Why you should want your localisation team to change your copy

Ayelet Kessel
Jun 30, 2020 · 9 min read

How we localise at Booking.com and 4 takeaways to help you localise too

Some UX writers expect their localisation teams to produce a translation that’s identical to the original copy, yet somehow completely resonates with the market they’re localising for. I’d like to explain to you why this type of seemingly perfect translation actually doesn’t exist, and why you should advocate for greater involvement of localisation teams in copy creation.

Spoiler alert: localisation specialists can’t do it alone. Like UX writing and design, UX localisation is a collaborative process. If you want to guarantee that your product is well adapted to every market, you need to dive deep into the work your localisation team is doing and understand what you can do to support them.

Photo by slon_dot_pics from Pexels

Imagine that you’re writing or designing the perfect flow. It’s the best you’ve ever done. You managed to work around a complex issue and make everything completely accessible and simple for your audience to understand. Good job, you!

But now it’s time to localise that flow into five, ten or even 50 other languages. You send it over to the localisation team, add a few screenshots, write a couple of words about the flow — and that’s it. Your copy is perfect, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, actually, a lot. Things can go one of two ways:

  1. Your localisation team can translate your copy word for word — not adapting it to their culture, not using the language their audience uses, not taking into account the full context of your writing — creating a bland and flat version of the copy in their language.
  2. Or, they can do better — they can use UX writing tools, approaches and principles, combined with a deep understanding of their market, to localise your copy. They can create a version of it that’s different than yours— but will be as seamless and natural as the original, and will fit their audience completely.

The fluent, natural and accurate localisation you’re looking for isn’t going to be identical to your copy, and that’s okay. If they’re doing everything right, it can be every bit as good as the original. Let me show you how to get there.

How we localise at Booking.com

At Booking.com, more than 200 Language Specialists translate copy from British English into nearly 50 languages. Our global point of view is one of our biggest strengths, and it’s made possible by our unique approach to localisation, and the close collaboration between language specialists and writers.

Here are some of the things that we do to translate the user experience into nearly 50 languages, and help people around the world book trips with ease:

We change the tone — not the voice

The brand’s voice is the brand’s personality. The localisation process shouldn’t change the brand’s voice — it should bring it to life. Localisation experts should adapt, interpret and translate the tone based on the culture, the context, and the values the brand is trying to communicate to its audience.

Let’s say we’re writing for a travel product (strictly hypothetical, of course). We want to write in a voice that’s energetic and fun, yet trustworthy and responsible, and we want to translate these values and emotions into Hebrew and Japanese.

While doing research for this article, I found an online tool that provides comparable information about different cultures based on six main values. I love graphs, so if you don’t mind, I’ll use one to demonstrate my point.

If you look at the chart below, you’ll see that the Israeli and Japanese cultures are pretty different from each other. One clear difference is related to the power distance dimension— which means, the amount of perceived and accepted inequality between people in society. This dimension has an effect on the tone of voice that we use when we speak to our audience.

Source: Hofstede’s country comparison tool

So how do we use this knowledge to localise our tone at Booking.com? The example below is a message from our trusted chatbot, translated into both Hebrew and Japanese. I’ll use a back-translation here — although naturally, I’m sure you already know both languages.

Hebrew:

Hi {guest_name}, we’d love to look into it. Customer service will contact you by phone or email to make sure everything is handled like it should be. Thanks!

Japanese:

Hello {guest_name}, Thank you for your inquiry. After confirming the situation, our customer service will contact you by phone or email. Thank you for your understanding.

Notice how Hebrew uses the friendly and light ‘hi’, while Japanese is using the more formal ‘hello’. And while Hebrew only has a short ‘thanks!’ at the end, the Japanese localisation team is thanking their audience twice — at the beginning and at the end.

Our mission as Language Specialists is to translate each sentence in a way that conveys the same values while creating and maintaining the best user experience for our markets.

We use the original copy and research as the backbone of our work, and utilise UX principles to refine the tone in a way that’s appropriate for our respective audiences (and then we have lunch). That’s the only way we can deliver a good experience across languages.

We personalise

Personalisation is a critical UX tool. It just means you’re adapting your copy to the culture and lifestyle of your audience.

Translated copy that’s trying very hard to be personal but misses the cultural mark can be outright creepy. It’s like the UX writing equivalent of your new boyfriend telling bro jokes at a dinner with your parents.

