We Shall Overcome:

How a Writer Transformed a Passable Hymn into a Powerful Anthem

Robert Graves didn’t have to tell us writers that there’s no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting. We know. Draft after draft, we scrape our thesaurus thin, scouring it for just the right connotation, wrestling for the rhythm that will move us, trying for the tone that will set the words free, and assembling the associations that will make our message ring in a reader’s ears. We know that sometimes a few subtle tweaks can turn adequate to admirable, and passable to powerful.

Tonight I watched the movie Selma, and I saw the battered marchers, arm in arm, singing as they entered Montgomery bruised but triumphant. And although another song played on the soundtrack, it wasn’t hard to read the marchers’ lips: “We Shall Overcome”—the song that focuses the tragedy, the travail, and the victory of the civil rights movement perhaps better than any other. But before that song could unite so many people and stir them to action in the face of danger, it required reworking. An obscure hymn, charming enough, it promised a vague happy future in heaven. But with a little rewriting, it would offer a grittier hope, more tangible and more immediate.

Folk singer Pete Seeger did that rewriting. Of course, Pete didn’t act alone; we writers never do! Plenty of singers and marchers contributed to this folk process.

Read the story behind the song in American Songwriter.

Plenty of singers contributed, but Pete made some thoughtful decisions, and they’re a good model for increasing the power of our own writing. Let’s look at four of Pete’s word choices and then consider one change he made to the rhythm.

We

The old hymn said “I will overcome,” a personal aspiration, a resolution–sort of gritting your teeth and pressing forward. That’s good, but “we” binds us together in a cause. We share the burden. We’re not alone, and if we work together now, we’ll share the joy together later.

Shall

Pete said he liked the strong sound of “shall.” “Shall” rushes out of the mouth. It’s more convincing and certain than “will.” Standing on the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, facing the billy clubs, you need conviction.

I Do Believe

The original, “Oh, deep in my heart, I do not weep” is poetic and appealing in a way, but Pete knew the power of positive words. “I do believe” affirms our resolve. It echoes a scene from the Gospel of Mark, in which a frightened father begs Jesus to heal his son. Jesus responds, “Everything is possible for the one who believes.” “I believe,” the man exclaims, and then, faltering, “Help my unbelief.”

Today

I don’t remember how many times Mom took us kids to see Pete in concert. It seems like a dozen. I loved every song, funny or profound, but singing “We Shall Overcome” was the sacred moment. And every time Pete led us, even though it was the same routine each time, he somehow surprised us. Every verse ends in “someday.” We shall overcome someday. Until we get to this verse.

We are not afraid
We are not afraid
We are not afraid [Pete interjects, triumphant, prompting us, “Today!” We echo him.]

I knew it was coming, and yet it gave me chills every time. The right word for the moment.

Pumping Up the Pulse

Pete made one more change that wasn’t in the lyric, but in the meter. Instead of the plodding 4/4 beat, Pete strummed his 12-string guitar in a lively 12/8. That put three pulses underneath each syllable, stretching each word, yet keeping the pace brisk.

12/8 time gives a lively pulse

The pulse says our cause is serious and mortally dangerous—but we walk forward in vital strength. We are not afraid today.

The movie Selma depicts Dr. King as brooding, deflated, trying to believe, but needing help with his unbelief. He said “We Shall Overcome” encouraged him. Likewise Pete Seeger sometimes had reason to be dismayed, but he was strong when he led us in this song. This song helped marchers face the beatings, and it must have given President Johnson courage, too, because he quoted it when he announced his voting rights legislation.

“We Shall Overcome” stands for courage, for unity of purpose, and for our communal struggle for justice. When we feel inadequate to contribute to that cause, “We Shall Overcome” reminds us writers that a few small edits can lead to big changes.

Hear Pete leading a rousing rendition at Carnegie Hall in 1963.

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I Just Need “Hey, Baby” in Twelve Languages. What’s the Holdup?

Part 4 in a series: Optimizing the Localization Process

  1. Why Does Localization Take So Long?
  2. Why Is Localization So Expensive?
  3. Can’t Linda in Accounting Translate It?
  4. I Just Need “Hey, Baby” in Twelve Languages. What’s the Holdup?

