Marianne Siréta: Under the hood of website localization

Marianne Siréta, our website localization expert, grants us an interview dealing with translation from the cultural point of view.

Since the 1990s, the Internet has turned our social and financial relations upside-down. This communication tool generates a tremendous amount of interactivity between the citizens of our world that has revolutionized the way businesses communicate. A study performed in 2011 by the European Commission shows that, contrary to what many might think, English is not the language used by the majority of the world’s people when using the Internet. In fact, 90% of web users prefer to browse the Web in their mother tongue when buying products or services. This is why in marketing it can be critical to avail oneself of the services of a translation agency to translate a website, localize it, and optimize it for search engines in the target country.

An active presence in the fan fiction community since she was a teenager, Marianne Siréta first launched herself into the world of translation as an autodidact. Later, her passion for words and their meanings inspired her to pursue studies at the ISIT (Institut de Management et de Communication Interculturels, Paris), specializing in various domains including transcreation and the translation of university articles dealing with digital humanities. Finally, she returned to her first love since childhood: teaching. Now a translator and professor responsible for the website translation course at ISIT, this young versatile entrepreneur granted us a series of interviews.

This week, our website localization expert gives us an under-the-hood look at localization, which, in her words, “consists of adapting content (typically computer-related, such as websites, software applications, video games, apps, etc.) not only into a target audience’s language but also its local particularities. Firstly, the language must be adapted to the country or region in question (differences between the French spoken in France and Quebec, Spanish in Argentina or Mexico, English in the UK, the US or Australia, etc.). Secondly, we must adapt the text to local conventions such as units of measure (currency, distances, etc.), spatial and cultural markers (“overseas”, “abroad” or “the rest of the world” so beloved by Americans, etc.). It may also require resizing menus or dialog boxes (depending on the number of words or letters), or even completely restructuring the site based on organizational norms (the most extreme being performing a “mirror” inversion of web pages for languages which read from right to left).

– Which website elements can we adapt to the target culture?

– Strictly speaking, all of them! However, it depends on your objectives, for one, as well as your budget, naturally! In many cases, it would in fact be simpler to recreate the entire website from scratch specifically designed for your target audience, but in practice only a few large companies do so as it requires a major investment in terms of time, energy and cost, and because not changing everything provides a measure of reassurance.

The most important elements include the site’s graphical aspect, its style guide, colors, icons, and images. A fairly well-known example is that of McDonald’s, which adapted its logo in certain countries, including France, where the famous M is yellow on a green background compared to yellow on red in the United States. The green was in response to criticism of the company’s industrial and “junk food” aspects, which is looked on much less kindly in France than in the brand’s country of origin.

More broadly, colors do not convey the same message in one culture as in another. For example, mourning and death are represented by black in Western cultures, white in India and China, and even purple and green in some South American countries. Brides wear white in the West, whereas they wear red in certain Asian countries such as India and China, although wedding practices there are becoming more westernized.

But if we look beyond the visual aspect, there are important structural and design issues to consider. On the structural side, the placement of important information is not the same from culture to culture, as has been demonstrated by eye tracking studies where researchers follow users’ eye movements as they navigate websites. A user might find navigation more difficult, or be discouraged from visiting a site, if it is not adapted to what they are used to. Information density and menu structures also vary, and it may be necessary to streamline the site or add more detail, and/or rearrange the site’s tree structure – which isn’t always easy for customers to follow (“my site tree is perfectly logical? what’s the impact of having 15 submenus for each top-level menu item?”).

On the design side, for example, in the case of e-commerce sites, there’s the issue of making customers feel safe and secure as they pay. In the United States, users like to pay with a single click, whereas the French find that disconcerting and would prefer to first check the contents of their cart, method of payment, delivery address, etc. Another example is the importance of certain criteria, such as the environment (“sustainable”), product origin (“local”), price (“deals”), as well as the rise of “expert advice” (the French have a love affair with lab coat wearing experts), or “consumer testimonials” from people “like us” (in many Latin American countries, for example).

– How do you adapt the graphical and audio elements to a target audience?

As concerns the graphical side, there’s not only the issue of colors, as mentioned earlier, but also images, often overlooked when localizing a site but of the utmost importance. Users must be able to see themselves in these images. If a website to be used in Spain or Italy only has pictures of blondes and redheads, there’s a disconnect between content and target.

The simplest and least expensive option is to add a caption to an image, but that’s more suited for something like tourism (an explanation of a cultural practice in which case the picture is kept as is); it’s also possible to crop the picture or retouch it up if it’s generally suitable but some small details are off. However, one must be careful about what is erased. There have been controversial cases, such as that of Ikea, who, with a touch of Photoshop famously removed a woman from an image for their catalogue in Saudi Arabia. Since everyone knows everything in our new ultra-connected world, it’s not only the target audience who can see your image! Lastly, one could also choose a different image that is directly suited to the target audience.

