Lokalise illustration for translation vs localization

Translation and localization: what’s the difference?

People who work in the localization and translation industry use loads of jargon and abbreviations.

Things like: Localization = l10n

But spend some time talking to people from outside the localization industry, and you’ll often see localization being used interchangeably with translation. Those who are practitioners know that these two processes differ, and they know exactly how. 

To show you the differences (and similarities) between translation and localization, we collected creative examples and use cases for various industries.

But first, let us get clarity on the fundamental distinction between the two processes.

The difference between translation and localization

Companies looking to diversify geographically usually have two options: translation and localization. 

Here’s the difference: 

ProcessWhat gets adapted
LocalizationExperience
TranslationMessage

With translation, you’re adapting a message. With localization, you’re adapting an experience.  

While translation and localization are two different processes, adapting the message is usually a part of adapting the digital experience. 

Translation is often the starting point of the localization process, which extends to adapting every aspect of your app to fit your target market’s preferences: unit and currency conversion, date formats, imagery, legal regulations, and different technological standards. 

A quick example

Often, people define localization as something that would have been traditionally called “adaptation” in the professional translation world.

Let’s use this sentence in American English as a simple 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, the above translation would only work for Mexico. If you wanted to translate it for other Spanish-speaking markets, you’d 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 alone does not illustrate what localization is. If a message is adapted incorrectly for a certain locale, you would call it a bad translation and not a bad localization. 

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

At its core, translation transforms text, while localization transforms the entire product or content from one language to another. The limits of localization are endless, and it extends far beyond translation.

Translation is indeed part of localization, but so much more is required for content to become authentic and locally accepted. Here’s a summary of the core components covered by the two processes:

Mainly applying to localizationApplying to translation and 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 the Islamic legal system).Numeric differences: currency, units of measure, date and time formats, etc.
Legal requirements: like compliance with GDPR or Strong Customer Authentication (SCA) in Europe.Language specifics: dialects, idioms, slang, tone, etc.
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).Cultural preferences: e.g., checks are widely accepted as a payment method in the USA but are very rarely used in Europe.
Right-to-left writing that many Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew 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).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.
Local social proof: e.g., use testimonials and product reviews from people from the local market

 

Context: covering exactly where, when, and why the translated text will be displayed impacts the wording that is used.

Localization examples: What delightful global experiences look like 

The fascinating thing about localization is that when it’s done well, you don’t even notice it. Localization makes you feel like a program, website, or mobile application was designed just for you, not as a generic experience created as a one-size-fits-all. 

Spotify

Personalized content is at the heart of everything that Spotify offers. The company wants people to open Spotify and find something that fits them.

The first thing they do to make the experience more relevant to more people is to translate text into the appropriate language. Take this example below, for a playlist called “Songs to Sing in the Shower.”

They think deeply about the cultural content they spotlight and highlight traditional Thai music in Thailand, recognize South Africa’s Freedom Day, and celebrate Diwali in India. 

To create a fully immersive experience, Spotify also made changes to their recommendation engine to allow for localized music suggestions. Users could learn what was popular in certain cities or regions around the country. 

However, Spotify doesn’t just rely on localized content inside their app. They also use hyper-localized marketing and advertising to reach potential users.  

The ads speak to experiences unique to certain neighborhoods or cities. This catches the eye of potential Spotify customers, makes them feel recognized and understood, and promotes Spotify as an aid to help navigate these daily conundrums. 

 

A hyper-localized ad from Spotify targeting specific demographics in India (Source)

Notion

Notion helps companies and individuals get organized and manage their teams with an all-in-one workspace. 

From the very beginning, the company’s user base has been enormously international, with over 80% outside the U.S. across 28 countries. But their global experience wasn’t fostering the sense of home that aligns with Notion’s mission. 

According to Katsukiyo Nishi, General Manager, Japan, at Notion: “We want Notion to feel like it was built in every country where people use it.” As the team looked into building a global product, they picked South Korea as their first localized market due to the strong user base they had there. 

