Writing for Global Audiences

With the rise of the Internet, the world is smaller than ever before. Whether you’re designing websites for a global marketplace or managing translation of user manuals, you need to make sure your content can reach a global audience.

Don’t worry; you won’t have to dust off your high school French. Translation is part of a broader process called localization. Localization adapts a document for a different target market. This goes beyond translation to include changing number and date/time formats, currencies, symbols, graphics and more.

Although localization is a task best left to specialists, writers can make this process easier by keeping global audiences in mind when they’re writing. This is called internationalization – i18n for short.

Tips for Internationalizing Text

Following some standard guidance can help make your document easier to localize.

  • Avoid Idioms and Metaphors – Because idioms are not taken literally, it can be difficult to translate them into other languages. Sports metaphors and cultural references are also problematic. “We’re batting a thousand” will be readily understood in America. In Russia? Not so much.


  • Avoid Synonyms – Synonyms can confuse readers whose vocabularies are limited. They can also cause translators to wonder if you’re referring to the same thing in both cases.
  • Beware of Embarrassing Words – You can’t know all of the words that might have embarrassing meanings in other languages, but avoid those you do know.
  • Write Out Dates – 01/05/15: Is that January 5th or May 1st? It depends on where you are. You can avoid ambiguity by always writing out month names.
  • Avoid Holiday-Specific References – References to holidays are culture- specific, and often include religious overtones. Saying that someone was “as excited as a child on Christmas morning” will mean little in a culture where they know as much about Christmas as you do about Diwali.
  • Avoid Discriminatory Language – Use multicultural names and examples, and avoid stereotypes.
  • Be Clear and Concise – If something is hard to understand in English, it’s going to be harder to translate. Complex syntax can confuse non-native speakers.
  • Leave Space – Translated text will take up more or less space than its English counterpart. Web pages and software applications are particularly vulnerable to layout issues when the text is suddenly too big to fit in the size allotted.Tips for Internationalizing Images

    When your document contains images, internationalization takes on a whole new dimension. Following these tips can save you lots of headaches when you need to localize your images.

  • Avoid Words – An image that contains text can be a nightmare to localize. You can keep text and images separate using captions or HTML overlays. Even better: use images that need no description.
  • Avoid Offensive Symbols – Even common symbols can be offensive in some cultures. Facebook famously changed its “Like” button from a thumb to a stylized “f” because the thumbs-up sign has different meanings in different parts of the world.

  • Use Layers – Most image software allows you to separate text from the underlying image using layers. Provide the original files to your localization team so they can easily change the text.
  • Leave Space – Words often expand in length when translated, which can mess up your carefully composed diagram. Make sure your image has enough room to accommodate longer translations.
  • Save the Data – If your document contains charts or graphs, be sure to save the original data or spreadsheet. That way you can simply re-generate the chart with the translated text instead of having to perform costly and complex image editing.Bottom LineNow, more than ever, professional writers need to be aware of their global audiences. By taking the time to consider internationalization up front, writers can save their organizations (and themselves!) a great deal of time, money and effort in the localization process. You can be the one to help your company go global.Further ReadingThe Top 10 Ways to Cut Website Translation Costs

    Think Globally, Write Locally

    Guidelines on the Use of Non-Discriminatory Language

    Text Size in TranslationW3C Internationalization

    Common Idioms and Metaphors

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