article – going global: translations and localization

Going Global: Translations and Localization


Published in the Austin Communicator, A publication of the Society of Technical Communicators

by Garine Isassi

Until recently, American companies have geared themselves toward the English speaker. The idea of expanding globally is extremely appealing from a marketing standpoint and although English is the business language of the world, it is not necessarily the consumer language of the world.

We all have an idea of what “translation” means. It happens at the United Nations everyday. Great literature is translated into hundreds of languages. But in the high tech industry, the term does not quite encompass the depth of what is needed to enter a foreign market. We must go one step beyond simple linguistics. So the industry adopted the term “localization.”

In April, STC featured a meeting on localization. Alan Adams of Adams translations gave a presentation during the pre-meeting roundtable. Then we were introduced to a panel of technical communicators working in localization: Donna Moore of Dell Computers, Robin Bogdon of National Instruments, and Chuck Simms and Mary Richardson of Fischer-Rosemont. Each company represented has very unique audiences in the global market and has to deal with their localization efforts by finding pragmatic solutions in communication.

The most obvious aspect of localization is language translations, but to localize a technical product, you must also embrace a very complex process dealing with hardware mechanics, culture, and government regulations. Any salesperson will tell you that in order to sell something into specific market, you have to know the sociological aspects of that culture; their use of language, their use of objects, their moral beliefs, their politics. Knowing all of that, and acting on it, is localization.

Each country that a company enters must be treated as a unique localization effort. We start with a reputable translation agency with specific experience in technical translations. If you are looking for one, there is an international organization called the Localization Industry Standards Association (LISA). They hold conferences and seminars around the world, unifying the high tech industry. Many company members of the Association are translation agencies.

Before anything starts, it will benefit you to work with the agency on logistical issues, such as costing, word processing software, and final delivery formats. Costing is usually based on a combination of price per word, price per hour, or maybe per page, of desktop publishing, and about a 10% administrative fee.

The process starts with the English source. The English writer who writes toward eventual translation must avoid colloquialisms, culturally specific metaphors, and complicated sentence structures. Most translation agencies will agree that the translators must be native speakers of the target language. Even someone who studied a language in school and lived in the target country for years will not equal a native speaker in the needed cultural and linguistic knowledge.

The first order of business is agreement of glossary terms. We refer to this as a “lexicon.” You must develop a lexicon for each language based on the technical terms used in a target country. This is much more complicated than it may seem. The problems in building a lexicon include almost every aspect of localization. For instance, there are many countries whose national languages are the same, yet whose lexicons may be different. Case in point: Spanish. The most basic of technical terms “computer” translates into “ordenador” in Spain, but in Mexico, they say “computadora.” It becomes a question of marketing and resources. Consumers in Mexico will basically know what you are talking about, but they will also know that your translation was prepared for Spain. Another example of a lexicon issue is the use of verbs. In some Asian languages, although there is an actual translation for the word “click,” as in, “click on the button,” they do not use that word in their computer lexicon. They use the translation for the word “push.” So the literal translation for “click on the button” will not make sense to them whereas the literal translation for “push on the button” will.

Trust the members of your own organization in the target country to help you with the lexicon development. They probably know the market and the language best. It is important to create an open rapport with these internal people. In a perfect world, they will drop everything to help you with lexicon questions and translation reviews, but chances are, they were not hired for the purpose of helping you get localization done. Make schedules with them and get as much of a commitment from them as you can. Once a lexicon has been agreed upon, translations will move more quickly.

There is an ongoing debate about the use of electronic translation versus human translation. Transliteration done through an electronic program will get all of the words and phrases translated, but there will not be a natural flow to the writing style. A human touch is needed to keep the language from sounding stiff. There are several software programs that create a database of previously translated terms and phrases. Human translators use the lexicon and the database to create a readable translation.

For the sake of consistency, it is best to have the same people who helped to create the lexicon review the translated documents, especially if you are just starting out with a new translation agency. If the language is not grammatically correct, the end user will not trust the technical information given in the text.

Other issues to be taken into consideration are not about language, but about cultural norms or just plain mechanics. For instance, average office paper is of different sizes in different countries; we use letter size, all of Europe uses A4 size. Only English speaking countries use English measurement standards (feet, pounds, gallons); every other country in the world uses the metric system (meters, grams, liters). Electronic standards vary from country to country; 120 volts vs 220 volts. Different languages need separate operating systems; Asian characters (Japanese, Chinese, Korean) use two bytes of memory, Roman characters (English, French, German) only use one byte. You could even run into trouble with graphics; for example, if for some reason you were to illustrate the “hook ’em horns” hand gesture as a symbol of Austin, the people of Madrid would be highly insulted! The issues listed here are merely the itty, bitty, top, tip of the issues iceberg.

Probably the most important non-language issue involved in localization is scheduling. There will inevitably be a lag time between the completion of English documents and the localized versions. Depending on your marketing needs, translation agencies can usually work with you to create tight schedules, but note, even the tightest of schedules will not permit simultaneous release of the documents. You and your company must be extremely organized in your effort. Many people in the industry do not realize the tremendous care that must go into localization. It is up to you to make them aware of the time needed to do it thoroughly and correctly. The consumer will respond to well translated documentation and ultimately, that will help your company grow in that market.

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