When Does Localization Become Discrimination?

Chinese IT translation services


Recently, Microsoft published an ad in Poland which showed this picture (left) of three people in a conference room. After publishing the ad, someone in the ad agency’s global network suggested they change the photo and replace the black man with a white man to make the ad more appropriate for the Polish market. They wanted to make the images of the people more relevant in Polan. So that’s just what they did. After the Photoshop magic was completed and the ad was republished, there emerged a swarm of negative blogging about this action and Microsoft’s “discrimination” in swapping out the black man for the white man.


“We are looking into the details of this situation,” Microsoft spokesperson Lou Gellos said in a statement on Tuesday September 1st. “We apologize and are in the process of pulling down the image.”


Localization is about adapting products and information so it conforms to a different cultural and linguistic format. It’s about saying the same thing, but in other words. And sometimes it’s about changing colors and images so that the message speaks through the culture, both linguistically and visually.


So what went wrong with Microsoft’s Polish web site ad? What’s wrong with this picture? Ad agencies make choices in ads (based on customer bias) all the time, and for each market segment. They choose models in photos based on skin color, hair color, body type, sex appeal, age and so on. So why is this ad any different?


It’s not. But like with any picture, it’s like a Rorschach test where people see what they want to see. Some see happy employees in a conference room looking at presentation or conducting a videoconference. Because this image was changed, some now see bias and discrimination. Advertising design and copywriting takes place in the context of specific target audiences, because good advertisers will predict how images will be perceived by their target markets. Advertising has always been about creating a sense of likeness or relatedness with its target audience through words and images. And that’s something that localization shares with Advertising; adapting the message to fit in its new cultural context.


I didn’t find any research that shows how many dark skinned people live in Poland, but I would guess, given what I know about recent human migrations over the past 60,000 years out of Africa, that there aren’t as many dark skinned people in Poland as there are living in the U.S. This is probably the reason why the photo was changed on the Polish version of Microsoft’s web site – to relate better to the majority of the population there. Reading the English language blogs (!) from people who are complaining about Microsoft’s gaffe, it smells suspiciously like these were Americans who projected their own discontent on racial bias, given the on-going narrative in the U.S. about this issue.


What did Microsoft really do wrong? They changed the image after publishing it.


If this Photoshop change took place prior to publishing, this ad would likely become just another middle-of-the-road advertisement by a global company trying to localize its message to their local markets. And nobody would take notice. It only became the subject of the blogosphere because Microsoft was caught “localizing”. So they felt embarrassed and apologized.


So when does Localization become discrimination? When you’re caught localizing.


Chinese aviation translation services


Consider a translation. If a translation reads as though it was a translation, then it’s not a very good one, is it? Unfortunately, you’ve failed as a translator. However, if a translation reads like something that was written in the language you’re reading it in, then, all at once, it ceases to be a translation and becomes a text, written in a certain language. No one can tell. Consider for example what would happen if you read a headline on the English version of the Lufthansa Airlines web site, and then soon after, the headline was dramatically changed. Wouldn’t you immediately become suspicious that you were reading an English translation of the German web site instead of information that related to you? Wouldn’t this knowledge instantly cast doubt on the validity of the information you were reading and also make you feel as though you are not their core-customer? From looking at Lufthansa’s US English version, it looks well localized into English, with the exception that the dollar amount $1121 is missing a comma separator as American’s typically place after the thousand number. But this fact alone can cue me up to the fact that Lufthansa is a German based company, trying to sell globally, which may not be as appealing to an American, who wishes to fly American.


So that’s why it’s very important to work with a translation company that knows how to hire the right translation talent, employ the right Q&A process and work with the right technology. We welcome your comments.