What’s the difference between translation and localisation?
When choosing a professional translation service provider, you’re likely to come across references to ‘translation’ and ‘localisation’ among the various services on offer – but what’s the difference between these two terms? And when – and for which specific types of content – is localisation necessary?
The terms ‘translation’ and ‘localisation’ are often used interchangeably. But in reality, localisation is an additional step that builds upon a translation. In a simple translation, the translator interprets the meaning of the original text and accurately conveys it in the desired target language – without making any changes to the content.
For very technical or informational texts, the facts are the focus – that goes for technical writing and specialised medical or product information (such as clinical study reports, user manuals and financial statements). These types of texts are not intended to have an emotional impact on the reader; in this case, the only priority is to correctly convey the entire contents of the original text. For this type of project, therefore, a simple translation is all that is needed. You can find information on tolingo’s specialist translation services here.
Texts for which the intended effect is the main focus, such as marketing materials, require a different focus. Here, localisation is used because it goes one step further than simple translation – in addition to interpreting the source text in the target language, the translator also adjusts the final productto better suit cultural aspects relevant to the respective target group. But what does that mean, exactly?
What are some reasons why a text might need to be localised?
Many languages feature regional dialects that can differ dramatically from one another in terms of spelling and grammar. The best-known example of this is probably American and British English, but there are also different dialects of Spanish that are spoken in South America, as well as the various varieties of German found in Germany and Switzerland.
It goes without saying that most native speakers can still understand texts written in regional dialects of their language, but these texts might not have the desired emotional effect on the reader. Any marketing expert could tell you that a text that requires puzzling over will leave the reader with the impression that “something just seems off” – and ultimately won’t have the same appeal as one that reads more naturally. The same problem occurs when the reader is forced to stumble over odd or unfamiliar expressions.
The only way to evoke the right connotations for a particular cultural context is by using words and common expressions suitable for that target country, so that the text is less likely to be perceived as a translation. This ensures that the text flows naturally and the message of the text can reach the consumer as intended.
What is adapted during localisation?
Localisation doesn’t just mean switching out ‘bike’ for ‘cycle’ or ‘pants’ for ‘trousers’ – it’s equally important to make adjustments for the cultural conventions of the target country. To ensure seamless comprehension, aspects such as the following will need to be considered:
- Dates (order of day, month and year)
- Times (does the target country use the 12-hour or 24-hour clock?)
- Telephone number formatting (how are area codes written for the country or city?)
- Units of measure (centimetres, inches, grams, pounds, etc.)
- Temperatures (Celsius or Fahrenheit)
- Local currencies (euros, pounds, dollars)
- Clothing sizes
Translators need sensitivity and comprehensive, in-depth knowledge of the target country – usually referred to as ‘intercultural competency’ – to adapt cultural norms and religious traditions in the context of localisation. Any incorrect phrasing here would be at best incomprehensible and at worst deeply insulting.
For a successful example of this, we might point to Christian missionaries substituting the word ‘fish’ for ‘bread’ in texts intended for the Inuit. In this example, the translator adapted the intended effect of the original text to the specific characteristics of the target group. Although this meant altering the (factual) content of the text, the message intended by the author was conveyed in a comprehensible manner – just in a different form.
On the other hand, less successful examples can show us how failing to properly localise a text can be downright damaging to business, for example in the case of holiday scheduling. For instance, you could see a company joke on their website that ‘Next Monday, we’ll all be staying home to finish decorating our Easter nests’, which in a European context would be clearly referring to the public holiday and imply that the office will be closed. But this reference to a Christian holiday may not be quite so obvious for clients – especially consumers – who come from other cultural contexts, and who could easily become frustrated when unable to reach anyone at the company by telephone on Easter Monday.
This effect can be observed on an even greater scale in advertising. In the United States, it would be logical to advertise a particularly complex service by comparing it to the complexity of the rules of cricket, a sport which is basically unknown there. But if the company chose to run the same ad – with no changes other than adjustments to spelling – in England, it would likely be met with derision from potential customers, not interest.
One would think that marketing experts are familiar with the danger of these linguistic errors. Yet plenty of examples in the business world demonstrate that even omnipresent attributes (such as the name of a new product) are prone to serious problems. If errors such as these can still occur for seemingly obvious concepts, you can easily imagine how quickly companies can embarrass themselves in more extensive texts such as product information!
When does content need to be localised?
The question of whether you should have a text translated or localised is therefore closely linked to the purpose of the text. Is the focus on the factual information a text contains, or on the desired effect on the reader? The examples above should make it clear why the following text types, among others, should be localised:
- Press materials
- Websites / online shops (more information on website translation and localisation can be found here)
- Software or apps
- Company home pages
- Any and all texts related to content marketing
To translate or to localise? We’re happy to advise you!
Nowadays, thanks to the Internet and globalisation, customers have a nearly infinite number of options available to them. That’s why all it takes is one bad experience with your company to forever lose a customer to your competitors. This is particularly annoying when this happens because of mistakes which could easily have been avoided by working with a professional translation agency. We can provide comprehensive advice on all aspects of localisation!
tolingo's highly experienced account managers have successfully implemented numerous projects for companies of all sizes in a wide range of industries and languages, and are familiar with all the requirements of various language services. We work with a pool of more than 6,000 specialist translators who are proven experts (linguistically and culturally) in translation services and localisation of all types and in all languages, thanks to their advanced training and extensive professional experience. This means that we’ll always find the perfect translator for your individual project! If you’d like to have your texts translated or localised now:
We’ll be happy to advise you (free of charge and without obligation) about tolingo's translation and localisation services – contact us.