Go Global by Going Local

Cristina works as a lead linguist at Creative Words. Shortly after her graduation in Translation and Interpreting she joined the team in 2017 as a translator and reviewer. She’s taken on a more leading role in the company since 2019 and now coordinates other teams of translators and reviewers and ensures that the work delivered is compliant with the clients’ requirements.


 What is localization and why do you need it? 

Localization is one of the latest branches that has developed in the wide-ranging world of translation. It mainly refers to the translation of digital products and is intimately connected to the rise of information technology, personal computers and software products, the ascent of the internet, and the now boundless spread of websites and mobile apps.

When we talk about localization, we do not think in terms of languages or countries, but instead of locales and markets. We do not simply localize a product in Spanish, but in Spanish for Spain (es_ES) and Mexico (es_MX), for instance. In the same way, we do not localize for a specific country (i.e. the United States), but for the English (en_US) or Spanish (es_US) speakers of that country.

Have a look, for instance, at the Slack website. For those who don’t know, Slack is a team communication platform that has seen rapid expansion recently. Scroll to the bottom of the home page and select “change region”. You will notice that you can choose between Latinoamérica (español) and España (español) and, if you compare the two versions, you will immediately spot some differences. Th at is because the target has been adapted to the language conventions of each region.

Why should you consider localizing your product? Well, it will surely help you to successfully reach more customers across different countries, and thus make more revenue. However, let’s not forget the importance of the user experience, which is enhanced by making it possible for users to get to know and use a product in their native language. Not only will you be better understood, but you will also connect with people on an emotional level. This is essential to building brand loyalty.

However, do not assume that such considerations are only valid for large corporations that can rely on big budgets. Startups can also benefit from localization processes. Even with a smaller budget, it is possible to find suitable solutions to enable international growth. To start with, choose one or two language(s) you think are more relevant for your market and prioritize them. You are almost certain to get better results.

 Localization challenges and how to address them 

Doing proper localization work is not as easy as you may think. It involves many challenges that localization teams have to face every day. Let’s have a look at some of them and find solutions to each of these issues

 Challenge #1 – Localizability 

Localizability consists of designing a digital product in a way that allows it to be localized without changes to the source code. Unfortunately, this is often not possible, as we’ll soon see in analyzing the three components that make up localizability.

Separation of localizable resources from the code

In theory, all localizable resources should be separated from code. Translators should only receive files containing the strings that need translation, but it’s not uncommon for them to work on files that also contain code (i.e. values of font sizes and width of elements, variables, etc.). If these elements are not recognized and end up being incorrectly handled, it may lead to the code getting broken and, as a result, a web page will never be displayed.

Example: var x = effect(“Weekday”)(“Menu”).value;

Were you already thinking about the best translation for “Weekday”? Forget about it: nothing in this string should be translated.


The use of concatenation is a common practice for developers and engineers. It consists of putting together several strings during runtime to quickly create text variations. It usually involves placeholders, that is to say, a symbolic value used instead of the real pieces of information that will be translated separately (in red in our examples). For each placeholder there may be several variants, which will display only once the string is published on the page. The problem with this practice is that it poses lots of challenges in translation: languages work differently and may need to alter syntax and sentence structure, not to mention issues related to grammatical genders.

Example #1: %{items} have been added

This seemingly simple string requires several different translations in Italian, depending on the gender of the variant expressed by the placeholder. Moreover, to make the sentence grammatically correct, nouns must be preceded by an article in this context, and we have two different masculine articles depending on the consonant the noun starts with.

  1.  Le cartelle sono state aggiunte. (Feminine plural noun)
  2.  file sono stati aggiunti. (Masculine plural noun)
  3.  Gli allegati sono stati aggiunti. (Masculine plural noun)

We notice a similar issue in Spanish as well. Articles do not depend on the initial consonant of the following word, with few exceptions, but they must still agree with the noun in number and gender.

  1.  Se han agragado las notas. (Feminine plural noun)
  2.  Se han agregado los archivos. (Masculine plural noun)

Example #2: %{total_price} every ​%{count}​ ​%{interval}s

The problem here is given by “%{interval}​s”. It is reason-able to imagine that this would be replaced by something like  “day/week/month/year.” Now, English can simply generate a plural by adding an “s” to the end of these particular words, but some Latin languages work differently and directly change the word suffix. In Italian, we can form the plural by adding “/i,” for instance, but in this context it is only valid for the masculine noun (day, month, year), while we need to use “/e” for the feminine occurrence (week). In the end, we need two different strings:

  1.  %{total_price}​ ogni ​%{count}​ ​%{interval}​/i (For “giorno/i”, “mese/i” or “anno/i”)
  2. %{total_price}​ ogni ​%{count}​ ​%{interval}/e (For “settimana/e”)

The same for the Russian singular, where “day, month” and “year” are masculine nouns and “week” is feminine, but what changes is the determiner “every”:

  1.  %{total_price}​ каждый ​%{count}​ ​%{interval}​ (день, месяц or год)
  2.  %{total_price} каждую ​%{count}​ ​%{interval}​ (неделю)

In the plural form, the determiner remains the same, but the nouns change according to the number preceding the interval:

  1.  %{total_price}​ каждые ​%{count}​ ​%{interval}​ (2 дня / 7 дней for days, 3 месяца / 6 месяцев for months or 4 года / 5 лет for years)
  2.  %{total_price}​ каждые ​%{count}​ ​%{interval}​ (2 недели / 5 недель for weeks)

User Interface

English is known for being a very analytic language, and for its ability to convey in a very few (and sometimes short) messages that other languages can provide only through longer texts.

