Putting 'Culturalization' on the Localization Map

Putting 'Culturalization' on the Localization Map
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September 27, 2017
Renato and Michael with Kate Edwards
Cultural differences in geographical names usually aren't a top-of-mind priority for translators and localization professionals. But using incorrect place names can be serious cultural and political hot buttons—and even worse, the loss of your client's trust. Find out how to avoid offending key target audiences when the assignment calls for localizing maps.
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Speaker Transcript
Michael I’m Michael Stevens.
Renato I’m Renato Beninatto.
Michael And Renato today on Globally Speaking we’re looking at maps.
Renato I love maps.
Michael Me too, in my kitchen I have nautical maps of the Seattle surrounding area, the islands, all of this with the depth charts, and on a regular basis; I end up just like checking out the oddest things. What’s the water depth in the Puget Sound, in parts of the Puget Sound.
Renato When I was a kid my father gave me a geographic encyclopedia. It was five volumes with a couple of pages for each country. I knew that book by heart. You don’t know how terrible it is for a person like me when a new country is created or two countries merge because that messes up all my knowledge about flags and capital cities and things like that.
Michael You’re going through and memorizing it all over again, and the nuances, and the changes.
Renato But our conversation today is fascinating.
Michael It is, and it really shows the significance of these factors, whether it’s geographic, political, socio, any of those, and how they affect the localization industry.
Renato Well, let’s hear it from our guest.
Kate My name is Kate Edwards, and I’m a geographer and a cartographer, and I’m also a culturalization strategist. I’ve been doing this work professionally for about… almost 30 years now. About 24 of that have been primarily in video games, and I did 13 years at Microsoft, where I created the geopolitical strategy team to help the company deal with political and cultural issues and all their content.

And then went on to help Google create their geopolitical team, to help with Google Maps and Earth, and have been basically a consultant at large ever since. And I did a brief stint of five years, the last five years, running the International Game Developers Association.
Michael You already used a word that I’m not familiar with. Cultural… what was it?
Kate Culturalization.
Michael Culturalization.
Kate Yes.
Michael Fill us in on culturalization.
Kate So, basically in the work that I do… I mean I work… I’ve worked hand in hand with localization teams for many, many years and a lot of the people I interfaced with at Microsoft, and all the products were in localization. But my work, you know, a lot of people will associate the word localization mainly with translation, not entirely, but mostly, and so the kind of work that I do though is pretty much everything but translation.

So, if you have a product with icons that need to be reviewed for their potentially sensitivity, or cultural impact, or the character design in a game, or gestures in a game, or other content, or the use of historical allegory, or the use of faith systems, whether it’s in a game or whether it’s in some other context, basically anything like that, the representation of diversity and ethnicity, gender parody, all that kind of stuff, even something as simple as having like a stock image of a boardroom where the woman is standing at the head of the table talking, well that’s not going to work in some cultures because that’s… to them the woman shouldn’t even be in the room.
Renato Well, that’s a very good reason to put it there then.
Kate Well, it is…
Michael In some ways, the advocacy work.
Kate Absolutely, so there’s a certain level of advocacy that you can do through this kind of work but… so, basically that’s what I cover. I generally cover all of this other kind of stuff that frankly a lot of companies just forget about.
Renato Kate, I was always a fan of your column on Multilingual Magazine.
Kate Thanks.
Renato Where you covered all these little aspects, and one column that I remember particularly where you were talking about the names of the seas, like how the Japanese and how the Koreans call the Sea of Japan. How the Chinese and the…
Michael You mean they’re different?
Renato You didn’t know Michael?
Michael They’re different names depending on what country you’re in?
Kate Well, they are. So, in that example that you just gave, I mean the Korean government calls the Sea of Japan the East Sea, and they’re very adamant about it, and the Japanese government, as most of the world, just by the International Hydrographic Office, they basically adopt Sea of Japan as the most common term for that body of water. Well, the Korean government will frequently lobby cartographic publishers to change the name from Sea of Japan to East Sea.

