Creating Culturally Customized Content for Website Translation

August 10, 2011

"Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) research shows that successful interaction depends on more than just using the correct language. Interaction is also dependent upon the culturally embedded meaning of objects such as icons, and metaphors such as the desktop, or the shopping cart (Bourges-Waldegg & Scrivener, 1998; French & Smith, 2000)".

Cultural customization is a fundamental step for reaching a global audience with your website, and should be completed as part of website translation and website localization. While many website owners treat this step as optional, it should be treated as integral. Website cultural customization can do a lot to validate your presence on the web with your target locale and ensure the effectiveness of your website to locale specific users. Cultural adaption involves perception, symbolism and behavior.

*Culturally customizing a website may sound like a lot of work, and if you are starting with a standard website that had no preparation, considerable effort may be required. However, if you plan for cultural customization at the time a website is initially designed, your work will be considerably reduced.

Let's begin with a review of the three main types of websites:

  • Standard websites: this type of website has only one language (usually English) and the same content is intended to reach all countries. No effort was made in terms of website translation, website localization or website internationalization.
  • Localized websites: this type of website ranges from websites with some translated landing pages, websites that are fully translated (localized), to websites that not only offer users with translated content, but also with content specific to their country or locale.
  • Culturally customized websites: this type of website not only takes into account the language and locale of the target audience, but also one or more levels of cultural adaptation: perception, symbolism and behavior.

After website translation and website localization, if you are going to do cultural customization for your website, you and your translation services agency should take the following issues into consideration:

Using Unicode

*The very first step in cultural customization is to make sure that a website will be able to display any language. The Unicode Standard is the universal character encoding standard for written characters and text. It defines a consistent way of encoding multilingual text. Unicode characters are represented in one of three encoding forms: a 32-bit form (UTF-32), a 16-bit form (UTF-16), and an 8-bit form (UTF-8). UTF-8 has been designed for ease of use with existing ASCII-based systems and it is usually the default encoding that you should be using on any webpage. Setting up the right encoding will ensure that your website's contents will be correctly displayed. Most Content Management Systems (CMS) already handle all content as UTF-8 encoded text.

Flexible Design

If possible, use a highly flexible or "fluid" design that allows pages to scale based on what content is in them. If we take an English word as a base, the same word in Russian could be up to 60% longer, while in many Asian languages it could be less than a half the width. Based on the complexity of Asian languages, you may need to scale fonts by about a 120% so they are legible. So, as a rule of thumb, you should avoid using fixed sized structures with text in it - space should be allowed to expand or contract in accordance with the size of the text.

Adding "Culture" to the mix

*Our culture affects the way we see the physical world and the meanings we attribute to objects in our environment. As noted before, culture is shaped by our perception of the word (how we select, filter, organize and interpret information), symbolism (a person's capacity to respond to or use a system of significant symbols used to understand their environment and create a social reality) and behavior (what forces us to behave and react the way we do). If you're designing a website for a culturally diverse audience, you should carefully consider what visual representations you use on your website, as their meanings can vary considerably from culture to culture.

A complete discussion of this topic would constitute a complete book, I have noted an excellent one below from Nitish Singh entitled "The Culturally Customized Web Site: Customizing Websites for the Global Marketplace". Let me provide you with some examples so you can have a grasp of the basic concepts:


There are many factors that affect perception. One of the most important and easiest factors to adjust after website localization is color. People from different cultures do not perceive colors in the same way. The following chart gives some examples of color and their meaning in different cultures.

COLOR USA China India Egypt Japan
Red Danger
Good fortune
Death Anger
Orange Confident
Sacred (the Color Saffron) Virtue
Yellow Coward
Celebration Mourning Grace
Green Spring
Eternal life
Blue Confident
Purple Royalty
Royalty Unhappiness Virtue Wealth
Black Funeral
High Quality
Evil Death
White Purity
Mourning Fun
Joy Purity

Naturally you can't accommodate every single culture with your design. But if your website is correctly structured and you have your content separated from your design (as you should), adjusting the main "theme" of a website is as easy as dropping a couple of selectors on the main CSS with a lang=xxx attribute selector.


*We all use symbols, almost unconsciously, on a daily basis. We don't even have to think about them as we take their meaning for granted. But there are times when the same symbol could mean two completely different things from one culture to another. One of the common examples is the Swastika: most of us will associate it with the Nazi movement. But for Hindus, it is the symbol of good luck and well-being. The swastika is used in all Hindu yantras and religious designs.

