Pitfalls & Best Practices of Localization into Russian and Other Slavic Languages

Global products are built with English in mind. It is often tricky to translate them into distant languages that have conjugations, declensions and different grammatical genders. My previous article explored how localization can make or break the UX, whilst here I will talk about practical tips for English → Russian localization. To a great extent, the same ideas apply to other Slavic languages (Polish, Czech, Ukrainian and Bulgarian) and to translation in general. So, here are nine important points to pay attention to…

1. Don’t lose your voice

Your “voice” is the tone of written communication with your audience. It can be formal, casual, witty, neutral or even familiar. It is best when unique and relevant to the product and team behind it. However, this is the hardest aspect to localize. That’s why too many products (incl. Google, Facebook, Apple and Instagram) sound somewhat alike in Russian. Their voice resonates like text that has simply been translated to Russian, and the tone is often overly serious. Smaller apps, conversely, tend to slip too far towards familiarity.

In this example, Tandem is too familiar and ignores commas

The thing is, English is naturally casual whilst Russian is not. Traditional translators are afraid to experiment, so they try to sound as formal as possible, just to be on the safe side. To overcome this tendency, you can introduce guidelines for your own product. It can be a simple document, stating basically that “we want to sound like so and so in contexts similar to such and such”. Even better, have someone with a background in localization, copywriting and marketing to set the voice, cadence and tone right.

2. Reckon with grammatical gender

In slavic languages there are genders for verbs, adjectives, nouns, numerals and pronouns. For instance, the string “A commented on B” has 3 variations of “commented”, depending on whether “A” is Sally, Bob, or their friends.

Challenged with this, some companies will resort to a seemingly easy solution. Adding grammar endings in the brackets, the sentence becomes “{username} отправил(а) {message}”. This instantly shows that:

1) the product is translated, 
2) the company doesn’t care much about UX.

Russian Tech companies respect the grammar of sentences and provide for the flection in the code.

3. Consider use cases for cases

There are six grammatical cases in Russian (in Czech or Polish there are even more). So, the case inflection will be significant for nouns depending on the context. For example, the variable “post” will appear differently in all of the examples below:

{username} wrote a {post} → “пост”
{username} shared a {
post} → “постом
There are 3 comments to a {
post} → “к посту
There is a discussion around a {
post} → “о посте

Again, it’s best to take this into account in the code and test thoroughly to make sure the UI strings don’t appear messy.

A preschool level mistake by Facebook

4. Squeeze it in

Words in Russian are generally longer than in English. Compare “Опубликовать” to “Post” for example.

The length of Instagram buttons in Russian and English vs. VK buttons compressing neatly

This is something to keep in mind for UI design, and buttons in particular. An ill-conceived translation will shatter good design, so you may want to set limits for characters and test the strings regularly. The good news is that Russian can be very succinct when used skilfully (i.e. not translated on a word-by-word basis). Plus, it’s ok to stump words, like VK does. It’s never ok not to care, like Instagram.

Translated buttons in Instagram iOS app

5. Be reasonably polite

In Russian you can say “you” (singular) in 3 different ways: ты (“you, mate”), вы (“you, sir / madam”) and Вы (“You, VIP”). Consider firing your translator for choosing the last option throughout the entire product! It’s “too polite”, like addressing the Pope all the time. The second option is a safe bet, whilst the first one should be used when you want to sound youngish enough to relate to the snapchat generation.

6. Count with numerals

There are paucal numbers in Russian, so the declension of noun phrases with numerals follows complex rules:

One comment → один комментарий (nom.sing.)
Two comments → два комментар
ия (gen.sing.)
Five comments → пять комментар
иев (gen.plur.)

Akin with cases and genders, this is something to program and test across the whole product, including notifications. Most Russian Tech companies do it right by default, while foreign products often have to introduce that into the code.

7. Cherry-pick Cyrillic fonts

This part is often ignored, as web-designers typically don’t set a specific font for cyrillic letters. As a result, landing pages in Russian often display in ‘Times New Roman’, ‘Arial’ or some other random default font, which doesn’t look good. There are much better (and free) fonts available, such as ‘PT Sans’, ‘Open Sans’, ‘Ubuntu’, and ‘Roboto’. These will all immediately level-up the appearance of your page and make it feel even more local.

A random font in action

8. Translate, test, repeat

After the the strings have been translated, you need to integrate them into the product to test and proofread. Through this process you will inevitably spot flaws to correct and things to improve. Simply update the translation and test again. Don’t forget to proofread — a missing comma or, worse, a spelling mistake is a sign of an inferior product. Just like debugging, localization can and should be treated as a QA routine testing.

9. Have someone in charge

As long as product development continues, so does localization. There are always new app strings, helpdesk articles, descriptions and ad copies. It is better to have someone routinely and systematically take care of it. Larger companies often have specific “Language manager” or “Localization specialist” roles. Another method is to outsource to a dedicated agency like PlainMSG, with threefold expertise in localization, marketing and product development. Whichever path you choose, please localize responsibly as it has an immediate and important effect on the the usability of your product.

Oleg Tyurin is the founder of PlainMSG, localization professional and web-development enthusiast, working with Tech companies in the EU, US and Asia.