How is translation different from localization?

Think of translation like football.

If you want to understand how it’s different from localization, that’s a good place to start. Translation is a type of localization, just like football is a type of sport. But, like sports, localization is a large category, filled with multiple ways to make content effective for a new, international audience.

Translation is a starting point.

Simply put, translation converts written words from one language into another. Localization employs multiple techniques to adapt content’s full meaning for the new culture. When content gets translated literally, it may make sense in the target market or it may not. Take an ad reading, “Make us your top draft pick,” for example. Americans get that this refers to NFL and NBA drafts, where teams choose their favorite player first. But outside the US, there’s no such thing as the draft, unless you’re joining the military. So localization looks at content’s true message, then finds the best way to say, “Choose us.”

Localization also involves image adaptation. Let’s go back to our example: Say the ad shows a goalpost over the company’s door with a customer running through. If the copy doesn’t refer to the draft anymore, the picture no longer makes sense. Plus, football’s a uniquely American sport, so even if the original language were more universal (like “Win with us!”), the picture itself would still need to change into something the new market understands.

Layout adjustment is another localization technique. English reads from left to right, but Arabic, Hebrew, and other languages read right to left. Our ad would need to be flipped so that copy, pictures, and other content elements move the correct direction. Font size and type might need changes too, so languages using a non-Roman script can be read clearly. Even when content is translated into a language using the same alphabet as English, layout still often needs adjustment. Romance languages, like Spanish and French, need 30% more words than English to express a similar phrase. Finnish needs 30-40% fewer words. Translation changes the language, but layout localization makes sure copy looks right.

Then there’s everything else: Is the price in the right currency? Are dates formatted correctly? Is product size measured in English or metric? These areas are all part of the larger localization category, too.