4 Elements for a Successful Khmer Localization Project

May 25, 2022

Cambodia has attracted more and more attention from foreign investors over the years thanks to its favorable tax treatment, plentiful labor, and raw materials. To avoid miscommunication with your potential customers in Cambodia, some factors of the Khmer language and culture should be carefully taken into consideration.

The Use of Space

In the Khmer language, there is no space or dividers between words. Spaces, in fact, function as a 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 types of Khmer words commonly used:

  • 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 divide characters in the first two types of Khmer words as it might cause illegible words. However, it is possible to break compound words (e.g. |សកល|វិទ្យាល័យ|).

A sample of Khmer scripts

No spaces between words will make it more daunting in the Khmer localization process and the DTP step to be more detailed. If you let DTP-ers not fluent in the Khmer language do the task, line-breaking mistakes will 100% appear, affecting the precision of the content.

The best way is to assign the DTP step to either native Khmer DTP-ers or those who have understandings of the Khmer language to avoid the unfortunate mistakes in line breaking.

Be Careful with Spelling

Spelling mistakes in Khmer characters is a big challenge to fix for many linguists. The reasons are:

  • There are two schools of spellings in Cambodia, both of which are very commonly used on a daily basis. 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 is 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.). So, linguists always have different opinions on those words.

Since Khmer spelling is quite complicated, it is common to see proofreaders find a huge number of spelling mistakes in a translation. There is no standard spelling system so it confuses linguists sometimes, no matter how careful they are.

Even professional linguists are confused by the Khmer spellings and a dictionary is a key for all projects. Sure, using machine translation only for this language will cause you a lot of trouble. Therefore, for the Khmer language, the best solution is to let professional native Khmer linguists handle your Khmer localization projects.

Khmer Social Registers

In the Khmer language, speakers must pay more attention to the social status of the addressees 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 verbspronouns, and names 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:

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

Numbers in Khmer

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

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.

Arabic numeralKhmer numberalWord FormIPA
2ពីរ[piː], [pɨl]

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.

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 a 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.


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