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What Is Localization, And How Does It Differ From Translation?

Localization is a very common practice, but what exactly is it?
What Is Localization, And How Does It Differ From Translation?

As the world has gotten more and more connected, the need for information to cross linguistic and cultural lines has grown. That means all text and spoken language in a product — be it an app, a movie, a video game, an instruction manual or anything else — needs to be understood by the target audience. Making a product usable to a wide variety of people requires more than just direct translation, however. That’s where localization comes in.

At its simplest, localization is the process in which something is tailored for a specific audience. It manifests in a lot of different ways across industries. Here, we’ll look at how it works together with translation, and explore a few different ways that it’s implemented.

The Difference Between Localization And Translation

If you were to draw a Venn diagram of localization and translation, there would be a large amount of overlap. While the two aren’t exactly the same, localization almost always requires some amount of translation. And for its part, translation also requires some degree of localization for it to make sense.

The boundaries between these two concepts are hazy. To simplify it a bit, translation deals solely with the language part of the equation. Localization is about everything else, including cultural references, systems of measurement, currencies, regional terms and more. The two work hand in hand to make for the most fluid experience for whoever encounters the media or product.

The most clear example of how the two differ is when looking at same-language localization. To take a common example, many things are localized in American and British English. While you don’t have to “translate” between those two dialects, a person might want to localize content to change “lorry” to “truck,” remove the “u” from “colour” and convert money amounts from pounds to dollars.

In most cases, translation and localization will work hand-in-hand, and services that offer “localization” tend to cover both of them. Yet properly preparing content requires a strong knowledge of the target audience of a product, and is often part of a process called internationalization and localization.

Globalization, Localization And Internationalization

Localization is a complex process, especially for products that need to be localized into several different regions. It’s not as easy as simply finding and replacing specific items, because localization needs to take into account all the different ways media might be interpreted.

You might think that localization is done by simply creating a product for one market and then changing it for other markets, but companies have found that’s actually not the most efficient way to launch a product in multiple places at the same time. Instead, a product is designed with “internationalization” in mind. That means that, at its base, a product should be as general and easy to adapt as possible. A commonly cited example are Ikea instruction books, which avoid using language at all so that anyone, anywhere can use the same book to easily construct their furniture (at least that’s the idea). 

While that’s an extreme example, internationalization usually just means making decisions early on that will make it easier to localize. That means avoiding any culturally specific references, using “standard” forms of the base language and keeping things as simple as possible without losing nuance.

Once a product has been built, then the next step begins, bringing us back to localization. Localization services can use this base product and adjust it to suit the needs of various audiences, which is generally faster than starting from a product designed for one market and then having to localize it for the others.

This whole process is called globalization — though some people use globalization and internationalization interchangeably — a word that also describes the restructuring of world economies for products and services to flow more freely between various countries and regions. Internationalization and localization, as you might be able to tell from the terms used in this section, are mostly for multinational companies that have established markets in multiple places. It wouldn’t make sense for, say, a television show to “internationalize” itself because it’s an artistic project made with an audience in mind. In those cases, localization is done after the fact, and it can manifest in countless ways.

Examples Of Localization

As globalization has become the norm, companies and artists have found creative solutions to making things seamlessly localized. While there are certainly cases where localization isn’t completely expected — we don’t expect every product and work of art to be tailored exactly to our culture — it’s probably more ever-present than you’d think. For good or bad, there are countless instances of content being adjusted in ways both big and small to appeal to a certain kind of person.

Your Search Engine — Search engines are designed to give you the best possible results, and that includes using your location in its algorithm. This manifests in obvious ways sometimes, like when you search “food near me” and you get a map of nearby restaurants that uses your approximate location. But even if you search for something non-location based, like “license renewal,” a search engine will still tailor your results based on where it thinks you are. In turn, websites will localize their pages to try to rank higher in search results, adjusting the language and key terms to net larger swaths of people.

Marketing — Marketers spend a lot of their time trying to figure out how best to appeal to various demographics, which results in ad campaigns and promotions localized to specific regions. An ad in New York City, for example, may mention subway commutes, skyscrapers, bodegas and other local concepts that wouldn’t be relevant anywhere else. The hope is that it will make the company seem like it “understands” the city, and it can help when done well. When done poorly, it can become the target of ridicule, like a 7-Eleven ad on the subway that said, “If we can’t have fresh air, at least we can have fresh muffins.” Good localization in marketing requires actually knowing the character of a city, rather than just throwing in some clichés.

Subbing And Dubbing — Presenting a TV show in a different language requires translation, but it can be just as important to localize references. Comedy in particular can be hard to translate, especially with shows that make lots of cultural zingers that are specific to a country. The Quebec version of the American animated show The Simpsons, for example, has been lauded for replacing American cultural touchstones with Quebecois ones. This works particularly well for an animated show, which tends to be dubbed instead of subtitled, and it’s not always favored because it can take away from the “original intention” of a work. 

Entirely Remaking — Another option for localizing a podcast, TV show or whatever other media product is to remake it from scratch. Hollywood has remade many non-English movies, changing the language, the actors and sometimes massive plot elements to fit the expectations of an American audience. Sometimes, a film will get several remakes, like the 2016 Italian film Perfetti sconosciuti. The film was a hit in Italy, and over the following years it was remade 17 times, with versions in Greek, Spanish, French, Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese and more. The concept of the film is about seven friends who spend a night playing a game where they go through each other’s phones, and by the end of the evening everyone’s relationships have been destroyed. The film has worked better in some countries than others, but it must strike a chord with viewers to have inspired so many different versions. 

While this article is concentrated on language localization, it should be noted that it isn’t limited to writing and speech alone. Everything from the food served at fast-food chains to backend programming languages requires various kinds of localization. While there are many fears that globalization is having a homogenizing effect on culture — fears which are well founded, truly — localization reminds us that even wealthy, massive companies can’t get away with treating every group of people the same. Whether in language or anything else, there’s still a world of diversity and nuance that we need to pay attention to.

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Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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