a couple of hours for linguists to familiarize themselves with your brief and style guide. This is usually possible when you make the effort to work with permanent teams (also encouraged). Paying translators for training will dramatically increase the chances of them actually reading your briefs.

Step 4: Translation

And so it begins! The translator takes everything you’ve sent and gets to work. Keys are pressed. Words are typed. It’s electrifying.

To get fluent target copy, you don’t want your translator doing a word-for-word translation. You want them to take the core meaning of your original copy, mix it up with some local knowledge and grammar, and in a healthy dose of context, and create matching copy in their language. That’s where the alchemy of good translation lies – in that black cauldron full of context soup.

However, you still want your guidelines adhered to. A great way to help translators make sure this happens is by creating a dedicated translation checklist. It should include the core instructions you want followed – for example, make sure translation is non-gendered, or verify that the tone of voice is formal. Send that (not too long) checklist to the translator and have them confirm all instructions were followed.

Step 5: Proofreading

Translators being human, they often make mistakes. This is why we need another human translator to go over the first human translator’s work.

During this stage, Translator #2 will (ideally) make sure the translation is good. As ‘good’ is subjective, we’ll need to define for them exactly what counts as good in our book. Reviewers should follow the translation brief and style guide too, making sure the rules are followed. To help them keep track of things, we’ll send a dedicated reviewer checklist.

No matter what translation tool you’re using, make sure all corrections at this stage are clearly marked with tracked changes. It’ll help you get a clear overview of what happened. Plus, it’s important for the next step – validation, or as I like to call it ‘the battle of the egos’.

Step 6: Validation

Translators being human, they have egos. Being smart humans, they have massive spaceship-sized egos (OK, not all of them. But some). This is why there will always be changes in the proofreading stage. And Translator #1 will always disagree with Translator #2.

During validation, translators should have a healthy discussion, each explaining their point of view until they reach the best version. Your goal is to create the best boxing ring for this quote-unquote discussion. Namely: a shared spreadsheet or document in English, of which you have full visibility. Yes, you want them to be able to communicate well. That’s a given. But you also need to know what’s being said. It’s a great way to make sure instructions are followed and maybe pop in with your own point of view if needed.

Step 7: LQA

Once you implement the target copy in your app, ad, or any other layout, things WILL go wrong. Some languages are longer or shorter than others. Others have super-specific layout demands you will forget about. Some will need a special font, or require you to change the date format. The possibilities are endless.

During LQA, your linguists (#1, #2, or magical #3) will go over the localized content in its layout to make sure everything sits as it should. You can either send PDFs or screenshots, or you can set up a test environment for them to browse through.

If they find issues or errors, they need to write them down, just as you would when you normally do QA. If they’re linguistic issues, they need to implement the needed corrections, too. Once everything gets green-lighted, do another, quicker LQA to make sure everything was fixed properly.

Step 8: Repeat

YOU’RE DONE! Do a little happy dance, then start all over again. The joys of localization never really end, and you’ll soon have a new version to implement.


What’s next?

I hope this overview helped you learn some more about how the localization sausage gets made. Now, sit down with your team and try to identify where your own workflow can be improved. Write down your bottlenecks and use the information above to iron out the kinks. Once your workflow improves, you should start to see dramatic improvement.

Good luck!


What are your thoughts on voice-centric localization? I’d love to know what you think and talk localization, copywriting and UX writing. Find me on LinkedIn or visit my site to learn about building reliable workflows for scalable localization.

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