So, when we had this one major incident back in 1996 at Microsoft where the Korean government… it was because of a game; it was Age of Empires, which basically made the government get really upset about how the Choson Empire was being portrayed in the game. But one of the things they picked up on, is they looked in Encarta Encyclopedia at the time, and they said wait a minute, you’re not using East Sea; this is wrong; this is incorrect.
Renato But that’s a problem, if you think about it, one is on… it’s east for one but west for the other.
Kate Exactly and the thing we have to realize, when you hear a government make a statement like that what they’re doing is they’re… it’s basically a not so subtle assertion of sovereignty. That’s really what they’re after because they want to assert that the sea’s name should be East Sea because it’s our sea, and so it’s east to us and therefore it is ours. Because the Sea of Japan is pretty blatant who that supposedly belongs to, even though it is primarily international waters, but part of the issue is that in the middle of the Sea of Japan/East Sea is a disputed island called Dokdo in Korean which is occupied by Korea, or it’s called Takeshima in Japanese. That’s really the center of why this whole thing is an issue ongoing.
Renato And you have the famous English Channel and Manche for the French and…
Kate Exactly.
Renato And I imagine that there are other territories on land, not only on sea, that have this disputed approach.
Kate Exactly, I mean like Iran will complain that they don’t really like the name Arabian Gulf. So, often… so, because you have Arabian Gulf versus Persian Gulf, and that’s why you’ll see a lot of maps just call it The Gulf, to try and avoid the issue.
Michael And you’ve mentioned some of these players in tech that you’ve consulted and helped build programs in. They all have maps that they provide, how do they reconcile…I mean is this just one of the issues or like are they…
Renato You mentioned Google Maps.
Kate There’s many, many issues. That’s why I basically… at this point in time… I’ve been doing this for so long that I’ve… a lot of people seek me out because I’ve developed this esoteric body of knowledge about every disputed thing on earth. So, I can look at a map and tell you every little border segment, every island, every place name, all of that stuff that’s disputed. And so, I get companies coming to me, and they say we need your help because we want to release maps in X territory and make sure it’s okay.

So, there’s so many examples of that and it’s… the way a lot of these tech companies deal with it; I mean both like Microsoft and Google, and Google especially, one of the things that we did in the six years that I was with them as a consultant, helping the geopolitical team get up to speed, is we perfected what we called domain tailoring. So, basically, it’s a practice that a lot of websites use now, but for Google Maps in particular, I think they’ve become experts in doing domain tailoring.

So, basically…what does that mean? So, if you go for example to the US map… you know, googlemaps.com or maps.google.com, and look at Kashmir, Northern India, you will see boundaries that are all dashed because it looks like it’s disputed. Well, if you go the India version it shows Jammu and Kashmir as an Indian state, because by law in India you must show that territory as an Indian state. If you don’t, then your product gets banned.

Just like China, if you don’t show Taiwan as part of China, if you don’t show the ten-dashed line that goes around the South China Sea as Chinese territory, you will be banned. It’s just flat out; that’s the law, and so in some cases it’s that extreme. In other cases, it’s more of a courtesy. So, for example, most of us know the islands off Argentina as the Falkland Islands because the British still control them even…
Renato But Islas Malvinas en Argentinas.
Kate Exactly, so Islas Malvinas. So, in Argentina you still have to have on the maps, it has to show Islas Malvinas, not Falkland Islands, and it must have all the Spanish place names.
Renato It’s very interesting because our sponsor’s office, Moravia, has an office in Rosário and the name of the airport in Rosário is Islas Malvinas en Argentinas. It’s a very interesting approach, and I find this fascinating, but you also deal with fictitious maps because you said that a lot of your work these days is in the games space. So, how’s that? Do you… I used to… when I was a kid, I used to draw islands and treasure islands—did you do that Michael?
Michael Of course, of course.
Renato The pirate map with the little lines where the treasure is hidden, and the mountains and things like that. Is that…
Michael It looked a lot like my neighborhood.
Renato …as a grownup…
Michael A lot of my maps looked like my neighborhood, where I was hoping the stuff was buried.
Kate Well, that’s the thing, in games… it’s one of the reasons I’m fascinated with working games because… for many reasons. One is because it’s an evolving art form, and you know, it’s amazing to work on worlds that are being built out of nothing. Honestly, I tell people one of my key inspirations for becoming a cartographer was Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth.
Michael I was just thinking… when you talked about childhood inspirations, all I could think about was Lord of the Rings and the map there.
Kate Exactly, that map really inspired me because he used cartographic principles and cartography to bring to life something that is completely unreal, and of course he did other things too. He relied on his expertise as a linguist to bring the cultures to life through the language, which I think is one of the reasons why Tolkien’s fantasy world still persists to this day as one of the most rich we’ve ever seen. Because he was able to build what we recognize… the way that we recognize cultures in our world, a lot of it does involve language. Language is such a core part of culture, and so he did that based on his expertise.

