Cultural Nuance in Script Localization
In the context of marketing internationally, “localization” can at first seem like a misnomer. It suggests that we’re working with things that are very close by, when the aim is actually to operate seamlessly from very far away.
But making both things true is pretty much the idea. Wherever the product comes from, it shouldn’t feel foreign – at least in the alienating sense of the word. What the ‘local’ in localization means is that the finished project should feel close, personal, and realistic to the viewer experiencing it in an entirely different language. In fact, a well-executed video localization is one that is invisible to the target audience. That means a post-production facility has to pay sharp attention to the specific language and culture of the target audience.
Dialect Differences & Colloquialisms
Just think of the versions of English spoken on either side of the Atlantic. While an American viewer is not likely to take offense at reading “colour” or “realise” in a subtitled French film, a run-of-the-mill Parisian insult translated as “you bleeding wanker!” is less apt to strike the viewer as it’s meant to, and will most likely turn him off the filmed video entirely.
An unfamiliar colloquialism makes it hard to connect to the emotion behind the dialogue. It might seem like a small point, but these moments add up. In the entertainment world, they can spell the difference between someone sticking with multiple episodes of a series (and coming back for the next season), or just trying out a different show entirely. In the corporate world, they could convey that the “foreign” company simply isn’t for people like you. After all, what else might they not be getting right about your world?
This attention to dialect differences goes in the opposite direction as well. There are small but significant and meaningful differences in the German spoken in Berlin, Vienna and Zurich; ditto the Flemish spoken in Antwerp and the Dutch in Amsterdam. When it comes to dubbing, these distinctions are even more crucial. It could be very tempting to pay for one set of French-speaking actors to dub the same movie for the separate markets of Montreal and Paris. But if the product is an American film set in working-class Philadelphia, a Quebecois accent or an idiomatic expression typical of Montreal will sound completely bizarre to continental French ears.
Because language is influenced by so many factors, truly adept localization is rarely the product of one translator, however skilled. Editors who have familiarity (if not necessarily fluency) in multiple languages are an indispensable part of their work. The best ones stay on top of trends in translation occurring in the field, and apply them during quality control. For example, in English we don’t have a familiar and formal form of address – we use “you” whether we’re speaking to a close friend or a stranger. This isn’t the case with the majority of other languages, and the moment one character goes from the formal to the familiar can be a highly significant, if subtle, plot point. This might be translated as, “Shall we be less formal with each other?” Which is fine, and technically correct. But a sophisticated editor well-attuned to a range of cultural landscapes will know more that people these days understand the more authentic translation: “Should we just say ‘tu’ to each other?” or even suggest changing the entire sentence to “I say we cut the formalities, ok?”
The same question translated from a far less familiar language, like Russian, would be more difficult. It might say instead, “Shall we switch to the first-name basis?” Or, in the case of responding to uninvited familiarity, something along the lines of, “Only my friends call me Sasha!”
Choosing a Localization Provider
These are but a few examples to illustrate how language is more than words alone and translated words will not a localized script make…. Still, how do you guard against a bad localization when you don’t know the target language?
While difficult, one place to start is that when choosing a localization provider, look for attention to detail in its portfolio of projects. Have any grammatical mistakes or spelling errors squeezed by? Regardless of the quality of the script itself, does the language move fluidly in context? Does the rhythm of the translation match the rhythm of the original — so that your eyes reach a comma at the same time the actors take a pause?
Ironically, the best translations are the ones that don’t feel like translations at all. It takes a lot of work to appear effortless!