A Simple Guide to Successful Localization – Avoid Disaster

Updated: Mar 5, 2021

Have you ever wondered why it is so rare to find a good user guide? Growing up, I never considered translation as a potential job because I wanted to do something that takes real skills, like a writer. When I started translation, I vowed that my work would be as if it’s originally written in Korean. If only it was that easy.

I quickly learned that there are just so many ways for translation to go wrong, and translators are not the only culprit there can be. You wouldn’t believe how many well-written translations I saw get damaged by the client-side editor with unfair authority. Sometimes the project manager sits on messages between the client and translator or manages to piss off either or both sides, actively causing a conflict that’s not necessary.

The quality of translation is subjective. Often, it’s just unnatural, weird, or funny to read. No real harm done and difficult to spot or dispute. It can sometimes be more serious and affect the brand image—“I don’t feel like this company cares to win over new consumers, like ME, and that’s disrespectful. I’d rather pay my money elsewhere.” You wouldn’t want either case for something you pay.

“You localize to make sure your offer has a chance to compete in the new market as it would in your existing one. Forgetting or underestimating it would be your first mistake.”

Know your localization agenda—translation is a step to achieve it

Localization is a process of tailoring your business offer for a new (usually foreign) location, in which translation plays an essential part. Not many companies regard localization beyond supporting sales in a foreign country, and this is where they are mistaken. Assuming your product is of decent quality, bad localization won’t kill your business (at least not right away) but expect people to move onto or look for alternatives that seem to care more.

It doesn’t have to be hard or expensive to pull off successful localization. Here are a few pointers I learned from my experiences:

· Have a clear vision of your localization needs and challenges

· Find a way to build trust with your provider

· Get native eyes to review

· Use the right font!

Have a clear vision of your localization needs and challenges

No matter the size of your business, cost optimization would be your top priority. Like everything else, planning is the key. When you get a quote on your project, always think about the hidden cost, not the proposed digits, especially if you are new to localization. Without a good system or previous experience, you may blow the whole budget and be left with nothing usable. Or sometimes that’s exactly why you’d panic and decide to use them as if everything is perfect, hoping people at your headquarter don’t notice.

To prevent a disaster, you need to define what you’re localizing and why. Have a set of guides that ensures consistency for the information and messages you communicate, whatever the language you engage in. This will be the guideline for your team and also translation agencies (or freelancers if you work directly with them).

Then categorize and prioritize. Identify what must be localized right away and what should remain as-is always. Some materials can wait for now (but you want to localize them eventually). Make a list and allow enough time when you schedule, especially if your budget is tight. Rushing translation and desktop publishing can cost you 2-3 times more unless you’re willing to sacrifice quality.

Your provider should ask you the right questions and at the least encourage you to share your vision as much as possible in your brief (and PLEASE have a brief). If you have a unique requirement, be clear on it and check in advance if that can be done within the timeline and budget.

Suppose you’re not sure how to identify your requirements and how much time you should expect for translation and post-processes. In that case, you may consider talking to an expert. It can be as short as an hour or a few days of consultancy if your goal is to establish a system and documents that can be reused in the following localization projects for different language sets. It will also help you figure out budgeting, whether to hire a translation agency or find independent linguists, how to validate/screen them, along with security considerations.

Having all of these in place will assure consistency and eliminate the need for relying on one provider for everything. This kind of flexibility also saves you time and cost.

Whatever you do, have your list of requirements and expectations defined before you start a project.

Build trust

You should feel that both parties are on the same page. Have a level of confidence that your project is in good hands and trust that they know what they are doing. If you do not or cannot trust your provider, things can get messy very quickly.

Please don’t use online translation and use it as a reference when you ask about the translation accuracy or quality, whether it's out of mistrust or as an honest attempt to be thorough. Micromanagement is bad, and this is another level of bad.

“Mina, I checked your translation with Google Translate, and you didn't use the word I see from it... are you sure your translation is correct?”

It happened to me more than a few times when working with translation agencies. Maybe it’s the years in the work; I know better to be offended by this now. I choose to explain in more detail and it’s usually enough to clear the air. Not many translators would take it that way. Using online machine translation to validate the work you pay professionals for doing doesn’t look good from any angle. Just be direct when in any doubt or having questions. It’s part of their job. They only expect you to be respectful.

Sometimes project managers freak out when a client makes a query or request, forcing translators to change things even if that makes translations sound unnatural. I always tell my PMs when direct translation won’t work and offer my suggestions that clients never hear about. When hiring a localization agency, see whether your PM communicates the translator’s feedback or opinion with you. Overcommunication is a thing and can be irritating; it’s still much more likely to get you the quality worth the cost.

Get native eyes to review

By review, I mean checking how the translation sounds to natives. Note that most native proofreading pays attention to obvious grammatical and structural errors, not that kind of quality. Have a native person review what’s done and ask for honest feedback. How does it sound? Is it friendly, polite, does it match your brand image?

If someone visits Korea and greets every "local" person he meets in the Buddhist Thai style, most people still won't think too much of it and overlook this innocent (if ignorant) mistake. For business, there is no excuse for not doing your due diligence when you play to profit. I mentioned that localization affects the way your brand is perceived, and that’s how it works. Language embodies the people who speak it and their customs. Translation as a part of localization should reflect it and a good translator will come up with options whenever there are possible conflicts. If you want to make sure, have one or two people who are familiar with the kind of product or service to take another look, just for the "feel." You won’t need a linguist or other experts for this. If you haven't localized before, then this review should be done as soon as you have some localized texts in.

This is why I’m not concerned with the rise of advanced machine translation and the game of productivity big translation companies are playing. There is an emotional aspect in the job, subtle but critical to success, that simply cannot be covered by an AI.

Use the right font!

I’m joking, but only halfway. Visual presentation is important. You can have perfectly localized texts and still ruin the chance to fully benefit from it because of an outdated font in a size too small or too big, with careless line breaks. You can at least have your localization provider handle the line breaks.

Some free fonts don't look good in most spaces and sometimes companies forget to set a language-specific font to display texts correctly. To me, it's like hosting a business presentation in pajamas.


There are ways you can ensure quality and value out of your localization efforts you invest in precious resources. Remember that it’s a delicate process that requires organization and expertise. You will work with professionals, let them help you the best they can. Encourage communication by listening to them and respecting what they do. Be honest about your concerns and give them at least enough time if you can’t (or are unwilling to) pay extra. When you do that, their response will also give a good measurement of the potential for collaboration.

I hope you find this helpful. Happy localization!