Whereas other writers, for example, Jack Chalker, he wrote a science fiction series about The Well of the Souls, some planet off nowhere, but what was interesting is that when you read Chalker’s books he doesn’t focus on language. He focuses on the spatial relationships on the planet, and so it turns out that Chalker was a geographer. So, that comes through in his writing—that he emphasized that aspect of the world, whereas Tolkien emphasized more the culture through the language.

So, maps that you create for fantasy purposes, I mean any fantasy world that a game developer makes, I mean you have to watch very carefully because they’re often using real world objects as inspiration. Whether it’s a culture, like a specific culture, so for example pretty much any fantasy desert game I’ve ever seen the people in that culture look like Arabs and Bedouin people. And I keep trying to push the developers to go for something different, but they just keep constantly coming back because it’s such a strong image for us. You see someone dressed like that and you instantly know they’re from the desert.
Renato That’s an image, and that’s the interesting point, and it must be hard for you because you have your American bias also. How do you strip yourself from that? I imagine that in other deserts, I mean there’s the Gobi Desert, and they don’t look like Bedouins there.
Kate No, they don’t, and every one of us has a bias based on the cultural context in which we originated. I mean for me, born and raised in Southern California, I’ve lived in Seattle for half my life, so very west coast US-kind of mind-set. At the same time, I’m very well-travelled, I’ve gone all over the world, I’ve spent a lot of time in different cultures, and as a geographer too that’s something that they… basically the framework they give you in that field of study is to think about things and the differences between things, and between places.

So, we’re kind of… we kind of adopt that framework, and so for lack of a better term kind of set you up to have a very open mind about what you’re observing no matter where you go—because you’re like in this constant absorption mode, and you’re in a constant comparison mode. So, it’s really the comparison mode that has helped me tremendously in my culturalization work because that’s what a lot of companies need.

Their business strategy is built on distribution by market, and so that is something where I come in, and when they tell me here’s this project we’re working on, we need your advice, number one question is always which markets are you targeting, and don’t just tell the world because most companies… yes, we want to go everywhere. Yes, I get that, but most companies have at least in mind some set of countries that they’re going to target first and foremost, and on that is where I start building my framework. I can, like, put lenses on, so to speak, that help me start looking at the content through that perspective of those markets, and that’s how I start doing that review.
Renato But… I’m making a great big assumption here. You’re probably called when they’ve done something wrong.
Kate Unfortunately yes, well fortunately for me, but unfortunately for them.
Renato I don’t imagine anybody designing anything will think about this upfront, as they don’t think about internationalization, which is part of the product development, let alone all this implication. So, tell us a little story, we love stories.
Michael Yes, we love some stories.
Kate Well, I will tell a story, but you’re right for the most part… there’s two sides to culturalization as I see it, the way I define it. So, there’s reactive culturalization, which is basically you’re looking for things that are going to cause a reaction, usually negative.

So, like the mapping example of Kashmir, Indian government official sees that, it’s not compliant with their perspective, product is banned, or a certain gesture, or something else, a symbol, whatever it might be. I do a lot of reactive culturalization because that’s what companies mostly pay me for. They don’t want stuff in their product that’s going to cause people to get angry or ban the product or whatever.

There’s also proactive culturalization, whereas that’s you’re looking for—ways where you can actually enhance the content experience for the local market by adding things to the… to whatever you’re building that will make it feel more local, or make it… just meet local expectations even better.