  1. Example: Unsend (1 word, 7 characters) 
  2. Spanish translation: Anular envio (2 words, 12 characters)
  3. Italian translation: Annulla invio (2 words, 13 characters)
  4. Russian translation: Отменить отправку (2 words, 17 characters)
  5. Greek translation: Αναίρεση αποστολής (2 words, 17 characters)

Localizers constantly struggle with text length limitations, trying to find the best and shortest translations for UIs. Sometimes, they even need to use abbreviations: it may not be the best thing to see, but still better than having randomly truncated words.

Another challenge is related to context or, perhaps in most  cases, the lack thereof. Translators often receive files containing countless strings without access to the software or any explanation of what they stand for. Is it a button? Is it a dialog title? Is it an error message? Is it a bulleted list? Single words pose yet more problems.

 Solution #1 – Localizability 

When it is time to localize your product, make sure to rely on expert linguists. They will be able to recognize code parts, find workarounds for the majority of concatenation issues, and leverage any additional information “hidden” in the file names or properties to get an idea of the context.

If possible, provide a build of the software or grant access to any restricted area of the website or the app. Include screenshots of UIs or clearly redirect each string to the page where the UIs can be found.

Implement an auto-layout function. With dynamically changing layouts based on the screen space and the display, you’ll no longer need to worry about text length or introduce later changes to the product to make room for enough text as it is being produced in a different language.

Include a final linguistic testing phase, consisting of performing an in-context review to check for translation completeness, use of proper terminology, compliance with UI and display standards, correct appearance and functionality of the product, and so on.

Especially if you are a startup and you want to expand internationally, consider adopting an internationalization strategy. Work closely with localization consultants and experts from the very early stages of the development process. They can provide valuable insights on how to develop features and designs that are not based on a single language or locale. The idea is to create a core product suitable for all markets, and only then make it suitable for the specific target market. The underlying principle is simple: “do not assume.” Don’t assume a specific user, their gender, text length, language direction, language encoding, etc. Try to develop a product that can be adapted to any possible scenario.

 Challenge #2 – Time to market 

We live in a world where everything is happening faster and faster, and digital products are obviously no exception. Companies are constantly developing their products, fixing bugs  and updating features, to provide the best possible experience. This results in a quick cadence of new releases: speed is the key, as it gives you an essential competitive advantage.

As a consequence, the localization phase must also be sped up, and localizers have to work with very tight deadlines. This is also connected to the relatively recent phenomenon of the “gig economy.” Single translation jobs are becoming smaller and smaller to immediately cover any possible new update. Even under these conditions, the highest quality should always be preserved.

 Solution #2 – Time to market 

Many solutions can help you stay competitive and guarantee top-quality products at the same time.

  1. Consider outsourcing the localization process. With the help of a translation agency, you will find someone available to take care of a small, update-related translation anytime you need it. More importantly, translators will be chosen for their proven expertise in the field so that quality won’t be affected by rush requests.
  2. Remember that CAT tools are your friends. They come with translation memories and glossaries that help save time by recycling previous translations while ensuring consistency and terminology correctness. They can also be integrated with other features that range from quality checks to context display, which will make the work of localization much easier.
  3. It is extremely important to develop a real cooperative relationship with the localization team. Always provide style guides, approved terminology, and UI repositories, define specific requirements, and be ready to answer any additional queries. Remember that you share the same goal.
  4. Machine translation (MT) and post-editing are also great allies. Especially for some languages, the progress made by neural MT has been quite outstanding. Localizers will have a good base to start from instead of having to translate everything from scratch. This obviously does not mean that you can skip the human component: using the row MT output without the post-editing step will generate a target full of errors. Even if it helps the user understand the general mean-ing of the text, a poor user experience will never positively impress them.

 Challenge #3 – Topic 

As mentioned at the beginning, localization is a term defining a specific translation process. It must be clear that it is different from the topic. Nowadays, digital products are not only IT-related but cover a wide variety of fields: from medical to legal, to entertainment and gaming, and so on. Each of them comes with specific requirements the localized product must comply with; if not, serious consequences may follow.

Think, for instance, about a medical app. Here there cannot be any margin for error: if the translation is not accurate, if it contains mistranslations or incorrect terminology, it could cost someone’s life.

Also be aware of any legal or safety requirements that may exist in other countries. Something that is allowed where the product was first developed may be subject to restrictions in other territories (i.e. privacy policies), or the product may have to adhere to specific certifications to be used (i.e. to ensure its safety).

 Solution #3 – Topic 

Localizers cannot take care of localization projects as if they were all the same. For each product you want to localize, you will need the help of a professional who has the knowledge and experience required by the product field. Mastering the specific field (legal, technical, gaming, etc.) is extremely important to deliver a high-quality product. Translators must assure they can understand the source material thoroughly and have extensive knowledge of the local requirements. Cultural adaptations are also often needed.

Outsourcing to a translation agency is again a valid option. You can rely on an efficient and trained team that will take care of finding the best resources to fit your needs. In this way, both content and more technical localizability aspects will be covered.

 Future scenarios 

The localization industry is now placing its bets on conversational user interface. It is currently developing alongside the classic written user interface but is spreading fast due to its several advantages.

Specifically, we are talking about the now quite famous virtual assistants and chatbots. They are easily accessible for people who cannot read, allow for easy communication, and save time as there is no need to deal with complex settings or ambiguous UIs. Moreover, they are also profitable for companies. It has been proven that these virtual assistants can solve the majority of users’ basic requests, so human assistants can devote more time to more complex issues. The combination of these two factors provides a high return on investment for companies.

It is interesting to know that virtual assistants and chatbots are not localized in the traditional way. They are usually redesigned and recreated from the ground up for different markets, and the support of linguists and cultural experts becomes crucial.

Conversational user interface is reshaping behaviors and processes, and there is no doubt that it will continue to open new opportunities for workers in the translation industry.