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Tips for Successful Khmer Localization Projects

Tips for Successful Khmer Localization Projects

Posted by Anne Quach on Sep 2021.

Cambodia has attracted an increasing number of foreign investors over the years because of its favourable tax treatment, plentiful labour, and great resources and raw materials. To avoid miscommunication with your potential customers in Cambodia, some features of the Khmer language and culture should be considered carefully

With the help of our native Khmer linguist, Khen Smeyrith, GTE Localize has listed some significant facts and tips about the Khmer language and Khmer localization.

1. The Use of Space

There is no space or dividers between words in the Khmer language. Spaces, in fact, function as phrase or sentence separators. They are used to indicate the end of an idea, phrase or sentence, helping readers pause when they are reading.

There are three main types of Khmer words:

    • Single and indivisible words (e.g. ជាតិ ~ national)
    • Words with prefixes and suffixes (e.g. អន្តរជាតិ ~ international)
    • Compound words (e.g. សកលវិទ្យាល័យ ~ university)

You cannot break characters in the first two types of Khmer words as it might cause unreadable words. However, it is possible to break compound words (e.g. |សកល|វិទ្យាល័យ|).

Khmer Language - Khmer Localization

A sample of Khmer scripts

In Khmer localization projects, no spaces between words will make it more challenging for the localization process and the DTP step to be more specific. If you let DTP-ers with no understanding of the Khmer language handle the task, line-breaking mistakes will 100% occur, affecting the accuracy of the content.

The only solution is to assign the DTP step to either native Khmer DTP-ers or those who are fluent in Khmer to avoid the unfortunate mistakes in line breaking.


2. Careful with Spelling

To many linguists, spelling mistakes in Khmer characters are of great challenge to fix. This is because:

    • There are two schools of spellings in Cambodia, both of which are very commonly used in everyday life. For linguists or formal users, they prefer the official spelling called Choun Nath’s spelling. However, the mixed-up of two types of spelling is so abundant that it is always necessary for users to frequently check a dictionary to verify.
    • There is NO auto-correction for Khmer like that of English. As a result, manual checking is a must to guarantee the most accurate spelling. Despite some attempts to create auto spelling checks in MS word, they don’t work properly enough.
    • There are many new words created informally, and the spelling for such words are all over the place. Most of these words don’t have an officially correct way to translate/spell (e.g. log-in, computer mouse, etc.). As a result, linguists always have different opinions on those words.

Due to the complexity of the Khmer spellings, it is common to see proofreaders find a huge number of spelling mistakes in a translation. This is not because the translators are careless or unprofessional. It is rather because there is no standard spelling system that confuses linguists sometimes.

Even professional linguists are confused by the Khmer spellings and the use of a dictionary is a must for all projects. Needless to say, using machine translation only for this language will cause you a lot of trouble. Nevertheless, for the Khmer language, always let professional native Khmer linguists handle your Khmer localization projects. It is advisable that you use Khmer translation services with all 3 steps (translation + editing + proofreading) for important projects.


3. Khmer Social Registers

In the Khmer language, speakers must take the social status of the addressees into consideration when communicating to show politeness and respect to the person spoken to.

In the Khmer system of registers, there are distinctive registers to use for common speech, polite speech, communication to or about the royals and monks. These registers employ alternate verbs, pronouns, and name of body parts.

Take the verb “to eat” as an example. When referring to animals, it is /siː/. When used for commoners, it is /ɲam/ and when referring to people in higher statuses, it is /pisa/ or /tɔtuəl tiən/.

Likewise, Khmer uses complex honorific variations for different situational usage. Below are some popular honorific pronouns in the Khmer language:

Usage I/Me You He/She/It
Intimate or addressing an inferior អញ ឯង វា
Neutral ខ្ញុំ អ្នក គេ
Formal យើងខ្ញុំ or
(or kinship term, title or rank)
A layperson to/about Buddhist clergy ខ្ញុំព្រះករុណា ព្រះតេជព្រះគុណ ព្រះអង្គ
Buddhist clergy to a layperson អាត្មា or
ញោមស្រី (to female)
ញោមប្រុស (to male)
ឧបាសក (to male)
ឧបាសិកា (to a female)
When addressing royalty ខ្ញុំព្រះបាទអម្ចាស់ or ទូលបង្គុំ (male),ខ្ញុំម្ចាស់ (female) ព្រះករុណា ទ្រង់

In Khmer localization, to communicate effectively with your target audiences and avoid impoliteness or even offence, your company has to be careful with your choice of social registers. It is best to have a professional localizer or linguist to provide you with insightful knowledge of the audiences and locale culture to help you choose suitable registers.


4. Numbers in Khmer

There are two different numeral systems used in Cambodia – Western Arabic numerals and Khmer numerals.

Arabic numeral Khmer numeral Word form IPA
0 សូន្យ /soun/
1 មួយ /muəj/
2 ពីរ /piː/
3 បី /ɓəj/
4 បួន /ɓuən/
5 ប្រាំ /pram/
6 ប្រាំមូយ /pram muəj/
7 ប្រាំពីរ /pram piː/, /pram pɨl/
8 ប្រាំបី /pram ɓəj/
9 ប្រាំបួន /pram ɓuən/
10 ១០ ដប់ /ɗɑp/

The Khmer numerals were derived from the Hindu numerals and have been used since at least the early 7th century. Cambodian people seem to use Khmer numerals more widely and often than Western Arabic numerals. In daily use, people can use both numeral systems; however, for formal documents such as legal, government, or court documents, the use of Khmer numerals is a must.

When localizing content into Khmer, based on the type of content, you will find a suitable numeral system that helps create the best reading experience for your Khmer audiences. What’s more, don’t forget to include the type of numeral system you would like your translators to use in the translation guideline.

One interesting fact about the Khmer numerals

Both Thai and Lao scripts are derived from Old Khmer, thus their numeral forms still bear some resemblances to the Khmer.

Value Khmer Thai Lao


5. Other Khmer Localization Details and Locale Specifics

Below is the checklist of Khmer localization details for the Cambodian market you should consider for the best quality Khmer localization projects:

  • There is no official Latin transliteration system for Lao. In Laos, French-based systems are used and there is considerable variation in spelling, particularly of vowels. So if you need a transliteration, please be extra careful.
  • The metric system is compulsory in Cambodia since 1914. However, some traditional measurement units are still used. For example, 1 phyeam = 2 muoi = 2 m; 1 lin = ​3⁄80 muoi = 22.5 g; 1 muoi = 1l.
  • The date format is date-month-year.
  • The time format is either a 24-hour clock or 12-hour clock.
  • The full name format is family name followed by the given name.
  • The address format follows the template name – house number and street name – town, postcode – country.

We hope the insights in this article will help you find great success in the Cambodian market. If you are planning on localizing your content into other Asian languages, download our free whitepaper for more localization tips into 10 major languages in Asia.