Colloquially speaking, the words “translation” and “localization” are often used interchangeably as if they both mean the same thing. However, this is a common misconception because though the two terms are similar in some ways, translation and localization are actually quite different from one another. Where translation is a relatively simple process, localization is a more complicated process that encompasses translation but reaches far beyond it. It’s important for companies to understand the differences between the processes of translation and localization as this simple understanding could work wonders for brands to effectively reach an international audience.
The Simple Definitions
Let’s start out with the definition of each term:
- Translation is defined as the process of changing words from the original language into a different target language by simply substituting the original language’s word for the other language’s word.
- Localization is defined as the adaptation of text or content to match the linguistic and cultural expectations of a particular region. Localization, therefore, goes beyond translation to appeal to the specific preferences of different regions in the world, allowing it to be more widely accepted in that area.
Simply Bridging Language Barriers or Adapting to Differing Regions?
Where website localization is appropriate for international companies seeking to reach a global audience, website translation is suitable for businesses looking to reach a wide audience in a particular region. A company that has offices only in one part of the world but hopes to reach a broad range of people would benefit simply from translating its website from the native language to all of the region’s differing languages. This can be seen on many websites in the U.S., for example, where the user has the ability to translate the website’s language from English to Spanish due to Spanish being a widely-spoken language in America.
However, companies that have international offices and are hoping to reach an international audience would benefit most from not only translating the company’s website but localizing it as well. This is because even the best linguists have difficulty straying from the primitive word-to-word translations of content, which can, therefore, have the consequence of the information lacking the cultural knowledge necessary to actually resonate with specific locales, and sometimes even being offensive.
For these reasons and more, localization, unlike translation, also extends beyond the written word or text. Where translation only considers the differences between words in one language to those in the other, localization also considers cultural content such as colours, shapes, graphics, and societal codes and values, as well as functional content such as date and time formats, weight and measurements, and geographical references (referring to someone as a “Scouse” instead of an inhabitant of Liverpool, for example). By encompassing translation, cultural content, and useful content in these ways, localization works to refine a company’s message and brand to meet the cultural, functional, and language expectations of the differing regions in its global market.
Though website localization may only seem necessary for companies with international offices who speak differing languages, it is actually just as important to utilize localization services in international companies with the same native language. Think, for example, about the many phrases and idioms differing merely from British English to American English. Though English is the mother tongue both of Great Britain and of America, there are many differing concepts that would not be appreciated from one country to the other. For example, if the British idiom “As the actress said to the bishop” was said to an American, he or she would not laugh quite as hard as if the American equivalent “That’s what she said” was muttered instead. Though the precise words of the idiom are understood, the meaning behind those two phrases is lost due to the cultural and regional differences between the two countries. This is a small example of how important it is for international companies to utilize localization even in instances where the differing locations have the same native language in order to ensure that the correct meaning of the website content is understood.
Real-World Examples of Translation and Localization
Starbucks is a fantastic example of a global brand that effectively utilizes localization in differing regions of the world. Though Starbucks is already the widely recognized go-to brand for those in need of a caffeine fix, the company recently implemented localization strategies that have helped increase their global profits by 30%. The Starbucks locations in China, for example, now not only have menu items that focus more on tea and less on coffee due to the Chinese cultural preference for tea, but the locations also have easily movable furniture to cater to the Chinese tendency to travel in large groups. In regards to the Chinese Starbucks’ website, the images used on the website are integrated with both cartoon and real pictures to advertise their Frappuccino drinks, something that is widely popular in Chinese graphics. Though Starbucks is so well recognized it may not have needed to cater specifically to the preferences of its regional locations, this consideration of cultural and linguistic values helped it to bring in more profits than if it maintained the same atmosphere globally.
Outside of websites, examples of localization and translation can also be widely seen in book and movie titles. One example of localization can be viewed in the famous Harry Potter series. The first book of the series was named “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” in the UK, however it was changed to “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in the U.S. due to the American publishing company Scholastic believing that American children would not want to read a book with the word “Philosopher” in the title. On the other hand, the popular Chinese movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” maintained the same translation from Chinese to English despite the fact that it may not make as much sense in English as it would in Chinese. This is due to the fact that the phrase is a popular quote from Chinese mythology that is applicable to the film. Though many international movie translations are seemingly laughable such as the translation of the title of the American film “The Sixth Sense” to the Chinese translation “He’s a Ghost!” (ostensibly giving away the entire plot in three simple words), these translations might make more sense in the specific language due to the cultural preference encapsulating that language.
Both website translation and website localization are important in their own ways. For companies who only have locations in one region of the world seeking to reach a diverse audience, website translation is a useful method to ensure their audience can efficiently understand the website content. However, for global companies hoping to target a wide international audience, website localization is the best way to ensure the website content is both correctly translated and culturally considerate.