Next, there are audio and video tracks. One must pay attention to the types of sounds and music that are liked in the target culture and what those sounds evoke, and once again, be willing to change the audio elements in question. Videos can be subtitled, overdubbed, or a whole new video could be filmed. Naturally, costs goes up a notch with each option, with the latter only being undertaken by major corporations.

A concrete example: let’s imagine an image or video reminiscent of the new year, set under the Puerta del Sol clock in Madrid, where the new year is ushered in by a crowd eating “doce uvas” (twelve grapes) for the twelve strokes of midnight. If we’re visiting a tourism website offering trips to Madrid for the new year holidays, this image or video is totally appropriate, and simply needs a short explanation added by way of a caption or subtitles. If, on the other hand, a site that sells antique watches is trying to use this cultural event to evoke the red letter days in our lives, in any culture other than Spain this image or video will fall far short of the mark. In that case, the image needs to be replaced with something else.

– If you had to adapt a website for Spain and for Argentina, what would be the main differences?

– In reality, I would hardly ever be faced with a situation like that, since I mostly translate into French or English and hardly ever into Spanish. But since I have translated from Argentinian and Castilian Spanish into French, here are the differences I’ve observed:
– quite simply the language itself, such as its forms of address – with the famous “vos” and its conjugated forms (characteristic of Rioplatense Spanish and which does not exist in Castilian Spanish), as well as the different use of “ustedes” – and differences in vocabulary such as “ordenador” vs “computadora” (computer), “piso” vs “departamento” (apartment), “trabajo” vs “laburo” (work), etc.
– cultural differences; taking Hofstede’s cultural dimensions for example: while the cultures of Spain and Argentina are relatively close, the fact is that the geographical distance between them and their separate histories, particularly in terms of immigration, have resulted in fairly significant differences that are in some cases greater than between France and Spain.

In terms of short-term or long-term orientation, Spain is between the two (France tends more towards long-term), and Argentina is very strongly short-term. This means that in Argentina, even more than in Spain, traditions carry great importance. People tend to live in the moment (they do not attach as much importance to savings as they do in a country such as France), and seek quick results.

On the other hand, when it comes to attitudes towards desire and pleasure, Argentina has a higher score than Spain and France, placing it more on the side of “indulgence” than “restraint”, and therefore assigning more importance to enjoying life, the freedom to do what one likes, and leisure time. Spain and France are in the middle. Spain is a bit more on the side of “restraint” than France, meaning it has stricter social norms which place limits on behavior that is considered acceptable, constraints that come well before pleasure (this is somewhat nuanced by Argentina’s relatively collectivist aspect, where family is more important than in Europe).

Let’s use a concrete example that highlights these two dimensions: a bank website in Argentina and in Spain. We wouldn’t want to promote the same benefits or products. Savings products, for example, would be less popular in Argentina (confirmed by a lower savings rate), since its orientation is more short-term, with a greater tendency towards gratification. To sell savings products, we might want to highlight a great vacation or a gift in a year’s time, rather than something far off in the future.
– differences in colors liked and their symbolism. For example, according to research, Argentines typically like colder colors than Spaniards, as seen when comparing advertisements between the two countries, where blue is much more predominant in Argentina.
– other examples that come to mind are: slimness is much more highly valued in Argentina, which impacts how food is presented (light and low on calories in Argentina, vs taste first and foremost in Spain).

The same goes for youth. Seniors appear more frequently in, and are more targeted by, marketing in Spain than Argentina. (This also coincides with the latter’s short-term orientation. Countries with a short-term orientation tend to see ageing as a sad period at the end of one’s life).

– What’s the added value of website localization?

– The word that comes to mind is priceless! It’s always hard to know the exact difference that a specific change will make, as it’s usually part of a larger marketing strategy that extends beyond the website, not to mention the fluid nature of the market itself. But in any case, website localization allows you to address each of your target audiences directly by speaking their language, using their cultural references, and adapting to their values. The results can be seen numerically in terms of clicks or even directly in sales figures, but also more broadly in the impact on the company’s image and its reputation over the longer term.

– Are companies mindful of website localization?

– I don’t know of any statistics on the topic, but I’d venture a rough guess that perhaps 15% to 20% – and that may be generous – of translated sites are localized (in the sense of having adapted one of the following elements: visuals, structure, concept), mostly sites by large corporations. This is a domain that is still relatively unknown to most small and medium businesses, and it often falls to the translator to explain what it’s all about. Large multinationals are another story. They typically will outsource the work to a translation agency who takes care of everything, and often possess in-house skills related to this domain – though sometimes there are surprises. SMBs typically don’t even ask themselves this question at the beginning, and if they do translate their site in-house, they tend to simply replicate everything (vocabulary, grammar, site structure, content, etc.). This is why there’s a need for translation agencies and localization service providers to educate companies, and especially to explain that it doesn’t cost a whole lot more to localize rather than “just” translate, and that the yields are much greater in terms of reaching the desired goals!

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