Localization…What do You Really Mean?

Q: “Can you localize our manuals for Korea and our website for Brazil?”

A. “Yes, definitely. Now what do you mean?”

“Localization” is the most misused, confused and abused word in the language business, a profession that is supposed to be about rendering clear communication across languages. The reason for this confusion is that “localization” has different definitions for different people. And if your meaning differs from the listener’s understanding, what you have is a failure to communicate.

1.  Localization = Translation

To some people, localization is another word for translation, as in the request, “Can you localize my manuals for Germany?” Generally, the inquirer means, “Can you translate my manuals into German?”

2.  Localization = Acculturation

This meaning is the most implied but not stated outright, as in “Can you localize our brochures for Mexico?” In the case, the requester is asking whether we can translate her brochures into Spanish and make sure they are culturally appropriate for Mexico.

In the language business, some agencies have invented the term “transcreation”. Personally, that term seems ridiculous because it defines nothing and requires a translation itself. Instead, our agency uses a term from sociology called “acculturation”.

In essence, all these terms mean the same concept:  culturally adapting a home-country piece to host-country norms. Both “transcreation” and “acculturation” are used mostly in the context of marketing or promotion. (By contrast, technical manuals usually translate quite easily into other languages because technical professions use industry-specific terminology that all members understand).

To some extent this can involve internationalizing, which is explained below. But in most cases, proper acculturation means a thorough review and rewrite, if needed, to ensure that your stated benefits and features are appropriate. For example, a US marketing promotion often emphasizes value for money or cost savings. But when selling to Japan, the theme should be how your product or service is very reliable, of the highest quality, and has excellent back-up support.

A professional language agency can translate the concepts of an American marketing piece into Japanese. But the promotion itself — and all your investment — is likely to fail. No matter how wonderful your product or service may be, the English original often needs to be rewritten first to demonstrate benefits that appeal to the target culture. Only then should it be translated.

3.  Localization = Internationalization

Clients sometimes ask, “Can you localize our catalogue for Taiwan?” In this case, full internationalization may be required. This involves:

  • Graphics, images and colors: Do yours have any negative connotations in the target country? Are you advertising shampoo in Thailand with a blonde woman on the label?
  • Numbers: Are these written for the target country? Example: Should they be 5,234 or 5.234 or 5 234?
  • Currency: How does the target culture write this? Example: Quebec writes 12 592.74 $ (with a space instead of a comma and a space before the $) vs. $12,592.74 in the US.
  • Payment methods: Are you asking for payment by credit card when your target country uses cash or mobile-phone transfers instead? Does your target country use other credit cards not used at home?
  • Currency conversion: Are you asking for payment in dollars when overseas customers prefer to pay in their own currency? (A full-service global outreach firm can recommend solutions to this).
  • Does your text contain slang or references that simply don’t work in other countries?
    • Is a man “on the job?” If so, in Britain it means he’s having sex with his secretary.
    • Are you promoting pink products where pink can have a negative connotation?
    • Are you speaking about “creating your own destiny” to Arab countries, where for orthodox Muslims, only God, not people, can create?
    • Are you promoting price reductions where national laws restrict these only to one week in the summer or just after Christmas?
  • Concept disconnect:
    • Is your manual or website teaching cold calling to cultures where sales are mainly done through personal relationships and referrals?
    • Does your survey give rewards to participants in a country where professionals by law may not accept gifts?

For added confusion, some people consider internationalization to be part of acculturation. And vice versa.

4.  Localization = Website conversion

In the language business, this is actually the correct and traditional meaning of the word (in a tradition that extends about 15 years). Many people ask about “translating” their websites. Any professional language agency should be able to translate a website. But translation (converting the words and concepts) is only one part of rendering a website into another language. Other phases can involve:

  • acculturating your message (no. 2 above);
  • rewriting unclear or home-country references;
  • internationalizing your order page, concepts, images, etc. (no. 3 above);
  • laying out the graphics within the source files;
  • engineering the code to accommodate Asian or non-Latin scripts;
  • subtitling or dubbing any videos or spoken Flash automations;
  • testing all the links;
  • and more.

Website localization considers all of these steps to the exclusion of none. And only the highest-level, full-service, professional language agencies have the skills, expertise, staff and knowledge to localize a website properly.


When you ask whether your language service can “localize”, it is best to explain what you mean or use an alternative word. And if your language agency does not ask what you mean (assuming it’s not clear from the context), you should seek another that does.

Very few full-service language agencies understand international marketing concepts. And since your success in overseas or ethnic markets can hinge on that knowledge, it is best to rely solely on language agencies that combine global marketing expertise as well.