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Localization, Internationalization, and Globalization Projects: Should You Do It? Can You Do It?

From time to time, you’ll come across a bid for “website localization”. Many people have asked me what that means, and it seems like some people think localization equals translation, so I want to clarify these concepts.
 
Firstly, localization refers to modifying a particular product or service to suit and appeal to a different culture, region and language. The goal of localization is taking a product or a service which was developed in one language, culture and region and reintroducing it in a new target region and culture in the target language in a way that doesn’t make the product or service feel foreign in the latter. This is achieved by modifying it to fit the target culture, region and language. Localization helps make a foreign product or service feel like it belongs to and fits into the target region, culture and language.
 
There are endless aspects which need this modification. The biggest of these is, of course, language. But since there are so many differences between each country, such as their laws, holidays, values, economic level, attitudes about gender roles and social hierarchies, this task demands a high level of sensitivity and caution.
 
Thus, while localization includes the work of translating, its scope extends farther, and its goal is quite different from that of translation which is to precisely transfer the meaning of a source text. This type of localization is beyond the scope of a translator’s work. Indeed, I was motivated to write this post because I’ve seen people (and translators) who, when handed a pile of documents, claimed they can manage localization work. In reality, localization often requires the company or the individual that developed a particular product or service to enlist the advice and help of a local company or a translator in making all types of big and small decisions.
 
But for localization to be possible to begin with, one needs to start out with things which can be localized in the first place. For example, trying to localize a text advertising cars to be sold in Canada to Korean would be nonsense. An advertisement that was made to sell cars in Canada was made to resonate with Canadian climate, geography, history and language so that any Canadian person watching it could understand and relate to it. Simply translating this text would not equal localizing it. The problem is that since few westerners are familiar with the language or culture of another country or know much about translation, this misunderstanding continues to exist. (One of my fellow translators told me that she was asked to translate so many Korean ads that really needed to be completely re-written because what sounds good in Korean just sounds stupid when translated directly. I myself suffered quite a bit while working with people who think a translator can “nicely convert” whatever text into another culture. These people are simply ignorant about localization and confuse it with translation.

 

If a localization project is built on this ignorant and ill-informed foundation, it will inevitably produce a bad result. It doesn’t matter how smoothly the translator translates the text, it will never amount to real localization. On the other hand, if a bad translator ignores the nuances, history and the exact meaning contained in the original text and instead uses ‘similar local expressions’, it would be a complete waste of time and money put into this lengthy and complicated process.
 
So if anyone wants to localize a product or a service to fit another language, culture or region, they have to make sure they start out with an original text that can be localized. In terms of language, for instance, North American ads usually contain wordplay and puns. And it is usually very difficult to explain these wordplays to someone from another culture who speaks a different language. These often play on popular expressions, proverbs, slangs and current events to stir an instant reaction in the audience, and it’s difficult for people who haven’t lived in this society for a long time to understand why their ads are made this way. Thus, these types of advertisements aren’t a good starting point for localization at all. Instead, the text should be re-written so any aspects that are distinct to a particular region or language should be eliminated, and it should become reasonably easy for the text to be adapted into a new culture and language. And this process is called internationalization.
 
I think a phenomenal example of internationalization is Ikea’s furniture manual. Their manuals contain no text. They are 100% made up of pictures and make it easy for people to figure out the order of construction with the inclusion of numbers. This made it easy for Ikea to expand into different new regions. Of course, it would still require a number of other preparations in order to expand, but they can simply send the products away as they are, which makes things so much easier. Though not quite to the same extent, more and more companies are beginning to consciously prepare and include internalization in their product development phase. And translation agencies are also putting more effort into tipping their end clients off about this aspect of the business, which makes me believe more end clients as well as agencies working in the middle will come to understand this process better in the future. I’m not sure if they still do, but a long time ago, Microsoft’s approach to the Korean market was by saying they “knew Korean better (than any other software)”. Whether it was true or not, I think their approach exemplifies internalization born out of the product development phase.
 
If a product or a service has first been internationalized and subsequently localized, it is said to have undergone globalization. A product or a service that has gone through a true globalization process has been readjusted and targeted at a specific region, language and culture.

 

Localization, internationalization, globalization
(Image from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Globalisationchart.jpg)

 

I went into a semi-long explanation about this topic because I want to help put an end to the ridiculous misuse of so called “localization projects” that float around in the translation market. As I explained above, a document that can be localized is a document that has already been internationalized. And it’s with this kind of a document that a translator can shine. Here, a translator can mark suitable Korean pronunciations, set prices and measurements and even offer advice about specific problems that may surface during this process (you can’t demand this, but the translator can offer it for free), thus providing great value and skills. However, since translation itself isn’t the same as localization, the whole process might only result in a waste of everyone’s time and money despite the translator’s abilities unless the translator is very clear from the get go about what exactly is required. If the agency working in the middle (whether it be a translation agency, marketing agency, etc.) doesn’t quite understand the whole internationalization-localization-globalization process before it starts working on a localization project with an end client that owns a product or a service, and if all the responsibility somehow ends up falling on the translator’s shoulders, it would be like blaming the carpenter because you don’t like the final structure of the house. The carpenter undoubtedly plays a big role in building the house, yet his talent will be largely wasted if all the other elements and works are not put in place before he begins his job. Even after the carpenter (or the translator in this case) finishes his job well, there are still other issues that need to be decided and implemented by many other specialists.
 
My point is that in order for a localization project to be successful, it needs to be done by people who understand exactly what localization means and requires. Anybody or any company that understands it very well will only make very specific requests to a translator and demand nothing more. Successful localization requires translator’s talent (without it, it’s quite impossible to get good results), but localization is a much larger concept than translation, and no translator should work with people who don’t understand localization. Therefore, before committing to involvement in a localization project, translators should make sure that the people offering the project know what they need to do and the scope of the project has been clearly defined. One of the core competencies and skills of a translator is being able to read clients and select good ones.

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