Today, Notion’s products, resources, and guides are also available in Japanese. 

How did Notion do it? They started by creating a central hub for all the content assets that needed to be translated — over 251,000 words across their website, app, templates, help guides, and case studies. 

To manage the process, Notion used Lokalise. The result was a database of content that could be optimized for use in any language. 

When is localization critical?

Localization is critical when:

  • You have a digital product or service that is ready to become a truly global product. 
  • You seek to provide an equitable digital experience to customers around the world. 
  • Your product has frequent updates that should reach your customers almost instantly.
  • You waste hours of valuable engineering time on 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 examples of industries where international expansion hinges on localization:

Software

The top 50 software as a service (SaaS) companies offer 11 languages on average. Companies that invest in new languages grow. And companies that grow invest in new languages.  

But it’s not just SaaS companies that are using localization to enter new markets, gain market share, and increase existing revenues. Almost every company is a software company today, with multiple digital assets (websites, web apps, IoT, etc.) 

Any internet business that is serious about going global should think about i18n (internationalization) and l10n (localization). These are key processes that allow companies to adapt their digital assets into multiple languages and markets at scale. 

Mobile apps

Users are far more likely to download an app that’s in their native language. A study by Distimo showed that localizing iPhone app text resulted in significantly more downloads – 128% more per country. And a 26% increase in revenue for each language added. 

If you’re building an app, it’s crucial that what you’re creating can be localized fairly easily and quickly. Take a look at our comprehensive list of mobile app localization best practices, including an actionable checklist that you can share with your team. 

Finance and banking

As Deloitte points out: to be successful, the bank of the future will need to embrace emerging technology. In fact, every single top finance app is available in more than one language. Plus,  80% of the top 20 are at least bilingual, while 35% support more than 10 languages

Take Revolut’s massive growth for example, driven in part due to the company’s strategic decision to localize early on. Their product is now available in over 30 languages, and they continue to add more. 

The link between language availability and success in fintech is evident, but many companies moving into new markets without a clear overview of localization face challenges in four main areas: compliance, quality, scalability, and accessibility. 

Note: To learn more about overcoming these challenges from practitioners at Google, Remitly, Revolut, and more, download our ebook about localization in fintech

Gaming

If a game is to be launched internationally and engage players around the globe, it first has to be properly localized. 

Games, along with any interactive entertainment software, can contain complex narratives loaded with cultural references. As a result, game localization is a rather complex and delicate process. It involves a collaborative effort but if it’s not handled properly, it can set back launch dates and make the company lose potential revenue by being late to market.

Note: To learn more about game localization from experts at King, Alpha Games, and INLINGO take a look at our post on the best way to handle game localization.

E-commerce

By 2022, it’s estimated that upwards of one in four US buyers will have purchased from a merchant in a foreign country. E-commerce is a global opportunity. However, 60% of people will only buy products that are featured in their native language.  

If you are using your website to increase user engagement, it has to align with the user’s cultural context. That means localizing product descriptions, sizing charts, promotions and advertisements, providing your customers preferred payment options and currency, and so on. 

Overall, proper localization ensures that your e-commerce website is not only translated but adapted to and functional in the target markets.

Healthcare

Technology has transformed healthcare. Think of online medical consultations, 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: making healthcare more accessible, while keeping the costs down. 

For medical companies operating in different markets, localization is often a requisite from a regulatory perspective. The cost of errors in localizing medical content can be as high as a human life. As a result, working with specialized, certified linguists and performing rigorous quality assurance and compliance checks are key. 

Note: Take a peek behind the scenes of localization with one of Europe’s leading digital health providers

To wrap up: Translation is just one aspect of localization

If translation covers linguistic and cultural aspects, localization also includes visual and technical solutions. It makes the content fully functional in different languages, to ensure that your brand experiences resonate with your global customers. 

Finally, while this article covers the main differences between localization and translation, there’s a whole lot more specific to your scenario to help you and your team on your localization journey. 

So, what can you do next? You can:

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