Website translation

The Differences Between Translation and Localization and Why You Can’t Have One Without the Other

The Differences Between Translation and Localization and Why You Can’t Have One Without the Other
Madeleine Leddy
Written by
Madeleine Leddy
Madeleine Leddy
Written by
Madeleine Leddy
Reviewed
Madeleine Leddy
Reviewed by
Updated on
February 22, 2024

Website translation: all you have to do is find language equivalents of your content, and you’re done for the day. Right? 

Not quite. Along the way, you’ve probably stumbled upon concepts like translation, localization (abbreviated to l10n), internationalization (i18n), and transcreation. To make things more confusing, with the way some people use them, it seems like they mean the same thing. So what’s the deal?

Well, translation and localization both involve adapting your messaging and content to appeal to global markets. How exactly? By targeting different languages. But the approaches differ and will ultimately alter your translation project.

But what makes them distinct from each other? Can you have one without the other? And ultimately, how can either (or both) ensure your global marketing strategy drives real results?

Let’s jump in.

Translation vs localization

First things first. Translation focuses on adapting your message. It’s what bridges the language barrier. It gives the closest possible meaning to the reader and allows them to actually understand your messaging. However, translation is ignorant of cultural differences—which is an important part of nailing your marketing in a new country. 

Though it gives you a way to speak to new markets, localization focuses on words, colors, clothing, cultural symbols. And everything else that will make your brand fit in with your diverse new customer base. 

In other words, localization is about modifying the experience to adapt to what resonates best with your target market.

So how are they related? Translation falls under the umbrella of localization. It plays a big role in the overall localization process, since—logically—adapting your site to different countries implies taking into account the local language

Need an example? We’ll first take this sentence in American English:

2 yards of fabric costs $12. Order today, and we’ll deliver it to you before 08/18/2023.

Translating this into French–without any localization–would look like this:

2 verge de tissu coûte 12 $. Commandez aujourd’hui, et nous vous le livrerons avant le 08/18/2023.

Here’s the thing: the French use the metric system, so they wouldn’t immediately understand what yard (or the French equivalent, “verge”) is. They also use the Euro currency, and they write dates as day-month-year, not month-day-year. 

Accounting for the necessary localization changes, the sentence will look like:

1,8 mètres de tissu coûte 11,30€. Commandez aujourd’hui, et nous vous le livrerons avant le 18/08/2023. 

Note that this translation wouldn’t work for French speakers in Canada, as they use the Canadian dollar. 

And yet, many global brands get to localize their marketing efforts while maintaining a uniform image all over. How is this possible?

From globalization to “glocalization”

The answer? Globalization.

But in an increasingly borderless world, globalization = localization. Sound like a paradox? Strictly speaking, it is. 

Globalization is the increased connectivity and exchanges between people in geographically separate locations. These exchanges include goods, cultures, languages, and everything in between, right down to memes

Localization refers to keeping in touch with small units of  community around you. For scale, if Amazon represents the peak of “globalized” commerce, your local mom-and-pop bookstore is the “localized” equivalent.

There are magnitudes of differences between Amazon and your local bookstore. For starters, Amazon sells books in pretty much every language that’s spoken on Earth—whereas your local bookstore most likely only sells books in the local language(s) of your country or region.

So where does glocalization come in? It’s a compromise between globalization and localization—a sort of in-between. 

Let’s take our Amazon-bookstore scenario: we can see glocalization in the ways that Amazon differentiates its site for each country in which it is present. Not only are Amazon’s international sites automatically set to each country’s official language, but they also offer country-specific content and offers.

translation-localization-1

The Amazon France, USA, and Brazil sites have the same basic structure and Amazon branding. But as you can see, their content is country-adapted. 

This is a great example of glocalization online. Amazon is able to back this up with an offline glocalization component, offering faster delivery of items ordered from within one’s own country.

The main differences between translation and localization

Now that you understand why translation and localization are important, let’s break it down further.

These facets mostly apply to localization:

  • Accounting for local legal requirements; like adhering to the GDPR in Europe
  • Formatting your website and content for languages that read right-to-left, like Arabic and Hebrew. This would involve changing the placement of your menu or navigation, among many other things
  • Supplying social proof from locals, like reviews
  • Assessing the subtext and symbolism of visuals, like videos, colors used, images, and even emojis
  • Adjusting messages and format for text expansion, or when the translated output is much longer than the original language

Meanwhile, these factors apply to both translation and localization:

  • Distinct language characteristics: slang, dialects, idioms, tone, and more
  • Cultural tastes and preferences: tax is usually added onto the price of an item in the US. In Europe, what you see is what you get, as it’s included in the price
  • Customizing user data fields: Addresses vary all over. Japanese addresses use blocks instead of streets, Philippine addresses need a field to specify its subdivision (‘barangay’), and UK addresses are located in counties
  • Formats: naming conventions (Patricia Lee vs Lee Patricia), date and time formats, currency, units of measurement

Now we’ll take a look at the main processes that lead to successful localization, and which steps require translation.