Remember last December one late afternoon when you were about to leave for vacation? Someone stopped by your desk to ask, “Hey, can you tell me where to find a list of translations for ‘Happy Holidays’? I’d like to do about fifty languages. The campaign goes live tomorrow.” Tomorrow! And on February 12th they said they needed “Hey, Baby!” in 12 languages. And on July 1 they said they’d found an Uncle Sam impersonator who spoke eight languages, but maybe you could just review the videos of his clever humor for the Independence Day sale.

Remember how disappointed they were when a customer said the version of “Happy Holidays” in his language didn’t really mean anything, and when one back translation for “Hey, Baby” in your romantic Valentine ad was “The attention of a male infant under eight months is required”? And didn’t they end up scrapping the Uncle Sam videos? Turns out the only words he knew in some languages weren’t appropriate for your campaign.

You tried to help them. First, you offered to give them a calendar so next year they could know in advance when Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and July 4th were coming. (Your sarcasm didn’t go over very well.) You did your best to explain that romantic idioms have trouble crossing cultures, and you warned that American Independence Day puns don’t seem so clever in Finnish. And they seemed to acknowledge your point that localization is important, and, therefore, worthy of the proper investment of time and trustworthy workflows.

But ultimately, they couldn’t hear your advice. They could only hear their bosses telling them to hurry. So how can you educate those bosses? How can you influence their thinking so that they become advocates for linguistic responsibility?

Don’t start with a lecture. Instead, work hard on establishing relationships with the people making the uninformed decisions. Take them to lunch. With a sense of humor, show them good and bad examples from other companies. Share some laughs about the struggles your company has had, too. Ask them what their goals are, and say you can help the team achieve them. Then as time goes on and as projects come up, you can build on that foundation and develop sensible timing and cultural awareness in your company.

In an unhurried moment, most of your colleagues understand that localization involves negotiating cultural meanings. And if you explain it, they’ll concede that localization workflows are necessary to protect your company’s brand.

The trick is to let them know you’re on their side, helping them avoid embarrassment. You’re not trying to slow them down; you’re collaborating together to make localization as efficient and effective as possible.

With any luck, those urgent requests for translations of “Happy Halloween to All the Ghouls and Boos” will be fewer and farther between.

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Can’t Linda in Accounting Translate It?

Part 3 in a series: Optimizing the Localization Process

  1. Why Does Localization Take So Long?
  2. Why Is Localization So Expensive?
  3. Can’t Linda in Accounting Translate It?
  4. I Just Need “Hey, Baby” in Twelve Languages. What’s the Holdup?

If you manage localization for a while, you’ll probably encounter a conversation like this one.

You: Are you going to send me those files for translation?

Project Manager: Oh, I meant to call you about that. We’re in such a big hurry, and the budget’s really tight. Well, you know Linda in Accounting, right? As it turns out, she speaks Spanish, so I sent her the project to translate. She said she’d try to get it done tonight. I hope that’s okay—just this once.

That starts your adrenaline pumping. It’s not okay in so many ways, you don’t even know where to begin! You’re tempted to let the project manager learn the hard way, but that wouldn’t be fair to Linda. So you decide that it’s a teachable moment, and you let the project manager know you’re on her side.

“It might work out,” you say, “and I can see where it might save time and money—just this once when you’re in a crunch. But here are some things to look out for. I just don’t want you or Linda to get burned.”

You go on to explain what Linda’s up against. Maybe she’s a native speaker of Spanish, but is she a great writer? Not everyone in the accounting department is an outstanding writer in English, so is it fair to expect Linda to be a top-notch Spanish writer? And even if she’s a writer, she may not be a gifted translator, which is a different skill. So what are the odds that Linda, trained as an accountant, has the assets that a translator needs?

  • native speaker of the dialect your company uses (Cuban and Colombian aren’t the same)
  • recently living in the target market speaking the target language
  • outstanding writer with excellent grammar, spelling, punctuation, and a knack for communicating with just the right flair
  • familiarity with the product, your brand, the target market, and your tone and style in the target language
  • access to the company glossary and translation memory

Chances are that if she had that skill set, she’d be a translator rather than an accountant. And even if Linda has all that going for her, she puts the company at a disadvantage because her work will be outside the system. You lose source control, and her work won’t be added to your translation memory. It will be difficult for future translators to be consistent with Linda’s work.

Show the project manager that poor Linda is being set up for failure. She’s kind to give up her evening to help, but the fact that she’s willing is a sign that she doesn’t know what’s required to produce quality translations. At best, this shortcut will cost extra time and money to fix things in review. At worst, it could embarrass your company in the marketplace.

