Top 10 Writing Tips for E-Learning Localization

All too often, localization is an afterthought. Course designers go about their business as usual, and at the end of the project they send their course off to be localized. But successfully localizing e-learning content is about more than just translating the text. You’ve got to make sure the content resonates with people across cultures.

Culture plays a huge role in our everyday lives, and yet we often aren’t aware of it. Our behaviors, assumptions, expectations, and definition of “normal” are all a product of our culture. Something that’s funny to an American could make no sense at all to a German and actually offend a French person. Or the real-life scenario you describe to help learners understand why the content is useful to them may be so far from their everyday lives that they tune out.

To do localization right, you’ve got to keep your global audience in mind from the very beginning. And while it’s not possible to create content that’s 100 percent culture-neutral, being aware of cultural and linguistic differences can help you craft text that’s easier to localize. After all, no matter how skilled the translators, the translation quality can only be as good as the original text. But how do you write localization-friendly text? Here are some tips to get you started.

1. Be direct.

Say what you mean and eliminate any unnecessary words. Write in the active voice and use adverbs and adjectives sparingly. Direct language is less ambiguous, making it easier to translate correctly.

Say this: A car crushed your bicycle.

Instead of this: Your bicycle has been damaged.

2. Keep it short and sweet.

Your objective is to get your point across to learners, not to win an award for creative writing. Short, simple sentences are easier to understand and translate. Remember: if the translator misunderstands what you’ve written, your message will be lost in translation.

Say this: Sarah is going to Boston for work. Afterward, she’ll visit her grandparents who live nearby.

Instead of this: Sarah is going to visit her grandparents who live in Boston after her work meeting.

3. Favor basic vocabulary.

This isn’t the time to show off your extensive knowledge of obscure words. Don’t use a fancy verb like “utilize” where a simple one like “use” will do. Jargon, slang, idioms, and colloquial expressions are often difficult or impossible to translate. Not to mention they make the content harder to understand, even for native speakers!

Say this: Let me know when your bags are packed.

Instead of this: Let me know when you get your ducks in a row.

4. Avoid humor, sarcasm, pop-culture references, and sports analogies.

If you’ve never written content for localization before, you may not realize how often you reference pop culture or sports to get your point across. And I’m willing to bet you like to throw in some sarcasm or a pun here and there to make sure your audience is still paying attention. You may find it hard to eliminate such references from your writing entirely, but it’s absolutely essential if you plan to localize your content since they’re extremely difficult—sometimes even impossible—to translate.

Say this: It’s your responsibility to do something now.

Instead of this: The ball is in your court.

5. Use terms consistently.

If the same term appears over and over in your content, it can be tempting to use synonyms to avoid repetition. However, when you’re writing for localization it’s best to always use the same term to avoid confusion and mistranslation.

Say this: An authoring tool is a program that allows you to create multimedia projects, like e-learning courses. There are many different authoring tools on the market.

Instead of this: An authoring tool is a program that allows you to create multimedia projects, like e-learning courses. There are many different authoring apps on the market.

6. Avoid phrasal verbs.

Phrasal verbs are one of hardest concepts for non-native English speakers to learn. What’s a phrasal verb? It’s a verb that’s made up of a main verb and an adverb and/or a preposition. For example: to look down on, to bring up, to fill out, etc.

What makes these verbs particularly difficult for non-native English speakers is that the meaning can be dramatically different depending on the preposition or adverb that follows. For example, “to get back at” means “to retaliate” or “to get revenge,” but “to get back into” means “to become interested again.”

These subtleties can also be hard for translators to grasp, so using them puts you at a higher risk of mistranslation. Whenever possible, replace phrasal verbs by an equivalent one-word verb to ensure correct translation.

Say this: Did you submit your assignment?

Instead of this: Did you hand in your assignment?

7. Use relative pronouns.

English speakers often omit relative pronouns like “that” or “which” to shorten sentences without changing the meaning. For example, “The clothes he wore were new” means the same as “The clothes that he wore were new.” For translation purposes, it’s better to include relative pronouns, as they improve readability and comprehension.

Say this: The clothes that I bought are hanging in the closet.

Instead of this: The clothes I bought are hanging in the closet.

8. Avoid ambiguity.

When you’re writing for localization, you want to make absolutely certain that there’s only one way to interpret your text. Any ambiguity in the source copy will only be exacerbated in the localized versions.

For example, “I saw a woman on a mountain with binoculars” could mean either you saw a woman standing on a mountain who had binoculars or you were looking at a mountain through your binoculars and saw a woman. If your original message is unclear, the translated text could have a totally different meaning. Make sure your sentences are as precise as possible.

One way to improve clarity is to replace pronouns (like “he” or “she”) with proper nouns.

Say this: Jane isn’t coming over tonight. Tell Sarah that we’ll see Jane next week.

Instead of this: Jane isn’t coming over tonight. Tell Sarah we’ll see her next week. (Who does the “her” in the second sentence refer to: Jane or Sarah? It’s unclear.)

9. Avoid phrases with too many consecutive nouns.

Technical or compliance documentation often uses noun strings, or a series of nouns used one after the other without any prepositions to describe complex concepts. For example, “employee performance evaluation procedure” is a string of four nouns that together make up the name of a procedure used to evaluate employee performance. They’re intended to make things easier, but they usually end up doing just the opposite. Since there are no prepositions, readers are forced to infer the relationship between the words. Whenever possible, break noun strings into smaller units, adding in prepositions and verbs as necessary.

Say this: One of this year’s top priorities is to improve employee relations.

Instead of this: Our employee relations improvement program is one of this year’s top priorities.

10. Make a note of anything that needs to be adapted.

Sometimes there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Things like currency, measurements, dates, times, temperatures, and phone numbers will be different depending on the language and country. Depending on the course subject, you may even run into some larger differences related to local customs and etiquette (for example, how sales calls are done) that need to be handled on a one-on-one basis. Make a list of any instances where specific adaptations are necessary and work with regional experts to adapt the content before sending it off for translation.

When you’re creating courses for a global audience, a little bit of foresight goes a long way. Following these writing tips when designing your course will make the localization process easier when the time comes. What’s more, you’ll greatly improve the translation quality—leading to better learner comprehension and satisfaction. And isn’t that what everyone wants?

Looking for more localization tips? Check out this great article on planning localized e-learning projects. Got some great localization advice to share with the community? Drop us a message below! And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and come back to E-Learning Heroes often for the latest e-learning tips and tricks.