Going global: Tips and tricks for thinking beyond translation

7 minute read

One of the biggest mistakes a company can make when launching a product or service to an international audience is to think that it’s all about translating words.Let me explain.Translation is what any number of web apps do when you type in a word or sentence and it tells you the meaning:

Google Translate

If you’re a more analogue sort (or traveling somewhere with a dodgy internet connection), this is probably the method you use:

Image: Dictionary by Dylan Cantwell. Cropped. Some rights reserved.
Image: Dictionary by Dylan Cantwell. Cropped. Some rights reserved.

Having a basic understanding of a word can be enough to get by. It can ensure you don’t order something in a restaurant that you’ll regret later. It can help you build goodwill through the magic of knowing how to greet someone in their own language and how to say please and thank you. But translation is functional, it’s not how you build relationships or trust.

English is my first language, but as a Canadian I studied French pretty intensively in primary school. Until I was 14 years old, I took the vast majority of my classes in French including subjects like history, science and maths. Now, decades later, I find myself living in a small village in the south of France where the accent, idioms and dialect are different from what I learned in the Canadian prairies. In person I can mostly mime my way through conversations, but I fall into a panic when the telephone rings.

Despite my ability to conjugate French verbs or the size of my vocabulary, my brain struggles to understand what I hear and read. So when someone says something like “avoir des lettres”, my brain translates it to “have the letters”, which doesn’t mean anything to me. My ability to translate words does not help me understand the cultural context or meaning of the expression. (It’s the French version of saying someone is “well read”).

When you think about expanding your product or service to a new locale, instead of thinking about translation, think about localisation. When you localise your content, it means that you’re thinking about and planning for unique technical and structural constraints, and cultural differences, and that you’re taking a critical look at the nature of the language you use.

Let’s take a quick look at what each of these mean and some of the questions you should work through before beginning a localisation project:


There’s little point in localising your content if your product won’t work well with local infrastructure. Releasing a beautiful, data-heavy app in a country where data is expensive and connections are slow virtually guarantees that no one will be able to use it. Understanding the devices that are common in key locales and their data constraints is critical to building something that will actually work.

Image: A blast from the past (*Explored) by Stratman2. Some rights reserved.
Image: A blast from the past (*Explored) by Stratman2. Some rights reserved.

According to OpenSignal’s 2014 Android Fragmentation Report, there are over 18,796 distinct Android devices. This variation can impact everything from how your interface looks on different screen sizes to even the kinds of characters that can be displayed. For example, some older Android phones may not properly display right-to-left languages (ex: Hebrew or Arabic). This means that even if you have your mobile website or app translated, the characters may not display properly for everyone.


If your experience needs to work well on small screens, be aware that in translation much of your content will double or triple in length. This can cause bugs, make your interface illegible and cluttered, and move important calls to action and information off the screen. Will your interface accommodate longer strings? Are the elements on the screen designed to expand gracefully?

Image: http://www.longesttranslation.com/
Image: http://www.longesttranslation.com/


Culture is nuanced and understanding it requires insider knowledge. Do the key concepts in your app—the words, images, even the colors—not only make sense but do they share a common meaning in other cultures? When I worked as a content strategist at Facebook, one of the key challenges of naming a new product or feature was working with localisation experts to understand whether a particular word had an equivalent in different locales.For example, last year Facebook launched an app called Slingshot, which is a concept that is conceptually unique to countries like America. This was something the content strategist working on the app had to grapple with and in the end, she decided to maintain the English name--Slingshot--rather than trying to find unique cultural equivalents in every location.

Image: 11 Untranslatable Words from Other Cultures by Ella Frances Sanders on Maptia.
Image: 11 Untranslatable Words from Other Cultures by Ella Frances Sanders on Maptia.

In some cases, you may choose to maintain an English word for brand reasons. Facebook doesn’t translate the app name “Messenger” but it was incredibly important to make sure that the word wasn’t similar to other offensive or inappropriate local words when used outside of its English context.


How does your voice and tone need to shift to be familiar and appropriate for different locales? For example, your voice and brand may be friendly and intimate, but how will that work in a country that tends to value formality and politeness such as Japan?

Being thoughtful about how and when to adapt voice and tone is connected to cultural appropriateness and to ensuring that your content is respectful and responds to the needs of your audience.

