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Translation and Localization: What's the Difference Between the Two?

Day Translations
Translation and Localization: What's the Difference Between the Two?
on October, 27 2015

In broad terms, translation is to communicate the meaning of text written in a language (source language) into equivalent text in another language (target language). Language localization, means to adapt a product or service into the language of any region or country to account for the difference not only in the language but the culture as well. Language localization means adapting a product or service to the needs of the local consumers, aside from the translation of written text, it could include:

  1. Multimedia and video content
  2. Voiceovers and audio
  3. Websites
  4. Video games
  5. Software

But there's more to the whole business of translation and localization. For an in-depth look into the differences between localization and translation, read on, and in the process you will also encounter another term – internationalization.


While translation means converting the source text into another language, it does not mean that it is a mechanical process. For the translation to be accurate, the translator must have complete comprehension of the original text, and render it into the target language without compromising the original. Translation has a great impact on literal content such as manuals, legal documents, books, documentation, technical publications, medical and scientific information, and more.

A translator's skills require the ability to fully understand the source language and the culture of the locale where the text came from. The most important ability of a translator is to write in the target language exceptionally well. Bilingual speakers may be able to translate simple text but they could rarely express themselves equally in both languages, whereas professional translators might not be bilingual.

The English language might have a wider reach but it cannot be denied that the impact of globalization has created more demands from language service providers. Modern communications and Internet technology have made it possible to reach audiences several thousand miles away, and local language and culture require businesses to adapt to local needs. Therefore translating documents, web content, and other printed materials, has become necessary for businesses to employ various tactics to be successful in the international market place.

A high level of accuracy is still demanded from translators, particularly when translating sensitive documents such as medical and technical reports. Being global is no longer a buzz word, but it has become almost a norm. The global economy is around us each day, if you have not noticed yet. The coffee you drink could be from a far-flung plantation in South America while your car could be from South Korea or Germany. The gas you pump into your vehicle is probably from the Middle East and the laptop you use for work and play could be from China, while some of your well-functioning household and electronic gadgets were made in Japan. Your clothes may have been manufactured in Mexico, Honduras or Vietnam.

The importation and exportation of content, like; emails, agreements, documents, books and manuals need the services of excellent and professional translators with subject matter expertise, thus they are in high demand. Today there is almost no room for mistranslations, as the language process is no longer a science. It has evolved into an art, one that is used in every facet of daily life. With the increasing demands, expert translators now have to move a step further into localization.


In search engines, while Google dominates, there are countries where it is second or even third in rank. In China, Baidu is the number one. In Japan, it is Yahoo Japan, while Yandex is the top search engine in Russia. In South Korea, Naver lords it over Daum. In news broadcast for example, using the knowledge that there are more than 55 million Latinos residing in the United States and they want to see shows in their own language. CNN has provided separate programming for this specific audience. The goal of localization is to provide a product or service with the look and feel of being created specifically for the target audience, and to minimize or completely eliminate issues with local predispositions. Localization involves more processes because it requires cultural adaptation – considering the different idioms, dialects, religion and traditional cultural practices and local beliefs.

These are just basic examples of how localization is different from translation. Translation is actually just one of the processes entailed when doing localization work. Aside from translation, localization might also require the following:

  1. Adaptation of graphics to target audience
  2. Content modification to conform to target consumers' tastes and consumption habits
  3. Adjusting layout and design to conform to translated content
  4. Converting content elements to local needs, such as units of measure and currencies
  5. Adapting local formats for phone numbers, addresses, dates and hours
  6. Conforming to local legal requirements and regulations


Language localization is an industry that started about the latter half of the 1970s when independent translators or those in the academia began to offer more professional and intensive language services. These language service providers (LSPs) quickly created a niche service group of experts that offer more than translation. They offered expert services for the management of complex projects from the original publishers of the content. They translated the documents using professionally-trained translators who were also subject matter experts. They provided proofreading services and formatted the final product according to the requirements. With the availability of new software tools, they included design and publishing of the translated content in their services. In other words they could be called the pioneers of the offshoring business, since from the start the localization industry had been international by nature.

The landscape now is quite different, as mergers and acquisitions happened through the years. Still it is estimated that there are over 10,000 language service providers around the world and while there are still many companies that rely on a few employees, the industry could be divided into the following:

  1. Single-language vendors.  They provide single language pair services, such as French to English and English to French. They sometimes are subcontractors for larger companies.
  2. Multi-language vendors. They are usually some of the largest in the industry, providing services to many markets and work with various languages. Most of them have offshore offices and use different processes and technologies to answer to the demands of some of the biggest clients.
  3. Regional multi-language vendors. They service regional markets for regional languages, such as the Middle East, Western Europe, East Asia and others. They are like the multi-language vendors in a specific region, and could be classified as a single-language vendor went they get clients outside their region.


Due to the heightened need for translation and localization in computing, internationalization was born. Its main function is to ensure that the source content is multiple languages-ready, which means that this phase occurs during the creation and development of the content, long before the need for the material to be translated. It primarily pertains to how the software code should be written so that future versions in other languages could be created with greater ease, lower cost and most importantly, correctly made. This process provides many benefits and eliminates future problems for multilingual versions.

