Translation vs Localization – What’s the difference?

This is a question that our clients ask us from time to time. There is remarkably little public consensus on the distinction between these terms, partly because the practical details of localization workflows differ by client industry and source content, and partly because many clients will always refer to localization services as ‘translation,’ and correcting clients can be a tricky and unrewarding business. Nonetheless Glyph has found that understanding the difference clarifies what a localization provider can do for your business. Having clarity about what goes into the localization process accelerates our clients’ forays into new markets by letting them plan, budget and scope their localization projects more precisely.

Translation is the specific process of converting information, usually text, from a source language into a target language. Localization is a broader process that includes all of the individual steps necessary to adapt a product or service for a different locale. This almost always includes a translation component, but inherently carries a wider scope and calls for different sets of expertise.

The specific non-translation services involved in localization depend on the format of the source material, the client’s industry, and their needs and goals. Software localization requires the translation of not only content and user interface text, but also error messaging and help documentation. Marketing content usually requires multimedia adaptation, including subtitling or multilingual voiceover recording for video. For each of these components, we need to consider not just the translation of these components but layouts and scripts, which can become very complex with languages in other scripts such as Chinese or Arabic.

Localization also requires the adaptation of materials not just to a different language but to suit a specific locale. This is particularly important with respect to global languages such as Chinese, French and Spanish, that have significant divergences with respect to lexicon, grammar, syntax, and idiom. Preparations for specific locales also require the adaptation to different standards such as time, date and currency.

The distinction between translation and localization is one of the two most important reasons why it is advisable to work with a localization partner and not source linguists directly for translation work.1 Multilingual layouts, project management over multiple languages, multimedia adaptation, and most importantly, the process of scoping and planning a localization project are all outside the purview of translators, and are the parameters that make or break the adaptation of a product or service to a new market.

The difference between translation and localization is akin to the difference between cooking and running a restaurant. Having good chefs is critical to running a great restaurant, but good chefs alone can’t run a restaurant – there need to be staff and infrastructure for service, support, planning and purchasing as well. Similarly, localization projects require excellent translation, but they also require a raft of other services prior to and post translation in order to make sure that the translated material gets where it needs to go, and does what it is supposed to do.

The real point is that if all you’re asking your language service provider to do is translate strings into other languages, you might not be making the most of their expertise. If you’ve got all of the rest covered and the translations are doing their job, then you’re all set, but if your international operations aren’t flying as high as you’d like, get in touch and let’s discuss what we can do to really localize your business.

1 The other reason not to hire full-time linguists is the elasticity of localization demand in terms of both volume and languages. Working with a localization partner plugs you into a network of professional linguists whose expertise you can leverage on demand, without having to commit anything long-term. It’s like renting an expensive tool for a one-time job instead of buying.