Translation or localisation? How to tailor texts to the global market

Writing for international markets

Photo credit: Christin Hume

Communicating with clients and partners on a global scale requires a fine balance between achieving further reach and more targeted style and content. Texts with high linguistic and cultural specificity will feel more personal and create trust with readers. A more general tone and simpler language will reach more people using fewer resources.

With the help of translation and localisation you can adapt texts for marketing, PR, client communication, investor relations and legal matters to different regions. Even though these services follow a similar purpose, it is important to know the difference.

The difference between translation and localisation

Translating texts has a clearly defined purpose; creating a precise reproduction of the original text in a different language. This bridges language barriers and increases the reach of the content. There are considerable differences in quality, but in the end every translator is focussed on correct language and terminology.

When the differences are not just linguistic but cultural, even a great translation reaches its limits. Cultural references, idiomatic expressions and wordplay don’t translate well and even within a language there can be local idiosyncrasies. A translation which is culturally inappropriate can cause damage to your company and the list of unintentionally comical or vulgar product names and slogans is long.

Localisation experts won’t just prevent cultural blunders. Adapting texts per region creates trust in the reader and stronger identification with the text’s message. Greeting an Australian audience with “G’day mate” is appropriate and can create familiarity, but if you were trying to achieve the same in Texas, you should use “Howdy” instead.

The basis for any good text is exact knowledge of the target group. From here you can decide how many languages the text should be translated into and how strongly it should be localised. As a general rule, more factual texts lend themselves to a straightforward translation and need less localisation.

At EnglishBusiness we offer specialist translations as well as transcreation and copy-editing to adapt your text to the language and culture of your target group. But how do you match your text with the right language product?

Specialist translations:

  • Annual reports
  • Contracts
  • IR communication
  • Academic papers
  • Technical texts

Transcreation and copy-editing:

  • Marketing copy
  • Local press releases
  • Application materials
  • HR communication
  • Job ads

Generally, a transcreation requires more work than a translation. The effort is worth it if you know that you are targeting a specific region or cultural group. If this is not the case, the text should use language that is plain and easy to understand. This will not only improve the readability in general, but also create a good raw material for translations.

International texts should be easy to understand and translate

The bigger the reach of a text, the easier it should read. You can’t assume that an international audience will always understand cultural references, nested sentences, metaphors, ellipses or unusual vocabulary.

It is no sign of competence to write a confusing text. In fact, the opposite is true. You demonstrate profound knowledge by presenting information with clarity and structure. (A fun way to test this is the Hemmingway Editor). An additional upside is that your text will be easier and quicker to translate.

A good translator will always try to deliver a quality text. Just as a master carpenter can turn bad wood into a good table, experienced linguists can compensate for a badly written source text. However, a great end product and fast delivery require a source text that is clear in structure and terminology – a good raw material if you will.

International and translatable writing

Use these tips as a guideline to write precise and comprehensible texts:

  • Short sentences: For every sentence, ask yourself whether it could be shortened or broken up into several sentences. With a bit of practice your writing will become more precise and the information will emerge more clearly.
  • Consistent terminology: Repetitiveness is often considered bad style, but using too many synonyms can be confusing. This applies to technical texts especially, where the terminology is precisely defined. In a very broad context revenue, sales or turnover can be used synonymously. However, the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) prescribe “revenue” as the term for income from normal business activities. If you use a synonym in this context a reader may think that you are referring to something different.
  • Avoid idiomatic language: There’s an elephant in the room? You’re not seeing eye to eye? These phrases maybe not be understood by non-native English speakers or get lost in translation. Rather avoid idiomatic phrases when writing for an international audience.
  • Avoid ambiguity and wordplay: Wording that relies on properties of the specific language may not always be understood and tends to resist an accurate translation. Similarly, using ambiguity for humour or to make a point may be confusing to international readers.
  • Use active voice: Sentences in active voice have a clearer and more predictable structure. Use passive voice sparingly or not at all.
  • Record your decisions: Improve the consistency of your writing by making notes on stylistic and terminological decisions to refer back to throughout the writing process. At EnglishBusiness, we produce styleguides and corporate wording glossaries for this very purpose.
  • Final edit by a native speaker: Only native speakers will have the sprachgefühl and the cultural background to edit a localised or translated text appropriately before publishing. After all, most of the readers will be native speakers as well.

You want to find out more about international communication? Our language experts are always happy to consult you!

Robert Rothe
Marketing and Partner Manager

Robert grew up in Hamburg, but has strong South African roots. At EnglishBusiness he is the German translation editor, manages our pool of external translators and creates our marketing content. In his free time you’ll find him running around the Alster. In this blog he writes about the German language, South Africa, sports and our beautiful port city.

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Writing for international markets

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