Intralingual problems: A look at localisation

Today’s post takes a brief look at a sub-section within a sub-section of translation: an interesting phenomenon within the world of localisation. And while I don’t really specialise in localisation myself, I have some experience of the process and find it a fascinating area.

So what is localisation (or ‘l10n’ for the Twitter-savvy readers out there)? Personally, I regard it as something of a sub-section of translation but there is a certain level of cross-over between the two areas and it can be difficult to separate them. This is particularly true when the concept of adaptation is thrown into the equation, but there are certain key aspects that allow localisation to create its own identity.

While translation proper is often regarded primarily as a linguistic activity, localisation focuses intensely on the cultural side of meaning transfer. One succinct definition of localisation describes it as ‘the process of adapting a product or service to a particular language, culture, and desired local look-and-feel’.

The process demands in-depth knowledge of the target culture and extends to non-textual components when attempting to assure easy assimilation in the desired market. This level of cultural knowledge is perhaps something that every translator should incorporate into their work but its importance is not universally appreciated and non-textual factors ensure that its application does not extend as far as in localisation.

For instance, while elements such as the correct representation of dates, currencies or units of measurement should perhaps be automatically considered part of translation itself, the adaptation of certain colours or altering the physical representation of a product to adhere to local sensitivities are tasks that are usually beyond the scope of translation and fall specifically under the umbrella of localisation.

Ultimately, a successfully localised service or product is one that appears to have been developed within the local culture, masking all evidence of translation.

One element that I find particularly interesting, however, and the area that this post will focus upon from here on, is the interesting manner in which localisation can enforce changes within the same language. On a linguistic level alone, I am often asked to work into US and UK English and sensitivity to the changes required between the two can be surprisingly deep – it goes well beyond simply replacing ‘-ise’ with ‘-ize’.

An example that perfectly demonstrates the linguistic and cultural difficulties involved in such a process is the adaptation of the hit UK TV series The Office to American screens. The pilot of the US version of the show (here) was adapted from the script of the first episode of the British version (here) and a comparison between the two makes for interesting viewing in this context.

While adaptation can be considered another distinct area of translation (though certainly not without adding further blurred boundaries), the striking similarity between the two versions – in certain sections in particular – places this example firmly in localisation territory. Indeed, upon airing, the episode was criticised for simply being a direct copy of the original and most of the differentiation is due to the shorter running time of the US version – itself form of localisation as the writer is forced to conform to the conventional length of shows on US television.

Furthermore, the added admission that the producers’ intention was to simply ‘Americanize’ the show in the pilot speaks volumes about the treatment it received. (For a good example of the similarity between the two, watch 5:08 to 5:20 on the UK episode alongside 3:00 to 3:25 in the US version – the scene is nearly identical)

When viewed in parallel, the first few minutes alone demonstrate the difficulty involved in attempting to prepare a text (or a TV show in this case) for another culture even within the same language. Beyond small details like replacing ‘head office’ with ‘corporate’, which requires a level of linguistic-based cultural knowledge, there are deeper, more subtle changes being made.

The first thing to strike you is perhaps the use of different names in the US version which represent an attempt at allowing the characters to resonate with the new audience’s expectations. Problems arise, however, when a joke based around a character’s name is encountered in the original version. The UK pun on receptionist Dawn’s name (‘Every bloke in the office has woken up at the crack of Dawn’ 2:14) wouldn’t work with the US equivalent Pam and as such the joke is replaced with a toned down allusion to her attractiveness and a play on words based around her name that mimics the character Bam Bam from popular cartoon The Flintstones.

Next, a temporal aspect comes to the fore in demonstrating how topical references can date quickly and cause problems for the writer. This aspect is exaggerated here as the four-year gap between the two programmes represents a much longer period than most products will encounter before undergoing localisation.

However, this void is cleverly used to the advantage of the US version in their treatment of the ‘Wasssup!’ joke (3:31 US version) – coming from this Budweiser advert – which was an up-to-date reference in the UK version but vastly outdated in the US pilot. Instead of simply leaving the gag untouched and appearing to be behind the times, the US writers highlighted its outdated nature and used the joke as a tool to demonstrate how out of touch lead character Michael is.

One final example that demonstrates the amount of cultural juggling involved in such a process occurs at 6:40 in the UK version. Here, a head office character enters and boss David claims to have given her the nickname ‘Camilla Parker Bowles’, conjuring up a strong image for UK viewers. Meanwhile in the US version, corporate figure Jan is nicknamed ‘Hillary Rodham Clinton’ – an apparently similarly powerful woman at the time in the US and a reference that is considered to match the impact of the UK image. Whether or not this cultural substitution succeeds is up for debate but it is impossible to deny that the reference fits perfectly in its new setting.

As you can imagine, comparisons between the two could go on and on at some length and this exploration has barely scratched the surface of what is on offer. Further interesting cultural references in the US version include American sketch show Laugh-In and The Six Million Dollar Man but hopefully I have given enough to provide a little insight into the process and inspired you to watch the rest of the episodes and play a little game of linguistico-cultural spot the difference yourself. Enjoy!


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