Give examples of how emergency translations introduce inconsistencies and frustrate your users. The instruction says, “Click Continue,” but the only buttons are “Next” and “Back”. Poor Linda can’t see the context. Or maybe because Linda doesn’t know your style guide, she uses formal address (usted), but the rest of the site uses informal (tu). Or perhaps Linda gives sensible translations for “K-12” and “community college,” but those concepts don’t apply to some locations in the target market, so readers will be confused. These may be small errors, but they’ll make your company look incompetent, and you’ll avoid them if you just do localization the right way. Don’t take shortcuts. And don’t abuse Linda’s kindness. Maybe she can become a valuable reviewer for the localization team, but let’s not put her on the spot for instant translations.

Remind the project manager how the company took great care with the English—matching your company’s style and tone, making sure it’s the right blend of casual and expert. In fact, Legal, Marketing, the Chief Editor, and the VP all had suggestions for the wording. Explain that the other language markets need even more care than English, not less, so that the writing appears natural and savvy, not awkward, naive, or foreign.

If all else fails, use a metaphor that project managers can visualize. Say that localization is like fishing line. There are a million ways for it to get tangled, and only one way to keep it straight. When you’ve got a line in the water, don’t pass the fishing rod around to everyone on the pier and under it, on the beach, and in the boat. Keep the task in a few well-trained hands.

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Why Is Localization So Expensive?

Part 2 in a series: Optimizing the Localization Process

  1. Why Does Localization Take So Long?
  2. Why Is Localization So Expensive?
  3. Can’t Linda in Accounting Translate It?
  4. I Just Need “Hey, Baby” in Twelve Languages. What’s the Holdup?

You’re the localization manager in the big scoping meeting for the new product. No one bats an eye when the software development estimate comes in at $4 million, but your $20,000 line item for localization sets the room abuzz. “Wow! What’s the vendor’s per-word rate? Can’t we shop this around? Do we really need two tech writers involved?”

Sigh. There they go again. They swallow million-dollar camels but choke on thousand-dollar gnats. Why do they view localization as a nuisance? Don’t they understand that it opens up whole markets? Can’t they see that it’s important enough to do well? It’s not free, but it amounts to a rounding error in the total project cost. Why do they always single it out for scrutiny?

But you don’t answer in frustration. You suppress your sarcasm. Instead, you say, “Actually, I’ve already saved us about 30% by pre-training the translation team and setting up glossaries and translation memory in each language. We’ll be using three different vendors, each carefully vetted for economy and quality in localizing our products in their particular markets. I’ll be glad to show you some comparisons, but I think we’re pretty close to optimal here.”

That felt good. You calmly demonstrated expertise. The thankless work you’ve been doing behind the scenes is paying off. You’ve got good working relationships with your language service providers, and you have preferred translators lined up who know your products. And best of all, you’ve now begun to establish localization in the minds of these stakeholders as something more than an annoying afterthought.

You can use that conversation as a foundation for building understanding about localization. Little by little, you can educate your company.

Go ahead and show stakeholders the rates your vendors charge. Point out potential savings you could realize by localizing small batches on regular schedules instead of dumping huge projects in a rush. Explain that the best way to save money in localization is to optimize the internationalization of the software itself. Show how you work with trusted translators on the user interface design to improve quality while saving time and money. User flow, layout, the interplay of dynamic and static text, and the format of dates and times can all be optimized for your target markets. That will save rounds of translation and review.

Your company will learn why localization isn’t cheap and why it can’t be an afterthought. They’ll understand better why they shouldn’t go into other language markets unless they think it will have a big payoff. They’ll see that you’re paying not only translators but engineers who convert the files before and after translation, and project managers who guide the process. And maybe they’ll finally understand why you’re always lobbying to give your translators training and in-context access to the software.

Of course, this is just one scenario, and maybe your company’s situation is different. But every company can benefit from better understanding where the unnecessary costs of localization hide, and what savings lie in conducting localization properly.

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Why Does Localization Take So Long?

Part 1 in a series: Optimizing the Localization Process

  1. Why Does Localization Take So Long?
  2. Why Is Localization So Expensive?
  3. Can’t Linda in Accounting Translate It?
  4. I Just Need “Hey, Baby” in Twelve Languages. What’s the Holdup?

Localization has the potential for delays, it’s true, but actually, for a process so important and complex, it’s amazingly fast. But you can make it even faster for your company. Imagine this scenario. It’s about software development, but you can substitute any project that requires translation.