Another seemingly harmless example is the "thumbs-up" gesture. Many countries recognize this as a sign of approval or confirmation, and a graphic designer looking for a graphical way to let users know that they have successfully completed an action might be tempted to base an icon on this image. However, in modern day Afghanistan, Iraq and parts of Greece, Italy and France this simple gesture can be considered to be very impolite. In fact it is often regarded as the equivalent of the "middle finger salute" used in the UK and USA.


Behavior is defined by the following cultural values : Collectivism, Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance, Masculinity-Femininity and High-Low Context. Behavior is what it "drives" us to do something and it is an entire topic by itself. Basic behavior is influenced by the tone of the writing in content, images, layout, etc. It has a big influence on any "Call-to-Action", as they are tightly connected.

This concept is the hardest point to implement, as it may involve significant design changes, modification to the tone of the writing (so, you will not be simply translating content into another language, but copywriting it), and swapping images. For instance, a woman in a scanty swimsuit draped over a red sports car would be inappropriate for many global target markets.

Putting the World into Web

As you can see, creating a culturally correct website could be as huge task if you want to do it "by the book." But most of these tasks can be accomplished by doing moderate research on target locales, coding the website following the recommended standards, and adjusting the localized website content to avoid insulting the target, global audience.

The first items (using Unicode and flexible design) should not have a big impact on the website localization budget. If the design process took colors and symbols into consideration, probably only minor adjustments would be required, based on the locale, with minimal cost.

Behavior is the hardest point to achieve, not only because of the technical issues (you may need to have different templates for different regions) but also because maintenance costs can sometimes be very high.

In order to provide our clients with some of the fundamentals on Website Cultural Correctness and Global website design best practices, GPI has researched and compiled a list of the latest information on designing global websites. Full, comprehensive cultural correctness and global usability design assessments can be provided by GPI's and are quoted on a per project basis.

Further website translation and website localization resources

For an excellent book on cultural customization, see "The Culturally Customized Web Site: Customizing Websites for the Global Marketplace," by Nitish Singh, PhD.

Globalization Partners International has created a more extensive overview of website globalization for several global markets in a series of Website Globalization and E-Business Series white papers, which you may download for free. You may also benefit by reviewing the following blogs on different aspects of website translation and website localization:

You may contact GPI at or at 866-272-5874 with your specific questions about this market and your project goals. You may also request a complimentary Translation Services Quote for your project as well.

Hofstede, Geert. Culture's Consequences, Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations across Nations Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2001

Small extract from the global color chart on "Beyond Borders", Yunker 2003

Website Translation
Website Localization, website translation, cultural assessment

Localization Kit Essentials for a Website Translation ProjectLocalizing Text Layers in Photoshop


  • James ColemanOn Aug 12, James Coleman said:
    Nice post Marcelo. You hit and summarized a lot of points that I have had to deal with over the years. One more I wanted to point out which falls in line with Flexibility in design and Culture is having your page elements and page templates localization aware. For example if a page is being viewed in Arabic the content should not just be translated (or re-copy-written as you point out) but the navigation and emphasis of the page should actually be right-to-left instead of left-to-right.
  • Marcelo VolmaroOn Aug 12, Marcelo Volmaro said:
    Absolutely! IF the website was correctly authored from initial design/development, setting the right direction based on the language (ltr/rtl) on the main container should do the trick. This is one of the "easiest" points to achieve, together with color adjustments. Thanks for your comment!
  • Mohamed NaimOn Aug 14, Mohamed Naim said:
    I agree fully that translation of website should take into account a lot more than just translation of content. I do however want to warn against taking the color chart for example too seriously. Color is a tricky thing. It really depends on how you use it and what for and in what context. I highly doubt that an Egyptian thinks of "Death" when she/he sees a red rose. Not sure about orange being a symbol of faith in Egypt either. Anyhow, I agree with what the article is trying to communicate; I just wanted to warn against taking certain things too literally, or assume that there are always magic rules you can just follow and you'll be safe. Instead, I would get input from the target culture itself, or even outsource at least some aspects of the website to someone living int that culture. That's the best and safest criterion.
  • Who are the next billion users and how do we accommodate them – The Publishing ProjectOn Jul 06, Who are the next billion users and how do we accommodate them – The Publishing Project said:
    anguage. Colors can have different meaning depending on the user’s cultural background. In the table below, taken from, we can see how different cultures perceive color. How …
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Federico has over 12 years' experience as a globalization engineer managing a wide range of software and website globalization projects (internationalization I18n + localization L10n). His expertise spans software and website internationalization and localization processes, standards and tools as well as locale specific SEO. Federico has completed hundreds of successful globalization engagements serving as lead I18n architect involving different programming languages. He is a certified developer in several content management systems and helps clients create world-ready applications, utilizing development practices that are faster, more economical, and more localization-friendly.