Translation or Localization: Which Do You Need?

How Do I Know Whether to Pick Translation or Localization?

When first getting into the world of commercial translation, this can be a question that’s on the back of a lot of people’s minds: For my multilingual project, do I need Translation or Localization services? While the short answer is, Yes, you do, the long answer is going to take up a majority of this blog post to explain. If we really wanted to make things complicated, we could also toss in internationalization and transcreation into the mix, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s just stick with these two forms of communication.

A wide number of factors influence whether you, your business, or your organization need one type of language service or a completely different service: source material, source language, target language, target population, target population’s language’s dialect, target population’s language’s dialect’s specific region or city. Each of these items will have a profound effect on how your finished project will be understood and interpreted, and before you decide whether to seek out a translation or localization service, you need to be sure you have a clear idea of what each of these factors entail.

But first, let’s take a look at what exactly translation and localization are and what the difference is between these two concepts.


With blatant disregard for the cardinal rule of writing, I’m going to quote a dictionary entry: The Oxford English Diction defines translation as A written or spoken rendering of the meaning of a word or text in another language. We all know what translation means. It’s a common practice in language-learning, in places where multiple languages are spoken, and in many professions like science, academia, and business, where it is often necessary to present work in a language other than the source language.

Localization, in the most basic sense, takes translation one step further and considers all the elements of the local dialect or customs of a group of people and integrates them into the translated final product. This might seem like a big nonsense glob of a sentence, but localization came around to account for the linguistic, cultural, and local themes that separate the way different people speak the same language.

For example, let’s say we have a short story we’re translating from Chinese into English. Standard practice for translation would be to take the Chinese characters and convey their meaning as closely to the original text as possible in a standard form of English. When localization steps in, it takes this translated project and picks out each relevant component – everything from dates, measurements, currencies, vocabulary, proverbs, idioms, regionally specific spelling, slang, addresses, and much more – so that it matches the way a specific community utilizes English.

The common theme is that localization is key when working with a language that has multiple dialects like English, Spanish, Arabic, French, or any of the languages under the umbrella of Chinese.



Well when should I use what where?

This isn’t a question we can universally answer. Each project has its own set of elements that dictate which process is necessary, and the wisest choice would be to discuss your specific needs with a language service provider who will more adequately be able to tell you what you need to do. But to give a general idea, let’s discuss some of the more common differences between the two services.


Commerce, marketing, advertising

These three fields all embody the idea of “targeting” a specific group of people. In commerce, we sell products to consumers, in marketing we work out ways to sell products to consumers, and in advertising, we write messages about products to send to consumers. These three fields inherently demand a level of creating content for a specific person living in a specific area. When advertising and marketing experts from a company team up to create messages, visuals, and strategies to spread the word about a product, it would be absurd for them to think that the same content would be effective in both America and Britain – even if the linguistic difference is small, the impact would be minimal if Americans couldn’t understand British slang.

In the same vein, working with websites also often requires more localized content, product descriptions, culturally appropriate images, and suitable layout. Those living in France, Canada, and Western Africa could read and understand a French website, but when content and presentation seems foreign, consumers tend to shy away, even if they can decipher whatever message you’re trying to send. Video games are another prime example of something that translation just can’t tackle on its own: Players often demand a more personal connection with the characters, landscapes, themes, and conversations within a video game, and the lack of this personal connection can threaten a video game’s potential for success in foreign markets.


Law, research, and medicine

Again, it would be foolish to make blanket statements about these two services, but at least a broad overview of what translation is good at would suggest that literature, law, and research are three fields where localization might not be the right option.

All of these also share a property that makes translation more appropriate, which is that they are all typically written in a more advanced, proper, and formal style of the language. The language of law is typically something that transcends dialects within a country or region, and so it whether the recipient of the translation is Saudi or Moroccan Arabic won’t make much difference as these kinds of documents would be written in a universally formal language (Fusha, or Modern Standard Arabic).

Research and medicine follow similar guidelines in that they both typically have internationally accepted standards for writing, presenting, and vocabulary, especially as many medical terms originate from Latin and Greek in a variety of European languages, and adaptations of these words in non-European languages often take similar forms. With research, specifically, these standards are written so that the content, findings, and debate can be understood by people from a wide variety of backgrounds, culturally and linguistically, so as long as the translator knows how to follow these styles and rules, the final product should require localization.

Okay, but what about MY project?

Like I said, there is no universal answer to whether you need to have your project localized or just translated. But there is a language service provider that can help you make the decision and that offers affordable prices for both services: Ata Translation Agency. We work with a wide network of translators, interpreters, editors, and more to provide top quality services throughout the language service sector. Call now or submit a query through our online form for a free quote or more information.

About the Author:

Daniel is based out of Chicago and works as a writer, editor, and translator.

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