The Importance of Geoculture in Localization

The Importance of Geoculture in Localization
November 20, 2019
In this episode of Globally Speaking, we invite Bobb Drake, Director of Geocultural Research at Nimdzi Insights, to discuss how computers spot (or miss) offensive language, why humans will always need to be involved and how our world view changes the way we process communication. Also, did you know that only 7% of communication is verbal?
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Renato I’m Renato Beninatto.
Michael And I’m Michael Stevens.
Renato Today on Globally Speaking Radio, we’re going to talk about the geocultural issues. This is, I think, the third episode that we’re going to have on this topic.
Michael It’s the third direct episode. We even have the Cultural Code and a couple others that relate to this.
Renato Absolutely.
Michael So if you haven’t listened to those, there are a few mentioned in our conversation. You might wanna go back into the archives and check them out.
Renato Yes, that’s true, I had forgotten about the Clotaire Rapaille interview about the Cultural Code. That was fascinating also.
Michael Yeah. Yeah.
Renato So, the angle here of this conversation is more business-oriented; it’s how companies can prepare or protect themselves against geocultural challenges.
Michael Yes. And, we wanna give you a little bit of a warning that you might wanna protect little ears from this episode.
Renato Or if you’re sensitive to…
Michael Vulgar language.
Renato …vulgar language.
Michael Because that is a bit of our topic. It is approached from a business standpoint, but we may have a few chuckles when we get to it as well because that’s what we do.
Renato So, let’s listen to our guest.
Bobb Hi, I’m Bobb Drake. I am the Geocultural Research Director at Nimdzi Insights, which means that I study the political and cultural implications and underlying systems that effect global business and language.
Renato So, why is this important?
Bobb It’s important because the way that different cultures and people around the world understand the world and their worldview is part and parcel with how you communicate. Which is, you know, language is just a superficial level on top of that. You need to understand how people interpret language, interpret the reality of the world in terms of how that effects your global enterprise.
Michael Bobb, I think of a statistic that I heard again this week, and that is: 7% of communication is verbal. So, if I understand it correctly, you’re looking at things and saying, “Yes, the words are true.” Most of our audience is very familiar with how important words are in communicating brand or message or instructions or whatever it may be, so you need to translate correctly. But you’re saying there’s a whole cultural element to communication for companies as well.
Bobb Yeah, so words are, if that statistic is correct, 7% of communication. Some of those words even may have different meanings within the cultural context of the person speaking or understanding. So—and you see that even within your own language—two people say something and there’s a miscommunication there just in how people interpret words in themselves, in their own cultural context. In addition to that, when you mix in different cultures of the world, that creates a much more complex situation, and it’s always changing and evolving how businesses and cultures interact over time.
Michael So if it’s more than words, what are some of the specific things, what are some of the specific items in culture, that your expertise focuses on? We’ve talked with Kate Edwards in a previous episode, and she was talking about perhaps sensitive issues like how video games in some cultures can’t have torture, for instance.
Bobb Mm-hmm.
Michael What are some of the things that you see are important for companies to understand and that you would help them become aware of?
Bobb Yeah, so, a lot of my career has been following Kate Edwards in her various roles, so I’m very much a student of that same space, and my understanding of this area has been informed by her pioneering. I recently wrote an article about Day of the Dead Barbie Doll and how Mattel had a little bit of a backlash among Americans who believe that it was cultural appropriation of the Mexican and indigenous Mexican culture.

Day of the Dead is a very important holiday in that culture, so it’s very interesting to see how the business developed the concept. And it seems to me that they actually developed the doll in the right way. They had a Mexican-American designer who worked with indigenous consultants from Mexico on the doll. But where they went wrong, in my opinion, according to anything I could find on their website, is they didn’t make that public. They didn’t have a social media campaign outreach of what they did.
Michael So, what I’m hearing is, there is a line, that’s a difference between paying respect to a culture and appropriation, that you can cross. And for the instance you talked about, is, providing some of that research and actually the work of hiring indigenous people to work on this particular doll would’ve been helpful. Some people will always say any act that is not your native culture and you using it is appropriation. But for a more nuanced approach, show the intent of what you’re doing here.
Bobb Yeah. Exactly. Show the intent and the process. I could give a good example of someone who did it right…
Michael Yeah.
Bobb …in my opinion.
Renato Oh, we love good examples.
Bobb Yeah. Oh, and I’m in Spokane, WA, so it’s really a close culture to my hometown. The Nez Perce tribe and Microsoft had a character in Killer Instinct, I believe his name was Thunder, who was Nez Perce, and Microsoft worked very closely with the tribe to understand the culture. They visited their cultural headquarters in the Nez Perce reservation in Lapwai, Idaho, and really worked closely to understand the historical context, which would affect any character from that culture; in terms of this character, having to be a warrior in the game who is Nez Perce. So, what did he look like? What was the color of his shirt? Exactly the right turquoise. What did the hair look like for battle?

