Localization for Translation

Localization means making a piece of writing in one language work well in another language. It includes translation, but that’s a small part of the localization process.

This post focuses on how you write in English when you know ahead of time that it will be translated to other languages, in a way that makes it easy to translate to other languages. It is more or less the idea of globalization. If you know the document will be translated, here are some tips to take some of the headaches out of the translation process:

  • Where graphics, call-out boxes, etc. squeeze text into small portions of the page, leave 30–50 percent white space on the page. Translation often uses more text than the original English—you need to allow space to ensure the same text stays on the same page in both languages. Otherwise, for example, you might end up with the text English text on page 52, but that same text in German on page 53. That causes all kinds of problems with cross-references, indexes, tables of contents, as well as with later updates and revisions, which again need to be translated. So, be sure to…
  • Keep exactly the same content on the same page number in all translations.
  • Use commas extensively, especially with prepositional phrases. (This is contrary to normal editing style—it is normally cleaner style to reduce commas, but it is easier to translate bits of sentences in between commas, so use them generously for localization)
  • Use bulleted lists and numbered lists instead of paragraphs when possible (again, small bits of language in a neat sequential order are faster and easier to translate most accurately)
  • Use direct and indirect articles (the, a, an), pronouns, and other indexicals extensively, accurately, and consistently.
  • Use phrases like “…by using…” instead of “…using…”; and, “…the button that you press…” instead of “the button you press….”
  • Use active voice. (This is important in any documentation, but even more important for translation.)
  • Use words that have only one definition in the dictionary, or choose the word in its most common usage.
  • Use “OK” a lot. (It is almost universal and rarely needs to be translated.)
  • Use screenshots and other instructive graphics extensively. Pictures tell a lot, and don’t need to be translated.

There is a lot more to localization, such as adapting for the target culture, transcreation to retain nuances of meaning for context and impact, ensuring concepts get across, and technical tools, which I talked a little about in these two posts:

(Just for fun) Here’s a few links that take you to some handy translation scripts:

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