A common saying in the language industry is that localization is best when it goes unnoticed. This reflects important lessons learned from the many costly translation marketing disasters that have made their way into public consciousness. The idea is that localization is more visible when it is done wrong than when it is done right — and when done wrong, the internet never forgets.
Translators also like to say that good translations are invisible, meaning a translated text is good when it reads as if it were written in its source language, such that the reader doesn’t even perceive the text as a translated text.
In a similar fashion, The General Theory of the Translation Company depicts translation as something nobody ever thinks about until it’s not there. The intention of the argument is benign: many of us who live in the first world take water, air, sunshine, and other essentials of life for granted, until there is a drought, a forest fire, or a cloudy day in California, prompting us to realize what is glaringly absent.
But from a marketing perspective, bragging about not being seen is a somewhat bizarre strategy if the goal is to win more business opportunities. The goal of this article is thus to explain why language industry experts should avoid using “localization is best when unnoticed” as a blanket statement.
Framing and Recognition for the Language Industry
The language industry has a recognition problem. We are underreported by mainstream media. We share profusely amongst ourselves, but our voices hardly reach the higher-ups. In fact, we lack access to the C-suite altogether. With only 175 Google search results, the belief in the existence of such a thing as a “chief localization officer” is as good as a superstition.
The lack of recognition is reflected in our pay — that’s why we are always on the lookout for better ways to justify our charges. Yet in our predicament, framing ourselves as invisible helpers isn’t going to gain us the exposure we need for a breakthrough.
We say our work is “invisible” because we want every product in every locale to share the same quality, that is, the same quality as the source text. However, not only is the strategy of staying invisible overly passive — it seeks only to do just as well in other markets, not better — it is also based on the premise that a translated text can become the equivalent of the source text in its entirety.
Are Translators Ever Invisible?
For manuals, handbooks, technical writing, and scientific material, replication should be the gold standard. In research, replicability means anyone using the same methods will be able to produce the same results. When applied to the language industry, replicability could mean users following translated materials are able to reach the same results as those following source materials. It could also mean user experience does not change significantly across different locales.
However, the assumption that source texts are fully replicable in other languages becomes problematic when the content is related to literature, philosophy, religion, and marketing. Indeed, one of the strongest examples of resistance to faithful translation comes from the Quran, which is said to be written in the language of God. When humans try to translate the language of God into other languages, how can the results be anything but a pale imitation?
In the translation of philosophical texts, academics often acknowledge that reading a translated text is just as much reading the translator’s work as reading the author’s work. The only way for readers to consider the translator invisible is to read the text in its source language, bypassing translations altogether.
The Specter of The Translator
Translation is a hermeneutic activity. That is to say, to translate, one must understand. A translated text is hence inevitably influenced by the translator’s understanding. Even those reading the same language often have different understandings of the same text; how can anyone casually claim that translated texts can achieve the same effect across more than a hundred locales?
It doesn’t take a text as divine as the Quran or as challenging as Plato’s Republic to be perplexing. Even texts of a technical nature can be confusing when the source material as a whole is broken down into single, separate, even random, strings in the translation software interface. If translators are not looking at the actual product when they are translating, they need to do a lot of guessing and puzzle-solving to figure things out. Language service providers use Q&A spreadsheets to mitigate this problem, but oftentimes, good translators also have to be good detectives.
Changing the Framing
There is nothing “invisible” about the work of language industry practitioners. We wrestle with source texts, with the target language, with project managers, with time, and with domain knowledge. While it is true that good localization practices should avoid cultural and linguistic pitfalls, when we say that localization is done well when unseen or that the best translators are invisible, we are potentially downplaying the effort we make, and putting a cap on the value we add, as well as the compensation we ought to receive.
Avoiding mistakes or minimizing risk for clients is still essential to successful localization. However, instead of framing our work using such passive rhetoric, we should emphasize the active aspects, such as saying localization is done right when it adds value, opens markets, provides access, or connects communities.
Being unnoticed is not good enough for us, nor is it good enough for our clients. We should own our translations and take credit for the hard work that contributed to their success.