Don’t “Let it Go”: Translating an Experience, not Localizing Language

In a global business landscape, localization is key to selling your brand, product, or service around the world. But localization isn’t just translation. It’s about the re-creation and cultivation of an experience. What needs to be translated is not the slogan, but the experience. This is, of course, easier said than done.

When Disney’s Frozen was translated into Arabic, it was translated into Modern Standard Arabic rather than a colloquial dialect, such as Egyptian, as many earlier Disney films had been. Ideally, this choice means that the film is not localized to a particular country or regional dialect, and is instead more regionally versatile. But, in fact, this resulted in the dialogue sounding stilted and overly formal. Modern Standard Arabic, the Arabic of high literature as well as the media and formal politics, is not the language of conversation, television, or film. This means that the lyrics to the anthem “Let it Go” sound something like: “Discharge thy secret! I shall not bear the torment!” and “I dread not all that shall be said! Discharge the storm clouds! The snow instigateth not lugubriosity within me…”

Elias Muhanna, a professor at Brown in comparative literature, translated those lines. She pointed out, in an essay in the New Yorker, that even this archaic-sounding English does not get across to a child’s ear, accustomed to hearing the lively sounds of colloquial Arabic over the formality and foreignness of Modern Standard Arabic.

Some, like Muhanna, have criticized Disney for moving away from its previous practice of translating films into colloquial Egyptian. They say that the spirit and tone of the film, which in English is characterized by highly idiomatic teen-speak, has been lost in this shift. The experience of watching the film in Arabic is distinctly different from watching it in English. The translation into Modern Standard Arabic, though artful, transforms the mood of the film from slangy and current (even given its faraway, mystical setting), into an antiquated relic of another time. What gets lost in the formal Arabic version of Frozen isn’t the story or the characters, it’s the texture of the experience—an experience that, in English, is lively, a bit snarky, and emotionally engaging in a very accessible way. That accessibility was lost in the shift to a formal rather than vernacular dialect.

Localization isn’t about language; it’s about experience. How can you replicate or reproduce the experience of your brand or product when you move into a new cultural space? The lesson from Frozen is that it isn’t just about making sure the copy is legible or comprehensible, but about ensuring that the experience offers consumers a similar emotional and affective experience.

the author

Liz Kelley