Web professionals that are new to translation and localization often raise issues with colors when going global. How valid is that concern?
Sure. We all know the stereotypes: Italians like pastel tones. Germans like solid colors. White is the color of marriage and peace in Europe, but not in China where it means death. The color of rebirth in Egypt is black, which in the Western World is associated with death. Green signals environmental friendliness, while in China it can mean infertility. But is that all true? Does green, for example, really mean infertility in China, represent Catholics in Ireland, and is a holy color of Islam? And can it, therefore, help or undermine your efforts to sell and market your products in these countries?
The answers to all those questions is: Yes, but it depends in the context. In China, for instance, “wearing a green hat” (戴绿帽子 or dài lǜ mào zǐ) is an expression that Chinese use when a woman cheats on her husband or boyfriend, because in ancient China sex worker’s husband wore green headscarfs.
Green can in fact have many meanings around the world. According to Wikipedia, it is
- Thought to be an unlucky color in British and British-derived cultures
- Often used as a symbol of sickness and/or nausea in Far East cultures
- Carrying a connotation of money, wealth, and capitalism, because green is the color of United States banknotes
- Representing the natural richness of Africa for countries that use the color on their flags
- Representing fertility and prosperity on one of the three bands on the flag of India
- Representing lush vegetation on the flag of Jamaica and hope in the future on the flag of Nigeria
- Representing Catholics in Ireland and Scotland
In the context of my own culture, green also is the favorite color of Spiderman villains because of its contrast to the hero’s red. It has become the symbolic color of environmentalism, chosen for its association with nature, health, and growth. Green is a strong trend in the Irish holiday St. Patrick’s Day and a dominant Christmas color in the entire Western World. And, yes if someone is green in the face he or she is probably sick. But when my German friends are green behind the ear, they are just inexperienced.
But do colors really matter for the success of global web sites? A quick look at the top 20 websites suggest that they are not. Most follow the same color scheme across all versions of their country sites or their localized corporate and regional sites. Where it does matter is in context. The color green in China does not automatically mean ‘cheat’, and black in the USA can represent both ‘death’ and ‘luxury.’ Just don’t take a picture of me in a green hat and then publish it in a black frame in the West.
So, why then does the issue of color always come up for web sites? For one, it provides for funny stories and ice breakers before business meetings or for after work gatherings. It often is the only thing that people have heard about localization; That’s where they start a conversation. And sometimes consultants bring it up to attract prospects, or because they have not much else to say.
What matters much more than colors is quality of content. When the quality of content is high and presented well, people care less about the colors it is surrounded by. Talking about quality of piece of content, however, means having a much more difficult conversation. Language quality is highly subjective. It is personal. So are colors, but questioning translation quality mostly means doubting the translator. One cannot separate the translation from the translator or the source message from the author.
I chose green as the color for the logo of my company because it reminds me every day that the same thing can mean something different for any given culture, nation or person. It represents my philosophy that different perspectives help me understand the problem better, especially when they stand in contradiction. Opinions are not mutually exclusive.
But who truly cares about either? If anybody ever starts a conversation with me about the color of my logo, I will think that this person just must have seen me doing something truly mediocre. If I had done something truly outstanding or outrageous he or she would ask me about that, not the color of my logo. So, what then, I wonder, would be the reason to talk to me in the first place? Something else must be going on that prompted the initiation of contact. My task then is to find out exactly that: What is the real motivation behind the question?
You should do the same. If someone in your web organization starts an argument on the importance of colors in localization, you can almost always be assured of the presence of a more important, but underlying issues. You can mostly find it somewhere in either the content, its translation, or its creation and presentation. Fix that one instead.