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The Basics of Software Internationalization
Using a web-enabled quoting application, independent consultant Dan Moore explains the principles of internationalization and beyond.

International-Ready and Great

Lingoport’s founder and president, Adam Asnes, gives details on Globalyzer and how it can help your internationalization efforts.

Get Ready to Go International
Tracy Russell

How to make your corporate content and design cross a few borders seamlessly


There is an old joke in which a traveler stops to ask for directions. The old man scratches his head and says, “Well, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.” Unfortunately, we often feel like saying this to some of our clients who present us with projects for localization that have clearly not been conceived with any understanding of the concept of internationalization.

So what exactly is internationalization in the context of localization? It is the process of engineering a product or developing a service so that it can be easily and efficiently localized without having to be rewritten, redesigned or reengineered to cope with different languages and regions.

In this introductory guide, we offer some guidelines for clients whose products and services will be marketed beyond their domestic market, and, as marketing communications specialists, we focus on the key elements of international communication — content and design. You will notice that a common thread running through all our advice is the need to consider internationalization earlier rather than later in the development of marketing materials to avoid unnecessary costs and delays.

How to say what you mean and mean what you say in any language. The golden rule of creating source text that will work effectively in any language and market is to keep it clear and simple and to avoid as many cultural references as possible. The source text should be well written, unambiguous and grammatically correct. It should conform to any in-house corporate guidelines for terminology and style to reinforce corporate branding but should also be acceptable to local markets from an idiomatic perspective.

The internationalization guidelines below for the creation of content are not mandatory, but they will help to ensure that the source text can be used internationally, will minimize localization cost and time, and allow the user to read and understand the text easily.

  • Keep copy short and succinct.
  • Write clearly and unambiguously.
  • Decide upon an appropriate tone of voice and register for the target audience and stick to it.
  • Develop and approve key messages and terminology first.
  • Avoid clichés, cultural references and jargon because they are difficult to translate effectively.
  • Do not use “street” language or words and phrases that will only be used by a minority of your target audience.
  • Either avoid abbreviations and acronyms or write the terms out in full before using the abbreviations and acronyms.
  • Avoid names based on abbreviations. Even when abbreviations are universally recognized, they can present pronunciation problems for different cultures.
  • Avoid metaphors or names based on images. A bull market or a groundhog day will be meaningless to many cultures.
  • Be aware that humor often does not travel beyond its culture of origin and can be very expensive to adapt.

Think International before You Get Creative
Since the globalization process is often based on the adaptation of copy and design from an original marketing tool such as an English language website or an advertising campaign, the way in which the original design is created has a substantial impact on localization. When designing for an international marketplace, you have to consider both the cultural and the technical implications — that is, the suitability of the design for local markets and the suitability of the design for the localization process.

Designing for local markets is about considering how the message will be received. Is there any danger that the design could be regarded as culturally sensitive in any current or future international markets? Do the visual elements create a positive impression in these markets? Does the design communicate the intended meaning?

Designing for the localization process is about understanding the technicalities of design and how they can either promote or hinder the localization process. The agency responsible for localizing the design will be strongly reliant on the technical and visual design of the original in order to produce a consistent set of localized versions. The speed, efficiency and cost of design localization will also depend on whether the design has been fully internationalized and, therefore, does not require time-consuming language-specific manipulation.

Let us look at the two main cultural issues related to designing for international markets — color and imagery.

The color purple — death or royalty? Color can have a strong positive or negative representation in all cultures. Understanding the impact of color will help with the design, enabling you to emphasize or de-emphasize corporate colors for a global audience.

The color black, for example, signifies death in the West, but in China the color of death is white. Purple signifies bravery and royalty in the West, but is the color of mourning in Brazil. Red is commonly associated with danger in the West but is associated with weddings in China. Green and light blue are regarded as sacred colors in the Middle East, and saffron yellow is a sacred color for Buddhists.

This is not to say that sensitive colors cannot be used in designs for a global audience. It is useful, however, to consider the impact of color choice in the context of a multicultural target market at the earliest stages of the design process.

Beware of the dog. You also need to be aware of the suitability of images for a global audience and be prepared to offer different images depending on the target market. Examples of the types of images that can cause difficulties include people, animals, flags and icons.

People. Many cultures are extremely sensitive to ethnicity, dress and poses, particularly relating to women. A recent poster campaign for Lux, featuring Sarah Jessica Parker in a sleeveless dress, had to be hastily airbrushed to cover her arms for the Israeli market.

Animals. They conjure up different images in different cultures. Dogs are generally considered to be man’s best friend in the West, but Arab cultures find them “unclean” and offensive.

Flags. Flags are always best avoided because they are more political than cultural and do not clearly represent a specific language. Which language is represented, for instance, by the Swiss or Belgian flag?

Icons. Common cultural references such as mailboxes, rubbish bins and phone boxes are often used in website designs but are unlikely to be universally understood as each country has a different design.

Designing for the Localization Process
Once the text and design are culturally suitable, the next challenge is to ensure that the design is internationalized from a technical perspective. There are many issues to consider here, and, again, a key piece of advice is to consider all of these before the localization process begins, particularly if the design is for a multilingual website.

