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Translating a Website for a Foreign Culture

Expanding businesses into other countries means that you will be conveying your messages to people who speak other languages. What's more, your audience may have cultural background other than yours -- and it does matter.

Surprisingly many people think that creating, say, a website in a foreign language means just to translate the existing English version. Good translation by all means is very important. But what about putting your message into the context of the particular culture, which is native to your new audience?

This process is called "website localization". It is like "tuning" your website (both content and design) into unison with mentality of other people -- the prospective visitors.

Here I won't describe the part of web site localization which deals with programming; this issue itself is complex enough. I will focus on writing content for your website and its further translation.

What part of this work you can do yourself? Probably not all of it, but quite a lot. Here is a step-by-step guide to help you in the process.

Step Zero: Remember: Your Website is Not for You.

It is for VISITORS. So it is logical to consider what THEY think such websites should look like. It is their points of view that matter, not yours. When you memorize this axiom, go to

Step One: Learn!

Self-education is useful in itself; besides, this knowledge is going to save you money and bring profit later. Learn as much as you can about your prospective audience. The more, the better.

It's a rather time-consuming but exciting process. I hope you will manage, as Ancient Romans used to say, "Miscere utile dulci" (to mingle the useful with the pleasant). You will find out plenty of interesting things about another culture. Customs and traditions, rules of etiquette and moral principles, stereotypes, superstitions and lots of other stuff for you to consider when addressing people from a country other than yours.

You can find plenty of information in the Internet. Search Groups as well. Show your interest in other culture, and almost any native will appreciate it and help you as an expert. In addition, you will make good friends with great people.

Travellers' guides can be an excellent source of information; they will help you avoid costly mistakes not only during a trip abroad. Just one example. You must have seen websites with pictures showing people gesticulate. Note that any gesture which is quite OK in the USA may be misunderstood somewhere else. By the way, do you know what the "OK" gesture means in some Asian countries? Demand for money, that's what. In Tunisia it will be interpreted as a threat to kill; in Arab countries -- "go to hell". In France it means just "zero" or "nothing." In Denmark or Italy it can be taken as an insult; and so is in Brazil, Guatemala and Paraguay -- here it is considered very obscene. So, you'd better make pictures of your website "culture-neutral".

The farther in, the deeper… What is considered rude, impudent, offensive, or impolite in this culture? What is respected, valued, venerated? What traits of character are appreciated most? What are the favorite colors and what are they associated with? What are the most noticeable differences between your culture and this one?

Don't be surprised if points of view on what is beautiful and what is ugly will also differ from yours.

When you come to the conclusion that your text won't do and the design probably needs changing as well, go to

Step Two: Analyze!

Turn your findings into tips for writing another text. "Don'ts" here are of much more important than "Do's"

Realize how you shouldn't write. Learn what won't work. Find out what to avoid in graphics and website design.

When arranging content and graphics, it is very important to know whether the audience reads left-to-right, right-to-left or vertically.

Step Three: Write for your audience.

What to begin with when writing for a person from another culture? Put on his shoes first. Well, that's second. First, take off your own shoes. I mean don't be a representative of your own culture -- just for a short time you'll be writing the content.

Avoid jokes, slang, idioms, proverbs and sayings. They are YOURS, not theirs. Allusions to books they probably haven't read, quotations, however familiar they are to you -- all that won't work.

Be cautious with metaphors and similes (comparisons). Pretty clear and familiar to YOU, for others they might be not so obvious.


Symbols can mean something very different in other cultures. If you can't do without one, find out what it means THERE.

Abbreviations and acronyms are tricky, too – they may be unknown to your audience.

You will have to explain stuff you think to be trivial. Not everybody in the world knows what is eBay, Paypal, or Amazon. Celebrities' fame isn't worldwide, either. Big companies and brands may be unknown on the other side of the globe.

Step Four: Find a RIGHT translator

If you can, get a well-educated native speaker of a language you are going to have your text translated into (it is called "target language")

The reason is simple: nobody can ever say: "I have learned this language" -- only "I have been learning". We all have been learning our mother tongues since birth. That is why native speakers have an advantage. The larger the translator's vocabulary, the better your message will be expressed.

Besides, a native speaker often has precious knowledge on the culture -- it's precisely what you need for website localization-- and will help you in the process.

Step Five: Bring it to Perfection

How to check the end result? Ask somebody from this culture to proofread the text before launching the website.

Encourage feedback when your website is launched. Correct mistakes, if any, at once. Improve your website all the time.

Getting your messages understood in other languages and cultures is a tricky task. It takes plenty of effort -- but it will pay. Not only will you make profit and avoid bitter losses caused by misunderstanding. As a bonus you will get deeper undestanding of people whose languages, cultures and even ways of thinking are different. This understanding is the key factor of your success in doing business or communicating with these people.

Good luck to you! Success be to your efforts!

Linguist by profession, Alexandra Gamanenko currently takes part in a design studio project. It offers localization and translation of websites into Russian and Ukrainian, as well as lots of other useful services.

Learn more -- visit the website http://www.clever-crayon.com

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