The original character, the first time they actually did it, had a headdress on, and this time they had a pompadour, because that was something that a warrior would’ve had in their culture.
Michael Yeah, I was thinking about this just the other day, and since we have done a podcast episode with Tim Brooks on the Endangered Alphabets, and he makes wooden representations of alphabets that are often disappearing off the face of the earth, and I thought, you know, some critic could actually say he’s appropriating those alphabets that aren’t his.
Renato Well, he’s trying to protect them. One of the things that I find interesting about this type of work is, so, you said that in your title you deal with geocultural aspects. There is a big geographic element, and usually borders are contentious in some countries, and I can think of India, for example, and Kashmir with Pakistan. What is the role of a geocultural consultant in situations like that?
Bobb So, looking at maps, we have two different issues within India and China. There are laws how the map must be displayed to reflect and respect the culture of those countries and their worldview. Obviously, borders and maps are highly contentious, and there are different perspectives and maybe no real truths, so that’s the local—how it appears in countries themselves that are affected—and how you represent a contentious area globally, where you can’t just sequester the map; say, “Oh, how do the Italians view this mountain peak that borders with Switzerland,” just to give an example. That’s not a real example.
Michael Well, a real example would be related back to appropriation, and even here in Seattle, we have Mount Rainier, which was originally “Tahoma” and it was the settlers who named it “Rainier.”

So, also, I want to go back, for those who are wondering about endangered alphabets: that is not appropriation. I’m just saying a critic could do that; I am not a proponent of that. But we can see it in some of these very sort of hotly debated current issues, and some that are, like…
Renato Historic.
Michael …historic.
Renato Like the Falklands and the Malvinas…
Michael Absolutely!
Renato …Argentina and the UK. And I love this discussion about maps and how the worldview of different people changes. I think we had a conversation once here that I told you that I realized in my travels that different people learn geography in a different way. Here in the United States, you learn that there are seven continents. In Europe, people learn that there are six. And I grew up learning that there were five.
Michael What? What is this? What is this magic you people speak of?
Bobb Yeah, I’ve heard the same story. If North and South America…
Renato It’s not a story, it’s a fact. There’s no North and South America. There is one America.
Michael Wow!
Bobb Yes. Exactly. Is it a fact? And how many facts are there? Is that an alternative fact that there’s five or seven continents? There’s many more than that many continents. Many of them are beneath the sea, right? So…
Renato This is, this is the cool thing about this topic, right?
Michael Yeah.I feel like we just wandered into ‘is Pluto a planet or not,’ right? Like man, you guys are messing me up here with this topic.
Renato Well, one of the things also that is important in this area that fascinates me is the language aspect. I remember the first time I went to China and I wanted to send an email out of the country to Brazil. I started typing that I was going to talk to my friend on Friday. Friday in Portuguese is sexta-feira. And that spells S-E-X. Boom—my computer shut down. I don’t know what type of software it is that was policing “sex;” the word sex couldn’t be typed…
Michael Yeah.
Renato …and because it would be a search for sex or something like that, and I couldn’t send emails. I was blocked…
Michael Yeah.
Renato …for I don’t remember how long. But I think that there is a name for this type of challenge, right?
Bobb Yes, yes there is. This is actually my passion, offensive language, and in this case is called The Scunthorpe Problem, which is basically a question of a word that is offensive, a string of characters that’s offensive, within another word. So, the town Scunthorpe is in North Lincolnshire, England. And during the 1990s, anything that had the name Scunthorpe in it was blocked by several different internet providers because it has the word “c—” inside of that, and obviously no one who’s creating censorship software without a high level of understanding of how words work, how letters work together and random combinations in places that you wouldn’t think of.

