App Localization: Can a Bad Translation Do More Harm Than Good? (‘Bird in Hell’ Results)

Bird in Hell: Bad App Translation

On April 11th, I released an update to Bird in Hell that included localization for a handful of markets. For those unfamiliar with app localization, it is the process of translating your app’s name, description and keywords for international markets, with the goal being that it will lead to better visibility in those markets and more downloads. For iOS apps, this can be only be done through iTunes Connect when your app is in an editable state, so it requires an update.

In the days immediately following the initial launch of the app, I noticed that it was receiving a substantial amount of downloads (relatively speaking) from China. In fact, China had the second-most downloads, second only to the US. So when I went forward with trying to localize the app, I knew that China was going to be one of my targets to see if I could continue to grow in that market. One problem, I don’t know a lick of Chinese.

While I don’t know Chinese, I am fluent in other languages besides English, notably Portuguese. So this lent itself to an interesting case study: would the quality of a translation deliver noticeably different results?

The answer, as you might have guessed, is 是的

(I’m assuming this means ‘Yes’, but given Google Translate’s quality of work when it came to localizing my app, it may very well mean ‘Unicorn Puke’ or some other obscure, nonsensical phrase.)

So this is what I did…

I translated the app name, description and keywords for the following languages:

  • Brazilian Portuguese
  • Japanese
  • Mexican Spanish
  • Portuguese (From Portugal!)
  • Simplified Chinese
  • Spanish
  • Traditional Chinese
  • UK English

Of those, I utilized Google Translate for Japanese, Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese. I provided the translations for the rest.

As I mentioned, I am fluent in Portuguese, and conversant in Spanish, so I am pretty confident those translations were solid. As for the Google translated ones? No idea. I can only imagine how nonsensical the translations likely were to native speakers.

I expected that the poor translations may have a negative impact, but I didn’t expect this!

localization results

The chart above (from Sensor Tower) displays downloads by region for my app. You can see the huge spike in downloads in the initial 3-5 days, and the subsequent decline. From everything I have heard, this is a rather normal curve for apps that don’t take off due to big marketing spend or viral growth. The colors in the chart represent different regions:

  • Green = United States
  • Red = China
  • Blue = Brazil

See that green dot? That represents when the update (which included my localization changes) went live.

As you can see, downloads in China not only decreased, they became non-existent. Since the update there hasn’t been a single download from China. (There were 101 downloads from China prior to the update)

Interestingly, since the update there has been a steady growth in downloads from Brazil, which previously represented a minor segment of users of my app. In the chart below, you can see downloads reaching a peak on 4/22 with 10 downloads. Brazil now represents the highest segment of users post-update.

Brazil App Downloads Grow


It is worth noting that this isn’t much of a case study as the download numbers are so minimal that there is no way to reach statistical significance with the current data. However, I think it does begin to support the theory that localization IS worth pursuing, so long as you use a solid translation.

Moral of the story, if you want to localize your app make the investment in a professional translation. As close as Google is to SKYNET these days, it’s still a sorry translator!

Have you seen similar results when localizing your apps? Share in the comments!

Shane Kittelson
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Shane Kittelson

Creator. Writer. Marketer. Maker of Things. Focused on Mobile App Development, App Store Optimization and Appreciating Life.
Shane Kittelson
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  1. Aurore says

    Great article. In fact, newbies may be tempted to use Google Translate for reasons of time and money, forgetting too often that machine translation results are still in the range from barely understandable to total gibberish, especially for language pairs such as English -> Japanese or Simplified Chinese. Google Translate is a great solution to get a basic translation, for understanding purposes or personal use. But for publication, use a professional translation service such as Quality localized content increases sales and customer satisfaction, so don’t treat words as a cost to be relentlessly reduced, they are the key for a successful localization project!

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