Off the Map: Depicting the Falklands/Malvinas

I always find it fascinating how the presence of a geopolitical or cultural issue can so profoundly affect the business world, even in the subtlest of ways. Much of this column’s ongoing focus centers on that very notion. No language or target market is immune from the side effects of what could be a blatant issue that everyone knows about, such as Kashmir in India, an elephant in the room type of issue that everyone knows about but tries not to bring up, such as the “four finger” issue in Japan, or an issue that is subtle or just not very well known — ever hear of the Hala’ib Triangle?

Far down in the southern hemisphere (or far up depending on how you wish to view it), there lies one of the more well-known geopolitical issues in the global public’s knowledge. It’s embodied in a large archipelago of islands known colloquially to most people as the Falkland Islands, or in Spanish, particularly in Argentina, as the Islas Malvinas. The islands, which are located about 300 miles from the southern coast of Argentina, have been the target of a contentious territorial dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina for nearly 200 years, and between other parties even further back in time.

To better understand the context of the dispute and its effect on business today, let’s take a look at its origins. History tells us that the islands were likely discovered by a Dutch explorer in 1600 and when he found them they were uninhabited. Evidence is inconclusive if indigenous groups from South America had visited the islands. They were given the name Sebald Islands after this Dutch explorer, but before even a century would pass, they were rediscovered by the British and were labeled the Falkland Islands. This archipelago is comprised of two large islands known as West Falkland and East Falkland, and then a myriad of other small islands. By the mid-eighteenth century, along came the French, who founded a settlement on East Falkland. A year later the British founded a settlement on West Falkland, unaware of the French colony’s existence. Through an agreement with the French, Spain acquired that colony on East Falkland and made it subordinate to the Spanish administration in Buenos Aires.

For the remainder of the eighteenth century and during much of the nineteenth century, the islands experienced various ?complications resulting from British and Spanish disagreements. Treaties were made and then threatened, and war almost erupted more than once. The United States staged a brief intervention and the islands even declared complete independence at one point. But by the mid-nineteenth century, the British had come to see the strategic value of the islands in the south Atlantic, ejected the Argentine presence and proceeded to establish a permanent base, much to Argentina’s chagrin. The stage was now set for what has ensued in modern times.

Most of us are well aware of the 1982 war between the United Kingdom and Argentina, colloquially known as the Falklands War. After the formation of the United Nations, Argentina saw an opportunity to push its claim and made several unsuccessful attempts to do so. Eventually, the Argentine military junta at the time felt their only solution was to take the islands by force, maybe imagining that the United Kingdom would be ready to let them go since they’re so distant. Perhaps expectedly, the British responded in force and the conflict was resolved within a couple of months, unfortunately resulting in nearly 1,000 casualties combined from both sides. The United Kingdom reasserted its sovereignty, but to this day, Argentina remains determined to eventually see the islands fully incorporated into their territory.

So aside from all the interesting history behind this geopolitical feature, what does this have to do with producing and distributing content? As with many of the geopolitical issues I’ve touched upon in this column, this is yet another example of a complicated case requiring locale-specific tailoring and careful treatment.

Let’s start with the issue of names. As already mentioned, the islands have had several names over the centuries. Most material will use Falkland Islands as the name of the feature, and other associated British names such as Stanley, its territorial capital, and Falkland Sound, the passage between the two largest islands. In Spanish, however, the names conform to Argentina’s strong preferences — for example, the use of Islas Malvinas, as well as Puerto Argentino instead of Stanley and Estrecho de San Carlos in place of Falkland Sound. Place names are one method for governments to control and shape the external perception of their territorial sovereignty, and other Spanish-speaking locales may follow suit in order to show solidarity with Argentina’s cause. In other words, in a Spanish version it’s safer to use only the Argentine names and forego the English. For most non-Spanish maps, it’s usually prudent to at least dual label the feature’s name, and display Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas to recognize the use of two names for a single feature.

Another issue, perhaps more obvious, is how the islands should appear on a map. On any map produced in Argentina, the Islas Malvinas are always shown as Argentine territory, and never with the name Falkland Islands. Oftentimes, as space on the map permits, the maps in Argentina will also include Antártida Argentina, which is the country’s Antarctic claim. Also, since the early twentieth century, Argentina has laid claim on South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, which have also been British dependencies for nearly 200 years. These map depictions showing Argentina’s claims are locally reinforced through various media, even including their appearance on national postage stamps at one point. So likewise, a map intended for the Argentina locale and/or Spanish language would be prudent to show the Islas Malvinas as Argentine territory.

No doubt this talk of changing all this content just to placate the Argentine government may seem like a lot of effort for little potential return. And it could also yield debates about the ethics of changing “ground truth” — denying the reality that the British control the Falkland Islands, in this case. I think it’s important, however, to remind readers about the importance of considering local expectations. We all realize that localization is part of the process of meeting local expectations; we are translating text in order to provide a more locally-relevant linguistic experience.

With culturalization, it’s critical to keep in mind that we’re taking a step beyond language and looking at other areas in content that can make or break local expectations. The answer will be different based on the specific content and context; sometimes it’s a map depiction that needs adjusting, sometimes it’s color usage, other times it could be icons and symbols, and in some cases, all of the above. While I strongly advocate for an ongoing dialog around the complexities of locale-specific content tailoring, we can’t deny the reality of its necessity in order to deliver content to some markets.

If your plans include localization of maps or geographic-related content into Spanish, or specifically for the Argentine market, this is one of the issues for which you could be held accountable by the government and consumers if your treatment is counter to local expectations. As with all such geopolitical issues, they have the potential for undermining the best translation quality and best intentions in delivering a great product to a locale. This doesn’t have to be the case, of course; it’s just a matter of being proactive and prudent.