Challenges of localizing our user interface
In today’s post, Mette Thomsen, Danish Language Specialist, Melanie Spies, German Language Specialist, Agnieszka Czerwonko, Polish Language Specialist, and Federica Imburgia, Italian Language Specialist, detail how they overcome common localization challenges to create clear and user-friendly text in many languages.
I joined GetYourguide one year ago as Danish Language Specialist in the Localization team. Coming from a mixed background of language specialist and user experience (UX) writer, I found my sweet spot localizing GetYourGuide’s user interfaces to the Danish market. Easy!
Little did I know how challenging that task would be. In this post, I’ll share my learnings and how my team tackles localization.
Our team works to make sure our non-English users can read GetYourGuide’s web and app in their own language and have a good user experience while doing so.
But doesn’t having English user interface (UI) copy written by UX writers guarantee a good user experience when translated?
Not necessarily. It comes down to which market we design for first.
Things would look and feel a lot different if, “the shoe was on the other foot” — let’s say, if we designed GetYourGuide for the Arabic market first. While we offer our inventory to markets around the globe, our source language is English. It’s what we design and write for first, and it ensures that we reach customers to whom we haven’t yet localized.
“English first” means our other target languages aren’t top of mind when crafting the initial copy or creating the user journey. This is where we language specialists put on our hero cape and merge 1) the product’s intent and personality which originates in English and 2) the local users’ specific linguistics and culture.
Layers of challenges
The UX Writing team uses special guidelines to write for translation, which is a huge help for us. Once they finish a piece of UI copy, it’s sent to us in Localization. When a task comes our way, we still face two big challenges: a lack of context and lack of product understanding.
Our success depends on knowing these circumstances, so we must continuously work to build a strong relationship with product teams and ensure we receive context with each localization request: screenshots, intent, and thorough product descriptions.
After context, the second layer of challenges sets in: language-specific challenges. Depending on the copy and format of the task, each language specialist uses different methods to adapt to their specific grammar and style.
I’ve turned to my teammates to explore the creative hacks they use to make our interfaces ‘feel like home’.
Gender: talking to everyone
If there’s a language that juggles gender specifics, it’s German, so I’ve asked my teammate Melanie, our German Language Specialist, how she overcomes this.
“At GetYourGuide, we strive for an inclusive tone of voice, using gender-neutral phrasing whenever possible. This isn’t always easy to translate. German, for example, is a much more gendered language than English. Anyone who has ever tried to learn German is familiar with the agony of learning genders and their grammar implications. All German nouns are strictly male, female, or neutral, and the articles, adjectives, and pronouns attached to them vary respectively, creating quite a complicated system.
In English, it’s a lot simpler. The term “customer”, for example, can describe a female or a male person equally, whereas in German “der Kunde” is strictly male and “die Kundin” is strictly female. A common way of dealing with this issue is using both the male and female form when talking to customers:
“die Kundinnen und Kunden”
But this is bulky and can also be a real problem when dealing with tight character limits. Hybrid forms (KundInnen, Kund_innen, Kund*innen) are also common, but they can quickly make your copy unreadable, especially when pronouns come into play:
“Der/die Teilnehmer/in kann seine/ihre Buchung über sein/ihr Konto einsehen.”
So how do we solve this? One common (albeit sneaky) solution is the use of participial forms. English doesn't like to use participles as nouns, but in other languages, it’s common practice. The (male) Teilnehmer (participant) becomes the gender-neutral Teilnehmende (the person who participates) — et voilá! — everyone’s included.”
Character limitation: “short” and “long” languages
Agnieszka, our Polish Language Specialist, often says she has a “long language.” It might sound funny, but she’s got a point. Some languages generally have longer words and sentences than English. This makes things very tight for Agnieszka.
“Longer words take up more space and create a challenge when it comes to character limits. I often can’t exceed a certain limit, or else the text will be cropped and the design of the website broken for the .pl version.
Take a look at the difference between the English source text and the Polish and German translations (number of characters in parenthesis). They’re almost double the length.
EN: Page not found (14)
PL: Strona nie została znaleziona (29)
EN: We sent an email to X. Please check your inbox (46)
DE: Wir haben eine E-Mail an X gesendet. Bitte überprüfen Sie Ihr Postfach (70)
Slavic words are usually longer compared to their English equivalents. We have to allow around 20-30 % more space for the target text when I translate into Polish.
The design and character limitations often prevent me from using what would have been the ideal, most natural translation. There’s just not enough space in the design. In this case, I need to figure out which parts of the sentence are most important, so I can leave out the rest or abbreviate it in the most natural way.’’
Placeholders: switching it around
We also need to think about different sentence structures and grammar rules. I’ve asked Federica Imburgia, one of our Italian Language Specialists, to explain how we use dynamic placeholders to keep a natural syntax and language flow across all 18 versions of the website.
“When English copy comes our way, it’s important that we receive the whole sentence in one piece. If a sentence is sent to translation in smaller bits, it’s extremely difficult — or even impossible — to apply grammatical rules that result in natural and correct copy.
A typical example is when a sentence contains values that change, such as dates, numbers, and names. In translations, these values are replaced by a placeholder. Look at this string created for GetYourGuide’s cart page:
See other available activities on %1 in %2.
The placeholders %1 and %2 represent the date and language. Most of European languages follow a subject-verb-object (SVO) model and reflect the English sentence structure, so they place this information at the end of the sentence. Take, for example, Spanish and Danish:
ES: Ver otras actividades disponibles en %2 el %1
DA: Se andre ledige aktiviteter %1 på 2%
But other languages, like Turkish or Korean, follow a subject-object-verb (SOV) model and place the information differently within the sentence. The Turkish translation looks like this:
%1 tarihindeki diğer mevcut turları %2 olarak görüntüleyin
Luckily, these placeholders are flexible and can be moved and adapted to each language structure. So, after doing enough switching around, everything ends up in the right place.”
Contrary to the myth, successful localization involves much more than accurate word-for-word translation. It requires us to think creatively every day, challenge our processes, and sometimes “kill our darlings”. Even though we speak and represent 18 different languages, we are united and passionate about our mission to make GetYourGuide engaging and intuitive for our customers worldwide.