A picture is worth a thousand words? Why localising the images and symbols in your foreign-language projects is so important

Localisation of photos

An image or symbol speaks for itself and doesn’t require any text to explain it. So if you have your projects translated into a foreign language, you can simply keep the images as they are? Actually maybe not.


We can tell you now that the images in your foreign-language projects should also be localised. Read on to find out why this is so important.


Images for clarification or demonstration

If images serve to clarify text or provide demonstrative illustrations, it makes sense to adapt them to suit the relevant target language.

In instructions for a computer program, for example, screenshots are used to demonstrate the different functions of the program to the user. The instructions and the screenshots must both correspond to the language in which the reader is using the program.

A user in Germany operating the German version of some software on his PC won't get very far with instructions where the text itself is written in German but the screenshots are, for example, from the Japanese version of the program.

Brand new screenshots in the relevant target language are required here.

It's a similar story in the case of product packaging. Which images are usually depicted on this kind of packaging in the target culture? Are the contents of the packaging displayed? Or the target group? Or perhaps something else entirely is used to demonstrate the qualities of the product.

Even though you should of course bear in mind what your image is communicating to your customers, the “wrong” image is not the end of the world in most cases – after all, the product text is still there to clear up any possible confusion.


Images with no explanatory function

Even if your website only contains images with no explanatory function, but are merely there to break up the text on your site, there are still some things you should consider.

For example, some motifs may be unusual or inappropriate in certain cultures – or, in the worst case scenario, even forbidden.

You should be particularly cautious with images containing gestures because they can mean completely the opposite in another culture. In Romania, if someone taps their forehead, they are showing you they are really impressed with the idea you just suggested – in Germany, they are telling you they think you’re crazy!

What’s more, an image can have a different effect on everyone who looks at it – and the impact the picture has can also depend on a person’s culture.

Why does culture play a role in the impact of an image? Two words: reading direction.


The direction of the writing changes the impact of the image

In many European languages, the lines of text are written from the top left to the bottom right. However, some other writing systems are written in different directions.

In Arabic, the text runs from right to left. It is also written in lines running one after the other. This means the lines are still arranged from the top to the bottom of the page.

However, in Japanese and Chinese, the text is written in columns – from the top right to the bottom left.

The text is obviously written in the same direction as it was written. But the exciting thing is:

we also “read” images – because when we look at a picture we generally follow the usual reading and writing direction we are used to in our writing system.

Therefore, among other things, the reading direction is important when presenting several images intended to be viewed in a certain order. We recommend you pay particular attention to this. Because different reading directions can change the entire meaning of the images.

And the reading direction also has another effect: if your audience reads from left to right, they will automatically view an image from left to right and their eyes will be drawn more to the people or objects on the right-hand side of the image, particularly if they are facing the viewer.

If another person is positioned on the left-hand side of the image with their back to the viewer, this will further strengthen this effect and the eye will be drawn to the right, following the gaze of the person in the image. This means that the eye skims over the things on the left-hand side of the image.

Therefore, the image will have a certain effect depending on the usual reading and writing direction of the viewer.

Try it for yourself. Find a portrait in which the person is not facing directly forwards, but is in semi-profile, for example. See how it affects you. And then try looking at the image after reflecting it horizontally. The result will surprise you.


As you can see, there are good reasons why you should localise your images

The effect an image has on people from a different culture can usually only be judged by someone who has grown up in that culture. This is one of the reasons why most translation and localisation agencies rely on native speakers – and why you should do the same.