7 Localization Mistakes Even Experienced Tech Writers Make

May 15, 2021
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We all want our content to be compelling to everyone that consumes it, whether they are in our home country or one of our global markets. We certainly don’t want our company to end up as an entrant on an online list of “10 Hilarious Localization Mistakes.” Do we?

How do we ensure that our team doesn’t make a costly localization error? One that could harm our company’s reputation, morale, and budget.

We’ve all heard funny horror stories of companies that have made huge and damaging mistakes in their localization.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of Ford’s slogan “Every car has a high-quality body” that was translated in Belgium as “Every car has a high-quality corpse.” Or maybe you’ve held back a childish laugh when you heard about the Swedish vacuum cleaner’s unfortunate US slogan “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.”

Of course, these are all marketing mistakes caused by bad translation, aren’t they?

We would never see anything like this happening in technical writing…right?

Unfortunately, localization errors are just as prevalent in technical writing as they are in marketing, if not even more so.

We laugh at badly translated product labels that say things like “Do not use for the specified use.” We puzzle over instruction manuals that tell the user “Connect before switching on power supply, please check the voltage with agree with physically.” We laugh when other companies make such blatant mistakes.

But, we’d be mortified if such a mistake happened under our watch.

Many writers think they can avoid this type of mistake by using a great translator. However, the solution is not so simple.

There’s more to localization than translation

Translation mistakes are just the tip of the iceberg.

Other localization mistakes are also extremely common. Even experienced tech writers are not immune. Such mistakes are more complex to solve than simply improving the translation. They suggest deeper issues with your global content strategy.

The only way to avoid these mistakes is to be aware of them and tackle them from the start.

The companies that come to us sometimes assume that they can avoid localization mistakes by getting a great translator. However, we have seen the following mistakes arising even for companies that are using highly-capable translators.

Translation is only one step in a chain of activities that constitute your localization process (and more widely your global content strategy). Most of the mistakes fall in previous stages, long before the translators get involved.

People look at the horrific examples above and assume the problems occurred because the translator did a poor job. In reality, the problems probably started much earlier in the chain.

7 localization mistakes even experienced tech writers make

Here are 7 common mistakes that we see coming up again and again with our clients. They include some insights from our Global Content Business Analyst, Rebecca Metcalf, who shared some of them in her recent session at the Society for Technical Communication Virtual Summit:

1. Focusing too much on translation

Many people believe that localization is all about translation. In reality, translation is only the final stage in the journey of a piece of global content. As Rebecca explains “On a fundamental level translated content is a mirror of the English source. It’s the same content in a different language.”

Because of this, you can only have quality localized content if you start with the right sort of content in the original language.

Ask yourself: Has our content been created with translation in mind from the start? If you don’t know the answer, you may be setting yourself up for trouble.

2. Not considering the global audience upfront

Too often we meet people who have added localization as an afterthought. Great localization means thinking about your global audience from the start to finish, all the way from product design to creating technical content about that product.

Failing to do this can have a real impact on sales. Back in the 1980s, Apple didn’t properly consider the European market and failed to add special characters to their keyboards. As a result, the Apple II didn’t sell well in Europe. Every day, companies still make this sort of mistake.

3. Thinking of localization as someone else’s job

When working with companies, Rebecca describes this mistake as “the single biggest pitfall I’ve encountered.” Too many companies think of localization as the sole responsibility of their Localization Service Provider or localization team.

The best global companies see localization as everyone’s responsibility. They have processes in place to ensure that their high-quality content retains that level of quality across all of their markets.

4. Not consulting with your in-country experts

Rebecca recounts a chilling story of one company that she worked with on a large localization project. The company had localized content for a several regional offices at a cost of $100k per language. When the content was released, one of the regional offices said that their translations were unnecessary as all of the employees who would be using it spoke fluent English.

Involving the regional teams in the decision-making process would have saved them over $100k of wasted budget.

5. Focusing too much on the tool

Tech writers often come to us looking for a tool that will solve all of their problems. They get stuck on the idea that a single piece of software will deal with localization and they won’t have to worry about it ever again.

The reality is that good localization is much larger than just a single piece of software. Although tools can certainly be useful, they aren’t a panacea.

6. Assuming others have dealt with everything

You probably think that all of the regulatory and legal issues have been sorted about the product before the project arrives at your team, right? However, it’s surprisingly common for legal issues to be missed when it comes to localization.

Rebecca recounts a time when a company she worked with created centralized global training material. They had translated the content at the cost of $10k per language, only to discover later that almost half of the markets couldn’t sell the product for regulatory reasons. What a waste of time, effort, and budget!

7. Focusing only on the text

As writers, it makes sense that we focus most of our energies on the text and the words. Unfortunately, this often means that we forget about the other aspects of content that also need to be localized. We think that localization just means translating our words into another language.

For example, think about the local photographs, iconography, and cultural references that you include in your content without even realizing you are including them. These need to be localized too or your content won’t resonate as well in other markets.

How to avoid these common mistakes

Localization mistakes can be costly. At best, they make your company look less professional than you would like. At worst, they can seriously harm the reputation, morale, and budget of a company.

The first step to avoiding such mistakes is to recognize that localization means more than just translation.

The second step is to learn a little bit more about localization and what is involved in creating a truly global company. To find out how your company can benefit from a global content strategy, download a copy of our book or contact us directly for some tips tailored to your unique situation.

Do you want some quick tips to get more from your translated content?

In our guide 33 Content Translation Hacks to Simplify Your Life you will learn actionable tips to improve your translation workflow – click the link or download the e-book below:

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