The Importance of Cultural Sensitivity in Localisation

Sep 4, 2023 | Language, Localisation, Translation

Cultural Sensitivity in Localisation

As the world continues to become more interconnected and interdependent than ever, businesses and organisations are increasingly expanding their horizons across borders, requiring localisation efforts to adapt their products or services for different markets. However, one crucial aspect that often goes overlooked in the localisation process is cultural sensitivity, which refers to the awareness and understanding of cultural differences, norms, values and traditions in a particular locale or region. Woman doing translation work on her laptopCultural sensitivity is paramount when localisation takes place as it plays a significant role in shaping consumer behaviour and preferences. What may be acceptable and appealing in one culture may be different in another, and we must consider these nuances to ensure that our target market has a good perception of our products or services. Taking cultural sensitivity into account demonstrates respect for the local culture, building trust and positive rapport with the audience in the target market, which can lead to higher acceptance and adoption of the localised product or service. In this article, we will explore what cultural sensitivity means and why it matters in localisation for today’s multicultural society, as well as best practices for cultural awareness in various stages of localisation.

Understanding What Cultural Sensitivity Is and Why It Matters

In the simplest terms, cultural sensitivity refers to one’s awareness and appreciation of cultural, ethnic, and racial values, norms, and beliefs characteristics that are different from their own culture. It also involves their willingness to adapt their behaviour to such differences accordingly. Recognising cultural differences and practices and understanding their impact on localisation efforts are crucial for every business to ensure that products or services are effectively adapted to their customers in different markets. Cultural difference encompasses various aspects, such as language, customs, traditions, values, and social norms, which shape the behaviour and preferences of the local audience.

Key Considerations

One of the key considerations in localisation is language. Beyond translation, it is vital to understand the nuances of the target language, including dialects, idioms, and cultural references, to ensure accurate communication and avoid misinterpretation. Different cultures also have distinct values and beliefs that impact consumer behaviour and preferences. For instance, attitudes towards individualism, collectivism, hierarchy, gender roles, and time orientation can vary significantly across cultures and should be considered when adapting a product or service to a local market. Furthermore, you must carefully consider local customs, social etiquette, religious practices, and holiday celebrations since they can significantly impact how customers perceive a product or service. For example, one may think the phrases “Happy Lunar New Year” and “Happy Chinese New Year” can be used interchangeably; however, Lunar New Year is not only celebrated by Chinese communities but also by many other cultures in Asia, such as in Vietnam, South Korea, and Japan. Hence, using “Lunar” instead of “Chinese” show respect for a diverse group of cultural beliefs. Person writing down notesIt’s worth noting that cultural missteps can have serious consequences, ranging from offence and backlash from the local audience to damaging a brand’s reputation and even legal issues. Thus, it requires thorough research, understanding, and sensitivity towards the local culture to ensure that the localised content is authentic, respectful, and appealing to the target audience, ultimately leading to successful localisation outcomes.

How Cultural Sensitivity Can Become a Challenge

Cultural competence is not a skill that can be developed and mastered within a matter of days. It takes knowledge and willingness to recognise and embrace intercultural sensitivity, especially from one’s perspective of dominant culture towards minority groups. A few challenges may arise if a business expands its reach to other countries and locales.
  • Language barriers and translation challenges: As mentioned earlier, localisation involves more than just a literal translation from one language to another. We must consider and be aware of dialects, idioms, and cultural references as they can pose challenges in accurately conveying the intended message in the target language.
  • Navigating complex cultural nuances and sensitivities: It can be challenging for outsiders to understand the local traditions, values, and social norms of other cultures. This requires careful consideration to avoid cultural insensitivity or offence.
  • Balancing between standardisation and customisation: Striking the right balance between standardisation for consistency and customisation for local relevance can be difficult, as over-adapting or under-adapting content can both have negative impacts.
  • Addressing diverse cultural landscapes in different regions: Each region may have its unique cultural landscape, and addressing these diversities requires thorough research and localisation strategies tailored to each specific area to ensure cultural appropriateness.

Woman checking out translations in a dictionaryHow to Ensure Cultural Sensitivity in Localisation

Localisation should be deemed an integral part of any global expansion strategy. Cultural differences, traditions and norms should be extensively studied, understood, and interpreted to develop cultural sensitivity in localisation. Here are some best practices to create and maintain cultural competence at every stage of the localisation process.
  1. Thorough cultural research: Researching and understanding the customs, language, and etiquette of the target culture enables you to carry out accurate localisation. The easiest, practical step you can take is to immerse yourself in the target group’s social media and online communities to gain insights from discussions, forums and interactions among native speakers or individuals from the target culture.
  2. Collaborating with local experts and stakeholders: Working with native speakers, cultural consultants, and stakeholders helps better understand perspectives on the target culture. They can provide first-hand insights, answer questions, give guidance on particular issues, and even spot mishaps that others may fail to notice.
  3. Testing and validating localised content with target audiences: It’s always a good idea to pilot localised content with a group of your target audience. Not only does their feedback help ensure cultural sensitivity and appropriateness but they can also tell if the content achieves its intended purpose and resonates with local culture.
  4. Adapting visual elements, symbols, and colours appropriately: These elements denote different meanings and vary across countries. While you might commonly use a thumps-up emoji as a sign of approval, agreement, or positivity in many Western cultures, it carries pejorative meaning in many Middle Eastern countries.
  5. Being open to feedback and making necessary adjustments: It is even more important to adjust accordingly once you get feedback. Remember that you shouldn’t turn a blind eye to concerns about cultural sensitivity because they may involve cultural misinterpretations and exclusion towards minority groups.
  6. Working with professional localisation experts: Localisation requires expertise in the subject matter, original context, and target audience. Professional translators possess this understanding and can factor it in during the process. However, not all translators are equal, so you must choose the right expert to provide accurate and culturally sensitive translation and adaptation of content.

Final Thoughts

Man working on his laptopWe cannot stress enough how localisation goes beyond just a translation from one language to another. It requires strenuous effort to first be aware of and then understand different cultural practices rather than one’s own culture. As for any business attempting to penetrate a new market, ensuring cultural sensitivity throughout every stage of the localisation process is a must to communicate effectively with audiences in different cultures and countries. While there are actionable steps you can take yourself, working with localisation professionals further ensures cultural competence and appropriateness across your content that truly resonates and connects with what your audience values. At MLC, we help businesses and brands speak to their international audience in the local dialect of the target culture. We are an accredited translation agency specialising in expert language services for different industries, from medical and life science to manufacturing, transportation, and technology. Let’s discuss your translation project today.
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