The Localizer by
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My career has given me a lot of experience editing documents that have been translated. They come to me at all levels of quality. Most of us wouldn’t even realize that the good ones have been translated. That’s because often there is another step after translation: localization. In localization, the target language’s native speaker edits a document that has been translated by a native speaker of the original language. The localization editing pass turns the writing into what is natural in the translated language.

The copy kept referencing a "head shop." Of course, they didn't know what that meant in the 1960s in the US.

For 15 years, I freelanced as a localization editor with a translation agency, helping to make documents translated from Japanese read as if they had been written in North American English. The professional translators were very good at accurately rendering complex instructions in manuals, but because Japanese is so different from English, there was still some work to do. However, when amateur translators tried their hand at brochures and marketing material, the results could be hilarious or inscrutable. Here are two of my favorite examples of being lost in translation.

I got a flyer for a chain of beauty salons in Japan that was expanding to other countries. The copy kept referencing a “head shop.” Of course, they didn’t know what that meant in the 1960s in the US. A brochure describing a website set up as a virtual swap meet for collectibles used “Pets candy” as an example. That stumped me for a long time, until finally I realized that they were talking about Pez dispensers. I asked the owner of the agency, who was from Japan, if she’d heard of Pez, and she had no idea what I was talking about. That Christmas I presented her with a Pez dispenser.

Japanese writers and translators greatly appreciate a localizer’s help, and it was a lot of fun to work with them. When I got projects from other countries and languages, the situation was different.

Unintentionally Funniest Translation. A Korean manual for a portable ultrasound machine made me laugh out loud. “Buzza sound” was scattered throughout (meaning an audible tone), and there were crazy instructions for telling a pregnant woman the results of her exam. In the ensuing years, the Koreans have learned a lot, and their automobile owners’ manuals are much better than now than my 1990s document.

Most Obnoxious Translator. This person was a Hebrew to English translator who submitted a set of legal documents. Someone at the agency mixed up the source pages, which were not numbered, and not knowing Hebrew, couldn’t figure out which English files went with which Hebrew files. I could read enough Hebrew to pick out key words from the English and match the files. However, the translator had labeled some of the Hebrew lines in the various files “illegible.” I had to tell the agency they were not illegible, because I could make out the letters and vowel marks, even though I had no idea what the words meant.

Most Resistant to Suggestion. This goes to the Germans as a group. Their English is very good, although long winded for our taste. However, they have cultural blind spots, don’t like to be edited, and often don’t realize how their writing comes across. I had a Silicon Valley branch of a German-owned company as a client, for whom I wrote newsletters and brochures. For months I thought that one of my German contacts was angry with me, and I had no idea why, until a colleague explained that it was just the way the Germans wrote emails–somewhat like barking out orders.

My newsletter was intended for the Silicon Valley employees, and the German contributors wrote in very authoritarian language, despite my entreating them to make changes because the tone would not go over well with local techies. The culture clash got so bad that the company had to bring in a Swiss firm specializing in culture conflict to try to smooth out the relationship between Silicon Valley and Germany.

We still deal with confusing documents from other countries, but the next time you read one that is good, send a mental shout-out to the translators and localizers.

 

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


Characterizations: right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    This very interesting interesting and astute, Mare. We have a German brand stove and oven. The directions were translated into British English, not American and I HATE it. They call broiling grilling, for example, which means something else here. It is one of many reasons I gave up cooking long ago (after we renovated and got these difficult new appliances 20 years, selected by my husband and the kitchen designer, not me).

    Good examples, all.

    • Marian says:

      I’m with you, Betsy, about German appliances and instruction manuals. I had the worst time trying to set the clock in my mom’s Mercedes. When she moved into her apartment in a senior residence, her kitchen came with German appliances, which were compact but difficult to use. It took me 90 minutes to get the stove and oven working, and I still haven’t figured out how to use the broiler. British English can lead to hilarious misunderstandings between people speaking (supposedly) the same language.

  2. Khati Hendry says:

    Wow Marian, thanks for telling me there is such a thing as a “localizer”! I have thought for years there should be a role for translating e.g. English into English, but didn’t know it had a name. Thanks to all the translators and localizers out there for their work indeed. Like you, I have noticed that in Europe, there seems to be some sort of international version of English that is blithely used in written materials but doesn’t scan well for a native speaker.

    • Marian says:

      It’s really difficult for non-native speakers to make English, or any other language, sound natural to native speakers, Khati. There is skill involved. The translation agency owner in my story, who is Japanese but spoke excellent English, would sometimes ask me if the tone of a piece was correct for the intended audience, because she just couldn’t tell, and I could almost intuitively. It was great that she knew to ask.

  3. Suzy says:

    Mare, I never knew that there was something called a localizer. I would love to have that job! Or maybe not now, since I am enjoying retirement, but I wish I could have had that job when I was younger. Much more fun than being a lawyer. Maybe in my next life.

  4. Mare, many thanx for this story! I was an English major and a librarian, and thus well aware of a translator’s job and challenges, but I thought more about translating fiction.

    What you’ve described about the challenges of translating technical writing and the concept of a localizer is fascinating! And of course your examples of poor translation are very funny indeed! Thanx again!

    • Marian says:

      Glad you enjoyed the story, Dana. Often we only notice the bad translations. The localizer’s goal is to make the reader think a native English-speaking person wrote the document.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    This was so interesting, Marian. I never thought about the importance of localization. The Germans communications for Silicon Valley was pretty amusing. Although now maybe we are into more authoritarian language?

    • Marian says:

      Sadly, that might be true about the authoritarian language, Laurie. Although, I resigned that client because the incoming CEO of the Silicon Valley site had me print a pronouncement from him that later turned out to be a calculated lie rather than an innocent mistake. The worst part was that he wasn’t German–he was an American and a fundamentalist Christian who hated California and moved the entire site to North Carolina. Most of the local employees resigned. Seem familiar?

  6. Mister Ed says:

    Thank you for introducing me to part of the translation business about which I had never known. And you weave the humor in very nicely.

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