What Not To Translate? When is it OK to leave Content in the Source Language?

By Jonathan Bowring

Jonathan_BowringJonathan Bowring is the European Localization Director at Canon, based near London. In this blog, he talks about a discussion that took place at the recent Welocalize LocLeaders Forum in Dublin.

“What not to translate?” A slightly controversial discussion topic for a gathering of localization professionals.

Welocalize LocLeaders attendees devote their working lives to driving globalization strategies, converting content from one language and culture to a variety of others. This is what we’re paid to do – what many of us studied and trained for. This is what we think about every day. But at LocLeaders in Dublin, we were asked about the very opposite: When is it OK to leave content in the source language and send it to the market as-is?

I have no agenda to put an end to the localization business, where I have worked for the past 20+ years. It’s a constantly evolving industry which shows no sign of slowing in growth or pace. Its services will need to expand and become more sophisticated to match the progress of globalization. Localization is not going away, but are there cases when it’s unnecessary, or even undesirable?

There have always been constraints on what gets translated, usually because the return on investment in a particular language isn’t proven. If there’s no expectation of sales in a region, especially increased sales from localization, then the money won’t be spent. However, ROI on localization is notoriously difficult to establish – it’s impossible to run history of a market twice, once with localized materials and once without, to compare the result. Worse than that, we often begin localizing for a region only after sales have taken off and growth is a sure thing. Now you want to localize? Longer term thinking is to localize ahead of the curve, in regions where growth is needed and economic factors indicate potential.

Is it ever desirable to deliberately leave something in the source language for international consumption, even when localization is perfectly possible? One of our country offices recently fed back that for a certain type of video content, a younger audience expected to hear English and so translation was unnecessary, even jarring. A surprising result perhaps, but in a sense this represents true localization, targeting a region in the voice and language that its customers expect and want.

Brand names and marketing slogans have long exploited the “foreignness” of untranslated language to bring cachet to their product. “Vorsprung durch Technik”, “Das Auto” and “Va va voom” have all been used by car manufacturers in international markets. “Eau de toilette”, “J’adore” and “Le male” are examples from the perfume industry and many of us have become used to home furnishings called “Klippan” or “Risör”. English names and taglines are often left untranslated internationally for the same reason.

Sometimes “foreignness” is exactly what we want to convey, what the customer is looking for – especially in the consumer goods sector. Selling a slice of Americana to European or Asian consumers will inevitably mean retaining much US English, evoking rock & roll and Hollywood. Marketing manga comic or anime products in the West depends precisely on the exotic feel of Japanese pop culture.

There are other sectors where speakers prefer a language other than their own. The IT world is one where English dominates. Many IT staff are educated in English, or at least using the English terminology of their industry. They often feel more comfortable reading and using the English words for cloud technology and processor architecture. This is nothing new – engineers of the 20th century found German a useful common medium for their technical documents. Long before that, Latin was the lingua franca of mathematicians who needed to circulate their papers internationally. Counterintuitively, in such sectors it can be a hindrance to translate because there is an established culture and mutual understanding through a shared language.Of course, even if the local audience prefer to have content in the source language, sometimes government, politics or legal regulation can mean content has to be translated into the official country language.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is another area which introduces complexity. Judging the most common search terms in a market requires a mixture of technology, analysis and intuition. It’s not always straightforward to work out what a market needs. For instance, if a German speaker is found using English search terms, is that because they prefer to work in English, because English terminology prevails in German or because they only expect to find content written in English?

Finding the right answers, in context with the culture and target content, will drive an appropriate SEO strategy.

So, controversial though it may seem, it’s worth asking the question, “What not to translate?” This is good business practice, not only to avoid waste but to ensure that we speak to our customers in the manner which resonates with them. For sure, translation and localization are imperative for global business, but sometimes…just sometimes…they’re not required.


Jonathan Bowring

European Localization Director, Canon