Benefits of internationalization include:

  1. One source code for all versions
  2. Simpler software application adaptation to various locales
  3. Easy and simple maintenance
  4. Reduced cost and time for localization
  5. Code architecture and quality improvement
  6. Lower overall cost of ownership of different product versions
  7. Conformity to international standards

Internationalization also helps in removing some problem areas common to most multilingual products such as basic efficiency, freedom from particular cultural conventions and encoding of a particular character set or language. Likewise it helps eliminate hard-coded text and minimize the presence of concatenated text strings. The product could be made compatible with tools from third parties and could provide support for non-western languages, accommodate languages with double bytes and right to left scripts. Internationalization also complies with the standard for the global display of text and allows the software to be used in more than one language at the same time.

Why localize?

There are many evidences culled from various researches and studies showing that localization makes a product or service highly successful. According to one research of Common Sense Advisory, price only ranks second after the ability to access information in one's own language, based on consumer responses. A study done by the California State University at Chico states that about two-thirds of multinational companies believe that achieving an increase in global operations revenue is important or the most important to their business. When it comes to global mergers and acquisitions, Merrill Corporation said that the ability to communicate accurately and clearly in several languages is a critical factor in successfully sealing deals.

Subtle differences

Subtle differences exist between the two and it is common for all good translation to have localization components, but translation and localization are not the same and the important key here is adaptation.

In localization, a global product could have slight changes in its brand name to make it fit to the target market's language. This is a step further from translation. When something is translated, the source language is converted to a target language, not exactly word for word but taking the meaning of the source language and translating it into a language that the target audience understands. The information still contains the original content. Localization is injected when there is a need to find a substitute, as the original content would not appeal to the target, e.g., a British joke for a Spanish market.

When it comes to website translation and website localization, differences also exist although there are many people who use these two terms interchangeably, not aware of the fact that there are variances between the two. When you understand their differences, it could help you globalize your product or service profitably and efficiently.

In website translation, just like any other regular document translation work, web content such as multimedia, text, apps or e-books are changed, which in context, is done by word substitution, from the source language into a target language.

When website localization is required, the applications and web content are adapted for local or regional use. Here, the process involves not only translation, but also modification of the source language and site elements to tailor them to the cultural preferences of the target in a language they are familiar with.

Even if a website is translated by a linguist who has been highly trained, it will still be missing the level of technical and cultural nuance needed to be well-received in a particular location. For a global website to be effective it needs more than just language translation, there should be customer experience of the highest quality achievable. On a tactical level, it means not only bridging the language gap but also in refining the particular messages and providing answers to specific market expectations on language, functionality and cultural levels.

Expectations are variable and could be different by industry and region, although they could be split into two basic categories: functional and cultural.

  1. Functional content. This includes formats for contact information, phone numbers and time and date. It could also be formats for geographical references, measurements and weights or other content such as reviews, linguistic content and product descriptions.
  2. Cultural category. This could include styles, sizes, shapes, colors, graphics, icons, images and various societal values and codes, including beliefs, relationships, power, symbols, myths, rituals, etiquette and humor. In this context, some linguistic localization experts not only adapt content to the preferences of regional or national consumers but would also "transcreate" marketing and advertising campaigns to maximize their cultural appeal. Transcreation is primarily used by marketing and advertising professionals. It is a process whereby the message is adapted from a source to a target language while maintaining the nuances of its context, tone, style and intent. It's meant to evoke the same emotions and implications the original message intended to deliver, giving careful attention to images used for bring forth creative messages, making sure that nothing will be offensive to the local target market.

In localization, language not only affects the voice and tone of content but its flow as well. In another language, source words would vary in length during translation, thus it would affect page layout and orientation. Careful research is necessary and conformity to local standards and legalities is a must.

In conclusion, the difference between translation and localization is in the degree of work and in-depth knowledge of local markets. Translation will forever remain a big part of the localization process, although the latter requires more involvement from the translator. This is because it is no longer just translating content into a native language, but the content must fit the beliefs, practices, customs and traditions of the local targets, whose cultures make them behave differently when responding to text, even to font styles, color schemes, page layout and multimedia content. Localization is not only to make a product easier to use by international consumers but also to ensure that they would want to use the product.

Day Translations Team

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  • jasonjgj

    Great article! localization is a great benefit for any company who wants to globalize!

    • Sean Hopwood

      Yes, Localization is like an important part of marketing. It's like a form of marketing.

  • KUO LI

    This post distinguishes the differences between translation and localization in detail. Translation involves a long history; however, with the development of globalization, localization becomes more crucial. Translation tends to pay more attention on the balance between source language and target language and accuracy of target language. However, localization pays more attention on the culture adaption. According to Esselink, localization involves taking a product and making to linguistically and culturally appropriate to the target locale where it will be used and sold( Esselink). For localization, translation is a step of the whole process that still need other steps to adapt the local culture. In addition, the final aim of localization is to gain the greater profits in business. I really agree with opinion of the author that “A high level of accuracy is still demanded from translators”. There are a number of CAT tools such as SDL Trado and Memoq in translation of localization. As Gouades states that using a translation memory management system means that the translator must identify and load the relevant translation memories and analyse the material to locate and quantify full matches and fuzzy matches. However, there are still many errors occurring in translation that translate by these tools. So, it still necessary for localization to use translators to translate.

    • Henry Barrett

      Hi Kuo

      You sure are right about errors coming up in machine-assisted translations. I think such problems are particularly common when translating between Chinese and English. This is probably because words in Chinese and English share little or no traits that a machine can be trained to recognise. This is in contrast with translation between European languages whose vocabularies display a greater degree of etymological homogeneity. You might be interested in this page that demonstrates the results of testing a number of machine translators working from English into Chinese.

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