So, just one example of proactive culturalization is when I worked on (for Forza Motorsports, one of the things we did by the… because obviously it was releasing by language. But what we did is we tailored the types of cars to the languages, which were more or less relevant to the markets they were going into. So, for like Italian, we tended to have pretty much Italian cars because we knew that most of the Italian players, that’s mostly what they wanted to play. The American version, the US English version, had a lot of American muscle cars, Mustangs, Corvettes, stuff like that. I mean they also had some other exotic cars from Italy and elsewhere.
Renato Did you flip the driving side for British and Japanese?
Kate Yes, of course, but then of course you could go on the website, you get the deal, see the downloadable content, and if you wanted, you could get all the cars. So, you’re not restricted…
Michael If you wanted the Italian package you could get that.
Kate Right, you’re not restricted from getting any car, it’s just that the default package that came with each language was tailored specifically to basically make it a more appealing experience for those particular people. And there’s other examples where that happens, but most of the reactive stuff… there have been so many issues that I’ve had to deal with.

There was one… there was a game called Kakuto Chojin on the original Xbox. It wasn’t around very long because they used an audio file that had chanting from the Koran, and so this audio file was in the game, it was discovered very late. I mean so late that most of the games were already packaged and literally on trucks going to the stores.

So, this error was found, it was brought to my attention, I listened to it. Now I don’t speak Arabic, but by listening, I had a very good sense; this is probably Arabic. Fortunately, at the time, this is when I was still at Microsoft, I took the file down the hall to the Arabic linguist who happened to be in my building on my floor. I said hey, what is this? So, he listens and he’s like… so he tells me what it is. He’s like, it’s the standard verse that appears in the Koran, and he’s like where did you find this, and I told him the context. It’s an M rated, hand-to-hand fighting game that’s really bloody and brutal, and he was just shaking his head. He was like that’s… you can’t put that in there, it’s like this has to be taken out; it has to be taken out.

So, I did my due diligence. I contacted all the heads of the subsidiaries at the time. I said I need your feedback. I need you to like tell me to stop this, and they did, most of them wrote me back overnight; I brought that back to the games folks, and I said okay, we’re going to change this, right? And they’re, like, we’ll change it; we’ll change it right away, and they did. They just put some generic music in there instead.

Well, the problem was… and you’re going to recall those packaged units, right? That’s where the problem was. They’re like, well no, we’re not going to do that. Well you understand of course that the United States is not a homogeneous society, right? You understand there’s like eight million Muslims living here and like 50% of Detroit is Muslim, and here’s the geographer spouting all these statistics to them. They’re, like don’t worry about it, so we’ll release it in the US only, and it will be okay and of course, sure enough, three months letter we get a government… a letter from Saudi Arabia, which was very upset—that we’ve offended the Islamic faith, and it became a front-page news story.
Michael And this is just from the US release?
Kate Yes.
Michael That the government of Saudi Arabia did that.
Kate Exactly.
Michael Wow, that big implications for companies to think about.
Kate Absolutely, so anyway that’s where often when I lecture on the topic of culturalization, I warn people that if you think that your content has boundaries, you are fooling yourself. Anything that is released today is instantly ubiquitous. It’s everywhere; it’s a multicultural audience, whether you like it or not. I mean if you sell… if you release a game, it doesn’t matter if it’s digitally released or hard copy, it will be on the streets of Shanghai tomorrow morning, literally, being sold for a buck or less.

And that’s just the way the world works, and so that’s why I implore companies—you’ve got to get it right the first time because there is no taking it back. Especially because now in today’s world with social media, I mean you may wake up the next morning and, like, oh wow, look—everyone’s pinging our Twitter; something great must have happened! No, usually that’s something bad. If you didn’t plan it, then it’s something bad but… so, in this example, basically it turned into this big debacle.