So, the word was blocked, and so that took the name “Scunthorpe Problem” to define this very issue of how do you deal with false positives, a false positive hit in a censorship software, when it’s a case of one of these very, very contentious words.
Renato Yeah, the famous therapist.com that people were reading “the rapist.”
Michael Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Bobb Yeah, yeah, exactly. “Pen Island” is another example of a website. But yeah, this “sexto,” however you say Friday…
Renato [Laughs] Pen Island!
Michael Please keep the delay as Renato is spelling it in his head. He, he was, “Oh, Pen Island. I get it. I get it.” That was great.
Bobb Because it’s a visual thing, right?
Michael Yeah.
Bobb And with regard to S-E-X being banned in China, they must have had lists of words that were accepted. If you go to England, there’s Essex, Wessex, Sussex, many other words that have the word “sex” embedded in them.
Michael Is this a coding issue, Bobb? Like, is this something that we have found a solution to The Scunthorpe Problem? Are there enough rules and variables that we can handle this at some point?
Bobb I’m not an expert on the technical aspects of it, but the linguistic aspects, I think that there are ways around it. Obviously, you could create exceptions if you know the words. Or you could create rules, maybe through artificial intelligence or just co-locations, where you have a word before or after an offensive word that could block.
Michael What are big companies doing with the issue of words that are the same in the language, but in different regions mean very, very different things? I know Spanish has a number of these words.
Bobb Yeah, that’s something I think is very complicated, so you really have to have a manual review. But the ideal situation for offensive language tools like this is to have the word flagged, have a human look at it if you can’t determine that it’s a false positive or a true positive immediately. So, it’s so hard. I mean, even the word, you know, we’re talking about, is not as offensive in England, right, as it is in America. So, within Spanish, I don’t speak Spanish, but I’ve seen many issues where there are offensive words. Maybe something in Chile means something innocuous and in Mexico it’s very offensive.
Michael So to date, the big software companies are still relying—I know they do this with images, but even linguistically—on reviews. There’s technology that can help flag things. But ultimate decision are linguists looking at some of the context of these terms to make sure they’re not hot terms.
Bobb Yeah, there’s multiple types of terms that could be offensive. Obviously, we’re talking about profanity here or vulgar, taboo language. But there are also diversity issues and those are ever-changing.
Michael Mm-hmm.
Bobb Different racial, ethnic issues that are open to interpretation and change over time across cultural contexts. And then obviously geo-political hot words…
Michael Yeah.
Bobb …that are geo-politically contentious. You need to really assess those in different markets.
Renato I understand that you keep terminology lists in multiple languages to address some of these false positives. But also, people look at things from a different angle and they see things in different ways. Colors is an example. Shapes.
Bobb Yes.
Renato What other things are things that you keep an eye for in your consulting role?
Bobb Actually I was just speaking with a colleague the other day about animals and how, for example, dogs in many parts of the world are considered filthy animals, and if you’re talking about them as pets, that might be offensive. You have to scrub it from that context. It might not offend everyone in the market. It may offend many of them. But it’s not going to speak to them and make them want to buy your product or relate to your content, whereas in America, that would be very much…
Michael Well, in America, we know a pig is a filthy animal. For all of the Pulp Fiction fans out there.
Bobb Yeah. But bacon is good.
Renato The funny thing about that is, I learn a lot from my kids, being a foreigner. Even though I’ve been living in the United States for over 20 years, I just recently found out that when you think about a chicken, it doesn’t have a gender. A chicken is a chicken.
Michael Yeah.
Renato And you have a rooster…
Michael A rooster or a hen.
Renato …and when I talk about a chicken, I see a hen.
Michael Oh, yeah. Well, that’s like a Rorschach test for you.
Renato Yeah. [Laughter]
Bobb I would see that as a hen, too, in general. But maybe that’s because I also had studied a lot in language, French, so sometimes that affects how you interpret the world, right. And that’s what we’re talking about here, is how people interpret the world based on their cultural experience. And it’s not necessarily only the experience of their birth culture, it’s where they’ve lived and where they’ve been exposed to. So, it’s a very complicated problem.
Michael So, Bobb, if you just have one thing for our listeners who, perhaps this is the first time they’ve been exposed to this and they’re gonna go back and listen to the Kate Edwards episode and maybe a couple more…
Renato We had Michelle Coady also.
Michael …Michelle Coady, we’ve done a little bit of this, but what encouragement would you give for people who are just beginning to think about this for the first time?
Bobb It’s very fun and interesting and it can both save you a lot of headache from saying something that would offend a market or have your product pulled out of that market, or worse consequences. There are stories of people who have been jailed that had been associated with problems like that. Kate Edwards has some good stories about that. But, beyond that is also how you can really positively speak to consumers in different areas and to your markets by speaking their culture, really, as well as their language.

End of conversation

Bobb Drake

Bobb Drake is the Director of Geocultural Research at Nimdzi Insights. Before that, he was a Principal and Consultant at Lingl Language Consulting, LLC, working as a translation and localization professional specializing in geocultural, linguistic and terminology matters. Bobb is also the Owner and Curator of Linguology & Wool + Whiskey, a shop specializing in books and accoutrements related to language, culture and travel.

A lifelong student of languages and localization, Bobb has a Bachelor’s in French from Eastern Washington University and a degree in English Language, Literature and Civilization from the Paul Valéry University in Montpellier, France. He also has a Graduate Certificate in Localization Project Management from the University of Washington and a Certificate in French Translation, Technical Writing and Editing from the Translation and Interpretation Institute at Bellevue Community College.

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