Leave plenty of room for text expansion. No two languages take up the same amount of space when laid out in a design. Individual words can expand by up to 300%, and design elements such as a text box can sometimes take up twice as much space as the English source. But one paragraph in a document might expand by 30%, and the next may not expand at all. Some languages such as Russian can expand up to 70%. Others such as Hebrew and Asia-Pacific languages may contract and take up less space.

The behavior of localized text thus provides a significant challenge in producing a design that can be internationalized and support a wide range of target languages. In order to accommodate text expansion, the layout and design of the original must either allow space for such expansion to occur or for elements to be moved. Generally, text expansion is handled by expanding into empty areas of the page or by reducing the size, leading and tracking of the text (by as little as possible). In some cases, however, more deliberate action must be taken.

For example, headlines often do not translate easily, and five words can become eight or ten. Point size reduction is often the only option on a design where text expansion has not been taken into consideration. Interesting alignments and typographical emphasis on the different elements of a headline can, as a result, be difficult to reproduce.

Captions should not be crammed too tightly on a page, either to a graphic or to each other. A heavily labeled diagram needs plenty of space for text expansion. Tables and forms are difficult to handle because of the use of unalterable colored backgrounds and lines that make expansion impossible.

Select your languages before you choose your fonts. Non-Western languages require different typefaces in order to accommodate the extra characters not supported by standard fonts. It is, therefore, a good idea to consider what languages will be required at the earliest possible stage of design before you decide on which font you are going to use. If you want to use a particular font across all your communications, remember that the font should be widely available in all mediums. For website localization, Arial and Times New Roman are probably the safest bets. If a browser cannot display the correct font, the result will be the nearest the browser can find on the machine, which may compromise the design.

Beware the use of corporate fonts. Unless they have been developed by large organizations with large budgets, they do not tend to support non-English characters. Font design and creation are highly specialized and expensive processes.

Where a font is used that does not support localized characters, the only option is to find the closest available match for the target character set, which means that your agencies and localization companies must also possess a copy of the chosen font. It is possible to produce customized versions of Western European fonts for non-Western languages, but it means that extra time will have to be built into the project. In short, failing to carefully consider font selection at the design stage can add time and cost to a project.

Designing for bidirectional and double-byte languages. Bidirectional languages such as Arabic and Hebrew may require a full re-working, as they must read from right to left. This means the production of reversed artwork and possibly a change of graphics. Consultation at the earliest possible stage of design will assist with speedy delivery of localized Hebrew and Arabic versions.

While some publishing packages readily support the direct input of Asia-Pacific character sets such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean, localized design can be produced so that the file can be run through the normal printing process without the need for specialist software. Again, our advice is to consult with the experts at the earliest possible stage of design to ensure the speedy delivery of localized Asia-Pacific versions.

Ask your printer for advice. It is always worth consulting your printer before finalizing the design, particularly when applying the same design across multiple language outputs. Printing costs can be greatly reduced by the use of a “fifth plate,” a technique that is used extensively in the packaging world, where an initial large print run containing all the color elements (photos/graphics) is produced. This “blank” printed output is then overprinted with the text elements in a smaller, language-specific print run, which allows for more print-on-demand flexibility. This technique only works where the language-specific elements can be printed in a separate color (or colors) without affecting the rest of the design. This typically means that the text is black.

Avoid turning text into graphics. The guiding principle is to avoid putting translatable text elements in separate graphics files unnecessarily — either for online or offline communication. Once embedded into a graphics file, it is a manual process to extract the text, and this has to be done separately from the main text extraction. A better approach when designing for print is to place text in frames laid over the graphic. This means that text can be extracted in one simple process. Less switching between programs is needed during the typesetting process, and there are fewer files to deliver once localization is completed. It is easier to accommodate different graphics for different language versions as appropriate without involving translators and typesetters in the process.

Burning text into graphics for online communication means that it is displayed in a certain way and cannot be adjusted by user screen resolution preferences or the re-sizing of a window. This might be desirable from a design perspective, but it makes the localization process longer and more complex because there is no efficient way of automating text extraction and re-insertion into graphics, and you will probably need to involve a DTP/web graphics specialist. The same look and feel can often be achieved using plain HTML, particularly with the use of Cascading Style Sheets, and this results in a far more localization-friendly design.

Embedding text in graphics also locks your design into one that is only suitable for the English language. If text is already embedded, ensure that the design allows for language expansion. Otherwise, the only option for localized versions is to reduce the point size to make the text fit, and this can affect the legibility of the content.

Ready for Takeoff?
Preparing for international departures is not difficult, but it does involve getting a grip on a number of cultural issues before you even brief your creative agency. You need to work with a partner who understands internationalization and localization; otherwise, you could make costly mistakes. Never underestimate the potential sensitivity of any ethnic, religious or cultural group to what you say and to how you present your business visually.

As any business knows, a reputation can take a lifetime to earn and a moment to destroy. So why jeopardize your chances of international success just because your agency did not know that a beautiful young Chinese woman dressed in white is more likely to be on her way to her funeral than her wedding?

Reprinted from MultiLingual magazine (2005, #71 Volume 16 Issue 3) with permission from Multilingual Computing, Inc.,
Tracy Russell is publishing services manager at the localization firm Wordbank.
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