Some of my European colleagues still remember when the old Macintosh operating system of the 1980s used a trash icon that Apple’s European users confused for a postal box. Why was the icon confusing? People across the globe have different cultural ideas and assumptions about what things are supposed to look like. In other countries, trash cans and mailboxes look rather different than they do in the United States and, in this case, the drawing resembled a European mailbox.

The use of universally understood symbols and icons presents many benefits for users of software, websites and other products. Aside from being visually appealing, the right symbols and icons can reduce the time and cost required to adapt a product for other markets by instantly communicating a message without language-specific words.

The standard triangle-shaped “play” symbol on media players will be understood in most markets without further adaptation. By using the symbol instead of the word, the company producing the media player avoids translating the word “play” when adapting the product to every new market. The symbol also takes up less room on the product interface, and the button does not need to be resized with the text expansion and contraction that often accompanies translation.

However, like any other international endeavor, verification is critical to ensure your message will indeed be understood by other cultures. Symbols and icons – like images, colors, flowers, gifts and idioms – often contain cultural references that international customers may understand differently or not at all.

Sun Microsystems learned their email package for an old product called SunView used an icon that confused people outside the United States. The icon was a U.S.-style mailbox with a red flag that was raised and lowered to indicate the presence of new messages. Most people in other cultures had never seen a mailbox with a red flag and thus had no idea what it was supposed to mean. Never mind that the red flag metaphor was incorrectly applied even for a U.S. audience. Since that time, most software and email providers have found opened and closed envelope icons to be more universally understood across cultures.

Graphics can be individually adapted for specific markets or internationalized to reduce the need of adaptation. This internationalization, or preparation and standardization, includes using symbols that are likely to be universally understood and avoiding those that are likely to cause problems.

Universally understood symbols have been standardized for medical equipment, transportation, and other industries. Other symbols are often completely avoided because of the likelihood that they will be misunderstood or even offensive – dangerous categories include hand gestures, animals and those that represent religion, humor, ethnicity, gender or slang.

Symbols and icons showing a thumbs-up, two-fingered V and OK sign are considered very positive in the United States. However, even former U.S. presidents Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush have found that other cultures consider these hand gestures the international equivalent of a vulgar middle finger. Even a disembodied hand, which we often see in software manuals and user interfaces, can be considered offensive in some locales.

Animal symbols can also be dangerous. For example, owls symbolize wisdom in the United States, and an e-learning website may use an icon of an owl to symbolize that a user or student is performing well in an online course. However, owls symbolize stupidity in some parts of Asia, and Asian students may be insulted, not encouraged, by such an icon.

Religious symbols can, of course, be particularly sensitive. Microsoft’s geopolitical product strategy team once avoided embarrassment by preventing the release of the company’s Office XP software containing a moon and stars astrology icon that resembled the Islamic Hila symbol. When religious symbols cannot be avoided, they must be localized, such as when the Red Cross has been adapted as the Red Crescent in the Middle East.

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Correct use of symbols and icons in an international forum begins with an awareness that visual representations have different meanings in international cultures. With this awareness, a decision must then be made to either localize symbols for each different culture or internationalize them by selecting only universal symbols. Localization may feel more personal, but internationalization can save time and money. Either way, a conscious decision to avoid international symbol and icon blunders will help companies develop internationally acceptable products.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten..

Internationalization clinic

“Internationalization” encompasses many cultural and technical elements beyond just symbols and icons, and I cover many of these in a presentation I am giving for the Utah Technology Council (UTC) and the World Trade Center of Utah at 2 p.m., Thursday, April 21, in Salt Lake City. Register online at the UTC website to attend “Internationalization 101: How to create localization-ready websites and software.”

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