Translation and localization: What’s the difference?

In the modern world, we are often faced with terms like translation and localization without any real insight into their meanings. Are they the same thing, similar, or totally different altogether? In this post, we’ll aim to clarify things by exploring the differences (and similarities) between translation and localization.

If translation has been around for centuries, localization has evolved along with digital content since the 1980s. This is due to the rise of mass market software and the availability of PCs to consumers.

From then on, both disciplines – translation and localization – have existed in parallel. The world of localization prefers to consider translation as one component of the localization process. As for the translation world, localization might just seem like a fancy word for another type of translation.

To illustrate these points, try to answer the below question:

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the terms “website localization” or “mobile app localization”?

Most professionals would immediately pick up on the complexity of the processes involved. Considerations include translating the content, adapting the translations and the visuals to suit a certain locale, and all the other technological aspects of the process. On the other hand, what do the phrases “website translation” or “mobile app translation” mean in this case? Is it just changing the words of one language into those of another language? Surely it’s not so simple. A modern professional translator or language service provider (LSP) considers many things. For instance, the context, the local specifics, and generally adapting the text to match the expectations of a certain area. So, translation is part of localization, but local specifics are also part of the translation process.


The difference between translation and localization

At its core, translation transforms text, while localization transforms the entire product or content from one language to another. Localization covers both linguistic and cultural adaptation. It also involves where cultural adaptation tackles technical obstacles, such as the ability to display target language scripts.

Localization is often abbreviated to l10n (because there are 10 characters between the “l” and “n”). This is a nice reference to the deep-rooted connection between l10n and software engineering.


Localization-related defectsTranslation-related defects
Encoding issues might prevent the rendering of special characters

Localization technology

Leave around 30-35% of spare space for blocks of text to avoid localization-induced UI defects

Localization errors

When the Brexit white paper was translated into 22 EU languages, it received much criticism due to poor translation quality E.g. even the menu page spelled the names of several languages wrong (German, Finnish, and Estonian).


A source language label on packaging for a knee prosthesis was translated incorrectly indicating the wrong components. This resulted in 47 cases of erroneous use of the knee prosthesis in Germany (2006-2007).




How about an example?

I see people often defining localization as something that would traditionally be called “adaptation” in the professional translation world. In a very simplified way, let’s use this sentence in American English as an example:

Two pounds of strawberries cost $10 and will be delivered to you on 04.05.2020.

Here’s the translation of this sentence in Spanish without any adaptation:

Dos libras de fresas cuestan $10 y se le entregarán el 04.05.2020.

When you know that this sentence has to be translated for Spanish-speaking Mexico, where:

  • People use the metric system for weight, as opposed to the imperial system used in the USA.
  • The currency is the Mexican peso, not US dollars.
  • The date format used is day-month-year, not month-day-year as it is in the USA.

Adapting this sentence for the Mexican market means taking these differences into account so that the end result is:

Un kilo de fresas cuestan 218 MXN y se le entregarán el 05.04.2020.

However, such a translation of this sentence would only work for Mexico. If you wanted to translate it for other Spanish-speaking markets, you’d again have to take into account their local differences. For example, in Spain, you’d convert the price into Euro. As for Argentina or Uruguay you’d also change “fresa” to “frutilla” for the translation of “strawberry”.

The above translation example does not alone illustrate what localization is, as is often interpreted in many different sources. As stated, a professional translator would call it adaptation in translation. If it’s done incorrectly for a certain locale, you would call it a bad translation and not a bad localization. This is because, overall, if something relates to work on the text it is still largely considered as translation. If something relates to the context of the product as a whole, this is usually considered to be localization.


Let’s summarize – the key distinction between the two processes

Translation is indeed part of localization, but so much more is required for content to become authentic and locally accepted. When localizing your content, you should pay even more attention to the cultural nuances and other specifics of the market you’re targeting. This includes the following; however, it is important to note that some examples apply to both translation and localization. For instance, you will see below that some items fall firmly into the localization category, whereas others can be considered part of the translation process as well:

Mainly applying to localization:

  • Symbolic meanings of visuals like images, videos, colors, emojis, etc. (e.g. you should never use images of bacon when localizing for countries where pork is taboo based on Islamic laws).
  • Legal requirements: like compliance with GDPR or Strong Customer Authentication (SCA) in Europe.
  • Text length: translations from English to other languages can be as much as twice as long. So you may need to use different wording to fit the text into your design while still conveying the same message. (This mainly applies to localization although an instruction may be passed to the translator regarding this).
  • Right-to-left writing that many Arabic languages use. You may want to customize your website layout for this, including the placement of the menu. (This will be a consideration for the translator, but they usually do not have to work on layout as this is more localization-based).
    Coca Cola website localization - Italy Coca Cola website localization - Israel
    Coca-Cola website in Italy vs. Israel
  • Local social proof: e.g. use testimonials and product reviews from people from the local market,

