On the Importance of Creative Strategy in Media Localization

Creative, adj. – Relating to or involving the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work
Strategy, n. – A plan, scheme, or course of action designed to achieve a particular objective 
Oxford English Dictionary 

Creative strategy in media localization can be defined as the sum of its two parts; it is a careful plan to capture the original creative concept with the purpose of ensuring that the localized versions are viewed as linguistically and culturally authentic while staying true to the artist’s intended meaning, tone, and purpose. Let’s unpack this by establishing several key components.

Understanding the Original Idea 

Before we’re able to develop the creative strategy, we need to thoroughly understand the overarching themes, character arcs, cultural nuances, and intended audience of the original. 

Some themes like romantic love, friendships, and interpersonal dynamics are universal and lend themselves to cultural and linguistic adaptation fairly easily. Others, such as family structures and hierarchies, can be trickier to carry across between various cultures and languages. 

What are the character personalities, motivations, and relationships? How do they develop? Understanding this will impact the dialogue adaptation in terms of register, formality, and emotion. 

Cultural nuances are perhaps some of the most important elements to consider in localization, but can be the hardest to adapt and transfer. Wordplay, idioms, and jokes need to be identified and decoded correctly in order to land effectively with the target audience. Additionally, cultural context needs to be subtly adapted, but not fully assimilated. Needless to say, stereotyping, cultural appropriation, and offensive references should be avoided. 

Conveying Style and Tone

Grasping the tone and style of the original is equally important for a consistent and authentic adaptation. Whether it’s an inspirational historical piece or a comedy, international versions should elicit similar reactions and emotions and resonate with the audiences. 

Identifying the tone and mood — the creator’s attitude towards the subject or topics explored in the piece — will dictate the choice of words and register in the adaptation. For example, if it’s a comedy, is it lighthearted or dark, deadpan or slapstick? 

Identifying and Solving Complexities

To spot potential localization challenges, it’s important to carefully review and analyze the content. Such elements as puns, double entendre, and rhymes are particularly challenging to identify and convey appropriately and faithfully. Annotating transcripts or dialogue lists for culture-specific references, special terminology, and slang or jokes is crucial to help translators and adapters fully understand their meaning. Your transcription partner should be including this service by default.

A further step would be to pinpoint and address key plot elements that may need specific permissions. Neglecting these can drag out the localization timeline and even lead to legal issues down the line. Examples include copyrighted material used in the content, like scenes from movies or TV shows, real news clips, historical footage, or songs with audible lyrics.

Selecting Voices for Dubbing and Audio Description

A careful selection of voice actors will help maintain verisimilitude and the audience’s sense of wonder, rather than creating cognitive dissonance. To fulfill this important task, it is again beneficial to give localization partners guidance on the characters, at least those who are crucial to the plot. Providing character briefs that include age, gender identity, and description of speech patterns and/or accent, as well as a full cast list, can save research and preparation time for your dubbing teams putting together the voice cast. 

It is equally important to pay attention to voice selection in audio description for the blind and low-vision audience. A descriptive audio narrator’s voice or voices (some types of productions, like opera, may require two descriptive audio narrators) can be selected based on the type of content and intended audience, gender, language variant, and accent. They should not blend with the characters’ voices, nor be dissonant or jarring.  

Forming a Cohesive Strategy

Depending on the type of content, your creative strategy may have more or fewer items than the ones described above. What’s important is that it helps your localization teams get a good grasp of the content’s critical or complex elements and produce linguistically and culturally coherent localized versions that resonate with global audiences.  

When putting together your creative strategy, start at the source — work with the content creator and their production team, obtaining as much insight as possible. Synopses, character briefs, and director’s vision statements are all great materials to help you develop your strategy. 

Engage with key stakeholders early on. Although localization is often seen as a downstream process, especially in larger companies, it is essential to collaborate with all relevant teams at the start of the content release process. These stakeholders may include those responsible for  content acquisition, creative work, post-production, marketing, merchandising, and screening. Remember that consistency in localizing all elements of the global release is crucial. You don’t want to discover that the show was promoted in, say, Spain, under a different title than what your localization team used.

Once we are acquainted with key elements of a creative approach to localizing content, we can choose whether to apply it with a lighter touch or delve deeply into all its details and components. Just remember, your localization partners — subtitlers, dialogue list translators and adapters, dubbing directors and project managers — will thank you for your guidance, while hopefully, viewers will have minimum awareness that they’re watching a localized version. And isn’t that the point?

Svetlana Jacobs
Svetlana Jacobs is a content localization producer and quadrilingual translator. She worked for seven years in localization at Netflix and Roku, and is now an independent consultant.


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