I ended up having to go over to Saudi Arabia and Dubai and elsewhere to help do damage control because they wanted somebody from the headquarters who knows what they’re talking about to come over and explain to the government what happened exactly. And, of course, my response was essentially, it’s just cultural ignorance.
Renato Ignorance, yes.
Kate It was not intentional which…
Renato It’s very hard to be… how many people like you exist in the world? I mean I believe I’m pretty knowledgeable about a lot of stuff, but compared to the things that you’re sharing and the things that you know, I’m totally ignorant. So, I’m bound to make this type of mistake, and when is the right time to think about it because I guess every product has a cultural element in it.?
Kate It does to some degree. I mean everything does. I mean that’s the thing that… I often even used that message when I was still at Microsoft. So, many companies spend a lot of time training their employees on cross-cultural etiquette, which is great, I think that’s important.
Renato Let me be culturally insensitive here…
Kate Okay.
Renato One of the things… as a foreigner moving to the United States, one of the things that struck me in the beginning is how concerned people are in the United States with offending other people. That’s a very American concern. In other places, they don’t care; they’ll offend, and they’ll live with it. So, what offends the Americans? Let’s look at it from the other point of view. Now you as an American who is so concerned about offending other people, what can we do to really offend an American? I really want to know.
Michael Asking that question.
Kate Yes, I think…
Kate Especially in today’s climate, I think there’s a lot of things, and it depends which kind of American you’re talking to because that’s a whole big problem at the moment. But for me, it’s like… because I travel so much, it’s like asking me about my president. I don’t want to talk about it. I get tired of talking about it. It’s like I had nothing to do with it.

I mean a lot of people want to talk politics, but I think just on a baseline cultural offence, I mean obviously Americans are prudish when it comes to nudity. Compared to most of the world, I guess at least compared to Europe and Latin America, we are very much prudish about showing skin and all that kind of stuff. So, I think you could offend us by stripping down…

Like for example I visited a game company in Finland, and they very commonly just strip and go in the sauna together because that’s what you do. Doesn’t matter if you’re co-workers or anything, and so I was visiting, and they were like hey do you want to join us? It’s like, no, that makes me incredibly uncomfortable.
Renato I was telling the story recently that I went to a sauna in Germany, and when I was there I had my shorts on in the sauna, and the guy comes in and says people are complaining that you have your shorts on. It’s unsanitary.
Kate Exactly, and so I was like… no, I can’t do that.
Renato I heard that when I came here that there were three topics I should not talk about, sex, politics and religion. Is that still the rule?
Kate Well, honestly, I think that’s true globally. I don’t think it’s just the United States, but in the US these days people will talk politics, it’s just a matter of what side you’re going to be on. So, you might be in an old bubble-fest where you’re agreeing with each other, or you’re in this heated argument. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of civil discourse anymore, unfortunately.
Renato But isn’t that interesting, you travel also, and you go abroad, and I find it interesting that you talk to Russians and Chinese, and they have different views, but they pretty much say, you know, you think you’re a democracy, you choose, you live with it. But the Russians are very much in favor, the Chinese are half and half, but you go to the rest of the world and nobody understands how America… I remember still when Ronald Regan was elected and everybody was wondering how can you elect an artist, an actor to be president? So, these are natural things that happen all the time but you have problems now in the Philippines, you have…
Kate Yes.
Renato Every country has… how many people have I offended so far?
Kate Probably quite a bit.
Michael We’ll count, there’s a bell going off in the background, and it’s just been consistent.
Kate Well, that’s the thing, as someone who studies geopolitics, the political systems are… people often ask me for my political opinion on certain issues, especially in the US, and I’m like, look, I’m not a democrat or a republican; I’m just a massive cynic. Yes, I do my civic duty, and I vote, but at the same time I study human systems; I study political systems, and to me the biggest problem with politics is that human beings are involved, but unfortunately, they kind of go hand in hand.
Michael Right, whenever you have two people in the same room you have politics.
Renato Well, one of my favorite quotes is this, that “when have three talents together, you have four political parties.”
Kate Yes, there you go.
Michael So, Kate you found a very interesting area in localization that from sort of the mass market would be more niche, and I think that’s encouraging for some people who maybe they don’t have a language background, maybe they don’t have a developer background. What is your encouragement for people who are interested in this field, and how to get in and how they can use their skills?
Kate Well, I think there’s a lot of different ways to employ the skills. In my case, there was a certain amount of luck involved. Being at the right place at the right time. A cartographer, geographer entering Microsoft right when it was getting off the ground with all its multimedia efforts, and so I was definitely in the right place then with Encarta Encyclopedia, which was my first project there, and then Encarta World Atlas.

