Translation, Localization, Internationalization, Globalization, Culturalization… Confusing-ization?

Sometimes it seems as though a new term emerges each month to help describe a recent phenomenon or requirement in our shrinking and increasingly international world. Translation is needed more than ever before to help people communicate with each other and to allow companies to broadcast their message around the globe. But the word “translation” just doesn’t suffice any more to describe this process of disseminating information in all its various forms across languages. So, what are the differences and how do each of these terms relate to each other?

We’ll look at these in an approximate order of relevance to the translation industry and how frequently you might come across them, starting with translation. It should be noted that some of these terms are not unique to the translation industry; they are also heavily used in the marketing and business world. There may be slight differences in definition and usage depending on the industry.

In its most basic form, this describes the process of converting one language into another. The equivalent of the English “Hello” is “Bonjour” in French. The process of finding these equivalents is essentially translation. Of course, it is not as simple as finding word-for-word matches because every language formulates sentences in different ways, so the art of translation is to capture the same meaning while formulating the sentence appropriately so it is grammatically correct and in a style that native speakers of that language would use. It is important to note that there is not normally one correct translation of any particular word or phrase. There could be several different translations depending on context and preference.

Just a brief comment on interpretation, or interpreting. This applies specifically to the spoken word. The act of interpreting involves translation, but the latter term can also apply to the written word.

The “izations”
For the other terms, it is useful to actually look at the suffix “–ization”. The definition of this is the “action, process or result of doing or making”. Therefore, it might help to look at all these terms from an etymological point of view: local-ization = to make something local, international-ization = to make something international, and so on. But of course this can still lead to confusion and may not help us to discern the real differences.

This is often used interchangeably—and wrongly—with translation. They are distinctly different, but as localization usually involves translation, you will often find people say that such-and-such needs to be localized when really they are just referring to translation. The difference is that localization involves more than translation, it is an all-encompassing term to describe the process of adapting a product to a particular locale. When localizing a website, for example, the most obvious requirement is that all the text needs translating. However, that may only be a part of the process. To truly adapt that website for another country or region, you might have to choose more appropriate images, colours or music. More subtle changes may be needed, such as ensuring date formats are adapted or spaces between thousands are created. Localization can also refer to the project management and quality assurance involved in the larger workflow.

This term is a little less intuitive because it is actually quite a technical domain. It is an activity largely conducted by software developers as it involves preparing software code for successful localization. Whereas localization deals with converting assets into another language, internationalization allows those assets to be incorporated into the software without major engineering changes. For example, many languages take up more space on a page than English. Therefore, an internationalization step might be to design text boxes that are 30% larger than needed for English, so that there will be enough room for longer languages. Another step might be to ensure that the software is Unicode compatible to ensure various alphabets are supported. Internationalization should be seen as a readiness step, so that your product is primed for the subsequent translation/localization stages.

This term is a lot more common in the marketing and business worlds and describes the process of extending practices into other parts of the world. It has various other implications with regard to social and economic geography (especially homogenization), but when encountered in the translation industry, it is often used in the context of marketing products in other countries. A globalization strategy may involve investing in localization and internationalization so that a company can become a true multinational one. An important part of globalization is ensuring a strong brand image across all regions.

This term is less common but still occasionally spoken in the same breath as localization and translation. It is very similar to localization but is more of a specific term describing the adapting of content to a specific culture. Studies of culture can reveal some very important and sometimes surprising results that must be taken into account when marketing a product abroad. The colour red is often associated with warnings or danger in many Western countries, but in China it is considered lucky. The depiction of red blood in video games is actually illegal in Germany. To avoid damaging your brand or getting into hot water with authorities, many aspects of your product should be examined from the point of view of a particular culture.

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