Localization Vs. Translation: Their Differences & Impact on Your Business


Language Localization Abstract Concept Vector Illustration

Ah, the good old times. When it all seemed much easier. 

If you needed your documents to be understood by foreign people, you just looked up “translator” in the Yellow Pages and that was that. No fancy terms, just plain, simple translation. 

Except today, there is nothing plain or simple about translation, when most texts end up on the Internet for the world to see…

… and you need your web content to be clear, perfectly accurate, and appealing 

… and not in just one language but in multiple languages you don’t understand

… and you’re targeting global customers with different cultural preferences you don’t know the first thing about.

Because let’s face it: cross-cultural risk is not something one should underestimate. Ask KFC, whose finger-lickin’-good slogan became eat your fingers off when, back in 1987, its first Chinese restaurant was opened in Beijing. Not exactly the best way to establish one’s credibility in a new market. 

KFC learned its lesson the hard way, but to their credit, it must be said that localization was still taking its first steps at the time. In the 1980s, as American software giants started expanding their business globally and computers became part of people’s (and not just scientists’) lives, the need for language-friendly features and interfaces paved the way for a new approach, where translation was part (but not the whole) of the process.

This post will help you understand the main differences between translation and localization so you will feel more confident next time you’re dealing with either.

So, what is translation?

rosetta stone image
Image of the Rosetta Stone

Translation is the process of transferring a message from a source language to a different target language. 

And it’s not exactly new stuff. 

It is believed to have been “invented” somewhere in the region of Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Egypt, although experts are still debating where the first translation was actually done. 

Some say it was a poem called The Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Mesopotamian odyssey recorded in the Akkadian language and translated into a number of Asian languages.

Others believe the Rosetta Stone, a stele containing a decree issued at Memphis in 196 BC and inscribed with three versions (in Ancient Egyptian – Hieroglyphic and Demotic scripts – Ancient Greek) was the first recorded translation.

Whatever the truth may be, we can safely say that considerations in the discipline of translation date back more than 2,000 years.

The translation process has remained virtually unchanged for approximately two millennia

Then all of a sudden technology changed the world: 

  • the way we communicate, 
  • the way we travel, 
  • the way we do business, especially international business) 

and simple translation was not enough anymore. Cue in localization.

Localization: shifting from language to culture

papers of different hues of brown cut into shapes of profiles of human head

So, the purpose of translation is to pass on a message from one language to another. But when it comes to the localization process, we go further than that: we work to pass on a whole experience, so that the reader/user feels that a certain piece of content has been created for them and not for a different audience with different cultural expectations

Localizing is a comprehensive process, which takes into account linguistic aspects as well as cultural and non-textual elements (sounds, images, etc.).   

Most of the time localization also involves translation… but not necessarily. 

Imagine taking your product to the UK. The same language, yes, but in another country (another continent, even!) and totally different cultural references. 

It was George Bernard Shaw who said:

England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”

He was right. If you’ve ever tread on His Majesty’s soil you’re probably familiar with the whole gasoline(US)/petrol(UK), chips(US)/crisps(UK), elevator(US)/lift(UK) story. 

But it’s not just “you like po-tay-to and I like po-tah-to.” The way British and US people think is different, the way they talk about family or money, and the way they use humor in their sentences. And when you want to do business, you can’t take anything for granted, unless you want to “call the whole thing off”... but we’re quite sure you don’t.

The same applies to content created in Spanish language that needs to be used in different Spanish-speaking countries or Portuguese texts written for the Brazilian (South America) audience that need to be localized for Portugal (Europe) or Angola (Africa). Same language, three different continents: a cultural abyss.

...and Culture Is More Than Just Words

Seamless pattern of a multicultural group of men (Muslim, Asian, European) on white background

It’s not just the substance of its content that determines the success of a brochure, a website or an app. 

A huge role is played by the colors we choose, the graphics and layout. 

Consumer expectations may vary, but they can mostly be divided into two categories of localized content: functional and cultural.

