How important is localisation in writing?

…or should that be localization?

Books are global, and pretty much always have been. Back in the day, Charles Dickens did book tours of the US, and it’s even easier to cultivate an international readership these days, with a variety of eBook formats and vendors to choose from. So recently I started to think about how my choice of words may come across to audiences in different English speaking countries.

I’m not overly worried about spelling here. I’m originally from England and so have the UK spellings too deeply ingrained in my head to switch now and, in any case, I don’t think it’s going to give readers too much pause to see the word colour instead of color every now and again. I’m more interested in how much I should pay attention to idioms, brand names and other such region-specific language elements.

Chapter 11 of my current work contains a joke about paint. To fit the tone of the scene, and generally because I liked the cadence of the word in the sentence, I wanted to use the brand name “Dulux”  instead of simply saying the word “paint”. As in…

“Dave took a tin of Dulux and painted it on the walls.”

So I asked a group of Americans if “Dulux” would be instantly recognisable to them as a brand of paint. With the exception of a couple who had spent significant time living in England, they all said no. Suggestions of what it could be ranged from contraceptives to laxatives. It turns out that there simply isn’t any cross-over brand that would be recognised in both the US and the UK. Even the types of paint have different names. Matt/e Emulsion vs Latex Acrylic? Sounds like a late night erotic wrestling show.

Which brings me back to my initial question: How important is localisation?

The book is set in London, so a UK brand name is appropriate and a likely thing for someone to say. But, although the book is set in the UK, I’m not trying to create a quaint UK folksy charm. It just happens to be set there because it needs to be set somewhere. The context *would* strongly imply that it was a paint brand name, but not conclusively define it as such.  Take the following example…

“Dave took a tin of Qualflex and painted it on the walls.”

Even though the example has the word “painted” right in there, it could give you pause if you didn’t already know what Qualflex was. Is it a paint? Maybe “Qualflex” is what they call honey in the UK and Dave is trying to attract bees. What possible benefit is there to putting contraceptive laxatives on the walls? Didn’t he read the label?

I could always change the brand name to simply “paint”, but then I need to change the verb to something else because I don’t want to say “took a tin of paint and painted it”. The trouble is, the verb that means to put paint on the walls in the manner the manufacturer intended is “to paint”. Anything else in that context is going to sound weird, and again give the reader that little beat that I’m trying (a little too hard) to avoid. In the end I spent far too long agonizing over a single word instead of getting on with chapter 12.

So let me know if anyone invents a spellcheck plug-in which, in addition to the red squiggly underlines (misspelt words) and green squiggly underlines (bad grammar), can add – say – little purple squiggly underlines to words every time I use a regional idiom, brand name or colloquialism. That might give me the confidence to look at these in the revision phase, instead of tripping over them in the initial draft, and writing 683 word posts on them.

By the way, in the end I settled on the rather colourless…

 “Dave opened a tin of paint and used it to decorate the kitchen.”

If you’re wondering where the joke is in there, let me assure you it’s all in the context.