During my undergrad, I was a part-time communications officer at a non-profit in Montreal. Since Canada has two official languages, I wrote everything in both English and French. The same was true after I moved into corporate communications and translation always factored into the design, lead time, and budget of my projects.
When I joined the marketing team at WordPress.com, my job was to write ad copy, landing page content, video scripts, and blog posts. A part of me was relieved my work was entirely in English. “Finally,” I thought. “I don’t need to do everything twice.”
I was excited to be witty and colourful — maybe even use puns, until I found out our product was available in 16 languages. Uh oh. I wasn’t writing in French, nor was I translating, but I needed to start thinking about internationalization. Simply put, I had to learn to write copy that was translation-ready.
Localization vs Internationalization
Translation, localization, and internationalization — what do all these words mean? The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international community that determines web standards and best practices defines localization as the “adaptation of a product, application or document content to meet the language, cultural and other requirements of a specific target market (a locale)”.
Translation is only one part of localization, which can also involve adapting to different cultural cues, references, and standards. In fact, you could localize within one language, if for example, you were adapting something in European French for the French-Canadian market.
Internationalization, on the other hand, “is the design and development of a product, application or document content that enables easy localization for target audiences that vary in culture, region, or language.”
In other words, it’s the strategy as a whole to prepare a product to be localized in multiple markets. If you really want to nerd out, you could refer to these in their web shorthand: l10n and i18n.
Internationalization as a Business Strategy
Why would a company be concerned with internationalization? The obvious reason is to access markets beyond English speakers. As it stands, 75% of the web no habla inglès. For Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com, internationalization is part of a larger mandate to be more diverse, inclusive, and accessible. Automattic adopts “the Open Source ethos of building products people can use and enjoy regardless of language differences or disability status.”
However, it’s not as simple as running everything through Google Translate. To quote W3C again, “internationalization occurs as a fundamental step in the design and development process, rather than as an afterthought that can often involve awkward and expensive re-engineering.”
I found out that applies to copywriting too. Internationalization should be part of the initial writing exercise or you’ll end up having to rewrite your original copy down the line. When I write fresh content, my main focus is creating compelling copy that achieves my goals in English first.
Those objectives could be communicating value, teaching, creating an emotional response, or inspiring action. I make sure my original document is as strong as possible and follows the best practices of effective copywriting.
How to Write Translatable Copy
Despite my English-first workflow, there are certain strategies I use to prepare my writing for translation.
Use short, clear sentences.
To quote Andy Welfle, a UX Content Strategist at Adobe, interface copy should be as simple and straightforward as possible. “Stay away from more complex sentences involving clauses, compounds or more than, say, ten words,” he recommends. “Keep the actor and the object clear from each other.”
Use precise words.
Choosing the perfect word can be challenging when writing for tech. Between technical jargon, proprietary design, and completely fabricated neologisms, it’s easy for messages to become muddled and frankly, off-putting. My best advice to avoid misinterpretation is to use the most precise yet universally understood word available. Don’t lean on context for clarity, your sentences should hold their own.
Avoid idioms, wordplay, and figures of speech.
This breaks my writer’s heart because I’m a huge fan of wordplay. But, it just doesn’t translate well. Unless you have loads of time and an expert team of translators, finding the right expression to match the original English is a tall task.
Check your Americentrism.
The U.S. is a cultural powerhouse but it’s not the standard. For example, I’ve come across websites on web security equating their services to Fort Knox. For the average non-American, that means nothing. Make sure your references aren’t too narrow or culturally exclusive.
Ask for help.
A little bit of research can go a long way. It’s easy to forget small nuances like adapting date format or currency. If I’m unsure about how something might come across in a specific cultural context, I use my network to get a second pair of eyes on it. Better to be safe than offensive!