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What is localization?
There are a few definitions out there. The course on Internationalization and Localization offered by the University of Washington (UWashingtonX) defines localization as “adaptation of digital content for a specific foreign market.” According to Nataly Kelly, who leads localization at HubSpot and has a great blog on this topic, “localization means adapting a digital experience for users who speak other languages or live in other countries.”
Localization is required when software products, websites, e-commerce and e-learning platforms, or mobile apps are made available to new markets.
In very basic terms, the localized digital product needs to:
- cater to market needs
- target a specific group of users
- connect with users emotionally
- be culturally appropriate
- be easy to navigate
What do localization projects involve?
Localizability work often comes before localization to ensure that the process is as smooth as can be. This involves, among other things, transferring strings that need translation into a standalone file, separating text from images, making provisions for text expansion, and using placeholders.
Then comes the time for localizing both the content and the user interface (UI), making it accessible to users in the new market. Translation is usually sufficient for the more straightforward content, whereas UI, taglines, headings, call-to-action (CTA) buttons, and images might require a more creative approach to ensure that the product resonates with users.
What to look out for when localizing into Russian?
1. Level of formality. When starting a localization project from scratch, it’s important to determine how to address users, formally or informally, using «вы» or «ты». This is often decided by the client or together with the client. In fact, the same product might have different levels of formality between different languages: it might address users as “vous” in French, “du” in German, and «вы» in Russian.
A word of caution: it is often easier to start off with «вы» and use it throughout the project. This would cover the app content and all the system messages, as well as the inevitable privacy or cookie policies. An informal tone of voice is definitely justified for some products, but there will come a time to localize messages like “Forgotten password?” or “Are you sure you want to delete your account?” and these look much better when phrased formally.
Another benefit of using a formal pronoun is that it eliminates the need for feminine/masculine endings. It also makes the product more inclusive. This was the case with a parenting app I helped localize: initially the client wanted to go with the informal «ты», but that would’ve meant addressing only the mothers and excluding dads, while the content was trying to achieve the exact opposite—making sure that the new moms received much-needed support and involved dads as early as possible, even before their child was born.
2. Character restrictions in the user interface. If the app is content-heavy and contains articles or blog posts, character restrictions aren’t usually an issue there. However, when it comes to the user interface, space is at a premium, especially as Russian tends to be 15% longer than English. Even though adaptive design allows for these changes, it’s a good idea to keep this limitation in mind and try to be as concise as possible to avoid the back-and-forth with developers later on, after the product is tested on different devices.
3. Variables and placeholders. Variables and placeholders replace numbers (%d), characters (%c), or strings (%s). One of the most problematic situations in Russian localization is when a variable replaces a number and is followed by a word, for example, %d results. This poses a problem in Russian, which has complex rules governing the endings of the words following numbers. Some localization platforms like Crowdin allow for this variation and have different tabs for entering word forms for “one,” “several,” and “many” with the groups of numbers already predefined, which makes the translator’s job so much easier. However, that’s not always the case.
When there isn’t a way to specify different word forms on the localization platform, the easiest way around this is to flip the phrase so that it displays «Результаты: 5» (Results: 5). This isn’t always the most elegant solution, but I have had to resort to it quite often, especially when working on localization projects via an agency, as you don’t usually have a direct line to the developers.
4. Strings reused in different locations. In both website and mobile app localization projects, strings are often reused on the assumption that the words can be moved around without it affecting their form or meaning. With Russian being an inflected language, this approach simply doesn’t work. It results in phrases like «Нашим отелям» (“To our hotels”) or «Райских направлений» (“Of paradise destinations”) in menus, which I recently spotted on a hotel’s website. This can easily ruin the first impression for the users, especially if a brand is targeting customers in the luxury segment.
It is also possible to have strings that are used in two locations and require different translations or even different approaches to translation. This was the case when I was localizing a website for a jewelry brand, which had a “Store finder” page. I had to translate city names for the drop-down menu, but when the same city name appeared in the store address, I wanted to keep it in English because a transliterated address in Cyrillic will not get you anywhere if you’re trying to locate a jewelry boutique in London or St. Tropez!
5. Ambiguous verb forms. This is not unique to Russian, but app interfaces can have buttons like “Enter” or “Submit.” These can be translated using an infinitive, «Ввести», or as an imperative, «Введите». This depends on the context, but what makes it even trickier is that this string can also be referenced in other strings, and it’s essential to be consistent.
6. Culturally relevant content. When localizing an app, it makes sense to minimize references to source-language culture that aren’t going to resonate with the target audience or might be distracting. An example I like to give is a blog article on pool safety for children in the same parenting app. Most Russians don’t have the luxury of owning a house with a backyard and a pool, so the original reference to the private pool wouldn’t have gone down very well. However, I rephrased the sentence to include inflatable pools that you can have on your dacha, this scenario being much more likely.
7. Context is important. Translation is unimaginable without context, and it is especially important for localizing app UI and creating a positive, intuitive and memorable user experience. When working on localization platforms, there usually is a string description, like “invalid_email_error,” which gives you an idea where and when the string appears. There’s also an option for developers to include a screenshot or for translators to request one if it’s not there.
This list of potential issues that can come up when working on localization projects into Russian is not exhaustive, of course, and there are other things to be aware of to ensure successful localization, some of which only surface at or after the testing stage.
What I’ve found is that localization is very much a team effort, and it’s essential to keep talking to everyone involved in the process—producers, developers, content managers, and translators working into other languages—as they often have excellent creative ideas and suggest great workarounds.
Yulia Tsybysheva is a Russian marketing translator based in the UK. She works with clients in the fashion, beauty, jewelry, and travel industries and specializes in web & app localization, as well as transcreation. Having worked on four large-scale app localization projects, she’s planning to transition into localization and has recently received a Professional Certificate in Internationalization and Localization from UWashingtonX.
Website – https://choiceofwords.co.uk/
LinkedIn – https://uk.linkedin.com/in/yuliatsybysheva
Twitter – @ruchoiceofwords
We would love to feature other guest authors who are translators and interpreters working with Slavic languages in future SLD Blog posts! If you have recommendations or would like to share expertise, please email the SLD Blog co-editors: Veronika Demichelis and Marisa Irwin.