Writer for Hire John Lynch

This has become one of my most remunerative areas of work. There’s a fundamental misunderstanding among many people about exactly what localising is and the question is best approached by saying what it is not; localising is not simply a matter of changing spellings (like altering “localising” to “localizing” in this sentence).

Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill have all been credited with describing America and the UK as “two countries divided by a common tongue”. Whoever first said it, there’s more to it than just the language. Americans and the British don’t just speak differently, they think differently and you can’t transfer a website from one culture to the other without understanding that.

A while ago, I was asked to localise an American software company’s website for the UK market. I looked at the website in question and decided how many hours it would take me to do the work. I already knew my hourly rate, so now I knew what to quote. The prospective customer said they could get the job done in India for a fraction of my price. ‘Okay,’ I said, and left it.

Three weeks later, I got an email. It seemed the Indian writing team hadn’t entirely understood what localising meant – they thought all they had to do was change some spellings. Did I still have time available to take on the project? I did it; since then I’ve done two more jobs for that customer without having to bid competitively for it and they tell me there’s more to come.

I lived in North America for a number of years and I think that’s a great help to anyone who wants to do this kind of – this kind of what? I hesitate to call it “translation”, though I’d find it difficult to come up with a more accurate word. Watching Hollywood movies and reading Elmore Leonard is not enough (though, if you like crime fiction and you’re not familiar with Elmore Leonard’s work, I recommend it in the strongest possible terms). A decent spellchecker will tell you where the spelling differences are but it takes more than that – the very least you need is an understanding of the idiomatic differences and, even more so, what certain concepts mean in the two countries. To give a simple example, in pages I localised last week the company spoke of “reaching out” to its customers. That would be a perfectly reasonable expression to use in the US, but I removed it from the UK pages because too many British businessmen would want nothing to do with a company that spoke of “reaching out” to them.

As well as everything else you do need to know that Americans say “a couple eggs” whereas the British would put “of” between “couple” and “eggs”. And it’s fine in America but not in Britain to say “I took this off of…” And…well. The list isn’t endless but it is very long. If you’re going to take on localisation jobs, you need to know most of the things on that list.

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