Localisation is a gigantic, complex process. It’s hard, it can be expensive and the challenges sometimes feel overwhelming. So where do you start? It’s often the small, thoughtful shifts that make the biggest difference. In my four years developing content for Facebook, these are the things that I went back to time and again that helped me the most:

1. Keep language simple and direct

When I worked with a small team to develop Facebook’s first set of content standards, we explicitly designed our voice in a way that would be flexible enough to localise: simple, straightforward and human.

Keeping your language simple and direct is generally a useful practice anyway because it tends to be easier for people to read and understand. But if one of your brand values is quirk or big personality, simple and direct language may not always be possible. This isn’t a bad thing, but it will require more refinement in the localisation process. So when you’re writing, particularly for interface content, look for clever and specific places to inject personality-driven language, but work to keep the content that helps people take action as simple, direct and easy to understand as possible.

2. Record and localise idioms, colloquialisms and unique expressions

Keep a running list of the instances of language you’ve used that may not translate well including:

  • Short calls to action that may be translated to mean multiple things. For example, the word “Post” could be translated as a verb, “Post a photo”, or a noun, “I wrote a new post”.
  • Location or culturally specific expressions such as “Howdy” or “Wowie” or even “jump ahead to section A”.
  • Terms that are important enough to your brand that they may need more in-depth attention during translation. For example, “Like” for Facebook or “Pin” for Pinterest.

Before beginning translation, run through your list and make decisions about how each piece of content should be approached. Discuss terms with your local partners and translators and ask for their feedback. Make sure to document your decisions.

3. Think about the complete experience

Whether you’re localising your complete experience or only a portion of it, make sure you’re thinking about every touchpoint that a customer is likely to encounter and providing them with a localised experience every step of the way.

When I moved to France, I chose my bank specifically because they provide English support for setting up the account with an English-speaking banker. The experience was smooth until I received the terms of service, all written in French, and until I logged into my account to find that the interface is only available in French. My grade school French and Google translate has made this all manageable, but as a customer the experience was jarring. If there had been an alternative, I may have chosen it and gone with another bank.

If you plan to make your product or service available in another language, it’s critical to think through all the touchpoints your customers are likely to have with you and ensure that you’re providing a localised experience at each step. Things that are easy to overlook include: terms and other legal content, emails, error messages and form elements such as country-specific phone number formatting or Zip verses Postal Codes.

4. Write and design for longer content and constrained interfaces

Even the shortest content written in English is quite likely to double or triple when it’s translated into some languages. This can cause particular problems in interfaces where it can cause text to wrap off the screen or overlap, and make important calls to action and button text difficult or impossible to read.It’s a common error for writers to think that they just need to come up with shorter English content, but really the solution is to encourage design partners and engineers to build more flexible interface components. This may mean changes in the visual language of the interface such as the decision to allow buttons with longer text to stack on top of each other, rather than forcing them to sit side by side. It may also mean coding affordances for headings to wrap onto multiple lines, or building scroll functionality.Building awareness in your company for the challenges people may face when interface components aren’t flexible is powerful. Remember that in many developing countries, lower end feature phones with small screens are still commonly used. Make sure to look at your interface on these devices and share what you find with co-workers.As a content strategist, one of your most important jobs is to bring your colleagues back to the needs of the real humans who will be using your products and services. Understanding the complexity of launching to a new locale and advocating for the unique opportunities and constraints of different locales and more importantly, humanising the individuals who inhabit those spaces, is a critical and often overlooked responsibility when companies decide to expand internationally.

Bonne chance!


Going Pinternational: Bringing Pinterest to 32 Languages in under a year by Sadia Latifi

Summary by language size by Ethnologue

11 Untranslatable Words from Other Cultures by Ella Frances Sanders on Maptia

Communications Technologies in Emerging and Developing Nations by the Pew Research Center

Image Credits

Google Translate, https://translate.google.com

Dictionary by Dylan Cantwell. Cropped. Some rights reserved.

A blast from the past (*Explored) by Stratman2. Some rights reserved.

Longest Translation - http://www.longesttranslation.com/

11 Untranslatable Words from Other Cultures by Ella Frances Sanders on Maptia.


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About the author

Amy Thibodeau

Amy Thibodeau is a writer, reader, editor and former content strategist at Facebook. She’s currently renovating a creaky old house in a village in the South of France. Get in touch or learn more at amythibodeau.com or @amythibodeau.

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