Discussions on international SEO tend to focus in on the technical – sub-domains, language tags, sitemaps and so on. Often lost in the mix, however, is the infinitely important human side of taking your brand international: the content you’re sharing with these new audiences.
Often, the entire process is oversimplified; “We’ll translate it!” is the most common thing I hear when businesses talk about taking their content to an international market.
That’s a huge mistake.
The trouble is, your “international” audience is not a uniform conglomerate. When you take your content to new countries, you take it to more than just another language. You open your brand up to new cultures, new biases, new ways of thinking and interpreting the world. To try and paint another country with the broad brush of “language” misses the point entirely.
When thinking about content for a new international audience, you’ve got three options:
- Translation: Changing the content word-for-word
- Localization: Adapting the existing content to suit the local audience
- Transcreation: Creating content specifically for that local audience, from the ground up.
The trouble with translation…
Direct translation is the weakest, most risky and least effective means of taking your content abroad.
For starters, English doesn’t neatly translate into most other languages. A practical example is German, where there are both formal and informal ways to say “You” (du and Sie). Address your audience the wrong way, and you’ve irked them from the very beginning and lost their respect.
Keyword Meanings Differ
You can’t just take your targeted keyword list, push “translate” and hope for the best. Words take on different meanings across different languages, and are used with different intents. Without insight into how a native speaker is using the word, you may be targeting irrelevant phrases.
Colloquialisms. Jargon and Humor Are NOT Universal
Secondly, English jargon, colloquialisms and turns-of-phrase are often meaningless (or worse – mean something horrible) in other languages – or even between dialects.
For example, “Come up for air”, “At the top of their game” and “Making waves” will leave your international market scratching their heads and wondering what on earth you could have meant.
Braniff Airlines learned this the hard way when trying to get people excited about the new leather chairs in their planes. Their U.S. ad campaign, “Fly in Leather”, translated to “Fly Naked” in Mexico.
Humor is another sticky area that can get you in trouble. The dry humor and sarcasm the West is so fond of do not carry over well into Europe, while off-the-cuff jokes we might find acceptable here will leave other international markets offended – or incredibly confused.
But it’s not just the language you need to be worried about – images matter, too. Take, for example, the Pampers blunder. When selling their diapers in Japan, product packaging featured a stork delivering a baby – a reference Japanese people have absolutely no relation to.
Your choice of images can have adverse cultural impacts, too – like showcasing photos of all-white families when marketing to non-white nations, or breaking culturally accepted modesty. A photo of a “thumbs up” will be a familiar upbeat symbol for people in the US, but is extremely offensive in areas of Africa and the Middle East.
Layout, Style & Tone
One last important point: different cultures communicate differently. That sounds trite, but it has big implications; some cultures expect and welcome short, abrasive and to the point sentences. Other cultures expect a gentler, more tempered approach – ruffle their feathers, and they’ll tune you out.
Colors and layout play an important role, too – for example, red is associated with happiness and wealth in China, but Egyptians associate it with death.
Japanese, Arabic and Hebrew audiences read from right-to-left,
Localization: Giving Translation Context
As you can see from the above, simple translation fails to take the audience into account by giving them a familiar context.
The biggest takeaway from all this is that when taking your content abroad, mere translators are not your best option. Whenever possible, you want to tap the shoulder of a local marketer or content creator, who not only knows the language, but the cultural norms, sensitivities and perspectives as well. Ideally, this content creator should have an intimate knowledge of both languages to make communication easy and ensure nothing is lost between points A and B.
Localization is a means of making your existing content more appropriate for an international audience, taking these factors into account. You want “boots on the ground” who understand how your message will be received and can change it to suit.
Yes, this type of work can be more expensive – but consider the enormous costs and inefficiencies of addressing your international market the wrong way, and it starts to make a whole lot more sense.
A few tips to make localization easier:
- Use “international English” as often as possible, weeding out colloquialisms and jargon that won’t translate well
- As part of your strategy, research the cultural norms, attitudes and taboos before putting pen to paper.
- Work with a local marketer whenever possible. Only someone who has grown up immersed in a culture can give you a true understanding of what works, what doesn’t and how to deliver.
Transcreation: The Great Ideal
If you really want to build an authentic community with an international audience, you need to build out content with them in mind from the very beginning – not just band-aid it over once it’s already been created.
Localization is better than translation, but at the end of the day, it’s still an attempt to export your brand to an audience who thinks, speaks and lives differently. If you have the resources and the capacity to take on transcreation – the creation of unique content by someone who knows both your brand and the culture being marketed to.
But if you don’t, avoid straight-up translations. They don’t do anyone any favors.
It’s time we thought differently about international content creation – after all, your international market does!