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Internationalization vs. Localization: Unraveling the L10n and I18n difference

Internationalization vs. Localization: Unraveling the L10n and I18n difference
Elizabeth Pokorny
Written by
Elizabeth Pokorny
Elizabeth Pokorny
Written by
Elizabeth Pokorny
Elizabeth Pokorny
Reviewed by
Updated on
June 27, 2023

As you research global expansion for your business, you may have come across the terms i18n and l10n – shorthand abbreviations for “internationalization” and “localization” respectively. The long-form spellings of these terms can seem like intimidating mouthfuls, but the concepts they represent are a must-know if you want your business to succeed in the international scene.

In this post, we’ll explore the concepts of l10n and i18n, how they differ from each other, and the tasks they may involve. We’ll also touch on their relationship with their overarching process of globalization (or just “g11n,” if you want to use its corresponding numeronym!)

What do i18n and l10n mean?

As mentioned above, i18n and l10n stand for “internationalization” and “localization” respectively. They’re formed from the first and last letters of each word, plus the number of letters between these first and last letters. (Feel free to do a quick count to confirm this!)

While some people use “i18n” and “l10n” – and their full word forms – interchangeably, there are some differences between the two terms to take note of. They’re also not to be confused with “globalization” (or “g11n” for short), which is a third key term you should know if you’re thinking of expanding your business to the global markets. But before we get into globalization, let’s uncover internationalization and localization in more detail.

What is internationalization (i18n)?

Internationalization is the process of adapting something for an international audience. Software developers frequently use this term when creating digital products, but it also applies to businesses that want to prepare other assets for international consumption – be it their products, services, or their website, for example.

In the context of the software development process, internationalization can involve:

  • Enabling Unicode so that the software can handle worldwide writing systems.
  • Separately storing, away from the software’s source code, any software instructions, user assistance text, or resource files that need to be translated for each target market.
  • Designing the software’s user interface (UI) to comfortably accommodate words of varying lengths when the UI text has been translated into different languages.

On the other hand, internationalizing a website may call for:

  • Using multilingual fonts so that your website can display your text regardless of the language it is in.
  • Building versions of your website theme to suit the conventional reading direction of the languages your website will be available in. For example, if you’re translating your website text from a language presented in left-to-right format, such as English, to a language presented in right-to-left format, such as Arabic, then you’ll need your multilingual website theme to right-align all text instead of left-aligning it.
  • Setting up subdirectories or subdomains to store the web pages for each separate language version of your website.
  • Preparing hreflang tags that help search engines serve the appropriate language versions of your web pages for language users in various geographical regions.

In this sense, think of the internationalization process as laying the groundwork to help you adapt your business asset for your target local audiences. Undertaking such advance preparations, you make your asset more straightforward to translate and localize. This in turn helps you save costs, plus get your localized asset out to market quicker. (Learn more benefits of internationalization here.)

What is localization (l10n)?

While internationalization involves preparing your business asset to be adapted for an international audience, localization is the process of actually adapting your internationalized product.

Undertaking localization means translating your asset’s text if your target audience speaks a language different from the language in which your asset is presented. However, the localization process goes beyond that. It also takes into account the audience’s societal and cultural characteristics, with the aim of making the asset appear fully local.

If you were localizing your website, things you’d need to do include:

Adjusting your website formatting

An extreme example of this would be reformatting your content from a left-to-right format to a right-to-left one, as briefly mentioned earlier.

However, adjusting your website formatting can also involve:

  • Adopting different date formats (such as displaying a date’s month before its day or vice versa).
  • Showing product prices in your target market’s native currency for a smooth user experience.

Adjusting your spelling, grammar, and punctuation

Different languages may use punctuation symbols differently. For instance, text is quoted using the “ ” quotation marks in English and the « » marks in French.

Variants of a particular language may also spell the same word differently, such as “color” for American English and “colour” for British English.

Adjusting your content’s phrasing

Apart from translating your content to your target locale’s native language, be mindful of phraseology to prevent your message from getting lost in translation. That’s because doing a direct translation of certain phrases or idioms into another language may not accurately evoke the original phrase’s intended meaning.

An example is the Japanese idiom 朝飯前. It literally means “before breakfast,” but is used to refer to how something is so easy to do (such that it can be done before breakfast).

If you were translating 朝飯前 into another language, you’d therefore want to check that your translation expresses the effortlessness of the task at hand, instead of advising the reader to get it done before breakfast!

Incorporating cultural nuance

Last but not least, insert appropriate cultural references into your website content to help it resonate with your target audience. Among other methods, this can involve emphasizing certain topics and avoiding others altogether. For example, referencing siestas might be relevant if you’re localizing your website for users in Greece, where taking a post-lunch nap is part of the local culture.

Don’t forget to account for cultural nuance when localizing your website images as well. Visuals that might appeal to one target audience could well be regarded as offensive in another!

If your website contains images of pigs, for example, replace these images before rolling it out for your Muslim audience. Pigs are considered unclean in the Islamic faith, and displaying images of them on your website may only turn off Muslim users.

What is the difference between internationalization, localization, and globalization?

To recap, you’ll carry out internationalization (i18n) to prepare your products, services, or content for adaptation for an international audience. The actual adaptation work falls under the localization (l10n) stage, which aims to have your business asset be well-received across your target markets in different countries.

Globalization, or “g11n,” encompasses both internationalization and localization. It is the overarching process of creating a business asset for a global audience as you work toward operating your business internationally.

For instance, let’s say ACME Company sells a software product in its domestic market. The software proves wildly popular, so the company’s management wants to offer it to users in one overseas country. So they’ll first undertake the globalization process, and assess the changes they need to make to their software and website for a smooth entrance into that new market.

With these changes identified, ACME Company begins internationalizing its software and website. For example, it might work to enable Unicode support for its software and source for multilingual website fonts.

Last but not least, the company will localize its software and website, such as translating and refining their text for cultural nuance, before releasing them to its new overseas audience.

Going global? Weglot makes i18n and l10n effortless

The terms “l10n” and “i18n” may seem like gibberish at first glance. However, what they stand for – localization and internationalization, respectively – should not be dismissed if globalization is your goal and you’re raring to venture into new markets abroad.

As you internationalize and localize your business assets, consider investing in tools that optimize these processes and speed up your expansion efforts. Weglot is one such option if you need to prepare your website for an international audience.

Using a proprietary mix of machine learning translations, Weglot’s website i18n and l10n solution helps produce high-quality web content translations in over 110 supported languages. Simply integrate Weglot with your website, and it automatically detects and translates all content on your site.

As part of the internationalization process, Weglot also automatically creates either subdirectories or subdomains for storing your translated content, and adds hreflang tags to your translated web pages to improve their global search visibility.

Separately, Weglot’s translation glossary lets you set rules on how certain words or phrases should always be translated. This feature is helpful for maintaining translation consistency while you localize your content into new languages.

You can also edit and refine your translations for cultural fit and appropriateness through your central Weglot Dashboard where your translations are stored. When you’re happy with your translations, Weglot will display them on your web pages, and users can easily toggle between website languages using a built-in language switcher.

Experience Weglot’s i18n and l10n capabilities on your website for free by signing up for a 10-day trial here.

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