Localization, Globalization, & Translation, Oh My!


Localization and globalization: these terms pop up everywhere. We know that they have something to do with translation. And with multinational or international commerce. Or selling to people of different languages. People of other cultures. Or in far-off lands.

Once upon a time, everything was local. With the exception of limited long-distance commerce (think Silk Road), each region had its own unique products and services, transacted in its own dialect. Finally, along came the Industrial Revolution. Factories could make millions of standardized widgets. Megacorporations could export their processes around the world. Economies of scale dominated. This new ability — to make infinite quantities of product without discernable variation between individual specimens — represented a triumph over the irregular and the imperfect. A domination of nature, if you will. Humanity had overcome the constraints of the local.

The return of the regional

After basking in the wonders of standardization, people began to tire, to see the whole affair as monstrously bland. A sort of ennui crept in, a nostalgia for the days of handcrafted goods, one-off products and local flavor. Hipsters and farmers markets proliferated. Retro became hot. Distressed furniture became a thing. Middle-class Americans prowled the globe in search of authentic cultural experience; they meditated in ashrams and rode camels in the desert. This obsession with uniqueness and originality spawned a great restlessness. Those companies attuned to the zeitgeist began to reevaluate their branding, corporate image, and marketing efforts.

Localization goes global

This penchant for individual and local character linked up with another phenomenon: the multinational corporation. When the two merged, localization was born. Rather than offering perennially American goods and expecting their diverse consumers to adapt, companies realized, they could sell to the sensibilities of each locale. And sell a lot more by so doing. They could be both global and local. Localization, abbreviated L10n (there are 10 letters between the l and the n in the word localization), took on sufficient importance as to become a discipline in its own right. Almost overnight, localization departments sprouted in any multinational worth its salt.

So what is localization?

A slippery and troublesome word, localization means different things to different people. Inherent in the term, however, is the locale. In its most widely-understood context, the term denotes a process of cultural/regional adaptation that may encompass any or all of the following:

  • translation (often shortened to T9n)
  • design/user experience (UX) considerations
  • formatting & layout issues
  • legal issues that may vary by country
  • adapting of symbols, icons, and other extra-linguistic semiotic content
  • market analysis / segmentation
  • attention to subdialects within a language
  • aesthetic considerations
  • cultural references (entertainment, pop culture, fashion, other trends) of the target market
  • historical references of the target market
  • insider humor (puns, memes, jokes, etc) of the target market
  • cultural conventions

Or, as Julie Layden describes it, “Localization is the customization of all components of a product for a particular target market.” According to the Globalization and Localization Association (GALA), a product should seem to each market sector as though it had been designed and created by and within that demographic, “no matter their language, culture, or location.”

A localization cautionary tale

Ben & Jerry’s Black & Tan ice cream sold poorly in Ireland. The reason? Inadequate localization. In the US, and possibly other countries, Black & Tan connotes a popular beer cocktail (the thought process behind naming an ice cream flavor after an alcoholic beverage lies beyond the scope of this article). In Ireland, however, the term is laden with baggage from the country’s turbulent history. The Black and Tans (officially the Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve), a pro-British paramilitary force, allegedly committed a number of war crimes against the Irish population during the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921). Long story short, the term did not help Ben & Jerry’s sell ice cream in Ireland. Though the Ben & Jerry’s lesson is less tragic than Irish history, it demonstrates how historical legacies and cultural nuance can disproportionately impact product reception.

How much localization is just right?

The multifaceted nature of localization means that a company must selectively localize, as implementing every aspect of L10n would be prohibitively expensive and difficult. For example, a campaign may not have the bandwidth to address foreign UX, due to its prioritization of cultural humor as a means of reaching its audience. Or, with regards to market analysis, any market can be segmented with infinite granularity; however, past a certain point, increased segmentation produces diminishing returns and compounding difficulty. In short, to again quote Julie Layden, “A successful localization project requires a balance of time, cost, and quality.” Rarely will an organization have the budget and timeframe to localize in every aspect, much less to do so with meticulous attention to detail. As a Harvard Business Review article puts it, “Too much localization can…lead to ballooning costs. Too much standardization can bring stagnation, dooming a company to dwindling market share and shrinking profit.” In the L10n goldilocks zone, however, an organization will prioritize its localization outcomes and allocate resources accordingly.