You’re the project manager in the big meeting room for an emergency scoping session. The VP wants to create a new product and launch it in six months, just in time for the trade shows. Your software team says they can get it done with twenty developers full time. That’ll be expensive, but at least it’s doable.

Then the localization manager speaks up, and you dread her pessimism. She’ll demand weeks at the end of the development cycle for translation and review, and she’ll want developer time to argue about fonts and to set up test harnesses for translators. You’ll never the launch on time!

But the localization manager surprises you. “That’s an aggressive timetable, but I think we can make it work. Let’s talk briefly offline to plan it.”

What did she say? She thinks we can make it work? Frankly, even you don’t think it can work! You and the bigwigs had actually sort of forgotten about localization in your planning. There will be a couple thousand strings of user interface (UI) and about fifty topics of user assistance (UA). How could it work?

Integrate localization into development

The localization manager will tell you offline that she can deliver on time if localization is integrated into the software development cycle rather than tacked on at the end of it. Here are the key concepts in the strategy.

Prepare your LSP

Leverage the work you’ve already done with your language service provider (LSP). Work with them to update the glossaries and style guides. Train the LSP in the new product features. Have them scope the project and line up preferred translators. Discuss potential cultural issues and concerns about the design. Draft a schedule, considering international holidays that will affect translators’ availability.

Share feedback with the software developers right from the start to minimize bottlenecks later.

Translate in batches

Translate as you go. You know you’ll never really have a code freeze, so don’t wait for anything to be final. Translate and implement early, as soon as you have a dozen UI strings or a roughed-in widget. You’ll get good quality from your translators because they won’t be racing the clock nor overwhelmed by a huge volume. They’ll ask good questions because they have time to, so they’ll understand your product, and they’ll use your company’s style guide and glossary to help them deliver the right tone and terminology. And their feedback will help smooth out issues with user flow.

As soon as the LSP delivers the first localized batch, you can start review. Remember that last project when you couldn’t get the review finished before launch? This time, you’ll be reviewing all along and improving the quality with each batch.

Keep a regular cadence–say a batch every week or two. Never rush. When you hurry localization, translators won’t have time to ask you questions, understand your product, or abide by your style guide. Terminology and tone will be inconsistent, and you’ll never quite recover.

Get buy-in from the developers

Software developers don’t like last-minute changes requested by translators, but they do want users to have a great experience. So tell the developers early the questions that translators are asking and where they’re having trouble. Developers like explaining their inventions, and they like optimizing them. They’ll be happy to explain the context better or deal with date formats and fonts—as long as it’s early enough.

Deliver a localized batch, and ask to see it in context in a development or staging environment. Tell the developers what works well, not just the concerns. Developers are proud of their code, and they want it to work in every localization, so keep them involved—not hassled, but aware of how it’s coming along. Sure, they’d rather have the translator shorten the text instead of having to edit code themselves to widen a button, but you’ll work that all out. Everyone wants what’s best for the user.

Review in market early

Get review at every stage by stakeholders and by native speakers in the target markets. Stakeholders would delay reviewing till just before launch if you let them. Instead, demand sign-off with every batch. That keeps all the creeps at bay (scope creep, quality bar creep, and concept creep).

Make sure you have linguistic reviewers in the target markets who can see the text in context. They’ll know current business lingo, and they can assess whether the text sounds natural and savvy, and whether the layout is acceptable.

Know your target markets

If your Japanese text is slightly awkward or foreign sounding, your brand will take a hit, and if there are grammatical or typographical errors, you may not get a second chance. Besides that, Japanese translators require more context, and they’ll want to provide fuller descriptions and more detailed instruction for the users. Japanese reviewers will request more changes than other reviewers. You can’t rush Japanese. Consider launching the Japanese localization later than others.

Arabic-speaking markets may have more cultural constraints than some others. Translators and reviewers may want to change the tone and terminology. And you can count on issues with right-to-left orientation and with ligatures. Give Arabic the time and attention it requires.

Every market has its unique opportunities and pitfalls, but savvy in-market reviewers will guide you to success.

Plan for on-time delivery

Localization takes longer when you hurry, so plan well and communicate constantly. It can’t be an afterthought, and it can’t happen just before release. So make your expectations realistic. Done right, localization can proceed at a quick, comfortable pace within the development life cycle.

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