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Translation vs Localization: Decoding the Language Barrier

Translation and localization, known in the field as l10n, are key components in breaking through language barriers in a globalized landscape where interaction between people from different cultures and languages is essential for cooperation and commerce. Research from industry experts highlights the positive impact of investing in localization and translation, showing the correlation between investing in language services and more client engagement and revenue.

Although they might seem like synonyms, translation and localization are not the same, and understanding their differences and applications can make a difference in reaching your communication goals. Here’s an overview of how they differ and how you can use this to your advantage.

Understanding Translation


Translation is the process of converting text from one language to another while retaining its meaning, context, and intent. It involves the careful interpretation of the source language  and the accurate expression of the same information in the target language. For this reason, it requires in-depth knowledge of both source and target languages and must be carried out by a specialist preferably immersed in the target culture (source: Esselink, 2000.)

The primary focus of translation is preserving the original meaning and context of the source language while conveying it in the target language. Although it might involve some sort of cultural adaptation, it’s not its main goal and it is instead considered to be part of the localization process. In this way, translation is crucial in tackling cross-cultural communication, but it falls short when appealing to a specific audience.

Exploring Localization

 “Localization involves taking a product and making it linguistically and culturally appropriate to the target locale (country/region and language) where it will be used and sold” (Localization Industry Standards Association, in Esselink, 2000.)

To achieve that, it is necessary to adapt, and in some cases, modify, a product or a service to make it appealing to a specific audience; this goes beyond translation since the goal is not linguistic accuracy but cultural relevance.  These adaptations may involve converting date and time formats, accommodating various currency symbols and formats, or altering software or websites’ layout, design, and functionality to cater to linguistic and cultural diversity.

In short, the primary focus of localization is cultural experience, to make sure that audiences feel they can identify with a product or a service. As such, it requires not only linguistic understanding of the target audience but also of cultural nuances and trends (source: POEditor Blog)

Key differences


This might seem obvious by now, but the main difference between translation and localization is their scopes; while the first deals with transferring meaning, the second deals with building rapport. They also differ in terms of objectives and technical aspects. You might find the following summary useful! (Source: POEditor Blog.)

ObjectivesDeliver a message in a target language by keeping its meaning and context.Deliver a cultural-specific user experience.
Technical aspectsDeals with linguistic aspects only: grammar, vocabulary, and expressions.Deals with more than linguistic aspects: design, cultural adaptation, legal concerns, or even product modifications.

In this way, translation is usually the starting point for localization, but not its end. Localization goes beyond transferring meaning from one language to another and as such it usually requires more than linguistic knowledge:

  • Use of CAT tools, Translation Management Systems (TMS), and Content Management Systems (CMS).
  • Surveys and study groups in target locales.
  • Tests and QAs.
  • User interface (UI) modification.
  • Product or design adaptation/modification.

So, Translation or Localization?


It all depends on your communication goals. Do you want to enter a new market? Increase your presence in a specific locale? Make available documentation or regulations for your users? Creating manuals or didactic material?… Consider the following factors:

  1. Target audience: Do you want to appeal to a specific audience in another region/country or do you want to make content available for them? From this answer, you might deduce what your direction will be already.
  2. Cultural relevance: Is it necessary to adapt a product to a specific target audience?
  3. Linguistic accuracy: Should you prioritize the meaning of the content?

In general terms, if your goal is only preserving the meaning of a text for documentation or information purposes, then translation is the solution for you. However, if your goal is introducing or strengthening a product’s (software, website, goods) presence in different countries or locales, then localization is the way to go. Translation alone will not appeal to those customers.

Some Tips


We have written about localization strategies in previous articles, but to make sure that your strategy works well, whether for translation or localization, take into account the best practice recommendations (source: Phrase.com):

  • Proofread Source Content: Make sure the source content is 100% accurate when requesting a translation. Mistakes in a source text will lead to mistakes in the target language, increasing time and costs.
  • Provide original documents and formats: Give reference documents and original formats to translators. For instance, .pdf formats cannot be edited and must be converted and while doing so, the format might change. Likewise, give access to the software or product being built to the localization team, as well as any other reference materials like UI mock-ups, screenshots, or existing documentation.
  • Use TMs: Leverage TMs to store segments of text that have been previously translated, which can be reused in future projects. Good TM management keeps consistency in style, tone, and terminology, and helps reduce costs.
  • Choose the Right Translation Solutions: Use machine translation, post-editing, and TMS to streamline the localization process and ensure quality and consistency.

Some l10n-specific recommendations include:

  • Prepare source content: Quality localization efforts start when products are designed to be adapted. This involves having written source language clearly for instance, or preparing for text expansions between languages in buttons, box dialogues, etc.
  • Be careful with images and videos: A picture speaks a thousand words. Worst case scenario, failing to use images correctly might repel your target audience.
  • Don’t underestimate testing: Proofreading well is a must, but testing during the early stages of localization and the whole process will ensure that cultural experience is conveyed to users. Mistakes, bugs, or cultural gaffes will cost you a lot if they reach the public.

As we discussed in this article, although translation and localization deal with conveying messages from a source language to a target language, they vary in scope, objectives, and technical aspects. When deciding which one to use, it is crucial to define your goals and target audience so you can leave the matter in the hands of experts and hand over all the necessary information and tools to maximize localization efforts.

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