How we localized mmhmm into Ukrainian

Charlie Liu

Jun 28, 2022

Background

mmhmm is one of the initiating partners of Sora Union’s #SpeakUkraine campaign.

mmhmm is an easy-to-use web app for people to make, watch, and talk on videos together. An ideal video platform for distributed work, mmhmm has a vision that’s perfectly aligned with that of Sora Union. As an initiative to support the Ukrainian people, language and culture, mmhmm has chosen to partner with Sora Union to localize its branding and product into Ukrainian.

mmhmm website homepage in Ukrainian

The challenges

First of all, the clock is ticking. mmhmm is a global brand that over the course of the past two years has localized and translated into more than 10 languages - with the total scope at 100,000+ words. Plus, mmhmm’s product is on a frequent iteration cadence. So we not only have a lot of catch-up work to bring it on par with the other languages, but also need to maintain a good speed to handle the ongoing tasks.

Second, quality is essential. mmhmm is backed by the world’s leading investors such as Sequoia Capital and SoftBank Vision Fund and used by enterprises and startups around the world. The scope of the project is wide and complex, covering website copies, blog posts, help guides, marketing materials, email newsletters, product interfaces, and so on. The tolerance for error is virtually none, and the stake is extremely high.

Last but certainly not least, creativity is in mmhmm’s DNA. Unlike the other cold-feeling and commodity-positioned video platforms, mmhmm has much a more fun and creative vibe in its branding and product design. Therefore, the localization project is far beyond just word-by-word translation and requires a high level of transcreation.

Our approach

Team

To balance the impossible triangle of speed, quality, and creativity, we need a world-class team. Besides, because of the social responsibility nature of the #SpeakUkraine campaign, it would be deeply meaningful to use this project to support the displaced Ukrainian people because of the war.

Fortunately, we have put together an amazing team for this project.

Presentation slide about project team, with 1 project manager and 4 translators and reviewers

Team leader Kate Glebova has more than 17 years of translation and management experience. She used to run her own translation agency in Ukraine, but lost her business because of the war. She was displaced from Kyiv and is now finding shelter with her daughter in a village in Austria.

It’s not just Kate. In fact, the whole project team consists of professional Ukrainian translators displaced by the war and who then fled to neighboring countries. It was not an easy journey - some of them had to hide overnight in the forest near the border and had to build new lives in cities with no friends and family.

Meanwhile, they are professionally excellent. Each of them has more than seven years of translation experience. Some of them have translated novels, others come from a background of literature, such as prominent poet in the family, and others have done translation work in multiple languages.

The displacement experience has made our teammates extremely resilient. They also hold a high level of ownership of the project because it gives them a chance to “showcase the beauty of the Ukrainian language and culture”, said one of our teammates.

With such a talented and motivated team, we know the project is in good hands.

Workflow

But an excellent team alone can’t guarantee the success of the project - we also need a robust workflow to achieve high efficiency and assure excellent quality.

Glossary & style

The project started with creating a glossary of frequently used key vocabulary. These can be key features or special terms of the product, so it is important to get these correct to begin with. Our translators asked many clarifying questions to mmhmm’s product team to make sure their understanding is correct, setting a good foundation for the style of further translation.

mmhmm website in Ukrainian, which shows a product feature

Translation & review

Depending on the nature of the different tasks, such as marketing materials, product user interfaces, blog posts, etc, Kate assigns the tasks to different teammates based on their specialties and strengths. For example, some teammates are comparatively better at translating, but some might be stronger in proofreading, and others might have better eyes in reviewing in the context of a webpage or user interface.

Quality Assurance

Besides normal reviews, we sometimes conduct a special QA process. This process can simulate the product user interface in a virtual environment, allowing our translators to interact with the buttons and screens to further test the product similar to a real setting.

For example, the term "away" in the mmhmm product context means to let the presenter take a break from appearing on camera. First we translated it as “Режим прихованого екрану”, but then during QA testing, it revealed that the translation is too long and does not fit into the button on the screen as it is supposed to. So we shortened it it to “Прихований екран” to fit the size.

As a result, we were able to spot areas of improvement that otherwise would be impossible to catch in the regular translation flow.

Communications

Client communications are much more than just clicking the submit button. Kate was always communicating with mmhmm’s product manager, Lillian Tseng, to ensure that the delivery of tasks was satisfactory, to prompt for further tasks, and to propose what other values our team can add. These interactions are so valuable that they even helped mmhmm to optimize how it handled the localization of other languages with other vendors.

Therefore, this customized workflow to handle the translation, review, QA, and communications was key to ensuring speed and quality.

The extra mile

If the workflow is just table stake, our team went above and beyond for the project.

Experiencing the product

Before starting to hit the keyboard, our teammates took the time to try and experience the mmhmm product to have a deeper understanding of the company’s culture and mission. These first-hand experiences offered unparalleled insight into how a Ukrainian-speaking user would behave and react.

mmhmm website in Ukrainian showing mmhmm product in use in a video call

Ambiguity discussions

Certain terms don’t translate well across languages because of cultural differences and societal backgrounds. So even if our teammates are fully-distributed, we often carry out ambiguity discussions asynchronously - via Slack groups or emails - or synchronously - on mmhmm’s video calls, to brainstorm and explore better word choices. These helped them better understand each other, better understand the product, and even better understand the ever-evolving languages.

The mmhmm product is built on the premise of distributed work, but it is hard to find the corresponding concept in Ukrainian. For example, the term “distributed team” was quite difficult to translate into Ukrainian in two words, so during brainstorming the team decided to use the so-called “descriptive translation” method and use the term “команда, що працює разом з різних куточків світу” (“a team working together from around the world”) or “команда, що розподіляє завдання серед своїх працівників по всьому світу” (“a team that distributes tasks among its employees around the world”) depending on the context to make it look more natural.

It is of vital importance to take into account not only the direct meaning of words, but to think about the project as a whole. Translators always have to be creative to invent new words and terms as technology and the world are developing much faster than dictionaries.

Pun intended

mmhmm is a fun and creative product, but it also makes the frequently-used puns very challenging to carry the tone from English to Ukrainian. It might be from a movie, sport, or a book that’s popular in the English world, but how do we make sure it maintains the same flavor in Ukrainian while preserving the meaning of the original text?

One interesting case is the name of a mmhmm room - “fang girl”. We found that it was the name of a book for teenagers about vampires, but this book was not translated into Ukrainian and thus there’s no such the analogy in this language. So we tried to play with the Ukrainian word “паща” (mouth of an animal) and arrived at the word “пащекуха”.

The result

Within three months, we brought Ukrainian on par with the other languages for mmhmm’s localization project, many of which lasted over a year. More importantly, we managed to maintain mmhmm’s unique brand style, culture, and creativity into a new language.

mmhmm website in Ukrainian, showing a video with users in digital floating bumper cars

According to Lillian, product manager of mmhmm, we were able to “provide high-quality translation, review, and QA services for our rapidly-growing software product. Their turnaround time is at least twice as fast as other vendors.”

We will continue to partner with mmhmm for ongoing Ukrainian localization tasks, and are also exploring other languages - to be translated by our team of fully distributed, diverse, and talented professionals impacted by or at-risk of displacement due to conflict or climate change around the world.

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