Buying translations

Going local – the difference between translation and localization

difference between translation and localization

Literal translations hardly ever produce the desired result. Software or advertising texts in particular almost always need to be adapted to the target market, a process called localization. MEINRAD explains what localization means, why it’s so important and how if differs from a translation. 

Do you remember the last time you visited a foreign company’s online shop, where English was just one of the many languages it had been translated into? You may well have thought the English was a bit dubious, clumsy, or just plain bad. Unidiomatic phrasing and odd choices of vocabulary can make you think that a non-native translator or a free online tool was involved in producing the text, and specific elements such as the currency, date format and flag might also have a jarring effect. 

If that was your experience, you’ll probably have left the website straight away – it doesn’t exactly scream high-quality products or a reputable manufacturer. By contrast, if you didn’t notice anything amiss with the English, that’s a sign the website was expertly localized. This makes clear just how important localization is for marketing products and services. But what exactly does “localization” mean? 

What is localization? 

Localization means adapting website content, software applications, video games and much more to the expectations of users in the target market. It goes beyond a mere literal translation to produce texts that meet the specific linguistic, ethnic, cultural and sometimes religious requirements of each region.  

Aspects that need to be adapted include: 

  • Time (12-hour or 24-hour clock) 
  • Number formats 
  • Address formats 
  • Units of measurement
  • Dates (order of year, month and day) 
  • Telephone numbers 
  • Currencies 
  • Public holidays 
  • Cultural norms
  • Graphics and icons 
  • Font styles etc.

This stands in contrast to a “translation”, which involves reproducing the text as closely as possible in another language. So rather than asking “Translation or localization?”, translation should be thought of as part of the localization process. Depending on the type of text, a literal translation may not be enough – it could be difficult for the reader to understand, or may in a worst case scenario irritate or even offend them if the words have a different meaning in the target region. Proverbs and figures of speech are good examples of this: they can only be translated literally on the (relatively few) occasions that there’s a direct equivalent in the target language. And references to celebrities or current events can quickly backfire if people in other regions don’t know who or what the text is talking about. So if you don’t have the appropriate cultural knowledge for your target markets, your texts might not have the right impact. As everyone knows, the devil is in the detail.  

Globalization needs localization 

To sell products successfully around the world, translations need to be perfect – and that means localization is required. When a text speaks a customer’s language, it increases their trust and goodwill: studies have shown that most online shoppers only buy from online stores in their native language, and that they’re much more likely to buy products with descriptions and product information available in their own language. 

Texts are therefore a key part of any product. That means unsuitable (or unlocalized) translations risk putting the product in a bad light and creating a subconscious association in your target customer’s mind with poor quality. They might shrug their shoulders or burst out laughing – and the damage to your image is done. So don’t think you can get away with using a free online tool to translate your texts into the language you need, or getting the person in the office who studied that language at school to do it. Instead, do the job properly and get the texts localized. 

Avoid egg on your face with localization 

Successful localization requires more than just knowledge of the target language: you need to be familiar with the specific features of the target market and the traditions, cultural quirks, values and habits of the consumers living there. And that’s where translators are the experts. Translators know what works in their country and can put terms and phrases in the appropriate context to ensure that your texts have the desired impact with your target market. One big-name company who found out the hard way why this cultural knowledge is so important is Mitsubishi, who launched their Pajero SUV without knowing the colloquial (and very rude) meaning of “Pajero” in Spanish. Although they hurriedly renamed it the “Montero” in Spanish-speaking countries, it was a PR disaster – and one that could have been avoided with localization.   

Challenges of software localization 

The particular characteristics of software products mean conventional translations usually won’t cut the mustard: pre-defined user interfaces with fixed character lengths are just one example of the challenges software localization poses for translators. Professional software localization depends on a combination of linguistic and technical expertise. 

You can tell that software has been professionally localized if: 

  • All formats adhere to the relevant linguistic and cultural conventions
  • The language sounds natural and is easy to understand
  • The user interface “fits like a glove” – there are no texts spilling out of insufficiently large text boxes or other similar issues
  • There are no software errors caused by incorrect localization 

Ultimately, if you don’t notice that the software was originally designed for a different target market, that’s the best indication it has been perfectly localized. Only then will it sell successfully around the world.


Have we sparked your interest? Find out more about MEINRAD’s software localization services here. Even in the early development phase we can advise you on which aspects you should take into account for subsequent localization of your software, highlight potential pitfalls and help you avoid them. Contact us today!

Main image: © Storyblocks