But the key was I knew I had knowledge and a perspective, a certain strategic perspective on these kinds of issues that could help the company because I saw mistake after mistake being made at Microsoft. And obviously, it’s not just a Microsoft issue, a lot of companies make these mistakes; it’s just that’s where I happened to be, and so what I did is I wrote a proposal to create this team, the geopolitical strategy team. Which, originally, I called it the Microsoft Office of International Affairs, but they thought that was too grandiose so…
Renato We like grandiose.
Kate Yes, so I kind of liked it, but anyway I… it took me about nine months to shop that idea round. I was very persistent though. I would sit at meetings with VPs around the company and promote the idea and eventually it got to… the last VP I asked was the one who approved it within five minutes, and I think part of the reason that he did… that was Paul Maritz, he was from South Africa. And when he… when I presented my… you know the elevator speech to him, his first reaction was I thought we were doing this already? I’m like, no, that’s actually why I’m here, and so he was just like let’s do this; he said we need to do this.

So, I was really fortunate that he had the insight, I think partially based on his own cultural experience; that this has to be done, and so what I did is basically, as I’ve told many students, because I’ve mentored a lot of people in the field of culturalization, a lot of people who want to get into it, is basically you’re not going to find a culturalization job open anywhere at all and so…and I know very, very few people that I’ve ever encouraged who do anything similar to what I do; just a couple that are somewhat similar.

And so, what I’ve told people to do, which you have to really think about, is first find a company that you think you’d want to work for, that you like what they do; you like their products; you like their mission, whatever. Get a job there that’s related to your skillset, doesn’t have to be the best job in the world, just get a job inside, but once you’re inside, that’s where you become a persistent virus. So, you infect them with your good ideas; you be extremely persistent.

If their antibodies are too powerful, and they just keep resistance—which their antibodies basically mean ignorance—if they just keep resisting, like no we don’t need to do this, we don’t need to do this, and you’re convinced that they do because you see them making mistakes, you might want to move onto another company, and see if you can kind of repeat that experience.

But yes, so for people who want to get into this, though, I’m always happy to talk with people about it, I’ve got a lot of talks online about the topic. I did a talk last year at GDC Europe, called Geographer’s Guide to World Building, which has gotten a lot of fantastic response. It’s up on YouTube, and I guess that was the first time I took a different approach to how I talk about it because in most of my talks, it’s always been more about the reactive culturalization. So, ‘here’s the things you don’t do’, but for that talk I decided to turn it around and say ‘well, here’s how you would build a world, thinking about all of these different layers, the cultural layer and religious layer, political layer’. All these different things you think about.
Renato So, if you have one piece of advice that you want to give to somebody who is in a situation that might need this kind of thing, what is the most important thing to take into consideration?
Kate Most important thing is you’ve got to think about it from day one. You have to think about it early, and this is one of the major contrasts between localization and culturalization. So, as most of us know who’ve worked in loc, it’s your work comes more towards the end, even though it shouldn’t; I’m a firm believer that they need to include loc in the day one talks, just like everybody else so that they have a good idea of what’s going on.

Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t, but the difference is, though, that with culturalization, I’m not waiting around for the work to be done so I can translate it.
Michael So, with that, Kate do you have anything else that you would like to share, anything we didn’t ask you?
Kate I think the only the only other thing I would say is that culturalization is… what’s funny about it is that when I describe to people what I do, a lot of people are like, my god, why aren’t we doing that? It’s always kind of surprising to me that people just don’t think about this dimension of their content. That there are so many different things that is in the content, even the color, you know, color usage is a major cultural component too, and so one of the things I often try and remind people, as I think I was mentioning earlier, you know, how companies spend so much money on cultural etiquette for their employees, like how to hand your business cards with two hands in Asia and all that kind of stuff. All of that’s very valuable, and I think is something that should be done but what I think a lot of companies sometimes overlook is the fact that your content is your ambassador to the world.

End of conversation

Kate Edwards

KateEdwards is a unique hybrid of an applied geographer, writer, and content culturalization strategist with a passion for global cultures and media technologies. With broad experience in the fields of geography, cartography, geopolitics and cross-cultural issues, Kate is a recognized thought leader in applying this knowledge to 'real world'​ business solutions and problem solving, particularly in the information industry as related to inclusive representation, content management, and cross-cultural impacts of information and globalization.


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