5 Tips for working with Translations and Translators

So you’ve finished your UI design and it’s perfect—just the right amount of white space to offset all those tables, forms and buttons. Big sigh of relief. Ahhhhhhh. Then your boss hands you your new task. Add three more languages to the application and one of them includes Kanji characters. That sigh quick changes to “arghhhh” and off you go again.

1. Language lengths may vary a LOT!

Studies say that Latin-based languages: Spanish French and Italian will increase your text length between 125-150%. Ha! What optimists they are!

German will be even longer than the Latin-based ones, not just the overall text but individual words too. (No matter what the temptation—just say “No!” to hyphens on a touchscreen.)

Japanese will be relatively short, except when it isn’t! If the Japanese don’t have a character for the needed word, you get a lengthy descriptive phrase that can run longer than French. Zut alors!

2. Text formatting across the world

Have you ever seen italics in Japanese? It’s not pretty nor is it in common usage…yet. The Japanese method of emphasizing text is to put a color background behind the text. Have fun working that one out with your developers!

French is currently going through some growing pains with accents over capital letters. Old school says a resounding “No!” to accents on capitals. However, when a definition of a word hinges on whether it has an accent or not, I’ll add the accent every time. In French, OU means “OR” and means “WHERE.” Do you want to leave that up to the end-user to determine a contextual interpretation?

3. Only work with real, live translators!

Online auto-translators are a definite no-no. (Goggle Translate routinely gets the pronouns wrong.) The literal translations they provide can render your text at best, humorous and at worse, obscene. They can even be dangerous depending on the nature of the warning messages you might need to convey.

You need native speakers for each language and/or a professional translation company. Just because I took French in college does not make me qualified to translate into French. There are subtle nuances and dialects that are easily messed up. It not worth my job to make that kind of mistake. Is it worth yours?

4. Context is key

Even if you go with a company, you’ll still want to run that text by native speakers either in your company or partnering companies overseas. The problem is that the translator is only as good as the context you provide. If you give them a list of text phrases to translate, you will get a literal translation.

You need to be prepared to provide your translators with the context in which each bit of text is used.

  • Images of all your English screens
  • Use cases
  • Screen flows

Once they get the context, you also want to empower them to change the verbiage to convey that context as concisely as possible without impairing the meaning.

5. Beware of industry-speak

If you use internal employees, beware of industry-speak creeping into the messaging. Both you and the internal translators know more about your company and application than any end-user. It’s very easy to miss. I worked on one touchscreen application for over two years before I caught that we had several acronyms and abbreviated terms for the application itself throughout the text.

Refining translations is a never ending job. Someone will always think that their translation is better and sometimes they’re even right. It’s always best to have as many native speakers review the text as possible.


Finally: A translator can make or break usability. Find the best translators you can and treat them right!

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