Google Israel’s great language and localization update project

Photo by Artem Bali on Unsplash

Goliath. That’s what they call the project to revise Google’s Hebrew style, initiated by Yael Sela, the head of Google’s translation team in Israel.

Why Goliath? Because it’s enormous. Oh, and also because it starts with G, like Gmail.

I’ve asked Yael to tell me more about this project, so we sat down for a particularly enlightening conversation about:

  • Localization
  • The new translation principles for Google in Hebrew
  • The challenges of changing well established practices
  • Microcopy writing in Hebrew in general.

The conversation included Gal Puder-Polinovsky and Yael Cohen, two of Google’s lead reviewers in Hebrew (in cooperation with Liath Noy, who was unable to participate).

So what is Goliath?

Up until a few years ago, the norm that prevailed in Hebrew for translating interfaces and microcopy reflected the technical style of the source. Add to that the fact that most localization translators were (and sometimes are) technical writers, and you get a style that is quite, well, technical.

But in recent years, the tide has turned. The current norm is lighter and more relaxed translations, and this is Goliath’s aim too:

Recalculate route towards a more Googly and authentic Hebrew.

What does “authentic” mean when localizing?

  1. Strive to identify the key message of the text, and then disconnect it from the concrete words in English and create the sentence from scratch, as if it was written in Hebrew in the first place. Don’t settle for mere Translation, because every sentence requires some Transcreation.
  2. Write in natural Hebrew — a translation may be correct in terms of grammar and syntax, but that doesn’t make it natural. Authentic and natural phrasing is what most native speakers will have used to express that key message, in a casual and effortless way.
    This challenge, by the way, is one that all writers deal with when writing microcopy in Hebrew, regardless of whether the text was localized or created in Hebrew.

Where will the change show?

Initially, the Goliath change will show in new content for all products. For a few months now, all new content is being translated according to new Goliath’s principles.

The Hebrew Localization team has also picked ten popular products, such as YouTube, Maps, Android, Play, and more, and has started revising existing texts, UI elements (microcopy) and Help Center articles.

On top of that, the team is gradually going over thousands of UI terms and product names, replacing hundreds of them with more up-to-date and accurate language (as we’ll see right away).

And if you’ve noticed some inconsistencies — yes, the team is aware of this and says some inconsistencies are inevitable when you’re updating 2–3 million words :)

Goliath main principles

1. Address users inclusively

Inclusion is an important principle at Google, and one of its main pillars is making all users feel that Google was speaking to them personally. All users mean male and female users, kids and less digitally-savvy people.

The main challenge in Hebrew is, of course, gender: Hebrew has a one You for males (אתה) and one for females (את). Verbs are also inflected by gender, so Open, Compose, log-in etc sound and read differently for male and female users. Before Goliath, Google addressed its Hebrew users as if they were all singular male.

How did Goliath change how Google addresses users?

  • Help Center pages switch from addressing users in male-singular to addressing them in plural, which has become common and widely accepted in Israel, even in commercials and in general (not Buy a lottery card and win! but Buying [plural] lottery and winning).
  • UI strives to be gender neutral, even when it’s addressing a single user. Translators and reviewers wreck their brains to come up with creative and inventive phrasing, utilizing verbs and other words that are spelled the same for male and female (רוצה, איתך, לך). Admittedly, this sometimes results in less natural phrasing, but that’s, says Yael, an acceptable price for making our female users feel welcome.
  • If all else fails — i.e the gender-neutral phrasing sounds clunky and ungoogly — linguists resort to singular male.

2. Avoid Imperative!

Imperative is very common in English UI because it drives people to action. It is not perceived as aggressive because it is similar to other verb conjugations (eg, Open, to open, I open something).

Microcopy (UX) writers in Israel were quick to adopt Imperative in their writing, but it has 3 main issues in Hebrew:

  • Pure Imperative is rare in spoken language so it stands out in the UI
  • Imperative is often perceived by Hebrew speakers as pushy or aggressive. (UI: “Open”. User: “who are you to order me around?!”)
  • Imperative in Hebrew is gendered.

As part of Goliath, a special effort is made to depart from the customary Imperative, which is appropriate for English but not for Hebrew, and convey the message more inclusively and gently. Here are a few examples:

  • Start (male + Imperative) is replaced with (depending on the context): Getting Started With … | Shall we start? | To start | Getting started | Let’s get to it!
  • Compose (male + Imperative) was replaced by New Email.

The most prominent place where you can see the change is in the placeholder on the Google search box. The Source Search Google or type URL had been translated quite literally and in singular male.

Now it was replaced by the ungendered, un-imperatived: Looking for something? A website maybe? If you type it here we’ll find it for you (in Hebrew it’s much shorter :)

Does this phrasing address users? Does it help less digitally-savvy users such as kids and the elderly?

