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Translation vs Localization

We often describe applingua as an App Localization Agency. That's all fine and dandy, but those outside the dev or marketing worlds have often never heard the term localization, let alone know what it exactly entails.

We've decided to clear up these terms a little by addressing them individually and in the context of app development.

Translation (t9n)

Translation is the process of translating text from one language to another. You can translate between languages (e.g. English to French) or between dialects (e.g. British English to US English). You can even translate within a language, for example Wikipedia will often offers difficult topics in "Simple English".

Translation can be broken down into literal and free. Literal translation where text is directly translated almost word-for-word. This is most common for technical, legal, medical or scientific translations. Free translation on the other hand is much more suited to marketing or journalistic text. The sense of the text is taken and translated. This is often the case with novels too, where a literal translation would seem stiff and often not convey subtext.

The app world often sits in the middle of these two styles of translation. On the one hand there are specific terms and short strings that are best translated literally, whereas a more free approach should be taken for the App Store description. Interestingly we are often forced into free translation by device constraints, such as the iPhone's screen size: where text doesn't fit in a button, translators must convey the sense of what the button does, rather than directly and literally translate the original language.

Localization (l10n)

Localization is the process of making something local to a particular place. It often includes translation, but doesn't necessarily have to. Say that again: you can localize without translation.

For example, certain apps may cover specific cities within the US. When the app wants to expand its market, it may open up to a new city and by doing so offer new services specific to that location.

Localization goes beyond just text. Here's a few examples:

  • Date formatting (UK: 25/12/2012, DE: 25.12.2012)
  • Time (UK: 5pm, DE: 17:00)
  • Numbers (UK: 2,244, DE: 2.224)
  • Currencies (UK: £0.69, DE: €0,79)
  • Web links (UK: http://www.apple.com/uk/, DE: http://www.apple.com/de/)
  • Colors (UK: Red = Warning, CN: Red = Good Luck)
  • Product names (UK: Jif, EU: Cif)
  • Local services (UK: Twitter, CN: Weibo)

When text is localized, it is made specific to a person in a specific location. Cultural references, prices, links, colors, etc, need to be specifically changed in order to have the same effect on the reader as was originally intended.

It's about user experience

In the app world, localization is often about a good user experience.

Take flight search utility Kayak as an example (not localized by applingua). The app has been translated, uses location tech to pin point your local airport, returns results in your local currency and searches 3rd-party travel agents specific to your country. Had the app chosen US only providers, displayed prices only in dollars and in English, it wouldn't be of any use to many outside the USA.

On the flip side, you need to be aware of the cases where you don't want to fully localize your app. For example, you may want to translate, use the correct number formatters, dates, etc but you don't have the time to support local social networks or to redesign your app to suit every culture's sensibilities. In these cases think about what's most important to your users and what they'll most appreciate when using your app (numbers they can understand, dates they can read, URLs that take them to the right page).

Ask your translator, ask your users

If you're not sure about whether you need text to be translated or localized - ask! Translators are (hopefully) native speakers and can look at your work from an outsiders perspective. Their opinion may not be sacrosanct, but they should know their local culture sufficiently well.

Otherwise, ask us!

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