Localization: turning the foreign into the familiar


Localization is rather complex altogether, and there are tons of notable examples scattered across the world of movies and TV that prove this, from the clever and interesting, to the crazy and absurd

Picture a beautiful summer holiday in an exotic place you have always dreamed of. Interesting monuments, endless beaches, great food, and a bag of unforgettable memories to bring home with you. But there’s something that every tourist experiences when abroad, and that’s the rather odd and surreal world of local TV. Even when subtitled, all the shows and movies (especially comedy ones) seem strangely out of place, even if we take into account that we are thousands of miles away from home and the culture that has shaped us.

It’s a full blown double whammy that makes foreign TV sometimes feel like it was made on another planet altogether: Cultural differences, and poor localization. While the former will always be a challenge of the world we live in, it can be aided with hours of research and a healthy network of contacts with deep knowledge of the language in question. The latter however, is the art of making a joke work in a completely different setting, with cultural backgrounds that can be light years apart. And it has to make people laugh! Phew.

So how do you make a joke about a Peugeot when they haven’t been sold in the US for decades? Well, there are a few workarounds, and that’s when localization takes precedence over translation. Here are a few pointers on how you can get your project up and running.

A word of warning

First and foremost, some cultures are sensitive to certain things, and respect should be a priority over everything else. A good translator will almost always find a way to get the point across within certain boundaries, but sometimes the elements that make a show work cross too many red lines in a foreign country to be viable. A good previous investment into research can save a lot of time and money in the long run.

Turn the foreign into the familiar

Here’s where a talented voice actor will be able to pull his audience straight into the show and make them feel at home. Local well-known celebrities and popular voice actors can prove to be a great anchor point to hook reluctant audiences who don’t want to stray too far away from their comfort zones. Using voice actors that are familiar with a show’s genre and target audience will undoubtedly yield even better results.

Use well-known cultural references of the target country

We all know about Garfield the cat and his love of lasagna, but what happens when the show needs to be translated to a country where lasagna is a fringe dish that almost nobody eats? That’s exactly what happened when localizing Garfield for Lithuanian audiences. They had to switch his delicious go-to comfort food for a far more popular potato dish named “Kugelis”. Although it looked similar on screen, and certainly must have tasted great, poor Garfield was ultimately bereft of his signature food, even if it was for a noble goal.

An image can be better than a thousand words

One of the biggest elephants in the room: Changing on-screen text. While it seems immensely complicated from a production standpoint (imagine reworking all the text scenes in dozens of different languages), there’s a rather simple solution that can kill all the birds in the sky with one shot. Swapping a certain text with an image that represents it, will make it work for all audiences across the globe for a fraction of the cost. Granted, sometimes it’s not the most elegant of solutions, and in some specific cases it simply cannot be done because of the length of the text, but nevertheless it’s worth a shot.

And that’s only the tip of the iceberg

Localization is rather complex altogether, and there are tons of notable examples scattered across the world of movies and TV that prove this, from the clever and interesting, to the crazy and absurd, and we’d love to address some of them in a future post. Stay tuned!

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