The Difference Between Localization and Translation

The Difference Between Localization and Translation
Dimitris Glezos
September 28, 2015
7 min read

Development teams that hear the word “localization” tend to jump immediately to translation. In reality, translation is only a part of the localization process. While Web users are 4x as likely to buy from a company that presents content in their native language, there’s much more that goes into localizing content than simply swapping text.

Software localization isn’t translating your product word-for-word. It’s about adapting content to fit the qualities, customs, practices, and beliefs of your target audience. Cultures respond differently to text, as well as to page layout, media content, even color schemes and font styles. When localizing, the goal isn’t just about making it easier for international users to use your product, it’s about making international users want to use your product.


Anyone can use Google Translate, but rarely (if ever) is this the best way to connect with users of other languages. For example, translating the word “localization” from English to Spanish and back to English gives you “location.” Meanwhile, certain German words, which can consist of multiple compound words, might not translate at all. Even similar languages vary dramatically in terms of grammar, sentence structure, word length, and notation. Then, take into account that each language has its own idioms and phrases that can’t be translated directly into other languages. For instance, try encouraging a Mandarin speaker to “go the extra mile.”

When localizing, languages not only affect the content of a page, but also its flow. Words vary in length, resulting in longer or shorter sections. This is frustrating enough for fixed-size content, but what many developers don’t realize is that readability is also impacted. For example, readers of left-to-right languages tend to scan pages in an F-shaped pattern, so UI designers tend to structure their websites in that fashion. What happens when you want to display that same page in Arabic? Not only do you have to think in terms of text, but also in terms of layout and page orientation.

Companies have overcome these issues by immersing themselves in their target market. By living and speaking with everyday people, they’ve gained a much better understanding of the wants and needs of their users. It’s good to know the language, but if you can use familiar terminology and speech then you’re far more likely to succeed.

Language localization doesn’t always work out perfectly. When Nokia announced their Lumia Windows Phone, Web users quickly discovered that the name has a much less enlightening translation in Spanish, actually meaning prostitute (combined with Nokia’s slogan of “connecting people” and you can see how the jokes began). The story took off as a case study in poor localization, despite the fact Nokia had already recognized the translation as nothing more than obscure slang. Not to mention their market research found that 60% of their Spanish consumers actually liked the Lumia name.


As with language, media plays a huge role in the way users react to content. To understand how media affects your target market, consider the impact that images, sound clips, videos, and music have on your base market. Chances are your content has been carefully selected, choreographed, timed, or arranged to appeal to a particular market. The same level of diligence should apply when bringing your product to other cultures.

Even something as benign as a color scheme can vary intensely. Take the color red, for example. In the United States, red implies passion, excitement, or even power. In China, red represents happiness and celebration. Meanwhile, many countries in Eastern Europe associate red with communism, while much of the Middle East associates red with danger and evil.

Ikea, the popular Swedish furniture retailer, received an international backlash for their 2013 Saudi Arabian catalogue. The catalogue, which was otherwise identical to versions in other countries, had completely erased women from the images. Ikea quickly issued an apology, but many saw it as an affront to women’s rights, even consumers in Saudi Arabia.

Because media has multiple components working simultaneously, it’s easy to unintentionally create the wrong message. Careful research will not only help you overcome cultural barriers, but it can also prevent disastrous public relations mistakes.

Legalities and Standards

Every new market brings with it a new set of laws, regulations, and customs that your product has to conform to. If you don’t meet these regulations, you could be denied access to that market or fined. For example, websites in the European Union are required to disclose their use of cookies as a form of user tracking. They’re also required to give users the option to refuse cookies. This rule affects not only websites hosted in the EU, but also international websites marketing to European users. Similar laws and regulations may apply to other regions regarding the type of content made available, accessibility to that content, and ownership of data shared with third-party providers.

Even if your product adapts to the laws of the target market, there are still variations in cultural and societal standards. Imagine your application has an order form that prompts the user for his or her address. Not all countries use ZIP codes, 10-digit phone numbers, or even 4-line addresses, but your application needs to account for all of those differences. Additionally, if your application collects data on measurements, you’ll need to adapt units based on the country and culture. If you request the user’s height, a user in the US will want to input feet and inches, while a user in the UK will expect meters and centimeters.

Testing and Validation

When testing changes to your localized websites, don’t just verify that the layout and content conform to the selected locale. Your QA team can tell you if the localization process works, but only a native speaker can tell you whether the changes are a fit for the region. During the development process, include users from your target audience for input and validation. Allow them to test the changes to ensure that they conform to their expectations. Again, it’s not enough to simply swap words or images.

Getting Started with Localization

Despite their differences, translation is still a key component of localization. With the Transifex Client, translation is as easy as pushing your resource files to Transifex, making changes in the Web Editor, and pulling the newly translated resource files back into your project. For websites and web applications, Transifex Live automatically updates your content while your translators are hard at work.

Localizing the rest of your content is a bit more involved. When it comes to optimizing your layout, the features available to you depends on the type of project. For instance, with websites, using responsive web design lets content on your web pages automatically grow and shrink based on the size of translated content. With media, you’ll need to include logic that swaps out audio and images based on the user’s locale. Fortunately, video subtitles can be added and edited directly in the Web Editor. And when it comes to law, it’s vital to have expert available to consult regarding legal requirements and compliance. We can connect you with agencies and native speakers from around the world to create a customized solution.

Translation and localization are often used interchangeably, but knowing the difference can have a big impact on how your target market receives your product. Once you can reach out to your international customers, you’re far more likely to succeed. For more information about localizing websites, mobile apps, or digital content, visit www.transifex.com or request a live demo today.

Dimitris Glezos

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