How to Localize: Words in Context

Driving a car when the windows are full of snow is a bit like reading a text written in a language variety that is not your own.

Driving a car when the windows are full of snow is a bit like reading a text written in a language variety that is not your own: things aren’t always clear.

As you start driving, you try to look through snow-free spots to see where you’re going and the snow eventually slowly flies off or melts. If you persevere, you may finally reach your destination, but it’s likely you’ll have to stop along the way to clear the snow.

Let me explain.

The Life of Words

Our living environment influences the way in which we use language. Growing up in Canada has meant dealing with the physical and cultural realities of my surroundings, and learning French as it is used in a Canadian context.

Francophones in Canada talk about courriel for (electronic) mail, use fin de semaine rather than weekend, and wear a tuque rather than a bonnet de laine. This is not usually the case in France. And where would one hear the verb enfirouaper – a clever derivative of “in fur wrapped” – other than the Estrie region of Quebec? If you want more background on this expression, leave a comment, and I’ll gladly respond. These are just a few of the many language variations.

The words we use have a history, evolve and have meaning in a specific cultural context.

Localization is the process of clearing the snow off the windows before hitting the road. That is, it’s adapting a text to a specific locale (or place) so that it will be clear and sound natural to the reader. This can be done during the translation process, but it can also occur after an initial translation if several language varieties exist.

How to Localize – A Simplified Guide

1. Objective localization

This first step of the process focuses on the reader’s visual response to a text.

I call this the objective part of localization because there are specific rules to follow. I like to think of it as taking care of the visual appeal of the document; writing phone numbers and addresses properly, converting units, following locale specific typographical rules, formatting, translating proper names, etc. Without even noticing it, over the years, we have become used to certain specifications in writing and formatting, for instance in the mail we receive, in books, and at school or work.

Go to resources: L’Art de ponctuer (by Bertrand Tremblay), Le Français au Bureau (OQLF), Le Guide du rédacteur (accessed through Termium).

2. Subjective localization

Subjective localization focuses on achieving readability and flow.

In order to be able to understand the subtleties of a language, one must have lived for several years in that locale. This is a requirement in my opinion. It’s important to have acquired a wide range of expressions and to be familiar with different levels of speech.

As I localize a document from French (France) to be used in Canada, for example, I am looking for unfamiliar phrases, expressions and allusions, Anglicisms, adapting the use of the feminine, and searching for incongruities. This is usually quite apparent. However, when I have doubts concerning the wording, I dig further by trying to see if it is simply unfamiliar to me but culturally appropriate, or if it needs to be modified.

Go to resources: In addition to personal knowledge, I consult online language corpuses, sites such as Radio-Canada, online newspapers, Termium, GDT (grand dictionnaire terminologique), and Franqus. Bilingual concordance programs such as Tradooit and Webitext can also be very useful.

3. Specific terminology

Fine tuning is sometimes needed for specialized documents.

Specialty fields, such as medicine and law, have established their own jargon, or vocabulary, and it may vary between two varieties of the same language. Other specific changes often involve brand names, job titles, regulatory bodies, government entities, and associations.

This step often requires specialized knowledge and involves doing background research.

Go to resources: In addition to the resources already mentioned, government sites, the websites of associations, businesses or events such as conferences can all be good sources.

The Desired Outcome: To Make a Lasting Impression

After going through these three steps, you will have a translation that sounds natural and familiar in a given country or region. In essence, it is about the power of words to make a lasting impression and to reach an audience.

If you’ve noticed differences in the way your language is used compared to another language variety, do leave a comment, I would love to hear about it.