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  • Writer's pictureRick White - Director of Client Services

What’s the Difference Between Translation and Localization?

Words are ambassadors. They help to bridge your organization’s cultural divides and build human connections, especially in an increasingly globalized world.

But the idea of a multicultural workplace isn’t just something that spans international borders; it’s happening closer to home than some would think. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 21.5% of Americans speak a language other than English at home, which is about 71 million people. This number has more than doubled since 1990; and for perspective, this means the number of Americans who speak English as a second language is larger than the entire population of France.

When organizations are faced with the task of adapting their English content into other languages, they’ll typically come across two options, translation and localization services. And while these terms are often used interchangeably, translation and localization are two different processes with very different outcomes.

What is Translation?

Translation converts written text from one language into another, word for word, to achieve an equivalent meaning and message. A translator will convert the content into the target language while keeping the grammar and syntax the same as the original document. Translation is just a starting point in the overall localization journey.

What is Localization?

Localization is what makes content feel familiar to the reader. It is the process of taking cultural considerations into account as well as addressing the unique elements of the culture and language in a specific locale.

As a much more comprehensive process than translation, localization caters to the cultural differences, history, and societal preferences of the reader. Localization services adapt the message of your content by considering its overall cultural meaning as well as making sure the visual and non-textual components are culturally appropriate.

The Key Differences Between Translation and Localization

While both translation and localization services offer similar functionalities, understanding the distinction between each will help you reach your target audience more effectively.

Localization Adapts an Experience

Functional content, like birth certificates, legal documents, marriage licenses, and medical records don’t necessarily need to be localized. That’s because the meaning of each document is very clear-cut and cannot be altered in any way during translation. To put it simply, translation will adapt a certain message word-for-word, and that’s it.

Localization, on the other hand, adapts an entire experience. The goal of localization is to create a seamless piece of content in such a way that no one would suspect the content wasn’t created by a native speaker. This includes incorporating different spellings, idiomatic expressions, cultural references, imperial vs. metric measurements, currency units, and even date formats with the region, locale, and culture in mind.

Localization is crucial for different content types, such as:

Localization Incorporates Text, Images, Layouts, and Formatting Into a Cohesive Message

When a document is translated, you will receive the content in the same format as the English copy. Only the words will change.

But when a document is localized, there are other content factors to consider. This means:

  • Images have to be localized to ensure they are appropriate to the target culture. For example, Korean culture uses the color red to write the names of the dead, and using red text in any other way is considered offensive.

  • The layout of the text itself may require some adjusting because not all languages read from left to right. Arabic and Hebrew speakers read right to left, so content for their target market would have to be flipped to be accurate.

  • The formatting of the content may need to be modified, even if the content is translated into a language using the same alphabet as English. Some languages can be quite long; German, for example, uses an average of 30% more words than English to express a similar phrase. Finnish is just the opposite, as they typically need 30-40% fewer words than English.

Localization Considers Multiple Languages and Locales

Successful localization services take the locale and regional variations of the language into account when creating a finalized document. While the translated text may simply convert source material from English to Spanish, the expectations of Spanish speakers around the globe would vary significantly. Spanish speakers in different locales, such as Mexico and Spain, would require different localized materials because their languages are quite different.

For example:

  • The word “potato” is patata in Spain, but papa in Mexico.

  • Pronunciation differences where the letter z sounds like an “s” in Mexico but is spoken as a “th” in Spain.

  • The use of formal language is much more common in Spain, where Mexicans tend to use more colloquial language.

The same goes for American English and United Kingdom English. Some differences include:

  • American words spelled with a “z” are spelled with an “s”. Take specialization and specialisation for example.

  • Different names for things such as bathroom and cookie in America, compared to loo and biscuit in the UK.

  • Idioms like “a few bucks” referring to cash in America would become “a few pounds” in the UK.

While these changes might seem small, localizing content allows for your messages to resonate across regions and readers.

Translation is Just One Part of the Bigger Picture

While translation can be helpful for some content formats, localization is key to providing a culturally relevant solution to your reader. Localization blends visual, technical, linguistic, and cultural aspects to ensure your material resonates with your global consumers and employees.

At Language Intelligence, we put the human behind your message, content, and brand so you can engage and educate regardless of the language. We provide a full suite of translation and localization services, technology-driven project management workflows, and a high level of personal service for organizations big and small. If you are looking for localization services for your content, look to our team.

Interested in learning more about Language Intelligence’s translation and localization services and how we can help you? Give us a call today.


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