The World Is Your Oyster: Writing for an International Audience and Localization

When you write for the Internet, you write for the whole world. But how should your organization make sure that its content is easy to understand, helpful, and appropriate for an international audience? There are ways to tweak your writing in English to make it is easier to translate, and there are content strategies that help connect your organization to specific international audiences.

First let’s examine how to write easy-to-translate English so that readers who use Google translate (or other similar programs) can understand you.

Writing Easy-to-Translate English 

Use short, complete sentences. Sentence structure that follows the pattern of “subject, then verb, then object” keeps things clear. “Aim for about 20 words or less. If you find your sentences going over that, read them aloud to keep them as brief as possible,” writes Nicole Fenton for Web Standards Sherpa.

Use adverbs and adjectives sparingly. “Try to find the simplest way to express each idea,” writes Fenton.

Use a consistent style. Online, American English spellings and punctuation dominate.

IBM suggests that writers avoid negative constructions. “For example, use 'It is like the previous request' rather than 'It is not unlike the previous request.' Or, use 'Log on again to reconnect' instead of 'You cannot reconnect without logging on again.'"

Keep language simple, but don’t dumb down ideas. “Assume your audience is smart and well educated… and avoid 'talking down' to international readers,” writes Marie Griffin for Asme.

Avoid idioms, colloquialisms, jargon, and regional metaphors. “Don’t assume lingo or pop culture references will work for everyone,” writes Fenton for Web Standards Sherpa. “For example, 311 and 911 make sense for Americans, but most countries use their own system for emergency services, so any reference to those numbers may be lost on international readers.”

“We should all be more aware of how our own cultural norms creep into our content,” writes Nataly Kelly for Hubspot. “Each time you write a blog post or some other piece of content, imagine you’re reading it out loud to someone who is visiting your country for the very first time.” Does your headline rely on a turkey-related pun and Thanksgiving? Readers outside of North America won’t know what you are referring to.

Idioms are a real puzzle for translation programs and are translated word for word. So please use "estimate" instead of "in the ballpark.”

If there are specialized words that you need to use that are specific to your field, define them within the text.

Pay attention to icons, images, and colors. They have different meanings in different cultures. "Red means life in some places, and death or danger in others,” write Fenton.

Culture sensitivity is important in both text and images. “Exercise caution when considering the use of national flags in applications or documentation,” suggests IBM. “The Paris Convention explicitly prohibits the use of country flags as trademarks. The use of a country's flag could be taken to falsely imply express approval, authorization, sponsorship or affiliation with that country. Some countries are particularly sensitive about how and in what context their flag is displayed.” Maps may show disputed borders, so use them only with knowledge of their context.

Watch for units of measurement. “Do you go the extra mile for your customers? Maybe you shouldn’t if they prefer kilometers,” writes Nataly Kelly for Hubspot. Most countries other than the U.S. use the metric system.

What if you want to do more than just be easy to translate? What if you want to really connect with a specific international audience? This requires content localization.

Content Localization

“Content localization means putting your content in a language your audience will understand,” according to Smartling. “This process entails more than just linguistic translation, however. Social conventions and cultural traditions must be accounted for as well. If you are communicating across several locales, it’s always best to adapt your content to suit the unique traits of each.”

Why is localization important? Localizing content with support from native experts will make your message more relevant to an audience. It will make your messaging more effective. That could mean better engagement, and it can also reduce your risk of PR mistakes.

When you localize your content, you show that you value and respect your local audience.

How should you localize your content?

Translate your content into the appropriate language. “Unions and translation associations like the American Translators Association often publish a directory of licensed translators and linguists. oDesk also has a community of freelance translators available for hire,” writes Fenton for Web Standards Sherpa.

Find a local expert who can customize your existing content to local cultural standards. Does your organization have people on the ground in the place you want to target? Then start with them.

Hire local content creators who can address local concerns. Use local news at a hook. A good place to look for writers is to see who is writing at local papers or magazines. Also, try contacting a local writers guild.

Make your localized content searchable. “Make your localized website visible to search engines. And by search engines, we don’t just mean Google,” writes Julia Rozwens for Smashing Magazine. “Put yourself in the customer’s shoes for a while and ask yourself (or ask locals) where you would start looking for the service that your company offers. Google is a popular search engine, but a quick search of, say, China will reveal that Baidu is king there. And if you’re thinking about expanding into Russia, you cannot afford not to be easily found on Yandex.”