During my undergrad, I was a part-time communications officer at a non-profit in Montreal. Canada has two official languages, so I wrote everything in both English and French. Even when I worked in corporate communications, we always planned time and money for translation.
When I joined the marketing team at WordPress.com, my first job was to write ad copy and landing page content. A part of me was relieved my work was entirely in English. “Finally,” I thought. “I don’t need to do everything twice.”
I figured I could be witty and colourful — maybe even use puns, until I found out our product was available in 16 languages. Uh oh. Beyond translation, I had to think about internationalization. I had to learn to write copy that was translation-ready for all these markets I didn’t know much about.
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 content to different cultural cues, references, and standards. As an example, you could localize text without translating if 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 the English-speaking world. As it stands, that’s 75% of the web. 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.”
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 first focus is creating compelling copy that achieves my goals in English first.
But right behind that, my second focus is to keep my copywriting as unambiguous as possible for localization. Regardless of language, I want my content to communicate value, educate, create an emotional response, or inspire action.
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, the army base where the United States stores gold. For the average non-American, that reference 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 punctuation. 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!