Applying to translation and localization:

  • Numeric differences: currency, units of measure, and date and time formats, etc.
  • Language specifics: dialects, idioms, slang, tone, etc.
  • Cultural preferences: e.g. checks are widely accepted as a payment method in the USA, but are very rarely used in Europe.
  • User data fields: for instance, when filling out address data fields, US customers need to specify the state whereas UK customers might specify a county.
  • Context: covering exactly where, when, and why the translated text will be displayed impacts the wording that is used.


When is localization critical?

  • You have a digital product or service that is ready to meet new target audiences in new regions.
  • Your product has frequent updates that should reach your customers almost instantly.
  • You waste hours of valuable engineering time in copy-pasting efforts or struggling with outdated technology.
  • You are searching for a solution that will support linguistic diversity (e.g. supporting plurals, right-to-left languages, etc.).
  • You want the freedom to choose a workflow and providers, and real-time access to your localization assets and in-progress projects.

Here are some industry examples of localization:


Do you believe a localized website is just another version of your website translated into a different language? Not exactly.

If you are using your website to increase user engagement, it has to align with the user’s cultural context. For example, business language styles in Japan, the US, and Italy require adaptation (more formal vs. more relaxed).

Layout might seem like a trivial nuance. However, consider that some languages and cultures read from right to left and this is how users scan the page and where they focus their attention. Leaving some additional space during the design phase will save the pain of fitting in lengthier text at the end. This is a better option than trying to squeeze in Russian or Finnish translations when it’s already too late.. Also, you do not want your website’s visitors to be misled because of a datepicker format or units of measure that are not used locally.
Overall, proper localization ensures that your e-commerce website is not only translated but adapted and functional for the target markets.


Games, along with any interactive entertainment software, can contain complex narratives loaded with cultural references. Therefore, game localization would typically address linguistic (i.e. language or translation), technical, and cultural aspects. Creativity is one of the greatest challenges in video game localization. 

Imagine, what level of creativity you require to localize a joke, apply a dialect, or use slang. Besides all that, there are serious aspects to consider, especially on the legal side of game localization. For example, a  developer for the Contra series of games had to replace humans with robots. This is presumably because German governmental authorities banned the sales of media deemed too violent for children.

The technical challenges of game localization relate to fragmented pieces of text as opposed to natural flow because the events appear depending on the player’s actions. Testing localized games onscreen is critical to ensuring there are no HTML markup-related or issues with incorrect placeholders. Finally, you must simply love gaming to deliver an awesome game in another language.

Finance and banking

As Deloitte points out – to be successful, the bank of the future will need to embrace emerging technology. Tech-savvy millennials are driving the demand for hyper-personalization, which means innovating in smaller and bolder cycles. Only with the most modern localization technology that you can keep up with this agile pace. Preventing data breaches is also something that good localization technology should provide. It is certainly necessary to avoid risk and address data security concerns.


Technology has transformed healthcare tremendously. Think of medical consultations online, using smartphones to monitor your health, digital care records, scannable wristbands with medication and patient data, or mobile apps used by patients in clinical trials. Such technologies are aimed at improving patient care, to make healthcare more accessible, while keeping the costs down. The cost of an error in localizing medical content can be as high as a human life. Therefore, it is key to assign industry-specialized and certified linguists assigned to localize patient-facing and healthcare practitioner-targeted content. Typically, several quality assurance and compliance checks would be performed before the content reaches its target audience.


Almost every company is a software company today with multiple digital assets (websites, mobile apps, web apps, software, IoT, games, etc.). Plus,  I18n (internationalization) and l10n (localization) are important technical software engineering processes to bear in mind. They allow companies to translate and adapt their digital assets to multiple languages and markets at scale. If done incorrectly this can become a costly, painful, and tedious process. 

This is where Lokalise comes in. We can help software companies streamline their digital content localization workflow and make it as seamless as possible.  


To wrap up

If you’ve read this far, you now know all about the differences between translation and localization. Localization should be the first choice for any digital product or service. If translation covers the only linguistic aspects, localization also includes visual and a technical solution. It makes the content functional in a different culture and language. 

If you are communicating to your target audiences via any digital channels or software, the only reasonable way to transform your content into another language is by using a localization service. Why not start with the most modern localization technology? Sign up for Lokalise and start localizing for your target markets now.

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