Writing for a Global Audience

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.

Going Global

Copyright chainat / 123RF Stock Photo
Used with permission.

Translation

Don’t worry – you won’t have to dust off your high school French. Translation is a specialized skill best left to professional translation services.

As a writer, though, you will be deeply involved with the translators: developing statements of work, packaging materials to send to them, answering questions, and ultimately reviewing and managing multiple versions of the content.

Localization

Translation is just a piece of a broader process called localization. The W3C Consortium defines localization as:

The adaptation of a product, application or document content to meet the language, cultural and other requirements of a specific target market (a locale).

Besides just translating the words themselves, localization can include changing number formats, date and time formats, currency, symbols, graphics and more. You can still localize a document for different markets, even if you’re only presenting it in English.

Internationalization

The translation service usually handles the bulk of localization, but there are things you can do as a writer to make the localization process go more smoothly. This is called internationalization. Looking again at the W3C definition:

Internationalization is the design and development of a product, application or document content that enables easy localization for target audiences that vary in culture, region, or language.

Localization happens at the end – after the document is locked down in English and ready to be adapted to other markets. Internationalization, on the other hand, is something you need to be aware of throughout the writing process.

Here are some tips to help internationalize your document:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Keep Text and Images Separate – An image that contains text can be a nightmare to localize. Charts and graphs are also something to watch out for. Have the original data handy so you can regenerate it in a different language when the translations are available.
  • Be Clear and Concise – If something is hard to understand in English, it’s probably going to be even harder to translate. Write simple sentences and avoid jargon, acronyms and abbreviations.
  • Be Careful with Graphics – A thumbs-up status icon may be innocent enough to American audiences, but in some parts of the world it’s horribly offensive. You may also need to swap out graphics to highlight different regional offices/teams or product variants.
  • Leave Space – Translated text will take up more or less space than its English counterpart. In some documents this is usually not a problem, but web pages and software applications are particularly vulnerable to layout issues when the text is suddenly too big to fit in the size allotted.
  • Know Your Regulatory Requirements – Translators deal with words, not law, and it is your responsibility to be aware of any applicable documentation regulations in your industry. For example, European regulations often require that you include a CE Mark symbol in your manuals. Region-specific warnings, notices and disclaimers may also be required.

Bottom Line

Now, 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 Reading

W3C Internationalization

Designing for International Users: Practical Tips

Think Globally, Write Locally

Text Size in Translation

3 thoughts on “Writing for a Global Audience

  1. Linda, I enjoyed this blog entry. I particularly enjoyed the emphasis on the audiences we write for. Until this class, I had never focused so much on who I’m writing for. It’s eye-opening to say the least. The format of this blog post is sleek and inviting; it reads great! Good job.

    • Thanks, Jason! Although we always need to take our audience into account, it’s particularly easy to forget about readers in other countries if you’re only writing in English. I’ve been guilty of that myself 🙂

  2. Great post, Linda. I especially liked your tips on how to internationlize your writing. It’s so easy to forget that things like idioms, metaphors, and graphics can be dependent on one’s culture in order to understand. And great point on the dates!

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