5 localization horror stories that will keep you up at night

The localization and translation world can be full of scares that we would much rather do without. However, those moments of dread, sweat dripping down our foreheads, and heart racing happen often enough in a work environment that involves many people, languages, cultures, and audiences—something is always bound to go wrong. But, we can certainly learn from these chilling experiences. Here are some creepy, and highly relatable Localization Horror Stories from our LocTalk event that will keep you up at night.

1. Murder and mayhem from the notorious dotless i (၊)

By Marina Gracen-Farrell, freelance localization manager and consultant, previously holding the role for 10 years at Pearson

The dotless "i" that belongs to the Turkish alphabet caused utter chaos at one of my work places. It broke our entire platform, causing ripples of terror throughout the company. At first, the problem couldn’t be found. We looked everywhere, right down to the code, but eventually, we figured out the root of the problem: the seemingly innocent dotless "i".

And, the problems didn't end there. The dotless "i" also caused issues with cell phone technology in Türkiye. Most of us know that accents can change the meaning of a word completely. And taking into account the Turkish language, there’s one word in particular that when the "i" is dotted, it gets a completely different meaning, something so explicit we don’t have to mention what it is. So, when a message containing the incorrect translation of the word was sent to a person, they were enraged. Somehow, this all led to two people dead, and three in jail. Take this extreme story as a valuable lesson to always be careful when internationalizing your products!

2. Scary startup stories: flying a burning airplane

By Aleks Ignjatovic, Globalization Leader at Shopify

Shopify has known immense success globally, but its international beginnings didn’t start off as smoothly (to put it nicely). We started localizing our content around 2016, and the goal was to build brand awareness around key markets, knowing people were already using our products in English. It was very sudden when we received the decision to translate everything. And, the loc team wasn’t prepared. As professionals, we often share stories of success, when in reality, behind the curtain, it’s always a mess!

It started with the text being completely hardcoded, meaning embedded in the source code, which was a huge problem for externalizing the strings. We had to convince hundreds of developers to first, extract the code, and secondly, to stop the bleeding, meaning to stop creating new hard-coded texts (They hadn't yet read the Smartcat article about software localization best practices).

There were also parts of the UI that had to be completely redesigned. On the one hand, the company thought we just needed translations, but when the UI is built on sentences, this breaks in other languages.

It also took a lot of effort with our UX team to redo the design in a way that would better allow the localization of dates, times, and time zones, not to mention taxes, duties, shipping costs, currencies, and other things related to the eCommerce nature of our business. Addresses were particularly hard, because not every country formats theirs like in the US.

Next, picking a CMS was hard, as was onboarding an LSP while working with freelancers while we got the paperwork in order.

After six months of work, we launched our first six languages. Thankfully, we’ve matured a great deal since then and don’t work like this anymore. The lesson? Don’t build your plane and fly it at the same time.

3. The tale of the shifting font

By Marina Gracen-Farrell, freelance localization manager and consultant

Localization horror stories can also involve very details such as fonts. They are essential to certain languages and you can run into trouble when not respecting them. In this story, an administrative person was handling a legal document. It had been translated into Simplified Chinese in a Word document that didn't get exported as a PDF, meaning the texts were not “locked.” So, when this person sent it to the internal client, the latter opened it and their default font automatically swapped out the correct Chinese one, without them even realizing it. The Chinese text became completely illegible.

Thankfully, no litigation happened as a result, but the lesson to be learned here is: always ensure the quality of your texts is “locked” in, and perform a QA at all times, whether you’re confident or not.

4. If you have to "ghost", be a friendly one

By Giada Gerotto, Community Manager & Knowledge Manager at Creative Words

When thinking about what typical Halloween characters could relate to our industry, I thought of the ghost. You often hear about managers ghosting applicants, but the same thing can happen the other way around too. In some instances, you have an applicant that you want to start a project with, but they just disappear. You chase them and call them but to no avail. So, please, please, please, remember there are also other people on the other side. If you have found another job, if something has happened, just let us know. If you want to be a ghost, be like Casper, the friendly one!

5. Translations gone rogue

By Aleks Ignjatovic, Globalization Leader at Shopify

One morning, which otherwise seemed quite normal, I opened my computer while enjoying a cup of coffee and was greeted with horror news. To my astonishment, I saw that another team in the company launched an entirely new website in 20 new languages. The translation team had no clue that this was happening, and was completely horrified. Half of the site was still in English and there had been no QA. The content was user-generated and they used machine translation. It was then that I myself became very scared, and had to yell at a few people in a meeting. Slowly, the guilty team understood the problem and the entire thing had to be fixed asap because of the mediocre quality the users would encounter, not to mention the unprofessional image we were showing the outside world.

Bonus story: When a date goes wrong

By Martyna Selke, Localization Specialist and English to Polish Translator at AirHelp

This is a lesson that has to do with machine translation, and why proper post-editing is a must! On one occasion, the date on a Russian document had been incorrectly translated. Instead of being the meaning of the word in relation to day, month, and year, it was translated to its romantic version, which was, of course, very wrong. It was put through MT, and because our localization team hadn’t processed this word before, nor was it in our translation memory, we found out about it when a client pointed it out! *Cringe*

Do you have any more localization horror stories that you want to share? Let us know on LinkedIn!



Loie Favre
Loie Favre Loie is the Head of Content at Smartcat. With a strong background in localization, she aims to help companies fulfill their multilingual potential. In her free time, she cycles in Berlin.