Posted by shahzad-bashir on October 20, 2021

How to Avoid Cultural Mistakes in Localization

How to Avoid Cultural Mistakes in Localization

Literal translation kills the product when it reaches the top shelves of the local market. A cultural mistake in localization does not make sense and can result in silly and sometimes offensive results. Or oftentimes, the translation is incompatible with the local audience that the service or product can be banned from the market for good.

Parker Pens realized it the hard way when the original content “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you” was poorly translated for the Mexican audience into, “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant”.

Do you get it now?

Culture plays a remarkable role in influencing one’s language. Big brands like KFC, Mercedes, Burger King, etc., have all been a victim of cultural mistakes in localization once upon a time.

Of course, these brands learned their lesson in the localization game. But the stakes are high when culture has a strong influence in the localization and translation process. A big brand like Coca-Cola may survive its worst localization nightmare, but a small company can’t bear the damaged reputation.

What is Localization?

One cannot put enough emphasis on the fact that localization and translation are two different processes.

The greatest difference between the two terminologies is that localization is a sub-category of translation. It helps you consider the way your audience thinks, their demands and wants, and also the impact of their culture on them.

Finger-licking’ good is an appealing advert (by KFC) in the USA, but one cannot say the same for the Chinese audience, where it meant cannibalism. Although it means high-quality taste enough to keep licking your fingers, the literal translation from one language to another can change the context of the sentence.

There is no rocket science behind localization. No hard and fast rules that tailor-fit into the target language. But there are some strategic guidelines that brands can follow to avoid localization mistakes.

How to Avoid Cultural Mistakes in the Localization Process?

The localization team is responsible to ensure the product information is correctly translated from source language to target language.

But mistakes can occur in the localization process rather easily. Following are prominent ways to avoid the cultural mistakes that can otherwise doom your brand.

1. Focus on the Differences

No matter how much the word “global” might appeal to you in terms of sales, businesses still have a hard time controlling the cultural influence. It is important to have vital knowledge about the target country and the way a business is expected to be conducted.

Focus on the countries that adopt English as part of the business norms. Understand the differences and other business practices that align with their local customs and traditions.

Each country has a different standard of behavior and way to react to the new product. So before initiating the localization project, you have to focus on the specifics.

2. Literal Translation

It is of no good use unless your differences between source and target language are minimal. Literal translation does not do justice to your localization process at all. For instance, a “body” could mean sensual in the context in English may change the meaning into “corpse” if in literal translation.

So you need to have a solid idea about how the context will be perceived by the target audience.

The higher the cultural differences are, the more gap in contextual meaning will exist.

3. Use of Transcreation

A foolproof method to avoid cultural mistakes in localization is to focus on transcreation. The process of transcreation is highly effective when it comes to digital marketing as well. Especially if the content consists of cultural elements, you want to create a message that will convey the meaning with creativity.

Targeting the emotional side of the target audience means understanding their culture and how accurate the translation needs to be to convey the translated context.

Word by word translation is not fully accurate (we all know that by now) so the focus must be to capture the core expression of the content into the target language.

4. Focusing only on Language

One of the underrated factors that affect localization is that translators may be focusing only on language instead of country.

Specifying only the language and perplexing the country can make the localization more difficult to handle. For instance, Spanish is spoken not only in Spain, but in other parts of Europe, and America as well. The target audience speaking Spanish in Europe is different than that of in the US. Their demands and wants about a product are different. Plus, the dialect spoken in both countries (Spain and the US) is different.

So it creates a gap between the two languages. It’s important to focus on the locale factors properly to localize the content. Focus not only on the language but also the country where it is being spoken.

5. Conduct Thorough Research

A company planning to go global should include localization as a part of its business plan. Before going global, one needs to do extensive research on the differences and similarities between the markets

Once the differences are highlighted, it will help to analyze the localization challenges the translation team will face.

Collected data, market reports, and analysis, forecasts, etc all will provide the required information that will help understand the cultural differences and ease the localization process.

Also, studying the data will help translators to understand consumer behavior and their buying habits, competition, and use of preferred language.

6. Local Flags

Flags are one of the many cultural and national symbols that are closely tied to the country. The more you honor the local factors, the better chances of incorporating the brand.

Flags symbolize marketing efforts. For instance, if you use flag colors on the items you want to sell on a specific occasion, people will buy them. The 4th of July is a common example. Americans buy hats, ties, shoes, etc., whatever they can that helps them stay connected to their cultural norms on that particular day.

But it might not be the case with other countries. For instance, Saudi’ Arabia flag has Quranic text on it, so you cannot use it on products that are quick to dispose of.

7. Gestures are Critical

Talking about symbols also means we need to focus on common hand gestures. You should be aware of the cultural meaning behind the use of hand gestures as well.

For instance, a thumbs up usually mean good luck or a sign of approval in several countries except for Greece, Italy, or Afghanistan where it means “up yours”. Or similarly, in Japan, a thumbs-up means 5 million!

Take another example here — the OK sign is understood as “okay” as in “alright” but in Russia, Germany, and Brazil it may refer to the private body parts whereas in Japan it means money or in France, it means zero.

So be careful in the selection of hand gestures in localization. If not, a heavy lawsuit will be headed your way.

8. Copywriter Precaution

Wordplay is effective for copywriting. But when copywriting for a foreign market, some words can be considerably less charming than the others. The use of white and black is often controversial in the US as it could mean differentiating between white and black people.

So if a brand chooses to focus on either color in their advertising material, they may suffer the consequence of triggering discrimination.

Volkswagen had to pull their ad campaign promoting a new line of cars. The Slogan “White Power” may have seemed harmless to other countries, but the local US audience had to say otherwise. For them, it was being promoted only for white people.

So yes, colors can have an equal impact on localization as well.

9. Visual Care

Similar to the use of symbols and hand gestures, visuals play a critical role in localization. You have to be careful in choosing the image. Some countries are more reserved in terms of using visuals especially o their websites and products.

That’s why it is important to understand that local culture yet again may have a strong influence on the type of visuals too. For instance, a visual representing a beef burger will not bode well with the audience in India as most people are vegetarians, it also colludes with their beliefs.

Similarly, the use of pork meat image for fast food will make matters worse if promoted in Islamic countries.

As said earlier, extensive research is required even if you want to use images or other graphics in your ads. Be careful in choosing the pictures.


There is no well-defined way to avoid cultural mistakes in localization, but if you follow these tips, you can do it. It’s important to remember that translation companies offering localization and translation services are well-equipped with cultural differences. You can ask for a sample or portfolio when choosing the translation company to meet your business needs.

On the safe side, it will help you understand how the language service provider will work with their clients in the long run.

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