Help Us Help You: Four Tips to Better Translation

I used to be a product manager and to me, the key to creating products people love, was extensive user studies in different stages of product development. We used to test concepts, prototypes and nearly finished products and we used these insights in product creation and marketing.

We asked questions like “On a scale 1-5, how likely would you buy this product?” The researcher then recorded the answers. Interestingly, when looking at the interviews most of the participants said things like: “If it was white, it would be 4 but with this color, I’ll give it a 2.” Their initial score may have been a 2.4; however, the interview provided insight into why they scored products a certain way.

Had I looked solely at the product scores I might have concluded that the concept itself was the problem.  Based on the interviews, we changed the color and created a product that did well in the market.

Another point in this example was that I knew that in the market where we were doing the study, people tend to be quite critical in grading so having a 3.6 out of 5 would be a great success. In some other markets that would be a disappointment. This is why understanding of context is extremely important.

Jumping forward from memories to present day, my focus now is on translations and localizations. When ordering a translation it is essential to provide context as well as tell style preferences or tone of voice. There is a huge difference between straight translation and localization.

A contract, for example, may need to be translated literally while a blog post requires context, an understanding of style, and subtle meaning. The latter is what we call transcreation: when a translator re-writes the text in another language. The goal is for the end result to feel natural, as if it had never been translated.

There are different levels of context. In some cases the product can provide the context. For example we localize quite a lot games and applications. In these jobs we tend to translate single words or really short sentences. It is extremely important to tell what you mean with the text.  If a game button says “go” for example, it would be helpful to indicate which meaning of the word you mean to convey: end a turn, begin a sequence, move to a place, start (as in to start a race), etc.

If you do not provide any references, the translation can be off quite a lot. Usually translators are great about asking questions when they feel uncertain about context; however, asking questions can cause delays to an otherwise straightforward process. Let me give you an example. Each of the following Finnish phrases are technically correct:

  • Kuusi palaa – Six pieces
  • Kuusi palaa – The spruce is on fire
  • Kuusi palaa – The spruce returns
  • Kuusi palaa – The number six is on fire
  • Kuusi palaa – The number six returns
  • Kuusi palaa – Your moon is on fire
  • Kuusi palaa – Your moon returns


You can see how context is required to make sense of the phrase.

Sometimes expertise is required to understand context.  This is why we provide expert level translators with specialized knowledge.  Areas like medical translation require the translator to understand the context and know the vocabulary used in both source and target languages.

I am very much into outdoor sports like skiing and climbing. This is one of the reasons I have been really excited that we provide translations to companies working in climbing, freeride, and downhill skiing industries. When researching their requirements we found a translator living in the French Alps and one living in Norway, both really into climbing and skiing! There we have it: perfect understanding of the context!

Here are a couple of tips to get everything right from the start:

  1. Tell us what you want and expect: Is there an area of expertise you require, desired style or tone of voice, company specific words and terms you want translated a certain way or not translated at all?

  2. If your order is composed mainly of short strings or single words, e.g. in UI localization, please provide context for the words to be translated as comments in the resource file or in separate column if you use a spreadsheet.

  3. Give feedback, positive and negative! The more you communicate to us what you would like to see, the better we can serve your needs.

  4. If your source language is not your native language, it is always good to have a translator proofread the text before it goes into final translation.