Crafting localizable copy for a world without borders

Tugba Turhan
Tugba Turhan
June 14, 2024

Good UI copy that is easily localizable into different languages is more than a tool for effective communication — it’s a financial asset. Well-crafted, localizable copy reduces translation needs, lowers miscommunication risks, and ensures global resonance of products and services.

I’m a native speaker of Turkish, and English is my second language. I’ve been designing primarily in English, and my journey has been filled with continuous learning and adaptation. I often find myself questioning my word and grammar choices to make sure I’m making the right decisions. Using professional and vocational dictionaries — the printed ones — and language tools such as Grammarly, Hemingway, and Google Translate are part of my daily routine. I translate involuntarily and effortlessly, constantly asking myself, “How would that sound in Turkish?”

Like other content designers, I also find myself digging into the UI copy of the apps I use day to day, especially if I’m using the translated version of the app. Sometimes, I notice messages or instructions that feel odd or confusing, or words that are missing or in the wrong place — almost always caused by mistranslations.

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How and why do mistranslations occur?

Linguistic differences between languages often lead to inaccurate, even comical results, especially when translated with machine translation tools. Human translation can result in mistakes, too, when not enough context is given to the translator — they may not grasp deeper, semantic meanings in the source or target language, such as with idioms and metaphors.

Let’s use translations between Turkish and English as an example. Turkish and English belong to different language families with profound grammatical, semantic, and morphological differences. English, an Indo-European language, shares its structural roots with French, Spanish, and even Persian. In contrast, Turkish is part of the Altaic/Turkic language family, aligning more closely with Mongolian, Korean, and Japanese.

In English grammar, sentences follow a Noun Phrase (Subject) - Verb Phrase - Noun Phrase (Object) order, whereas in Turkish, sentences use Noun Phrase (Subject-Object) - Verb Phrase (Figure 1).

Comparison of the location of noun phrases and verb phrases in the Turkish sentence "Sarah parkta kitap okuyor" and the English sentence "Sarah is reading a book in the park."
Figure 1. English sentences often convey the action before the context (“Sarah is reading a book in the park”), while Turkish sentences set the scene before describing the action (“Sarah in the park a book is reading”).

Another difference is that Turkish often forms words by attaching a sequence of suffixes. English also uses suffixes, but Turkish’s love for its suffixes is something else. A very famous example — which is also a common joke in Turkish — is the lengthy single-word sentence “Çekoslovakyalılaştırabildiklerimizden misiniz?” which roughly translates to “Are you one of those whom we were able to make a citizen of Czechoslovakia?”

The root of this word is “Çekoslovakya” (Turkish for Czechoslovakia). The rest of the word is made of suffixes (Figure 2).

A chart breaking down a long Turkish word into its root and multiple suffixes: Çekoslovakya-lı-laş-tı-r-abil-di-k-leri-m-i-z-den mi-sin-iz
Figure 2. Deconstruction of the Turkish word Çekoslavkyalılaştırabildiklerimizden misiniz, highlighting how Turkish words are formed by combining root words with many suffixes.

The difference between the sentence structures, the use of suffixes, and other distinctions can easily lead to challenges when app content is translated between English and Turkish. 

How broken translations disrupt the user experience

Let’s compare the English and Turkish interfaces in Hotmail, an app I’ve been using for years. Figure 3 shows the English interface for adding a new rule for filtering emails. You can see several options for rule conditions, which are organized into categories. Some of these categories are nouns, such as “People” or “Keywords.” Others are sentence fragments, such as “My name is” or “Message includes.” The UI copy is clear, and it’s relatively easy for users to set up an email rule.

The English-language Rules page for filtering emails in the Hotmail app, showing a list of possible conditions to select.
Figure 3.  Hotmail’s filtering rules include categories for “People,” “My name is,” “Subject,” “Keywords,” “Marked with,” and “Message includes.”

Figure 4 shows the Turkish UI of the very same screen. The screen is fully translated, and the design has no visible issues, such as the alignment or sizes of the select boxes, labels, or list items.

