Writing UX copy for translation

Problems with translations, why we don’t call it that, and how to fix them

I have a confession to make.

And as someone who works as a copywriter, it’s a bad one.

Sometimes, I hate writing. Even when I really love it at the same time.

Yes, it’s confusing. But I’m sure we’ve all hit that barrier where we get unbelievably frustrated with something we love doing and should be easy, but isn’t. And writing good copy is hard.

As a Booking.com UX Copywriter, it’s not just a matter of thinking about copy that works in one language. We have 43 languages and dialects to think about.

And something I’ve learned while working here is, writing good copy for translation is even harder.

Working together with our Language Specialist teams (not ‘translators’, and we’ll get to why in a bit) is one of the most important parts of writing UX copy here. But how do you get your lovingly crafted, polished-to-perfection piece of copy to work just as well in languages with completely different grammatical structures, vocabulary and cultural sensibilities?

Shall we start with an example?

How about my nemesis — an email subject line.

This is something everyone reads or writes on a daily basis, copywriter or not. But subject lines are difficult. How can I make anything stand out amid the piles of emails we all get every day? As a copywriter, I have certain things I like to put in my subject lines. Names for personalisation, a reason why they should read an email and maybe some extra contextual detail if I can fit it into the word count.

How about a Christmas campaign email — super common in any marketing strategy, and a quick and easy way to entice users back to your site.

Nice, simple, sells the product and tells the user what’s in it for them.

So when the time comes to send this copy out to be translated by the language specialists, what problems will I run into?

Grammar you probably know and grammar you might not

When I’m writing, I always consider where the words are in the sentences. So in an email, I consider what words I really want at the front — especially now that most people read emails on small phone screens. Obviously, I want important things to be spotted first, because I want people to see the subject line and pre-header and open the email.

As you might know, quite a few languages have sentence structures that don’t agree with this plan. One that might spring to mind is subject-object-verb languages like Korean, where a direct translation of the pre-header above would move ‘unwind’ to the end of the sentence. Not great as a reader, if that means the end of the sentence gets cut off.

Another issue I’ll likely run in to? Names! In most Slavic languages there’s an extra level of complication to using proper names — if I need to use the vocative case to say ‘Hey Eva’, for instance, in Czech the name would change to ‘Evo’.

Similar problems crop up when I need to use city names. For example, in Russian, Лондон (London) changes to Лондоне (Londone) when I need to say ‘in London’.

If I’m just sending it to people near London, that’s easy. But what about swapping that name out for Madrid, or Tel Aviv, or Kyoto? I could avoid it entirely by changing the copy to ‘London: Get 15% off chic chill-out places’, but is that copy as pleasant to read?

Solution:

  • If I’m aiming for that personal touch, how could I achieve this without opening a Pandora’s box of difficult-to-translate name variables? Could I use a more personal, friendlier tone of voice to achieve the same goal?
  • Do I have the ability to handle changing place name variables? At Booking.com, we have workarounds that enable a lot of complicated name-switching wizardry, but if it’s too difficult, I need to consider — do I even need to? What is the actual benefit of having them in my copy?

Length

So, German might be slightly notorious for very long sentences and pronunciation-defying compound nouns. But this isn’t a purely German-language problem, and thinking about length and how it affects usability and design is a vital part of working with UX translations.

My nice, short subject line will be subject to different grammar rules which might make it a bit shorter or much longer.

And much longer again, when it gets translated into a language that use much wider characters than Latin-based ones, such as Cyrillic or Chinese.

I could supply a word count, but the most talented group of translators may still struggle to meet it due the fundamental nature of their language.

Solution:

What do I most need to mention? Our translation request system allows us to communicate with the Language Specialists, helping me point out the most important parts that I need mentioned, and what can be dropped as required. This way we can get copy that works and fits.

Culture and tone

The biggest beast of all, and the most important. I might be able to source the most perfect, correct translation of my copy, but that’s not an indication that it will actually do what it needs to when you’re speaking across 43 languages and even more cultures.

My example above references a very culture-specific holiday — Christmas. This campaign could work for a handful of countries across the world, but it would be insensitive at best to send this email to users in countries where Christianity isn’t a large religion. Even in countries that do celebrate Christmas, they don’t all do it on the same day.

We also return to the usage of names. In many languages, using someone’s first name might come across as far too personal. How you approach this depends very much on brand, combined with culture.

Solution:

  • Never assume what’s culturally relevant. I trust the Language Specialist teams to tell me when they need to change things to apply to their culture.
  • Be prepared to make changes, such as the campaign approach (e.g. a specific holiday discount, or something more general to appeal to more people).

What do you do?

So now I’ve spotted all these issues, what next? I work together with our Language Specialists to find a solution.

Translation or localisation

This is one of the best parts about working with Language Specialists and the reason why we call it ‘localisation’, not ‘translation’. (I told you I’d get there eventually).

As opposed to a piece of translation software, a human can make choices and understands what works culturally. They localise the copy, so it looks like it was written in their own language in the first place.

They also aren’t subject to culture and language-blind translations like machines are — take, for example, Google Translate’s insistence on translating gender-neutral Japanese honorific さん (san) into English as ‘Mr’.

One of the most important things I have to decide is if I want the copy translated or localised. You might think it’s the same thing, but this can be the saving grace for copy. For legal text, you may need it exactly as-written. Or maybe you want to A/B test a very specific sentence.

But if you’re happy to be flexible, then localisation is the way to go.

Rather than forcing a translation that’s an exact match, allowing the translation to be changed to fit the language and culture properly gives the user in that language a UX experience that suits them, even if it might not be the same experience as someone who reads my original British English copy.

Neither represents the ‘wrong’ way to do it, which leads to the next question.

Why am I writing this?

This question has completely adapted how I write copy at Booking.com.

It helps make sure I never turn out extraneous copy for the sake of it, and it helps me explain clearly to the Language Specialists exactly what I’m doing and why. The benefits? I get the translations I need, whether that’s a match to my own copy or adapted so it sounds like it was never in English in the first place.

It also helps snap me out of my very Brit-centric viewpoint. There’s a joke that the copywriters write in ‘Booking’, not English, as we have to consider the translatability of everything we write, but in my opinion that’s no bad thing. Even when I’m writing in British English, I could be being read by ESL speakers, Australians, Canadians or Americans who just really like those extra ‘u’s. Super-localised copy might sound fun, but are you writing to be fun, or do you need people to understand you? I’d love a Booking.com written in purely South London slang, but I’d also like the EN-GB site to be understood by people outside Lambeth.

Getting a piece of copy that performs well in experiments in all languages is the most satisfying part of my job, and the reason why I still love writing.

Consider your audience, adapt your approach, and don’t cling to the idea of the perfect piece of copy.

Because really, there’s no such thing.


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