There is often a lot of confusion around the terms translation and localization. In this post, we will attempt to target the definitions of translation and localization and try to demonstrate why there is often confusion.
There are of course official definitions of translation and localization.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines localization as ‘the process of making something local in character or restricting it to a particular place.’ Meanwhile, translation is ‘the process of translating words or text from one language into another’.
You can already see from the dictionary definitions of translation and localization that these two words have different meanings. Notice, for example, that localization doesn’t mention language or even content, text or words. You will also notice that translation is restricted to one language into another, you don’t find the words local or global in its definition.
Imagine you are creating a poster for your local community, advertising a local sports club at the local sports grounds. Your target audience are those interested in sports in that locale. The poster includes informative content, the date, time and place of the training session. Let’s assume the language is also English.
If you offer the same session in the next city, you can localize the poster. This keeps the content and language the same except for the date, time and place, which will now be at the new sports grounds in the next city.
This is localization - you have just localized the poster by making it relevant to the new target community. You’ve kept all the pertinent content about the service (sports lessons) the same, the language is also the same, but you have changed the content that matters to that local community: the date, time and place.
Imagine you now want to offer the same training sessions in both the UK and USA. The content of the sessions stays the same, as does the language. As before, you need to change the date, time and place of each of the training sessions. However now you’re offering sessions in two regions that don’t use the same date format, so you will need to localize the format of the dates depending on the country (USA: MM/DD/YYYY, UK: DD/MM/YYYY).
At this point you’re becoming a pro localizer. You’re able to take the entire content of a poster and put it up in different cities not only in your own country but in another too; you’re able to identify that other countries use different date formats and adapt the content accordingly.
Now the question is, what happens when you want to be more global and offer the same sports sessions in Italy or Germany? Is it time to change the content language for your target audience?
In our global world, it’s becoming more and more common for companies to offer products and services in regions that don’t speak the same language. Global trade is booming and target markets often transcend geographic borders. It is at this point that, in order to effectively localize your product or service, you need to use translation.
In the example above, you’re now ready to start sports sessions in Italy. To recap, your poster is comprised of the following:
As before, the place of the training sessions obviously has to change per each city. The date will need to be in the right format - DD/MM/YYYY. As the majority of countries in mainland Europe, you will also have to change the time format from 12h to the 24h clock. Finally, the content needs to be translated so that it’s understandable by those wanting to attend the sessions in Italy.
You can see now that translation is just a tool of localization. In the same way as we changed date formats when we moved our sports sessions between the USA and UK, we are now changing the time format and the language too.
So let’s be clear about this, localization is not translation.
Localization is the process of making something local to the recipient. Often this means not changing the language at all.
However, translation is a tool of localization. If you want to make something local to a target market outside of your own that speaks a different language, we use translation to adapt the content to fit the market requirement.
Assuming the whole world can understand content in the same way you can sometimes lead to reputation-destroying mistakes. There are sadly numerous examples of companies forgetting to properly test their products and services in target markets and therefore stumbling into brick walls.
Our basic example above with sports sessions only highlights a tiny proportion of what localization can entail. There are many factors that may need to be adapted to successfully enter a new market, which is why it’s a good idea to get professional advice.
For instance, washing detergent companies in Europe have historically localized their product offering and marketing to correctly fit each region:
Southern Europeans traditionally washed their clothes with lower temperatures than their northern counterparts. They prefer less powerful detergents, often used in combination with bleach. Northern Europeans favor powerful detergents and mostly dislike bleach in their laundry. Packaging preferences also differ. People in Northern Europe like compact products, while Southern consumers favor large boxes.
You can see how offering products or services that work for your market, may flop completely in another market. This is why localization matters.
It’s often said that English is the international language, especially in global business. While there is some truth in this, 20% or 1.5 billion people speak English to some degree, data suggests that people are more likely to spend in their only language.
In a survey by the European Union, 94% of Dutch people say they can speak one more languages besides their mother tongue. 90% of Dutch people say they speak English well enough to have a conversation.
However, more than half of people surveyed (52.4%) in another study responded that they would only buy on websites where the info is presented in their language.
The more valuable an item, the more likely people want to read about it in their own language - 85.3% for financial services versus 45.8% for clothes.
These statistics are revealing, especially when you consider the Netherlands to be quite linguistically adept. Other countries can’t boast the same number of English speakers. Not translating effectively cuts off large parts of the global population.
We’ve noticed that it’s especially common in the tech startup and software development worlds to confuse the words localization and translation. They have effectively become synonymous.
We believe that’s due to many software development kits poorly explaining the localization process and often referring to localization as internationalization and translation, confusingly, as localization.
For this reason, you will often find companies offering services which also use these terms synonymously. Translation and localization agencies, to meet the expectations of developers, will talk about localization, internationalization and globalization, despite often only meaning translation.
In some way, the language they are using to target their clients is clever. If their clients are using these words, they should too. We believe however that it also devalues the true meaning of these words.
By this point, you might be wondering which of the two services do you need if you are thinking of going global. Do you need translation and localization or is it a question of translation or localization?
The answer really depends on what your project is. Here a few questions you can ask yourself before going global:
If you answer yes to most of these questions, then you probably need to think about localization services over translation services. Of course, if your target market speaks another language, then the localization process will include translation services.
So there you have it, translation and localization are not two peas in the same pod, more like translation is the pea and localization is the pod.
But if you’re still in doubt and aren’t sure about going global, then you can send us an email on (firstname.lastname@example.org) and we’ll help you out with global translation and localization services.
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