The Turkish-language Rules page for filtering emails in the Hotmail app, showing a list of possible conditions to select.
Figure 4. The same Hotmail interface translated to Turkish looks almost identical to the English interface.

However, the copy is not precisely crafted for localization. The difference in Turkish sentence structure means that the sentence fragment labels lose their meaning. I know what to expect, but as a Turkish speaker, I don’t have the same clarity that I have with the English UI.

To give you a better sense of what this copy means to a Turkish speaker, I used Google Translate to turn the Turkish rule conditions back into English:

A table showing the English, English to Turkish machine translations, and the Turkish to English machine translations

The translations are not clear enough. Localization-friendly content design could have a significant impact on preventing this.

Practical suggestions for writing localization-friendly copy

To mitigate these challenges and communicate effectively even across languages you don’t speak, I’d like to propose some simple suggestions that you can start doing tomorrow — or “tomorrowly startable,” as we’d say in Turkish!

Write as simply as possible 

Complex sentences, idiomatic expressions, and culturally specific references often lose their essence in translation. The key is to convey the message straightforwardly, avoiding ambiguity and complexity. 

In Figure 5, a confirmation button reads “Let’s do it.” The intention may be an encouraging tone, but the phrase may not translate accurately to a different language. A simple “Yes” supported by proper punctuation would be a more universal choice.

Side by side comparison of two dialogue boxes, each asking "Are you sure you want to proceed?" The first has an acceptance button labeled "Let's do it." The second has an acceptance button labeled "Yes."
Figure 5. Using simpler words and avoiding jargon in focused states helps users read and make decisions faster.

Use full sentences for context 

Incomplete sentences lack context, which can lead to mistranslations. For instance, the verbs at the end of Turkish sentences require translators to have the full sentence to capture the meaning accurately. This is vital even when the sentences are super short.

In Figure 6, English speakers might understand that the sentence fragment “Created on” is asking for a date input, but the phrase would not be compatible in a language structured differently. A full sentence such as “Create date” would be more localization-friendly.

Side by side comparison of a date-selection calendar interface. The first is labeled "Created on" and is annotated as "Sentence fragment." The second is labeled "Create date" and is annotated as "Complete prompt."
Figure 6. For a localization-friendly design, use complete prompts instead of sentence fragments.

Keep text and UI elements separate

When designing interfaces for global use, mixing text and interactive elements can lead to complications. If design elements depend on the grammatical construction of sentences, such as verb placement or subject-verb agreement, the design might not function as expected in different languages (Figure 7). Words might appear in the wrong places within sentences, which could affect the UI and ultimately confuse users.

Side by side comparison of two email rule interfaces. The first is a sentence that says "If email is marked received, then move it to Inbox," where "received" and "inbox" are interactive dropdown menus. The second has two prompts that say "Select condition" and "Select action," under which are two dropdown menus that say "Received emails" and "Move to inbox."
Figure 7. Embedding UI elements in text (left) creates sentence fragments, which disrupts localization. Using complete prompts (right) offers a more universally applicable solution.

Designing for inclusion with localization

Embracing a global perspective in design is not just about translating languages — it's about rethinking how our products communicate and interact with diverse audiences worldwide. Localization is about cultural relevance, accessibility, and creating connections across cultural boundaries.

Here are some practical steps to put these suggestions into action:

  • Add specific localization checks into your design crits, and seek feedback from users across different regions. 
  • Organize workshops to spread the knowledge within your organization. Consider establishing regular training sessions to keep your team updated on best practices.
  • Set up a team dedicated to enhancing localization efforts. Collaborate with local experts and linguists to ensure your content is culturally appropriate and resonant.

Each step you take towards better localization is a step towards more inclusive and effective communication. By committing to these principles, you help pave the way for a digital environment that is more accessible and native for users around the world.

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Tugba Turhan

With 15 years in the IT industry, Tugba Turhan has dedicated the last seven years to content design, strengthening her expertise in UX writing, technical documentation, and content strategy. Currently, as a Senior Content Designer at Atlassian, she is dedicated to enhancing IT processes through inclusive and meaningful content strategies. Tugba is also one of the co-founders of Content Design Turkiye.

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