Localizability and Culture Checks
What They Are and How to Use Them
BY EMILIA SOTO GALINDO
Localizability checks are performed to identify elements in source material that could potentially cause localization issues and lead to delays. The purpose of such checks is to ensure that text, images, and layouts are localization ready. For instance, a website that is built to allow for text expansion, prevent truncation and font corruption, support right-to-left (RTL) languages, and is flexible with formatting will be significantly easier and faster to localize without running into costly delays due to design limitations after the product or campaign has launched.
Figure 1: Examples of a video about a new WhatsApp feature. On the top: For the US market.
On the bottom: For primarily Muslim countries.
Culture checks are performed to ensure that the content is culturally appropriate, and the messaging is suited for the target audience — the purpose is to flag anything that could be seen as insensitive or inappropriate. Common things to look out for would be local customs, traditions, and laws but also less apparent issues like colors, icons, animals, emojis, music, and landscapes.
For example, let’s examine a Netflix video on how to use parental controls. This is a good and humorous video for an American audience. However, for it to be considered for use in other countries, culture checks will need to be done and some changes implemented.
In the video, a boy waves a paper with an A+ on it, showing us that he has good grades. Using the A+ will not make sense in Latin America, because in that region the grading scores range from 1 to 10. Other countries use different grade systems, so here it might be better to completely leave them out. This ensures that this video is easily localizable for any culture. There is also a scene where a knife-wielding man attempts to stab a kid on screen. A more suitable option for the Latin American audience would be to keep the wielding knife but remove the boy, as this visual would be considered too violent.
Finally, in a screenshot where the different account names are displayed, the one for Becky, the sister, has been changed to “stupid face.” In Arabic cultures, as an example, a brother’s duty is to take care of his sister, so this would be an unacceptable depiction in that culture. Even though the title of this video was localized, the actual video itself was not. The reason for this is likely because Netflix deemed it too expensive to redo the whole video for full localization. Importantly, if the original English content was less US-centric to begin with, it would have been much cheaper to fully localize this video for other locales, thereby creating a better customer experience for the non-English-speaking target markets.
When Is the Best Time to Perform Localizability and Culture Checks?
The great advantage of performing localizability/culture checks is that issues that may become problematic down the line can be detected in the initial stages of a project. In other words, potential problems will be identified in the draft stage when the source content creators are still making changes to the asset. Catching issues early will reduce the turn-around time at a later stage in the localization/translation process. These checks are not only done for text to be translated/localized, but also for the usability of screenshots, videos, and voice-over.
The best time to perform localizability checks would be after the first drafts of, say, a video or website for a marketing campaign, when these assets go through cross-functional review. The localization team should be part of the cross-functional review at this stage. The linguists conduct a localizability check for the text, the visuals that go with it, and the technical aspects, such as whether there is room for text expansion.
At this stage the marketing team, along with the technical team, can still make changes relatively easily and more cost-effectively than in later stages. This prevents a campaign from being launched with flaws that weren’t caught in the beginning, or even worse, prevent it from launching at all because there are still unresolved and unacceptable issues with the content.
Culture checks would be performed regarding the cultural appropriateness or localizability of the product or feature names, because an English feature name could lead to a Spanish — or German — name being expanded and not look good on a small mobile screen. Or, if kept in English, the word may sound like something else when pronounced in the target locale, perhaps similar to another product or even something inappropriate. Further culture checks would be performed on content, and on the holistic messaging the campaign is trying to convey to the target audience.
As an example, WhatsApp launched a video on sending disappearing messages in English with the intention to localize it for different target locales. As seen on the top in figure 1, the video shows a text exchange in WhatsApp that includes a profile picture with a dog, a picture of a dog wearing a hat, and the dialogue is about gifting the dog to a parent. This conversation has nothing to do with the features of the product, but it is a good example of content created for an American audience, because pets are deemed cute and are a very popular and a common topic in this culture.
The problem with this approach is that dogs are not perceived in the same way in all cultures. In a Muslim culture, for instance, dogs are seen as impure. It would be inappropriate to use a profile picture of a person next to a dog and out of the question to suggest gifting a dog to your mom. The dog would distract the user, or even worse, disgust them to the point that their attention would be completely lost on the real point of the video. As shown on the bottom in figure 1, it was decided to replace the original profile picture with a neutral photo of a beach and to change the picture of the dog to a cake, which is much more appropriate for Turkish, Indonesian, Indian, and Arabic audiences.
Figure 2: Reading right-to-left, as in Arabic, this ad says: If you drink Coca Cola you will be depleted of energy..
Who Performs the Localizability and Culture Checks?
Program managers can do some of the localizability checks themselves, depending on their experience and/or knowledge of the target audiences, languages, and cultures, but it would be preferable to make the source material available to the actual linguists who will perform the work. They are better equipped to catch all the potential issues with the draft materials. Culture checks should always be performed by an in-country linguist with in-depth knowledge of the target culture.
A Real-World Example of Marketing Gone Wrong
If Coca Cola had consulted a local linguist before publishing a series of posters in Saudi Arabia, they would have easily saved themselves from embarrassment and quite possibly from losing customers. In other words, this marketing campaign did more damage than good. They basically threw away the money spent on it.
As seen in figure 2, the first image portrays a man lying in the desert, exhausted, and perhaps even close to death. In the second image we see a man drinking Coca Cola, and in the third image the man is alive and kicking and he is once again on the go. The point is that Coca Cola is refreshing.
There is one problem: In Saudi Arabia people read from right to left and when doing so, this ad conveys the completely opposite message: If you drink Coca Cola you will be depleted of energy.
How to Perform Localizability and Culture Checks
A good technique when performing localizability and culture checks is to use a spreadsheet or a template to point out where potential problems occur for each locale. These elements should be specific and can include on-screen text, UI strings, text content, images, emojis, and music. It is important that it is exactly pointed out what the problem is and to provide solutions on how to fix the issue. Another aspect that should be included is the urgency of the issue — is this something that must be changed or simply a change that is nice to have. Another good practice is to include screenshots when possible.
A good practice is to keep resources that can be of value when performing culture checks in a stock library. This library could include examples of neutral pictures, names, addresses, telephone numbers, or music that are known to be accurate, have been verified, and can be quickly and easily swapped for a specific target locale.
Benefits for Different Content
Performing localizability and culture checks for all content can help retain customers. When designing products and campaigns, the marketing department will hopefully have done their research, but this cannot be counted on as we have seen in the example above. Further, other departments, such as the help center, deal with a different subset of circumstances, mainly because their content is usually not focused on a specific target market. Overlooking cultural insensitivities that can distract or even disengage users just when they are looking for support could be a result of generic or technical content that was not properly localized.
The advantage of localizability and culture checks is that issues with a product and/or content, whether it be from a technical aspect or missed cultural nuances, will be detected at an early stage. These issues can be corrected more quickly and at a lower cost to the organization. Good localization can help a product become more successful because customers from different target locales will be more connected to the product as it makes them feel as though it was specifically created for them. All while still keeping costs low if conducted early enough in the process.
Finally, the content creators themselves will likely become more aware and knowledgeable about the process of localization. It is certainly feasible, and even likely, that they will get better at creating original content suited for localization from the get-go, which will decrease the time to launch a concept and prevents costly mistakes at a later stage.
Emilia Soto Galindo recently joined the Translation Coordination Center at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. She previously worked in the Language Section at the Organization of American States, has a Master’s Degree in Translation and Interpretation, and is about to graduate from the Translation and Localization Management program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.