How to Develop eLearning that is Easy to Translate

Last Updated February 4, 2014

Here’s a little background story on why it’s important to develop eLearning for translation: In the last year I’ve worked on several corporate eLearning projects that involved translation into different languages. The majority of these trainings were developed in Articulate or Captivate, some with iStudio. We haven’t turned down any projects, even the ones that seemed impossible, like localizing 15 hours of training into Arabic with Articulate Presenter 09 – software that doesn’t really support Arabic. With tricks, workarounds, and a little magic, we made it happen. But oh boy, how many times did we wish that a trainer had asked their client one simple question before they had started working on the English version:

“Are you ever planning to translate your training into any foreign languages?”

Next time you’re developing eLearning for a client, start with the most simple question, and ask if localization is in their plans.  If the answer is yes, go through the 10 steps listed below when working on your project. And don’t be shy to outline them in your delivery. It will only show that you think ahead and have extensive experience.

Develop eLearning for Translation: 10 Steps

  1. Determine which languages the client may consider translating the training into. Then check if the language that your client chose is supported by the platform you selected. And don’t be fooled when you find on the software website that it does. Look for forums and discussions to learn if there are any limitations. Pay extra attention to languages such as Arabic and Hebrew as these two are extra complicated.
  2. Can the content be localized? It’s not only about the translation of words, but also about messages and information that in some countries may not be that relevant. For example, we recently worked on localizing training for a global law enforcement agency. Parts of the training talked about different criminal procedures used during investigations.  When we started working on the 5th language, Chinese, we learned that legal procedures in China are quite different and so changes to the main content were necessary, which delayed the entire project. If the instructional designer had known about possible regional differences, they could have taken these differences under consideration during content development and saved the client (and us) tons of trouble.  Writing for a global audience is not always possible, especially with highly specialized content (e.g. for the food industry) and sometimes rewriting the training for a particular region is necessary, but it’s always better to identify the situation ahead of time.
  3. Test your training over and over to make sure it’s 100% free of errors. Don’t do it yourself either because if you’ve worked on a project for 3 months straight you won’t catch every mistake. You’ll be better off if you hire an independent reviewer. Simple math will explain why this is so important: If it costs you $20 to fix a single issue in English and you have 10 of them, the total cost is $200. If you localize to 10 languages and the problems are still there, the cost of fixing them goes up to $2000.  The possible problems that I have in mind:
    • Functionality.
    • Inconsistency in punctuation and formatting. Do your headers have periods? Do bullet points have consistent punctuation?
    • Inconsistency in terms and names that are being used.
  4. Be careful with images. Is your training full of images of people? Will it be mainly used in Asia? Then you may want to use more images that portray Asians. On the other hand, if the training will be localized to 10 languages, it’s better to avoid images with people altogether, or one day someone will need to do lots of updates to replace them all.
  5. Avoid images with embedded text. As a designer you know how much time it takes to redesign images. In a perfect world, every single line of text on an image should be translated during the localization process. But that doesn’t always happen. You can save hours of work by keeping the text out of the image to develop elearning for translation in 10 easy steps
  6. Leave lots of white space. Translated text expands on average by 20%. If your English text is squeezed on each slide, then there may not be enough room for translated text – at the very least, it won’t look pretty.  Remember the big switch to minimalism that happened with Web 2.0? Apply the same principle to your slides. The less text on a slide at the same time, the better.
  7. Don’t split sentences between separate text boxes. At times developers try to be a little funky with the design of their powerpoint slides. They split sentences between different text boxes and then assign different animations for each. While this may add more interactivity to the training, it will open Pandora’s box in terms of localization. Firstly, because the sentence syntax may be different in foreign languages. Secondly, typically translators don’t translate the power point slides directly, but instead receive the exported text. In that case the only thing they’ll see is a set of disconnected words that don’t make any sense.
  8. Keep important facts on screen and not in the audio – updates to training are not uncommon, but if they happen every year and are for the same item it’s costly and not fun.  If you only need to do it only once and in English, then it may not be a big deal. But just imagine when you need to update training in 10 languages! The studio/voice-over, engineering, localization, and testing costs – these all add up and cost the client thousands of dollars for updates that could have been avoided. For example, don’t include the prices in the voice-over script, instead have the voice talent refer to them, and display them on the screen. This really applies to any kind of numbers that may change sometime in the future. An organization may have 150 members today, but how many will it have in a month?
  9. Be gentle with animations. While animations add some interaction they can be quite a challenge when it’s time for translation. Here are some tips:
    • Do not animate single letters. We’ve seen that before and it is SO time consuming to replicate that in foreign languages that it’s not worth the benefit it gives.
    • Try to avoid animations based on specific words, especially when they are verbs. Why? Because while the verb is in the second place in the English sentence, in other languages, such as German, it’s at the end. That means we may need to redesign these elements in the training which will take plenty of extra time.
    • Base animation timing on input or clicks by the user, not on the duration of sentences in the English voice-over. Spoken language varies in length and the timing that works in English is not going to work in Spanish.
  10. Videos. When you use videos in the training keep in mind that they will also need to be localized and the costs are high when you add them up over many different videos. Adding foreign subtitles may be the cheaper alternative to foreign voice-over.

Knowing a few basic details about localization when you’re working on eLearning projects can save big bucks and a lot of unnecessary extra time.  And sharing some localization knowledge with your clients will only put you a step ahead of many other instructional designers.

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