Drop it like you burnt yourself: Why you should be localizing your copy
We have a bit of a thing for song lyrics here at WeTransfer. More specifically, early 00s R&B song lyrics — the kind that never fail to hit that guilty pleasure sweet spot.
Every chapter of our company handbook is named after a Beyoncé song, including an FAQ desperately titled Why don’t you love me? In fact, one of the first bits of copywriting to appear on WeTransfer (almost 10 years ago!) tells users to ‘Drop it like it’s hot’ when they drag and drop files.
Through the gospel of Snoop (Dogg? Lion? Badger?) we’re able to translate the laid-back WeTransfer tone of voice to millions of users all over the world — a task our translators have perhaps taken on a little too dutifully.
Turns out our friends over in Sweden are told to ‘Släpp dem som om du bränt dig’ or ‘Drop it like you burnt yourself’. Yikes.
I couldn’t help but wonder (look I’m a self-confessed Carrie, okay?) is translation alone not enough? When should it become localization and why aren’t we doing it at WeTransfer? And, most pressingly, are we uncool in Sweden?
You know when you go to McDonald’s in a foreign country and the menu is kinda different?
It isn’t straight up translated but instead offers products that are tailored to that particular country and its tastes. Like the Grand Teriyaki burger served up in Japan or Italy’s overly-indulgent Nutella burger.
That’s localization. Think of it as a cultural nuance as opposed to a straight up linguistic one.
It happens in film too. In Pixar’s Inside Out most of us are introduced to Disgust when Riley’s dad tries to feed her broccoli. However, because broccoli is such a hit in Japan, the Japanese version of the film uses a plate of green peppers instead. And in Zootopia the news anchors change depending on where the film is released. The co-anchor in America, Canada and France is a moose; while in Australia and New Zealand it’s a koala and Japan gets a tanuki. (I think we can all agree Japan is winning the localization game here.)
Essentially, localization is the way a message or product is adapted to make sure it appeals to a specific locale or market — no matter their language, culture or location.
(Psst, for most of you I’m localizing right now — I’m actually British).
Cool, but why does it matter?
If you’re marketing on a global level then localization is important. You can’t simply translate the same message into different languages and hope for the best because sociocultural practices differ from country to country. Where in some countries an informal, fun tone of voice can seem refreshing and fun, in others it can come across rude and overbearing.
When Coca Cola did its Share a Coke campaign, the names written across each drink differed per country to better fit the popular names there. For example, Ireland used names like Róisín and Tadhg while Coke drinkers in the UAE saw names like Tarek and Zaina. Interestingly in China, where being on first name terms with someone is a sign of intimacy and trust, the brand instead used phrases like Classmate and Close friend — maintaining the personable feel of the campaign, without offending.
Back to early 00s R&B
So where does this leave WeTransfer? Why do Swedish folk still think we’re uncool?
Admittedly, we still have a way to go. Although we (sadly) don’t have a dedicated team of localization specialists, we do work with translators to make our platform available in 11 languages.
Localization is a learning curve for us all — myself included. So for now, I’m trying to keep a few things in mind to write copy that won’t get lost in translation and will resonate worldwide.
#1 Avoid figures of speech
Did you know the Swedish equivalent of being born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth is to slide in on a shrimp sandwich? And you’ve heard about people living in glass houses who shouldn’t throw stones? Well in Korea a dog with faeces who scolds a dog with husks of grain is essentially the same thing.
Idioms like these can be difficult to translate. Even Stanley Kubrick opted to change the classic line “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” depending on the country The Shining was released in since it just didn’t translate. Watch The Shining in Italian and on Jack’s typewriter you’ll read “Il mattino ha l’oro in bocca” — literally translated it means ‘the morning has gold in its mouth’ but it’s the Italian equivalent of ‘the early bird catches the worm’.
#2 Avoid relying on cultural tropes
I try not to reference seasonal events like holidays, celebrations or even the weather.
Our storytelling site WePresent has a monthly newsletter and in the October edition, I wrote how “no amount of pumpkin spice can stop the gloominess from creeping in”. However, for readers in the southern hemisphere, the gloominess wasn’t creeping in at all. In fact, it was on its way out.
Even in the copy we don’t translate, it’s important to remember we have a global readership and seasonal-specific things like this aren’t relevant for everyone.
#3 Be aware of copy length
When writing copy for small spaces like tooltips or buttons, it’s important to keep in mind that in a language like German or Swedish the words will likely be a lot longer.
For example, in a payment flow I’d opt for a button that says ‘Next’ instead of ‘Save and go to the next step’ (or ‘Speichern Sie und fahren Sie mit dem nächsten Schritt fort’ in German).
#4 Generally try to keep it clear
This may sound like copywriting 101 but for a brand that has such an informal tone of voice and doesn’t shy away from slang, popular culture (and apparently Beyoncé), this is easy to forget at WeTransfer.
You’ve got the basics like choosing to repeat the same noun or verb instead of unnecessary synonyms and writing in an active voice, but it’s also important to be aware of linguistic nuances that work in English but don’t in another language.
For example, a question like “Don’t you think Robyn did a great job with this Medium post?” begins with a negative word so a non-native speaker might interpret it as bad news. A better version would be “Robyn did a wonderful job with this Medium post, right?”