How to localize and translate your website successfully

1. Translate your website for your local audience 

‘Locale’ is a term used to describe a combination of both language and the place where it’s spoken. It goes even further than localizing since it considers how some languages are spoken in many places around the world, like Spanish or Chinese. 

In that case, localized content for Colombia would be different from content created for Spain. If you choose to translate your website from English into Spanish, but you’re targeting a specific country in the LATAM market, then fine-tuning your translations to meet certain language nuances will make you stand out and speak to your audience in a better and more localized way. 

We’re pretty big advocates of localization here at Weglot. We love the speed machine translation can bring, coupled with how a professional translator can enhance and localize those translations with just a few tweaks. 

It might even stretch further than nuances. Think about cultural differences such as humor and idioms. What might be considered funny in one country might not be in another. And, things get even more confusing when you start doing direct translations of local idioms. You could get yourself in all sorts of trouble, as these tend to include cultural references associated with the specific country in question.

These are classic reasons for the importance of website localization. You may want to enlist the help of translation agencies to help localize your web content further.

2. Localizing your SEO

SEO plays an important part in the visibility of your brand. Without an SEO strategy, you’re unlikely to appear top in global search engines and therefore limit your chances of increasing your market share.

It’s likely you’ll already have a solid SEO strategy, but what about for your translated website? Much like editing direct translations of your source content, the same goes for your keywords, particularly within your metadata.

Keyword translation is another level of localizing your translations. If you’re a visual learner, here’s a video summarizing how to do that:

3. Localizing your images

It’s not just the content of your website that plays a role in your localization strategy. Changing images or even videos for your different chosen markets is an essential part of localization. 

This can be both culturally and contextually. You’ll need to research what is culturally appropriate for each new target market and also take into consideration different seasonal differences. 

For instance, Christmas in Europe will usually mean images of snow. But that wouldn’t make sense if you’re targeting the Australian market—where it would be smack-dab in the middle of summer.

Your target audience is unlikely to resonate with your website if the imagery shown is not familiar to them. Visuals play a big part in how a brand is perceived, especially when the first impression is likely your website. Don’t take your multimedia for granted—as mentioned earlier, the meanings of visuals vary greatly between locations!

4. Using machine translation

It’s common practice to use machine translation in some parts of your translation project. Speed, increased accuracy and giving you something to work from are just many of the benefits associated to using it in your translation workflow.

But one area to look out for is ensuring you’re targeting the right language. As mentioned above, Spanish is spoken differently in Europe vs Latin America (e.g. Argentina). The same goes for Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese.

Using a website translation software that allows you to select these types of custom languages will mean you can reduce some of the more manual aspects of your localization project.

5. Calculating currency and processing payments

In a way, converting currency is a form of translation: moving content from one cultural context for another. This is, evidently, mostly an issue only if you’ve got an ecommerce site.Think of it this way: if your international customers don’t know how much they’ll be paying, in their own currency, for what you’re trying to sell them…they’re unlikely to hit “Add to cart.”

Weglot client Crabtree & Evelyn edited their language switcher to include the currency of the country you’re buying in. 

No matter what site-building platform you use, there are plenty of third-party apps—and plugins, if you’re on WordPress/WooCommerce—that make currency conversion a breeze. 

6. Design for languages

We’ve written a whole article about designing for multi-language websites, so we won’t go into full detail here. Instead, we’ll briefly touch on where this fits in with the translation vs localization debate.

Designing for right-to-left languages such as Arabic requires more than a direct translation. You’ll need to ensure your website can accommodate such content since it’s formatted differently, which means it will affect the design elements you’ve put in place. If you don’t adjust your website accordingly, it will make little sense to the local market.

You can also consider date formats in the “design” of your website. For example, though the US and the UK both speak English, they display date formats differently. The US prefers to present it as month-day-year, while the UK style is day-month-year. If you don’t get this crucial bit right, this might lead to a lot of misunderstandings!

Units of measurement also differ across the world. Some places use strict imperial, others metric, and there are even a few that use a mix of both. It can be complicated to keep track of, but it’s definitely worth the effort when it helps your target audience feel understood!

Translate, but always localize

The differences between translation and localization are clear. And, what’s certain is that you can’t have one without the other if you wish to truly personalize your customer experience per market. Actioning the steps above will make your localization project foolproof and enhance the user experience of your new target markets.

Let’s quickly recap:

  • Language doesn’t account for cultural differences – using professional translators to proofread and fine-tune your automated translations gives you clearer, more appropriate messaging 
  • Getting multilingual SEO right to localize your keywords is essential
  • It’s not just words – translate your images for even better localization 
  • Use machine translation with the right target language from the get-go, such as French Canadian rather than French
  • If you’re selling online, adapting your site to show the right currency per country will lead to a higher conversion rate
  • Design for languages, including right-to-left languages and the right date formats

Also, make sure to check our video for a quick sum-up!

Interested in how Weglot can give you the tools to both translating and localizing your website? Try our 10-day free trial!

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