Internationalization: The Copy Conundrum
Internationalizing 99designs, Lars’s recent article, explains the work the devs did to make the 99designs site multilingual.
Today, I thought it’d be good to look at some of the issues around translating English-language website marketing copy into languages other than English.
First, up, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about one important aspect of internationalization.
We cannot expect direct, word-for-word translation of text to work with any degree of reliability on a regular basis. Why? Because language is entwined with culture, and each culture expresses meaning differently.
From what I’ve read, it seems that pretty much every single language has words to express things that no other language does. So while a word-for-word translation may be possible in some individual instances, it’s unlikely to be a consistently ideal way of communicating meaning.
And at a very basic level, it’s also unlikely to be practical from the point of view of layout. Think about translating your English website into a language that’s written using a logographic system (e.g. Korea’s Hanja, or Japan’s Kanji), and you’ll immediately see why direct translation isn’t always practical—even if both languages have words that mean the same things.
What this means is that humans need to get involved, and not just at the word-by-word translation level. Here are a few elements that affect the transposition of a website into a different language and locale.
The internationalization of the 99designs site happened around the same time as the redevelopment of the original 99designs.com site. A key part of the redevelopment was to reposition the brand.
The work that was done around branding was collected into a single style guide. That’s written in English (and, luckily, all the 99designs’ country managers around the world are adept with the language).
The style guide covers everything from fonts and colors to the business’s mission, value propositions, and user personas. What this means is that when translations of text need to be made, the country managers have a single point of reference for style, tone, and brand personality.
Without this document, what would their country managers use to direct their own translations of copy? Potentially, their only reference would be the English-language website itself.
But using marketing material itself as your only basis for a translation is a bad idea, for a number of reasons:
- For newly hired country managers, the site itself doesn’t provide the depth of information and background necessary to understand the thinking behind 99’s approach to communicating with its audience.
- Looking only at the existing copy on the site is likely to encourage word-for-word translations, while the style guide encourages staff to step back, look at what we’re trying to achieve, and then reconsider how best to achieve those communications goals with their local audience.
- The website is the tip of the communications iceberg; with more background information, staff in any country may be able to perceive better ways to hone the 99designs message to fit the unique aspects of their culture and language—and to do that in a way that works within the existing layout.
You can see the influence of the brand repositioning really clearly when you compare the .com site with one of the new translations, like 99designs.nl. So you can compare the copy on both, I’ve included a screenshot of the How It Works page from the old English-language site against the new one here.
As you can see, it’s not just the look or the text that’s changed: the approach to providing information, and the nature of the information provided have also been affected by the rebrand.
Sense and culture
We mentioned culture above, but it’s important to acknowledge that the cultural aspects of language don’t just prevent some phrases from making sense in direct translation.
They can also provide opportunities to communicate your message in other, culture-specific ways that make a deeper sort of sense—have greater resonance, you might say—for speakers of a certain language.
This isn’t just about using idioms; it’s about talking actual sense. Let me show you what I mean.
That headline on 99designs.com seems simple enough. But some languages may use a phrase, not a single word, to express the idea of a guarantee (just as French uses “little lunch”—which amounts to three words in that language—to say “breakfast”). So vocabulary is an issue—and that includes your brand vocabulary. Are the words you’ve chosen appropriate to the languages and people you’re targeting with your translation?
Grammar may also be a problem. Assuming they have one, some languages may not use their word for “guarantee” as a verb. Languages differ in how they use sentence subjects and objects, how they conjugate verbs, and the way they use articles—all of which can make the task of making sense a real challenge. Then, throw an issue like linked text into the mix, and things can get even trickier.
There’s also common, culture-specific usage to consider. As Michael pointed out on last week’s post, even a simple word such as “please” might be culturally inappropriate for some situations in different English-speaking places, let alone in locations where other languages are used.
But wait! Let’s not forget punctuation. It’d be nice to think it’s just a matter of dots and dashes (and quotes, commas, parentheses, and ellipses … the list goes on), but punctuation affects sense in extremely subtle ways. Consider these alternative headlines:
- Get a design you’ll love—guaranteed
- Get a design you’ll love: guaranteed
- Get a design you’ll love. Guaranteed
- Get a design you’ll love? Guaranteed
Without wanting to sound dramatic, bad punctuation really can be a disaster. Just as getting it right in English often takes an expert, so does getting it right in a foreign language.
Length and space
We mentioned logographic writing systems above, but you don’t need to switch between writing systems to have a translation break your layout.
Plenty of Latin alphabetical writing systems use diacritical marks that can alter the space your copy requires. Grammar and vocabulary issues can blow out line and paragraph lengths. Even single-word menu items can upset your nav design when they’re presented in a different language.
The human solution
That’s a big list of potential problems, but all it means is that you can’t always rely on direct, word-for-word translations. You need to use a translator who’s experienced with the language, and can do your brand justice too. Maybe you’ll have those people in your business already, but if not, you may need to hire some.
One of the places 99designs has long been doing translation is in the 99designs Help content. This help is accessible from all different versions of the site. We write the initial help articles in English, then have the relevant country staff translate them into the language for which they’re responsible.
The brand style guide, which contains our brand vocabulary (in English) is already there to support this work—although of course some negotiation might be needed around that vocabulary for different translations and cultures along the way. But it’ll help us translate and develop marketing text in languages other than English that’s on-brand, culturally sensitive, and compelling too.
Potentially, though, when it comes to marketing text, I’d wager that 99designs will ultimately want to work with copywriters that are competent with each language, to get the best communication outcome they can for each local market.