Writing for Global Audiences

By the end of this year, there will be almost three billion people using the Internet, with two-thirds of them in developing countries. It’s time for us to look outside ourselves and our borders, because we really are writing for the worldwide web.

So if we’re writing in English, how do we prepare our content for international readers? How can we make sure our friends and neighbors from around the world can read our work? We can start by honing our language and sentences so they’re easy to translate. Then we can focus on the localization process itself and refine our content to suit different audiences.

Case Study: The Internet Archive

Let’s work through these concepts with a proper example: The Internet Archive, a nonprofit digital library. Their mission is to provide universal access to all knowledge — to archive everything on the Internet and everything that should be on the Internet. Founded in 1996, the Archive provides free and open access to a huge collection of websites, videos, audio files, books and texts, educational resources, and software (including old Atari games, if you’re interested). They also have a wide variety of content in other languages like French, German, Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic.

Between their universal mission and their multilingual content, the Archive is a good example of a site that should be written for global readers. But they’re a nonprofit with limited resources, so how might they go about that?

Set the Stage for Translation

Michael Shubert, a certified translator, says:

The single best thing your business can do to make the translation process smooth and successful is to lovingly craft and refine your text before sending it out for translation.

If your content is clear, brief and accessible, you’re already doing most of the work of preparing it for translation. But we all forget to use plain English from time to time, so let’s examine a few changes the Archive could make to prepare their content for international readers.

Use Short, Complete Sentences

Pay attention to the structure and length of your sentences. Are they all the same length? Is anything longer than it needs to be?

These rules of thumb may help you keep your sentences short and sweet:

  • Aim for about 20 words or less. If you find your sentences going over that, read them aloud to keep them as brief as possible.
  • Adverbs and adjectives are optional, and best used sparingly.
  • Try to find the simplest way to express each idea.

Consider this example from the Archive:

Thank you for your interest in the Internet Archive. We would love to host your digital artifacts. In order to access this page, you will need to [log in] to our website. (https://archive.org/create/)

To make this more suitable for a global audience, the Archive could cut the unnecessary words and repetition, and focus on what the reader needs:

Thanks for your interest in the Internet Archive. To upload a digital artifact, please [log in] or [create an account].

Check the Basics

Once your sentences are appropriately concise, make sure everything makes sense and reads well in English. Each sentence should have a subject, a verb and appropriate punctuation.

Also, be sure to proofread your copy before you send to your translator. Spelling and grammar mistakes may cost you extra time and money.

Avoid Idioms, Colloquialisms & Regional Metaphors

Different people have different ways of seeing the world. Don’t assume lingo or pop culture references will work for everyone. For example, 311 and 911 make sense for Americans, but most countries use their own system for emergency services, so any reference to those numbers may be lost on international readers.

Whenever possible, choose common words to say what you mean. Avoid jargon, fancy phrases and Latin abbreviations. The Archive does a nice job of using plain language on their donation page.

Be Careful with Icons & Colors

Along with jargon and regional phrases, be careful with symbols and imagery. For example, you may need to localize mailbox, magnifying glass or shopping cart icons, because those visual metaphors don’t always translate. This is also true for photography.

Color can also make a difference. For example, red means life in some places, and death or danger in others.

Be Consistent with Spelling & Capitalization

It’s also important to use the same spelling and capitalization as you write. This not only makes it easier for your readers to follow along, but also minimizes translation costs because your linguist can reuse the phrasing in their software. As a quick example, the Archive uses American English, so they should avoid British counterparts like colour, behaviour, and neighbour.

A simple style guide can help you standardize spelling and terminology. And if you have voice and tone guidelines, share those with your translation team so they understand your brand guidelines and higher level goals for the content.

Make a List of Common Words

If you have unique product or feature names, list those out for your translation team so they’re reflected correctly. You may also want to include specifics about the meaning of each phrase or even associations you want to avoid. As a minor example, the Archive has several names for videos including movies, moving images and films. While I personally appreciate the language choices there, having multiple terms for the same thing can cause confusion and cost you money.

Keep in mind that some names won’t translate well, so be ready to talk with your linguist and your marketing team about alternatives.

Format Numbers Correctly

Numbers are a small detail that make a big difference for your readers. Whether you’re writing about an event or sharing contact information, you can show how much you care by using the appropriate formatting and spelling for:

These details are especially important for retail sites and corporate contact pages.

Make Sure It Fits

English phrases are often shorter than their global counterparts, so you should avoid truncating your text as much as possible. If your design template has character limits for descriptions, titles or navigational elements, keep those length limits in mind. This is especially important for mobile readers.

It may be tempting to chop long descriptions off to a specific character or word count, but that creates confusion for readers in any language. For example, the main modules on the Archive’s homepage (Web, Video, Live Music, Audio and Texts) highlight a curator’s choice piece and a recent review:

The description text is interrupted halfway, leaving the content behind that click up to the reader’s imagination. While the description on the left is clear and easy to read, it doesn’t match the formatting of the description on the right. And the one in the middle is in Arabic, so it’s lost on an English reader like me.

