Image localization is a crucial aspect of the localization process that is frequently underestimated and can be challenging to understand fully. When localizing a website, an app, or a brochure, we must always consider how different cultures perceive images, symbols, gestures, and facial expressions, coming to varying interpretations of what the image is showing.
Image localization principles
Many cultural differences can affect multiple localization of an image. Here are the six most relevant localization principles we follow at MediaLocate.
- Localize Visual Representations and Symbols
- Avoid Cultural Taboos and Respect Sensitivities
- Be Aware of Cultural Stereotypes and Misrepresentations
- Acknowledge the Implications of Text Direction
- Understand Cultural Contexts and Nuances
- Double Check Images with Local Experts
Now, let’s examine each principle individually with some examples.
1. Localize Visual Representations and Symbolism
Different cultures have varying interpretations of visual representations and symbolism. Certain gestures, body language, colors, and facial expressions have different meanings across cultures. Localization must take into account these differences.
Many Western cultures interpret the thumbs-up gesture as a sign of approval or agreement (image 1). However, this gesture may have different meanings in other parts of the world and can be considered rude or offensive. For instance, in the Philippines, a thumbs-up gesture can express arrogance or be used to make fun of someone. Therefore, it’s important to use caution when using this gesture in Filipino culture. Instead, we should use the Filipino “okay” sign, which involves forming a circle with the index finger and thumb (image 2). In Filipino culture, this gesture is commonly used to express agreement or affirmation and to indicate that something is “okay” or “good.”
2. Avoid Cultural Taboos and Respect Sensitivities
We must avoid images considered offensive or culturally insensitive in the target audience’s culture. This could include religious symbols, political imagery, or depictions considered taboo or disrespectful. Understanding local customs and traditions is essential to avoid localizations that can offend the target audience.
For example, in the US, the “devil’s horns” hand gesture, with the index and pinky fingers extended upwards, is often used as a sign of rock music or to show support for a sports team. However, it can be disrespectful in some cultures, such as Italy. Italians frequently use the same gesture on the road to signal in a very explicit and rude way that they are unhappy with somebody misbehaving or not respecting a right of way.
3. Be Aware of Cultural Stereotypes and Misrepresentations
It is essential to avoid promoting negative stereotypes or presenting an inaccurate portrayal of a culture. We should ensure that any images we use truly reflect the different aspects of the culture and not rely on outdated or clichéd representations. Seeking guidance from cultural experts or collaborating with locals can help us ensure sensitivity and accuracy in our localization process.
An image that is often used to represent a typical inhabitant of Mexico is a classic example of how old stereotypes can be misleading. The first image depicts Mexicans based on outdated and inaccurate notions, while a more realistic image of a modern Mexican looks almost identical to an American. Even if the image is not intended to offend the target culture, it can still convey a message that is very different from what we intended to share.
4. Acknowledge the Implications of Text Direction
Language and text appear within images, as language direction and layout preferences vary across cultures. As mentioned above, in some languages, text is read from right to left, which could affect an image’s overall composition and interpretation even if it doesn’t contain any text. In localization, we should first ensure that text and imagery complement each other, support the intended message, and that the image conveys the original message.
It’s interesting to note that the way we perceive a simple picture of a runner can vary based on our cultural background. For instance, people from Western cultures who read and write from left to right will interpret the same image differently from those who write and read from right to left, like Arabic and Hebrew cultures.
If someone from a left-to-right writing culture looks at Image 1, they will see a runner starting a run, perhaps after leaving their house or the starting line. However, if the same person looks at Image 2, they will see a runner returning after a run or at the end of a race. On the other hand, if we show the same pictures to someone from a right-to-left writing culture, their perception will be reversed. For them, Image 1 represents the end of a run, while Image 2 shows the beginning of a run.
5. Understand Cultural Contexts and Nuances
We all interpret and understand images within the context of a specific culture and its values. When localizing an image, we should consider the target audience’s social norms, traditions, and everyday life settings. Using images that reflect and respect the local culture and resonate with the target audience will enhance our localization efforts.
Western cultures typically associate red with love, passion, and danger, as shown in image 1. These cultures also use red widely for Valentine’s Day, wedding dresses, and sports uniforms. However, occasionally it can be linked to anger, aggression, and danger. Red color is also commonly used in warning signs and traffic lights.
On the other hand, in China (as depicted in image 2), red is a lucky color often used in celebrations and ceremonies. It is also a symbol of prosperity and happiness. During the Chinese New Year, hanging red lanterns and giving children red envelopes filled with gifts is a tradition. Understanding and appreciating these cultural differences is important to localize messages and images effectively. This helps to adapt the original message to the target audience while preserving its intended meaning.
6. Double Check Images with Local Experts
To ensure that our images are culturally sensitive and appropriate, involving local experts, cultural consultants, or community members is important during the localization process. These experts can provide valuable insights into the target culture, help identify any potential issues, and assess the appropriateness of the images. By following their guidance, we can avoid cultural missteps and create localized content that is respectful and accurate.
A company that sells hot tubs was looking to expand its advertising to the Asian market. However, the visuals used in their American advertising campaigns were not deemed appropriate for certain Asian countries. After receiving feedback from local members and community experts, the company chose a softer and more personal image. They abandoned the explicit references used in the American campaign. This choice not only made the campaign more respectful of local cultural sensitivity but also made it more effective.
The six general principles of image localization outlined in this article underscore the importance of cultural sensitivity and accuracy in visual communications. Understanding and respecting cultural nuances, avoiding stereotypes, and engaging with local experts can create localized images that resonate with the target audience and, while faithfully representing their culture, convey the original message that is the object of the localization process. The examples proposed in this article highlight how gestures, colors, and symbols can have vastly different meanings across cultures, emphasizing the need for careful consideration and expert input in the localization process. Whether adapting imagery for a global marketing campaign or ensuring cultural appropriateness in educational materials, these principles guide navigating the complexities of cross-cultural visual communication.
Ultimately, successful image localization while carrying the original message across different cultures can also enhance mutual understanding and respect, bridging cultural divides and enriching global interactions.