By functional content we mean:

  • The linguistic content.
  • Date formats, time formats, contact information (address, telephone numbers, etc.).
  • E-commerce website UX (user experience), taking into account aspects such as checkout and payment methods.
  • Units of measurement, weights (ISO? Imperial?), and currency conversion.
  • SEO content such as keywords, title tags, and meta descriptions.

Cultural content, on the other hand, includes:

  • Shapes, styles (e.g.: text direction and appearance), sizes and colors (it’s no secret that some colors are perceived differently in different cultures. An example? Yellow, which brings to our mind the warmth of the sun, is associated with mourning in Egypt). 
  • Images (for example, displaying the human – especially female – body is unacceptable and therefore to be avoided when creating content for certain muslim countries) and graphic elements in general.
  • Local history.
  • Cultural differences (e.g.: humor, myths, taboos, and beliefs)
  • Reference to societal codes and values. 

Functional content is probably “easier” to spot and adapt, but cultural content is crucial when it comes to localization

If, you are localizing an e-commerce business, you will need to take into account local holidays and celebrations, sending special newsletters to your subscribers or planning special offers for your customers.

Sometimes you may need to adjust your content to meet different legal regulations, removing or adding sections (which clearly affects the general layout of the webpage).

The reason why localization matters is that users want to buy products or services that feel familiar, authentic And if your product or service is localized, it will provide a better user experience and draw more users.

Still think this is just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo? 

Here is some interesting data that will make you realize that if you are not localizing your content, you are actually losing money, plain and simple.

Localization facts & figures

Table of top ten languages by number of native speakers
Table of top ten languages by number of native speakers. English is clearly not topping the list :)

First of all, one should never forget one very important piece of information: 

English speakers account for only 25 percent of Internet users

Let’s turn the formula around: 

75 percent of Internet users do not use English as their main language.

Now, this is a fact, neither good nor bad. But let us consider it in the light of another, rather more alarming piece of information. Research conducted by Common Sense Advisory in 2019 (“Local versus Global Language Strategies - How Enterprises Determine Their Global Content Strategies”) revealed that if people can’t understand the content of a website, they will not buy products from it

Their study involved non-English-speaking individuals residing in various European countries. When presented with websites where the content was available only in English, the participants immediately clicked out. According to the study, 87% of them would not buy from an English-only website.

Apparently, consumers are not confident enough to spend money on a website where content is written in a language they cannot understand. Because, regardless of what they’ve been telling us, not everyone in the world speaks English and language barriers still exist. 

Chances are, there may be competitors on the other side of the world selling what you sell, and speaking the language of the people there. So, no matter how good your service or product is, you are likely to fail. People will buy it from your competitors who speak their own language and whom they perceive as “closer” (read: safer).

Examples of Localization Gone Wrong

illustration of man with his naked parts covered with piece of leather

If you are still unconvinced by what we have said so far, let’s see what happens when localization is not done properly or at all.

Braniff Airlines was a former international airline and is now a leading global historic airline branding and marketing (America’s Most Colorful Airline, that’s a lovely payoff).

The company became quite famous in the language industry back in the 1980s (again, at that time localization was still in its early stages) when they advertised their luxury flights encouraging clients to fly “in leather”. They then decided to translate the slogan into Spanish to advertise on the Mexican market, and whoever did the job (come on, they said, it’s just a few words, they said) translated literally “fly in leather” as “vola en cuero”. Easy-peasy.

It all seemed quite straightforward and the campaign was launched… until somebody in Mexico realized the blooper: in Mexican Spanish, “en cuero” is dangerously similar to “en cueros”, which means “naked”. So, the advert basically invited people to fly on Braniff Airlines planes without their clothes on. Whether the undressing procedure was to take place before or after the security check, they did not say.

It may be funny now, but we’re quite sure somebody at Braniff Airlines had a very bad day (possibly more than one day) when it all came out at the time.