Yaniv Ronen wrote in the Israeli Microcopy Forum:

I teach at an amazing project that the Israeli Employment Service runs for older jobseekers, where I teach participants how to use Google and email to find and track employment opportunities. They always ask how and what you can search here. You hit the bull’s eye :)

3. Terminology

A. Rethink common phrases

And in general — rethink.

For example, the phrase On the Go, which means you can do something on your mobile and not just on your desktop, has been translated to Hebrew as on the roads (בדרכים), but this translation does not encompass the variety of situations in which we use mobile. That’s why the English combination is translated today in various ways according to the context, for example: on your mobile, or when you’re away from your computer.

The common English prompt Try Now has been translated literally. But rethinking about it and Goliath principles brought about Let’s try | I’d like to try | Shall we try?

The Literal translation of Touch and hold will be replaced fron now on to the common Hebrew phrase for long press (לחיצה ארוכה).

B. Some things can be left untranslated

Terms like Campaign and Track, that had previously been used in their Hebrew translated versions, have been reverted back to either English or a transcription — English term in Hebrew letters.

They were reverted based on feedback from local users that the English terms are far more common than the Hebrew translations. But other terms, like Tab, remained translated since the Hebrew translation is well established and familiar to users (לשונית).

How does the team decide whether to translate, transliterate or keep in English? Well, by considering and balancing the different target audiences, their English proficiency and their needs. Many of the Google’s early users in Israel were more technologically inclined, and felt comfortable with English interface and terms. But many newer users such as teenagers, kids and the elderly, find it hard to understand English terminology.

For example, the word Tirgut (טרגוט), is actually Targeting inflected by Hebrew rules. Because it may be unclear to small business owners who use Google AdWords themselves, without the mediation of a professional, the team kept it translated into the Hebrew term for focus (מיקוד), which is often used in similar contexts.

4. Keep it Friendly

Google’s translators all around the world refer to its detailed voice and tone design (The Google Voice). In their work, they interpret the Google Voice, customising it to their local and cultural norms.

Main characteristics of the Google Voice are:

  • Friendly
  • Useful — that is, from the user’s perspective
  • Humble
  • And my favorite feature personally: more a wink than a smile

Google’s Voice was adapted to Israel too and described in Yael’s unforgettable talk at the microcopy group meetup. Generally speaking, adapting Google’s voice to Hebrew means:

  • Cranking up the humor — Hebrew speakers “need to be tickled harder”, Yael says.
  • Rephrasing any “beating around the bush” to be more direct, e.g replacing “you may want to consider doing xyz” to “it’s recommended that you did xyz”.
  • Cutting down on West Coast “excitement” and “putting things in perspective”, as Yael defined it nicely :)

What does Friendly mean?

It is a combination of all the previous principles: natural, fluent and authentic language that appeals to all users and uses familiar and spoken words.

For example, the literal translation of Gmail’s UI term Read (נקרא) was replaced by the more natural I already read this (כבר קראתי).

On Google Translate, the literal translation of Tap to translate (הקש כדי לתרגם), that sounds stiff in Hebrew, was replaced with Translation in a click (תרגום בקליק).

What’s the deal with Slang?

In this matter, we had an interesting discussion: Does friendly language necessarily include slang words? and if it does, which slang words qualify and which don’t? And where do you draw the line at slang being too slangy?

Yael mentioned four principles to judge slang. I love these principles very much and intend to adopt them as my official slang test :)

So how do you decide whether to use a slang term?

  • Durability — The term has already stood the test of time (for example, Groovy is no longer cool, the same way cool is not that cool anymore).
  • Prevalence — The term is common and well known to people of all walks of life, from the kids on the street corner to professors in their ivory tower.
  • Target audience for that product type — target audience for consumer products like YouTube and Photos is different — or in a different state of mind — than that of users for more professional products such as Google AdWords.
  • Dosage — Slang is a spice, not the main course. Therefore, you should spread it evenly and lightly, and avoid excessive concentration of slang in one place or process.

But despite these orderly parameters, we had some disagreements. A heated discussion flared around Yalla and Akhla (יאללה, אחלה) that had been imported to Hebrew from Arabic decades ago and are still very commonly used. They mean Get to it / Let’s do that and That’s great.

While they are true to the Slang test above, I was not convinced that they are a good fit for the Google’s voice. Yael, on the other hand, thinks that if used sparingly, they can fit nicely in consumer products.

Who knows, then? Some day soon, the Hebrew YouTube may tell you:

Yalla, look for more videos!
You’ve created an Akhla channel!

And we’ll conclude with a joke

Where does a 3-ton gorilla sit?
Wherever it wishes!

What does a Gorilla have to do with anything?

Because Google, Yael says, is careful not to think of itself a gorilla. The company is acutely aware that only constant consideration of its users’ experience will preserve its place in their lives. And when Google is considering its users, it’s thinking about men and women, kids and the elderly, the highly educated and the less educated, the digitally inclined and the digitally averse.

And from now on, you can hear it in Google’s Hebrew.