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Translation and Localization - What's the Difference

This article looks at the purpose of Translation and Localization in the context of a modern global market.

Author: Fred Visnevsky

Translation and Localization - What's the Difference

Purpose of Translation and Localization

You may ask yourself, why even worry about Translation and Localization in the first place? In short – it’s very much worth the time, effort, and money invested. People prefer content created in their native language, especially if their level of understanding of the source content language is low or non-existent.

In his research on English-only websites, Donald A. DePalma states that "87% of consumers who are not English natives don't buy products or services at English-language only websites". This is a lot of missed potential. The same thing can be said about other products, websites and content available only in their source language. Generally speaking, in a modern dynamic global market, any growing business which aims to think globally in its pursuit of expanding into new previously untapped markets will eventually face two major problems: the language barrier and the cultural barrier.

The language barrier is a significant obstacle in the path of any business, whether it is a requirement set by a governmental body, specifics of a local market and culture, the desire to have an edge over the competition, or striving to make your content clear and easily understandable for your users and potential clients.

On the other hand, the cultural barrier is all about delivering your source message correctly to the target audience. Something that makes perfect sense to you may have the opposite effect for people on the other side of our planet. Even if your text has perfect terminology and grammar, there are many pitfalls when it comes to specifics of the target market’s local culture.

An early example of Localization gone wrong due to lack of prior research of the target market and its cultural specifics is Ford and its attempt to introduce a new car model, the Ford Pinto, onto the Brazilian market. In Brazilian Portuguese, the slang word ‘Pinto’ can be interpreted as ‘a male with tiny genitalia’, and, while absolutely unintentional on Ford’s part, it sent entirely the wrong message to their potential customers.

The need to overcome the language and cultural barriers is a common problem, the sole solution to which is the Translation and Localization of your content.

Definition of Translation and Localization

The terms ‘Translation’ and ‘Localization’ are often mistakenly interchanged and misused when referring to the translation of content. However, even though they share the same purpose, at its core their meaning and approach towards their achievement are different.

  • What is Translation? - Translation can be defined as the literal word-for-word transformation of a source text into the target language.

  • What is Localization? - Localization can be defined as the linguistic adaptation of content for the target region, its languages and cultural particularities in order to make it appropriate, easily understandable and comfortable to use for local native language speakers.

Application Scenarios for Translation and Localization

Translation is a start, a first stepping stone on any content’s road towards a new audience, as it provides this new audience with the ability to understand the source text in their native language.

A common application scenario for translation is exact texts. Examples include technical and medical documentation, where the focus is on specific terminology which has to be converted from language A to language B. However, translation alone is not sufficient due to its word-for-word approach in cases where the main focus is to deliver a message from language A to language B.

In these cases, Localization comes into play, as it allows content not only to be fully understood by a user but also to fully deliver the source message into a target language and market with maximum effectiveness. While allowing a higher degree of flexibility compared to a typical translation, Localization requires an in-depth knowledge of terminology, specifics of the region and culture it is created for. Localization will require various aspects to be modified, such as the interface layout, numerical styles, local currencies, local time and date preferences, colours, units of measure, content, graphics and art style.

" Successfully localized content will be perceived by a local user as if this content were created locally. "


To summarize, it can be clearly stated that in the modern environment translating and localizing your content is important, even if your target audience resides in the same country – for example Canada, where there is both an English-speaking population and a French-speaking population. While the majority will be fine with only the English version of your content, having it available in French as well will make it very appealing to the second group. Localizing your content will turn visitors into customers, especially in cases where your competition cannot offer this advantage. If that is the case, you might well have created a unique selling point for your product, website or service.

Translation and Localization is a short-term expense for your long-term benefit. When making a decision to move forward with the translation of your content, it is important to remember which one of these two you need for your situation.

Translation is all about details. It results in your source text being converted in a sensible word-for-word fashion (or as close as possible to it) into your chosen target language. It focuses on specific terminology, which makes it ideal for specialized texts, instructions, manuals, technical sheets, medical data, software interfaces.

Localization, on the other hand, focuses on adapting and changing your source content into the target language, in order to deliver your message with maximum impact on the target audience. It is ideally applied to content on your websites, marketing data, games, books and articles.

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