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To Russia with love: 7 tips for smooth app localization into Russian

app localization into Russian
Photo: Daniil Silantev

I have stumbled upon app localization by chance. In 2017 there was a job ad on to provide app localization into Russian for a pregnancy and parenting app. Being a new mum was a real benefit (for once), so I jumped at the chance, was hired and haven’t looked back.

To be honest, when applying I wasn’t even sure what an app localization project involved, but I was excited to gain new skills, learn how apps are developed and help make a great product available to parents and parents-to-be in Russia.

By 2021, I gained experience across two major parenting apps, one smaller parenting app where I was featured as a translator (so rare and so nice!), and another app about fasting & nutrition, which is another topic close to my heart.

Drawing on that experience I’d like to share some tips for app localization into Russian, although some of them are just as relevant for other languages.

Tip #1. Give your translators context.

I can’t stress this enough: translators are not being thick or annoying when they’re asking for context. Linguistic intuition goes a long way, but you don’t want your localization team working in the dark and making assumptions. This can lead to some costly and embarrassing mistakes that will surface eventually – at the QA stage or even after the release. It slows down the process considerably and forces developers to go back and make changes. With apps supporting 20+ languages, realistically this can only ever be done in the next release, which is usually weeks or months away.

Tip #2. Give them time.

Yes, localization is fast-paced and volumes can be significant, but it is not usually a life-or-death kind of situation. And yet I was once approached by an agency specialised in app and website localization that asked me to localize an app in under 12 hours! True, it wasn’t content-heavy and in total there was just over 1000 words. Easily done, right? But I know all too well that for every 100 words that are fairly straightforward there’ll be 2 words that will require some serious head-scratching. It might be a menu item that’s too long in Russian and won’t fit or a concept that is not easy to explain or something completely different. I had to politely decline. It is not a race (even though it often seems that way)!

Tip #3. Make it relevant to your Russian users.

Encourage your team to localize and change things that are going to be irrelevant, confusing or outright annoying for the users in the target market.

Here’s an example: as part of app content I had to localize an article about pool safety for infants. While backyard pools might be a reality for some families in the US, it’s not the case for the vast majority of Russians, so I was certain that any references to private pools wouldn’t go down well with people who live in high-rises – a family of four to a room isn’t unheard of. However, some Russians own summer houses where they escape during the summer months, and it’s entirely possible to have a small inflatable pool there – so that’s how I adapted the article.

In fact, having spent nearly two years providing user support for two parenting apps in addition to my localization work, I can safely say:

Users are quick to detect foreign-sounding content and will not hesitate to let you know their disappointment.

Tip #4. Think beyond words.

Want to go to the next level of user engagement? Adapt images too. Otherwise, even if the text speaks to the readers, they might find the images jarring or irrelevant.

Here’s a recent example: I was translating an app article accompanied by an image of the American flag on the moon. Now, I’m now debating who landed there first, but since Russia sent the first human into space, I thought it’d be nice to acknowledge that and redraw the image so that it alluded to Yuri Gagarin. References to local culture usually get bonus points!

Photo: Simple app

Tip #5. Choose the tone of voice wisely.

I’ve written a separate blog post about it, but to recap here: Russian has two levels of formality, a bit like French and German. Formal tone of voice (and corresponding pronoun “вы”) is usually the way to go if your audience is 20+. This will ensure consistency and save translators a lot of trouble when they get to localizing system messages or legal information: privacy and cookie policies always require a formal tone of voice. However, apps for children and teenagers might benefit from a more informal tone of voice.

Tip #6. Expect complications.

Russian is very different to in English in many respects: the alphabet, the sentence structure, the genders… When it comes to app localization, these differences can add a whole new level of complexity. For instance, the sentences with numerals in Russian can be problematic. Where in English you can simply have “1 result” for singular and “0 results”, “2 results”, “105 results” for plural , Russian has more complex rules: 1, 21, 31, 41… результат; 2~4, 22~24, 32~34… результата; 0, 5~19, 100, 1000… результатов. So you need to make provisions for three types of word endings depending on the preceding number.

A way around this is to structure the phrase like this: «Результаты: 5» (Results: 5). That way you can avoid having to create rules for different sets of numbers. This may or may not be the best strategy depending on how many languages you’re localizing into, what tools you’re using and the scope of the project.

Tip #7. Avoid using strings in more than one location.

Recycling strings might seem efficient, but in reality it creates more problems than it solves. Dennis Meyer makes a great point about it in the “Localization for developers” course. This “mix and match” approach doesn’t work well in any language, but in Russian it’s particularly problematic because it’s an inflected language – the form or ending of words often changes depending on where they are used in a sentence.

With Russian being in the top 10 languages on the internet by share of users, it might be well worth localizing your product for the Russian market and doing it right. I hope you’ve found these tips on app localization into Russian useful!