A simple sentence such as “Hi Ayelet, these hotels are recommended for you because you like remote beaches” might be overly personal, completely unnatural or entirely appropriate — it all depends on who you’re talking to and where they are in the world.

Below you can see how we prefer to call people in different markets. Of course, these are general guidelines, and the end result will vary based on context. But if we weren’t asking these important questions, our personalisation efforts would amount to nothing. We’d just be that completely inappropriate guy your parents no longer want you to date.

First name, last name or both? (Freepik)

We understand the locale

Great personalisation is not just about adjusting the tone, word choice or being culturally sensitive. It’s about those small, obvious details that make your copy feel genuine and attractive.

Our products must feel authentic, reliable and safe. We want our service to feel like the local travel agent you’ve been working with for years — that agent who knows every single detail about your destination, speaks your own language, and will never leave you hanging and confused in a foreign country.

For example, did you know that in some countries, people work Sunday through Thursday? This means that your localisation team will need to find a workaround for all your TGIF and Monday jokes.

And if you send your weekend newsletter on a Sunday, and include Arabic and Hebrew speakers, you might be wasting time, money and effort. They won’t be available to action on your email while they’re starting their workweek, and the entire rhetoric and value proposition will seem strange and out of place.

Their local travel agent — the one that lives in their hometown and knows everything about their life — would never make that kind of mistake.

If you make sure your localisation team is involved in the process, and maintain an open communication channel with them, you won’t only avoid these expensive mistakes — you might even increase your open and conversion rates in those markets.

Want to increase conversion rates? Know your audience. (Freepik)

We must know our market inside and out to effectively highlight the aspects of our products that’ll be most relevant and appealing to our audience. If we want to use the right industry terms, respond to the market’s specific pain points, and offer relevant value propositions — we need to have local expertise, backed by research. We need to do desk, competitive and user research, and fully understand the language used within the relevant industry and in the daily lives of our target audience.

Even as native speakers and locals in the market, we have to ask people who use our product what they think — because the answer might surprise us. In the example below, we weren’t sure if we should translate or transliterate the word “mobile” in Hebrew. We thought both versions are equally popular, but turns out that our users have a strong preference towards the translated term — a preference that we couldn’t identify without asking them.

Going the extra mile requires effort, money and time — especially when you localise to dozens of languages. But if we want to treat all of our audiences equally, and penetrate new and exciting markets, we have to invest in them as much as we invest in our English speaking audience.

And if their copy ends up looking different than yours — don’t worry. It means they’re doing something right.

This is the part you need to save for later

I know what you’re thinking. Often times, it’s not up to you to decide how money and resources are spent, but you still want to guarantee that your 404-page copy isn’t being butchered in other languages. Here’s what you can do to make sure you’re getting your message across:

  1. Give context.
    Your localisation team should have a full view of the flow. Too often, colleagues tell me that they need to translate phrases without knowing where they are going or the user journey to get there. This is not ideal for creating fluent and natural copy (you know, the kind that converts). Give your localisation team more context — and you’ll get better translation in return.
  2. Describe how you got there.
    Why are you writing this copy? How do you expect the users to respond? What is the process that led you here? What kind of testing have you done? What are the results? All of this information will help your localisation team create a localised version of your copy, that serves your goals and gets the users to where they need to be. If you don’t share your insights, the localised copy will be a pale shadow of the original.
  3. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
    Maintain an open, formal and legitimate communication channel between UX writers and localisation teams. You want your localisation team to ask questions. You want them to understand your copy, flag issues, and keep you informed. Yes, it will require time and effort — but the results will speak for themselves.
  4. Use the power of community.
    Facilitating communication between different localisation teams within the company is absolutely vital. A space (whether it’s a Trello board or a Facebook group) that’ll allow this community to share information, discuss processes and find inspiration will undoubtedly improve the quality. If you have yet to create that space, you are wasting an incredibly valuable resource — the power of community.

This collaborative process is the secret to good localisation — and our successful track record at Booking.com is a living example. So if you want to take your product to the next level, become a global leader, and treat audiences across all markets equally — now you know how. Behatzlacha!

I’d like to thank Jade Goldsmith and Andrew Matthews for the editorial effort, and Elisheva Kessel for the visual design. I’d also like to thank Michal, Kinneret, Teri and Stav for their notes.

Booking.writes

Stories from the writers at Booking.com

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