Writing for Global Audiences

It’s raining cats and dogs. Everyone understands this refers to a heavy rainstorm, right? Maybe not someone from Ireland, where it’s more common to say, “It’s throwing cobblers’ knives.” Or for a South African who uses the phrase, “It’s raining old women with clubs.” Then there’s the Norwegian saying, “It’s raining female trolls.”

Writing for audiences across cultures has its challenges. How do you write in a way that is clear to people with diverse backgrounds and can be easily translated, so that your message is not diluted for those who are not native English speakers?

Write For a Diverse Audience From the Start

When writing content that will eventually be translated for people in other cultures, write with a global audience in mind from the start. The quality of your source content directly impacts the quality of your translated content. The problem compounds as you begin to increase the number of languages. Don’t wait until you’ve translated your website into five languages to clarify an ambiguous statement. It saves time and money to do it right the first time.

Get to the Point

  • Avoid ambiguous phrases or redundancies and find the most direct way to express your ideas. Short, clear sentences are easier to translate and leave less room for misunderstandings. Fewer words to translate will also help you with text expansion. Some languages, such as Spanish, can take up to 25% more space than English. When translating a website or app, text expansion can have a significant impact on your layout. Keep your writing succinct from the start to help with layout issues down the road.
  • An idiom is a group of words or phrase that is not intended to be taken literally. Such phrases may sound natural to native speakers of a particular language, but they do not necessarily translate across cultures. Your Japanese audience is unlikely to understand that “Elvis has left the building” has nothing to do with Elvis, it just means the end of the show. Other examples include “when pigs fly,” “a penny for your thoughts,” “piece of cake,” “barking up the wrong tree,” or “burning the midnight oil.”
  • Do not use slang or humor. It rarely translates well and can easily lead to confusion or misunderstandings. And, some cultures may not respect humor in a business context, where it can be viewed as frivolous and unprofessional.
  • Stay away from corporate speak. “Corporate synergy,” “deep dive,” “incentivize,” “drill down,” “low-hanging fruit,” “out of pocket,” or “wheelhouse,” to name a few. The buzzwords your colleagues use every day may be meaningless outside the U.S. business world.
  • Avoid colloquialisms, which are words or phrases used informally – typically specific to a geographic region or local dialect. While colloquialisms can add flavor to your writing, they can easily lead to confusion. Not everyone understands that a “spell” can mean “an indefinite period of time,” or to “rile” may mean “to stir up.” Even just here in the U.S., someone might order lunch by asking for a “sub,” “hoagie,” “grinder,” “spuckie,” or a “po’ boy.” See how this can get confusing?
  • Other cultures may not know how to RSVP for your event, understand what an HR Dept does, or know how to fill in their DOB. Do not use abbreviations or acronyms.
  • Write with an active voice. Passive sentences often have a more complex sentence structure, use more words, and tend to be vague. Active sentences, in which the subject of the sentence is performing the action, have a better flow and make it clear who is doing what.
  • It may sound obvious, but proofread your text thoroughly. Always double check to make sure your text uses proper grammar and correct punctuation.

Take Advantage of Your Translation Agency

Sometimes the elements above do add color to your writing, and you may decide to break the rules. The key is to be aware. In cases where you opt to keep a phrase that may lead to confusion, add a note for your translation agency so they can ensure the linguists translating your text understand your meaning and can adapt it appropriately for your audience.

Corporate or brand-specific language can be challenging in multicultural advertising. To effectively communicate your company’s unique voice, your corporate language conventions and brand-specific terminology must remain consistent across all content. Your translation agency can work with you to develop a glossary, which will enable you to make decisions about the appropriate use of brand-specific words and phrases upfront. A glossary compiles your company’s key terminology in the source language and the approved translations for that terminology in the target language(s). This provides greater clarity and eliminates ambiguity for the translators, and helps ensure consistency across all of your materials. When developing translations for marketing purposes, glossaries are an effective way to keep your brand voice consistent.

If you’re writing text that will eventually be translated, it’s ok to repeat words throughout your text. For example, if you use the word “mobile phone,” once, use it consistently rather than switching to “cell phone.” This helps keep things clear for your translators. It also helps you receive the greatest benefits from translation memory (TM). Your translation agency uses TM so you can receive discounted word rates by leveraging word segments that repeat throughout the text. By maintaining consistency in your terminology, you can maximize the money you save through your translation agency’s TM.

Global Marketing

The spending power in multicultural markets makes it worthwhile to develop a thorough, comprehensive global marketing approach.

  • Know your market. Do your research to understand each locale’s concerns and sensitivities so you can create valuable, engaging content that your target audiences can relate to.
  • Write for multicultural readers from the start. A clear message that is easy to translate will help make your content resonate with each specific locale you are targeting in the same way it resonates with your primary audience.

You’ll hit the nail on the head!

Related Insights

  • Color
    On a website, color directs the eye, conveys messages, invokes emotion, enhances meaning, impacts the visitor’s mood, and helps establish a company’s identity. However, the meanings attributed to colors vary from culture to culture, and a single color may have different, even contrasting meanings around the world.
  • Text expansion
    Your designer did a fabulous job developing your new line of brochures – the perfect balance between compelling copy and eye-catching images. But how will your latest collateral look when it’s translated into Chinese? Or German? When you translate a marketing campaign, presentation, website, or app into other languages, text expansion and contraction is something to be aware of.
  • Numbers
    To really engage people, it’s not enough to just translate your website, product branding, or marketing collateral into another language. A well-crafted global marketing approach requires adapting messaging, images, graphics, colors, and even numbers so they are appropriate for each culture. And, in some countries, the numbers you use may have more impact than you think.