The answer to this question will very much depend on the nature and intent of your website’s content. But before we go into that, let’s first define our terms.
Translation is the strict transmission of meaning from one language to another. In a simple translation, the meaning of a sentence is conveyed as precisely as possible, from one writing system to another.
Localization fine-tunes this and takes it a step further, changing the content where it may be important, or even crucial, to do so, taking into consideration cultural aspects and technical challenges.
Think about the orthographic difference between Chinese and English, for instance. In English, the word “SALE,” denotes a range of seasonal special offers. This would not effectively be conveyed by inserting the Chinese character for the English concept of selling:
Instead, you would want to use a Chinese phrase equivalent to “special price”:
Because you now have two characters, rather than the four-letter English word “SALE,” you may choose to display them very differently. Those graphical changes, as well as the subtle shift in meaning, may constitute a localization, rather than just a straight translation.
It’s Not Just about the Words
Localizations might require differences in imagery, content, focus and design. You are unlikely to be able to use the same imagery for a women’s summer fashion collection in the U.S. and the UAE. You’ll want to represent ethnicities and cultural norms specific to the region too.
Localization leverages knowledge of current events, cultural memes, and humor that straight translation might miss. It provides an opportunity to make content feel created from the inside-out, rather than by a writer who is looking from the outside in. And this might be particularly important if you’re looking to translate website versions geared toward different countries or regions, for instance.
Here are some examples of simple things that may require localization, and could be easily missed:
- Slang and colloquialisms – Every culture and subculture have their own “insider speak” or ways of speaking using figures of speech and unique connotations.
- Humor – Perhaps one of the most difficult forms of communication to translate and localize.
- Weights and measures – some countries use the metric system, others imperial.
- Date formats – 12/04/21 represents 12 April 2021 in Europe, but it is December 4, 2021 in the USA.
…and many more!
When to Use Localization
When you want to make a website feel it belongs to the culture of the country whose citizens visit it, then localization is the way to go. Also, if your content leans heavily on marketing, particularly slogans and catch phrases, then localization is of the essence.
If, however, you are providing a range of possible languages for the convenience of customers within a single market, then you may be able to get away with simple translation.
If your content is fairly general and neutral in tone, then you’ll probably be OK with just a translation. However, if your message has considerable nuance, maybe humor or a marketing bend, then you should definitely consider localization services specific to your target audience or market.