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4 Secrets for Effective Online Course Translations

Online courses offer flexibility for both trainers and trainees, remove geographical barriers to learning, minimize training budgets, inject some fun into learning, and promote life-long learning. They are an integral part of both modern and future learning. In the spirit of eliminating geographical barriers to learning, it is important that developers of online learning courses adapt them for international audiences.

Statistics recorded in 2020 show that about 74 percent of all internet users in the world are not native English speakers. There is a whole world out there that you will only appeal to upon translating your online courses into multiple languages. Furthermore, with multilingual workforces mushrooming all over the world, thanks to the growing remote-work technology, online course translation will soon become absolutely necessary in the business world. That is why you need to stick around for these 4 secrets for effective online course translations:


  1.     Only work with natives of the target language

Upon translation, you want your course to look and feel as if it was originally developed within the target culture. You will only get that “look-and-feel” from human translators who are natives of the target language and culture; translators who acquired your target language as their mother tongue in a natural language learning process.

Working with native translators has many benefits.

  • Their vocabulary in the target language is way more extensive than that of “foreign” translators. For example, there are many Spanish words, phrases, and synonyms that a Guanajuato-born translator would know but a fluent Spanish-speaking American translator wouldn’t. Some of those words and synonyms can make your translated work more pleasant and comprehensible.
  • Language and culture develop and evolve constantly. You don’t want to use outdated jokes and obsolete examples in your translated online training materials. The surest way of avoiding that blunder is to work with translators who interact with the target audience every day.
  • Spoken and written language can be very different. A non-native translator may be excellent in spoken Mandarin, for example, but grossly underwhelming in written Mandarin.
  • Language doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it comes with customs and sensitivities that non-natives may struggle to understand.
  1.     Pay closer attention to distinct linguistic variants

The process of selecting the right cultures and languages to translate into is always a big challenge. That is, however, nothing compared to the perplexing problem of selecting the right linguistic variation to target in a language that has multiple forms. A good example of this problem would be the distinctive grammar and spelling conventions between British English and American English. If you were translating your online course from French to English, for example, which one between British and American variants would you target? Of course, choosing one variant over the other will precipitate striking confusion and incomprehension in a huge chunk of the global English-speaking population. This same dilemma exists in other languages as well.

  • Peninsular (or European) Spanish that is spoken in Mainland Spain is different from the Latin American Spanish (LATAM) that is popular in Mexico and the U.S.
  • The traditional Mandarin and Cantonese that are popular in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau are very different from the simplified Chinese that is standard in mainland China and Singapore.
  • The French spoken in African Francophone countries varies in terms of accents, slang, and vocabulary. Canadian French is noticeably different from the standard version of French that’s spoken in France.

Those are just a few of the many examples of linguistic variants that you should take note of. That being said, how do you select the right variant for your audience?

The obvious answer is to always translate to the variant that’s primarily spoken in your target country/region. If you are targeting Canadians, forget about other French variants and only focus on Canadian French. But what if your situation isn’t that obvious?

  • If you intend for your online course translation to reach as many people as possible, pick the most spoken variant in the world. There are more Portuguese speakers in Brazil than in Portugal, for example, so Brazilian Portuguese would be more ideal for your translations.
  • Target the variant whose speakers have better internet access statistics. There are more French speakers in West Africa, for example, but internet penetration in that part of the world is significantly lower than in Europe. You probably would reach a bigger audience by targeting European Francophone countries instead of West Africa’s Francophone population.
  • Use simplified versions as opposed to traditional versions. For example, non-native Mandarin speakers are more likely to understand simplified Chinese than traditional, more concentrated Cantonese.
  1.     Develop globally acceptable online courses right from the onset

Use internationally accepted standards and conventions right from the development stages of your online course. That will make your translations more accurate and easier to adapt to foreign languages. For example:

  • The universally accepted date format starts with the year, then the month, and the day in the end (YYYY-MM-DD). Other formats can be confusing.
  •  Express all your monetary figures in US dollars. The USD$ is the most popular currency in the world and the most convenient currency to convert to/from other currencies.
  • If you have to choose between metric and imperial systems, choose the metric system because it is accepted all over the world- except in the US.
  • Leave enough whitespace for text expansion and contraction upon translation. Translating from English to French, German, and Spanish, for example, can result in almost 30% expansion. Without enough space, your translated online courses might appear overcrowded and disorganized.

In the case of video courses, leave a few pauses between paragraphs/thoughts in order to accommodate possible expansions in translated voiceovers.

  • Minimize abbreviations in your original text to avoid confusion and misinterpretation upon translation. Write out all abbreviations and explain all scientific symbols used. For example Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius (not “100 oC”). Lake Michigan is four thousand nine hundred cubic kilometers in volume (not 4,900 km3).
  • Use graphics that people across the world can relate with.
  • Ensure that your original content is sensitive to cultural, racial, religious, sexual, political, and gender differences, among other emotive and divisive societal elements.
  • Different colors and symbols have different cultural connotations in different parts of the world. If you intend to use any symbol or color in your original design, first research to confirm that nobody in your target audience would be offended by it.
  • Avoid hand gestures in video online courses. You may find this hard to believe but there are no universally accepted positive hand gestures (even the “thumbs up” is offensive in some countries such as Afghanistan).


  1.     Collaborate with a reputable translation company

A reputable translation services provider will use translation software to make your translation process faster, more affordable, and highly accurate. They will use translation memory, for example, to store and later reuse repeated words and sentences from previously translated content. By so doing, they guarantee consistency across all of your translated online courses, give you a discount for all repeated words and sentences, and save you time in the long run. They also use rapid authoring tools such as Adobe Captivate for a seamless export/import of files between different text formats. Other defining factors of a good translator include:

  • Even with post-modern translation software, most of the work is done by human translators.
  • Their translators are not only natives of the target language but also subject matter experts in your industry. All they need from you is a simple brief of your desired writing style and tone of voice and they are good to go.
  •  They have a multi-layered review process to ensure error-free translations.
  • On top of guaranteeing high customer satisfaction, they also accept revision requests in case you are unhappy with their end product.
  • They have considerable experience, particularly in eLearning translation.

Bottom Line

There is more to online course translations than simply writing content, word-for-word, in multiple dialects. There are the obvious challenges of budget, time, and accuracy, but there is the deeper challenge of managing the social implications your content has in different cultures. Most of your strategies should be centered on cultural implications.

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