Watch Out. Take Care: The Pitfalls of Festive Localization


In any translation, accuracy and completeness are key. No matter what type of text you’re working on, you need to use the correct target-language terms and avoid omitting any vital information. But this rarely, if ever, means translating word for word. Quite apart from the grammatical and syntactical errors this approach would generate, words almost always need to be seen in context, not in isolation.

The Translation Spectrum: from (Fairly) Literal to (Highly) Creative

That being said, there are some types of text, like technical manuals and spec sheets, that require more literal translation while others, like marketing copy, call for considerably more creativity. In fact, marketing and advertising documents generally involve more than straightforward translation into the target language and have to be localized in line with the target culture. As a result, the target text may differ significantly from the source in terms of wording and even key concepts.

So, what exactly does localization entail? Explaining this can be tricky. But our seasonal example should give even non-linguists an idea of how literal translation – no matter how grammatically and idiomatically correct – can fall wide of the mark if there are relevant differences between the source and target cultures.

To Translate or to Localize? That is the Question

Let’s imagine you’ve been asked to render the following sentence in German: “What did Santa bring you?” No problem: “Was hat dir der Weihnachtsmann gebracht?” Job done? Well, that depends.

The translation certainly isn’t wrong: It’s grammatically correct, seems to convey the sense of the English, and will be easily understood by German speakers. But whether the German sentence is fit for purpose depends entirely on the context in which it appears.

Sorry, Santa Claus Isn’t Coming to This Town

Let’s say our sentence is taken from a U.S. commercial that an international client wants to localize for the German market. In the original, an American parent is talking to their child; in the localized commercial, both characters are German. (Note: We’re not talking about subtitling or dubbing the original here. Our client wants a complete reshoot for the German-speaking market.)

Now our translation is starting to look problematic. It’s not that Germans don’t know who Santa is – as is clear from the many Father Christmases dangling from balconies or thronging the confectionary shelves of supermarkets. The issue is that Santa doesn’t bring German kids presents. And that’s not because those kids are worse behaved than their peers in the United States.

No Fireplace Required

In Germany and other central European countries, the person who makes kids’ faces light up at Christmas time isn’t Santa but the Christkind (or Christkindl). Unlike Santa Claus, this bringer of gifts is not an elderly gentleman, but rather a cherubic child. And he delivers his presents not on December 25 but on Christmas Eve – and not via the chimney.

With this in mind, it’s time to go revisit our translation and get it more in tune with the German cultural context. Fortunately, in this example, we only need to replace one word. Our sentence now becomes: “Was hat dir das Christkind gebracht?” And we’re good to go.

Same Procedure as Last Year?

Admittedly, this is a very basic (and deliberately loaded) example, but it gives you some idea of how challenging localization can be, especially where the central concepts of the source are unfamiliar in the target culture.

Imagine, for example, that you’ve been asked to localize a German commercial based on “Dinner for One” for an English-speaking audience. This 1960s English vaudeville sketch has been broadcast on German TV every New Year’s Eve for decades and has become something of an annual tradition. However, to the amazement of many Germans, it’s virtually unknown in the UK. And if you’re wondering what “Same procedure as last year?” means above, you’ve just proved our point.

In this case, you’d better get ready for some interesting discussions with your client. Depending on their outcome, the final product might be very far removed from the German original. So far removed, in fact, that it is transcreation. But that’s a topic that would need a blog to itself.

Bonus Round

If you’re up for a Christmas localization challenge, how would you translate the following into English: “Was hat dir der Nikolaus gebracht?”

Clue: Ask yourself why all those chocolate “Santas” we mentioned above disappear from German supermarket shelves around December 6.


Season's Greetings

The team at Lexsys would like to wish all our customers, partners, and visitors to this website a peaceful – and safe – holiday season. We’ll be taking a break from blogging for a few weeks and will publish our first post of 2021 toward the end of January. Until then, we wish you all the very best. See you next year.


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Stephen Healy


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