This is a great example of a design opportunity: the Archive could make minor adjustments to their description modules to accommodate longer text. If you’re facing a similar challenge, work with your design team to make your content fit within your templates in a logical way, both before and after translation. As a general note, if something is hard to follow before translation, it will only be more confusing after.

Don’t Bury Important Information

When you’re designing your site, make sure your navigation supports your global readers. Too many sites hide their localized content in a PDF or bury it behind several clicks. But Wikipedia does a great job of featuring language links on the homepage and their sidebars. Give your global audiences the same level of attention and respect that you give your primary audience.

Build a Global Practice

After you’ve done the foundational work of cleaning up your content, you’re almost ready to translate it. But translation may not be what you need. Localization and translation are often used interchangeably, but they’re different processes and yield different results.

Web translations, like the output from Google Translate, are typically word-for-word text replacements. By contrast, a professional translator will take your content, analyze it and revise it to fit a particular market. Localization (or L10n) requires time and consideration from someone who understands the implications of your writing and the cultural needs of a particular place. Take some time to learn about the differences between translation and localization to decide what’s right for your project.

Find a Localization Specialist

When you’re ready to localize your content, do your research. Unions and translation associations like the American Translators Association often publish a directory of licensed translators and linguists. oDesk also has a community of freelance translators available for hire. Since the Internet Archive is based in San Francisco, they could find a translator through one of these services or the Northern California Translators Association.

Look for a translator that’s familiar with the types of content you write. You wouldn’t want to hire a fiction translator to revise your terms of service. Most linguists specify which content types and subjects they’re familiar with, like legal documents, marketing, software, and patents. And much like hiring a lawyer or designer, you may find it useful to ask people you know for referrals.

Plan Your Budget & Workflow

Along with finding a localization specialist, you’ll need a budget for paying them (unless you find volunteers) and system for managing your files. For smaller projects, it may be as simple as emailing HTML back and forth to each other and then mailing a check.

For hefty sites, you may want to plan out different phases and use a localization platform to keep everything in order. Check into Smartling and Shuttle to see if they’re worth your time.

Make Time for Translations

When you’re planning a project, factor in translation time. A lot of companies put off translations until weeks or months after a launch. But this work should be part of your writing and design process:

  • Keep your global readers in mind as you make design decisions.
  • Coordinate with your localization specialist regularly so they have time to ask you questions.
  • Factor translation time into your launch schedule.
  • Don’t forget about content after the launch.

Incorporate time and resources for that work into your editorial calendar and publishing workflow.

Start with Your Largest Secondary Audience

Another part of your workflow planning is prioritizing languages. If you already have hundreds of pieces of content like the Archive, you may want to pick one secondary audience to design the process around. The Archive could start with French, Spanish, or Chinese, because those three languages are common in both their content and the city of San Francisco, where the Archive is based.

After cleaning up the English content and working to translate it into one other language, the Archive could take that same approach and introduce new languages over time.

Keep Your Localized Content Up-to-Date

Lastly, localization is an ongoing process because your content will change from time to time. When you make edits in English or add new English pages, remember to get those translated too. Check in with your localization expert periodically and consider including translation time in your editorial calendar.

Start with Your Foundation

Translation and localization are great investments for your readers. But you can start with the basics, especially if your resources are limited. As you can see from the Archive examples, there are a number of simple changes you can make to your own content to prepare it for international audiences.

Focusing on clear, concise and user-focused content will get you more than halfway to your goal. Here again is the classic editorial challenge of keeping things updated and consistent. Give yourself a solid foundation of good content. When you’re ready to invest in translations and broaden your readership, everyone will get the most from that investment.

Going the Extra Mile

Once you have the tools and resources to localize your content, take it a step further and test variations of copy in different regions. Some regions or countries will respond to the same message differently, so you should try a few ideas before pushing them out everywhere.

Whenever you’re testing copy, keep these things in mind:

  • Write 3-7 different variations. Play with the meaning and structure of each one. If two variations are too similar, you may not be able to tell why it’s working in Japan, but not in Germany.
  • Don’t test anything you wouldn’t publish. Your readers don’t know the difference between a test and a final piece of copy. Keep those variations within your brand guidelines.
  • Stay in sync. Let your localization specialist know that you’re testing copy variations and be sure to include them in the planning process. They often know more about global readers than the data can tell you, and they may even have ideas for the content.

Pitfalls to Avoid

  • Don’t assume everyone in your audience speaks or reads in English, even if they’re in your home country.
  • Don’t think of localization as a hurdle or an excuse to dumb down your content. Clear, friendly writing benefits all of your readers.
  • Don’t hide your localized content in PDFs or dusty corners of your website. Make it easy for people to find what they need.

Things to Do

  • Read through your content on the screen, aloud, and on paper to check for understanding and conciseness. Make sure it fits within your design too.
  • Work with a specialist to translate and improve your content for global audiences. Share your voice and tone guidelines with them too.
  • Keep at it! Treat localization as a larger part of your iterative writing process.

Further Reading

  • The American Translators Association Compass, American Translators Association
  • Localization Guide, Translate House
  • A Practical Guide to Localization, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2000
  • The Global English Style Guide: Writing Clear, Translatable Documentation for a Global Market, SAS Publishing, 2008
  • Beyond Borders: Web Globalization Strategies, New Riders, 2002