Translation, at the very least

Regardless of the resources a multinational devotes to various aspects of localization, an accurate and precise translation is a bare minimum. Without your texts, website and other materials translated into the language of your target market, there is no localization. For certain types of communication, a good translation alone does the trick. For others, additional layers of localization are needed to fit the message to the culture. Translation almost always comprises the bulk of any localization effort; other considerations, when they come into play, piggyback atop the translation project.

Different texts, different needs

Generally, the more technical the text, the less it warrants L10n considerations beyond an accurate, precise translation. One can hardly imagine that some great faux pas would emerge from the translation of a set of operating instructions for a wet centerless grinder. Or, that the same manual would need to be localized for seven Arabic subdialects. An advertising campaign, on the other hand, usually relies on innuendo, metaphor, and allusion.  Every phrase must be considered carefully with regard to each language, dialect, and (potentially) other segmentation factors. Localizing a marketing piece for seven subdialects of a language would probably be wise. As would avoiding references, however oblique, to historical atrocities in the region (wink, wink, Ben & Jerry’s).

Localization intersectionality

Each market contains its socioeconomic strata, its gender archetypes, and other features that tend to remain fairly consistent across cultures. Even though such phenomena may manifest differently from one subculture to another, they can still be used to predict and cluster localization parameters. Vijay Vishwanath and Darrell K. Rigby discuss different approaches to grouping market characteristics — “clustering,” they call it — for better localization efficiency from one market to the next. One such clustering technique, CHAID (chi-squared automatic interaction detection, for those who must know), “enables us to analyze the effects of characteristics in combination rather than independent from one another.” Supposedly, clustering methodologies can help a company standardize certain aspects while customizing others — and evaluate which should be which. Such esoteric disciplines may find more applicability in consumer market segments than in corporate / industrial; I leave it to each localization department to weigh their value. Because U.S. Translation Company primarily serves an industrial clientele in the life sciences and manufacturing sectors, I’ll not delve too deeply into CHAID or any other mathematical morass.

Does the translator need to be a rocket scientist? It depends.

Naturally, the localization process requires, at a minimum, a translator fluent in the source and target languages. Most L10n projects, however, have further criteria that must be met. A majority of such campaigns will require a translator to understand the target culture and its nuances, in addition to having linguistic proficiency. And then there’s the issue of subject matter expertise. The more domain-specific and technical a translation, the more imperative it is that the translator possess a background in the respective field. A bilingual surgeon could probably do a fine translation of a children’s book, but a bilingual layperson would have difficulty translating a journal article about the latest advances in esophageal endoscopy. That’s because any field with a high degree of specialization will have, in effect, its own language. Sure, the layperson could handle a phrase such as “patients were grouped according to their anticipated complexity,” but what about the more arcane “it represents a natural orifice transluminal endoscopic surgery approach to Heller myotomy” (PubMed). Is there even a Farsi equivalent to transluminal? The Farsi / English bilingual layperson wouldn’t know. 

Localization is essential but largely invisible

Multinational companies probably underrate the importance of their localization department. These unsung heroes lay the foundation on which international sales can happen. They juggle a plethora of concerns, most of them complex. And, to do their job well, they need expert help. Some use in-house translators. Others hire freelancers. Still others outsource to professional localization and translation firms. Large companies with a mature localization program tend to use a combination of in-house, freelance and enterprise expertise. However they do it, their work goes unnoticed. Until they fail (Black & Tan). As long as they do their job well, they remain invisible. They probably prefer it that way.

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