What is localization?

One of the most frequent questions I get when I’m meeting people in my own neck of the woods is, “So, what do you do here in town? Do you work for Coldwater Creek?”

Image“No,” I say, although I am often in the presence of one or more people who do — as photographers, web designers, copy writers, and so on. “I’m the managing editor of a magazine.”

Sandpoint magazine?”

“No, it’s called MultiLingual. It’s about translation and that sort of thing. It’s international; we’re in 87 countries. We just happen to be based here.”

“Cool. So, um, you translate?”

“No, no. It’s all in English. It’s like a trade publication for the localization industry.” At this point, I feel as if I’m reading from a script, and the much-repeated words flow off my tongue. “Localization is when you take a product or service and adapt it for another market. So, often it involves translation, but it doesn’t always, like when you localize a website for the UK or Australia.”

Usually, at this point, the other person nods.

“The idea,” I add “Is to make the product look and feel like it was produced locally, whether it’s sold in China or Argentina.”

Exactly the kind of thing you do not see in those hilarious photo snapshots of badly-translated English-language product documentation or marketing materials. Good localization is so invisible, it’s no wonder people have never heard of it. It’s only when it’s bad (or non-existent) that it’s noticeable. And believe me, people do notice it. You know they notice it, because you notice it. If some Japanese company decided to try to sell perfectly shaped golfball-sized lychee fruits in beautiful packaging at Walmart for $9 each, you’d notice even if the translation was impeccable. You’d notice because it was expensive and you have no idea what this scaly, prickly, weird thing is. And hence, it’s not what you want to buy at Walmart. This is why localization professionals chortle to each other about the popcorn mogul that wanted to sell “family-sized” trans-fat-heavy microwave popcorn in Japan. Or the guy who dreamed about bringing bulk goods to the downtown London crowd. Or the violent video game producer that wanted to market in China. Sometimes, localization involves a whole lot more than translation. Sometimes, it involves re-thinking and re-tooling the product entirely. The earlier this is done, the better. And this is why large companies such as Microsoft have entire divisions devoted to preparing software for localization, even if they do not do the actual localization in-house — and they usually don’t. Microsoft outsources translation and at least some localization to Moravia, one of the biggest language service providers in the world, which you’ve likely never even heard of if you’re not in the localization industry. If Moravia’s quality is anything like their staff and sense of loyalty, it’s got to be good, so I was glad to see that Microsoft recently recognized them for their service.

By the way, if you want to know more about localization, (of websites, in business, or how localization technology works) there are some great Getting Started guides available for free download here. If you want a directory of localization companies and services, you can download the one just out for 2012 here. And if you want continuing in-depth information about the industry, you should, of course, subscribe to MultiLingual and consider attending Localization World.

3 thoughts on “What is localization?

  1. Pretty stupid job, but if it pays the rent : well, that is fine. FOr images, this is ok, for writing ads, it is funny that no one thought of it before – which means the advertizing business was full of ignorant morons. As far as translation is concerned, translators always know the culture for which they translate or they are not translators but hamsters.

    The reality, is that all this newspeak has been invented by IT pushers. ANother IT bubble that will simply explode because … there is nothing inside a bubble.

    1. Bob, are you for real? It sounds like you don’t know what is meant by localization. It is not an IT job per se, because theoretically it can be done with zero technology. In this era, of course, it usually does involve technology, but only insofar as just about any business involving documentation does — with the possible exception of machine translation, which is technically quite complex and a different subject altogether. If you’re localizing something like a user interface, you need to consider not just word-level translations, but what, in terms of images, layout, currency, date formats, content and so on will be most appropriate. Localizing a user interface will involve coding, graphic design, translators, proofreaders, and in-country testers, for example. And getting culture-specific (or non-specific) translators can actually be quite challenging. If you want to localize a website for a Spanish-speaking audience, for example, what exactly does that mean? Are you trying to get a “neutral” website for Latin America? For all of the United States, plus Mexico? For Spain? For Argentina? In each of these cases, your vocabulary and cultural expectations will be different, and you might even need to hire different translators.

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