Braniff Airlines is just one of the many victims of un-localized marketing. Many big brands have had similar (or worse) experiences, resulting in a loss of profits and credibility. 

Localization is not just about what you can achieve if you do it properly, but also about what you can lose if you don’t.

An Example of Localization Done Right (the Second Time Around)

tilted sofa because it does not fit between two walls

Ingvar Kamprad opened the first IKEA store in Sweden in 1958. 

Fast forward 63 years, the Swedish brand has 422 stores in over 50 countries worldwide and has become synonymous for accessible and sustainable comfort from Macau to Hyderabad.

An impressive result to say the least. How did they manage that? 

IKEA’s strategy is a unique mix of standardization (creating a consistent experience for customers no matter where they live - everything feels familiar to regular customers, from the product range to the layout) and localization, that is to say developing unique products and optimized marketing approach for each cultural context.

It’s ok to be impressed. But it may come as a consolation to know that IKEA had to face a few challenges, too, and in some cases, it was a trial-and-error process.

Let’s see what happened in Japan, for example. 

Japan was the first country to host an IKEA store outside Europe in the early 70s. Localization as we know it today still did not exist, and IKEA did the best it could, though lacking the necessary cultural understanding to address such a difficult market.

The most immediate problem, IKEA found out, was that Japanese homes were way too tiny (with land scarcity and an extremely high population density in the main cities to account for that) to accommodate the brand’s standard furniture. The brand tried its best for 12 years, then surrendered and withdrew from the market.

Twenty years passed, then IKEA decided to try again. Only this time they had developed the tools and strategic know-how that would help them succeed.

They opened a store in Funabashi and later one in Tokyo. Here, they offered localized, smaller versions of the IKEA product range that could finally fit into Japanese homes. 

IKEA did their homework well, researching and interviewing people only to realize that the whole assemble-it-yourself-and-have-fun-doing-it thing was not so popular in Japan. People would be more than happy to pay somebody else to do that and so IKEA decided to partner with local firms providing furniture assembly services at an additional cost.

Success came, at last. At the time of writing, IKEA has 12 stores in Japan. 

We could go on and on talking about IKEA’s standardization/localization strategy. 

Think of instruction manuals, for example, which are kept visual to make them globalized and universally understandable.

IKEA’s example may not be applicable to all types of products and services, but it is a reminder that a good localization strategy can make all the difference.

Would Your Organization Benefit From Localization?

language selection and translation audio guide console

Localizing your content is fit for a variety of industries, particularly businesses:

Localizing your multilingual website helps you expand to new markets, optimize your website conversion rates and really speak the language of your users. 

  • Doing e-commerce - localizing product descriptions, sizes, special promotions, as well as currencies and payment options is key to ensuring the success of online sales.
  • Having mobile apps – according to industry experts, the increase in revenue for each country for iphone apps after localization in one week is 26%.
  • Finance (and banking) – Where localization is fundamental in terms of quality, compliance, accessibility (UX is crucial) and scalability.
  • Gaming - without localization, engaging players on a global scale is simply impossible.
  • SaaS (Software as a Service) companies – where localization is about adapting the product so users feel like the software was made for them.
  • Healthcare - from online medical consultations to digital care records, today there are a whole variety of applications that need to be localized to make healthcare better and more accessible. In this case, the need for accuracy is even more stringent, as mistakes can literally cost lives.

Localization Vs. Translation: Key Takeaways

Collage of L10N and T9N in pop fonts against blue and red background

This is, in a nutshell, what you need to know about localization or L10N.

Just remember it can make the difference between the success and failure of your global ventures, so it’s worth giving a try.

We at LingPerfect have been doing this for many years, providing localization services to help brands find the right strategy to conquer new markets, avoiding the dangers that come with a trial-and-error approach.

Mistakes are a luxury you may prefer to avoid and, to tell the truth, “first time right” is our mantra, too. If you decide you want to get localization right, drop us a line; we know how to help.

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