How you translate visuals the right way

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You want to expand your business beyond national borders? Make your visuals fit for the world by learning the key elements of translation for international markets. 

Translating and localizing content was part of both my Master’s degree elective Corporate Content Management with Deane Barker and Rahel Bailie’s lecture on Developing content for complex digital environments.

The goal is to create content that is global-ready, which means it can be translated with minimal human intervention.

What is globalization? 

Globalization includes all the processes of a company to expand its business to the rest of the world. (Lionbridge)

There are three main things you consider when translating content. All fall under globalization of content: 

  • Internationalization: making a software system able to manage multiple languages
  • Translation: transferring words from one language into another
  • Localization: making software or content accessible to people of a particular locale and culture

Adapt content to location

Localisation is adapting a product or content to a specific territory or market. The localisation process depends on the country and culture. When translating, always remember to convey cultural context, intent, style, and tone. This is called transcreation. The translated text should arouse the same emotions and implications as the text in the source language. (Al Tamehi,

The goal is to have coherent, relevant, and effective content that is culturally appropriate to the local language of your foreign target market. A 1:1 translation is a bad idea in most cases. A fast food chain looking to expand in the Chinese market learned this the hard way, as they took their slogan „finger-lickin‘ good“ and translated it directly to „eat your fingers.“ (Merve Aslan, Weglot)

Keep in mind that languages have different text lengths. English and Chinese are very compact languages. When translated into other languages, the text usually becomes much longer. (Richard Ishida, W3C) In English, “My car’s engine won’t start.” requires five short words, while the German version “Der Motor meines Autos springt nicht an.” requires two more words. If content is translated into multiple languages, the user interface needs to include enough space for the text in all languages. (Lionbridge)

Visuals: Re-use instead of re-create

Re-creating a graphic to translate it into several languages takes time and money. Kelly Mullins shares tips on Techsmith that help us with this:

  • Leave out anything unnecessary, including descriptions. Instead, use numbers and write the legend underneath. This way you can easily translate the text along with the rest and don’t have to recreate the whole graphic.  


1. Step 1: Think about becoming a superhero
2. Step 2: Become a superhero


1. Schritt 1: Denke darüber nach, Superheld:in zu werden
2. Schritt 2: Werde ein/e Superheld:in
  • Simplify images. Highlight what’s important by making it larger (for example, buttons, a sign, or a widget). Blur out unimportant things or leave them out altogether. 
Keeping visuals simple makes translation easier and saves money. Source: Gus Ruballo / Unsplash

Be aware of cultural sensitivities with images like showing hand symbols, gestures, or body parts. (Kelly Mullins, Techsmith)

Create global-ready content

Make the translation process as smooth as possible by creating content that is ready to be translated using controlled natural language. It is a predefined dictionary that is part of your style guide consisting of acceptable words and terms, e.g. wood and not piece of a tree. The key to natural language is to reduce complexity by using the simplest term possible.

Consider the following things to create global-ready content: 

  • Define new or ambiguous terms
  • Support user behavior by using standard publishing conventions 
  • Put links at the end, not in-line 
  • Avoid jargon, idiom, and other culturally-specific terms
  • Keep sentences as short as possible 

Read more about writing for global readiness on Techwhirl by Val Swisher. 

Make content accessible for everybody

Accessibility makes it possible for people to consume content, who use adaptive technology such as screen readers. Meeting certain accessibility guidelines is the law in many countries. But it also demonstrates that you as a business care for your customers. 

Accessibility issues are handled in the Web CMS and front end by developers. But also by the authors, who create captions, subtitles, dubbing, and audio descriptions of audio and video.

“You can’t stop being deaf or blind, and you cannot suddenly start to understand a foreign language.”

Joe Clark, writer and author


Consider internationalization, translation, localization, and accessibility to expand your content beyond borders. Make visuals simple by leaving out unnecessary things and using images without descriptions. Instead, put the text underneath so that it can be translated more easily with the rest of the content. 

Create content using controlled natural language to improve quality and consistency. It also makes content ready to be translated into different languages with minimal human intervention. Always consider transcreation, where you transfer the cultural context, intent, style, and tone of content. Accessibility of web applications ensures that your content is perceptible for everyone.

After reading this article, what do you think of the „Look Right“ sign on the cover image? Do you think using text in English was the best option to remind pedestrians to look out for cars – would you do it differently?

Image: Sebastiaan Stam / Unsplash

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How you translate visuals the right way