Translation vs localisation – what is the REAL difference?

When I say translation, localisation and proofreading, to name but a few of the words I throw around on a daily basis, what exactly do I mean? What do my clients, my colleagues and our linguists understand under these terms?

Having worked in the industry for some time now, in Project Management, Account Management and as a freelance translator, I have often come across a misunderstanding of expectations when it comes to translation-related terms, such as those mentioned above. What you mean when you say ‘proofreading’, I may refer to as ‘revision’, ‘correction’ or ‘review’ – to me, ‘proofreading’ may actually mean a completely different task or service.

So, how can we make certain that translation companies, end users and the linguists performing the translation are all on the same page?

The answer may seem simple: establish a list of definitions, expectations and maybe even examples to clearly demonstrate across all three parties what it is we are actually talking about. That’s all well and good, but where is the consistency across the industry as a whole?

How do you align industry, academia and ‘outsiders’ i.e. buyers of translation that perhaps know little, or nothing, about it? At what point will all parties agree on what exactly these terms mean?

By way of example, let’s briefly analyse the terms ‘translation’ and ‘localisation’.

How a translation company understands translation and localisation

It is generally assumed that translation means the ‘word-for-word’, ‘verbatim’, ‘literal’ conversion of text from one language to another, which abides by grammatical and linguistic rules, but with no regard to target culture, pragmatics and textual adaptions that are required in order to make the text seem “natural” in the target language.

Localisation, on the other hand, is considered to be a translation with extras; adapting the text so that it includes consideration for culture, target audience, their expectations, preferences and customs.

On the face of it, that all seems well and good. The term ‘localisation’, one which sprung into use only a couple of decades ago, created for the sole purpose of describing a unique, better and more profound translation process, portrays a deeper connection to the people you are aiming your products and services at, not only speaking their language, but tapping into their culturally deep-rooted beliefs, emotions and psychology.

Strike a chord with them semantically and emotionally, not just linguistically, and you will see the benefit.

This then gives the impression that translation is a ‘lesser’ service. A cheaper, less influential process, which will provide you with a text that is understood, but that’s it. A text the readers will linguistically follow, but that in some way stands out as being ‘foreign’ to them.

What does all of that mean for translation? It is easy to see that adapting products, websites, formatting, layout, names, phone numbers, email addresses and links to other websites are necessary, and these form part of the process of localisation as a whole – these are changes and adaptations that take place aside (away from text to be created in another language).

How Academia and Translation Theory understands translation and localisation

Considering translation as a word-for-word process, replacing linguistic elements of one language with that of another in order to obtain equivalence is a theory that dominated academics and translation theory some 50-60 years ago.

However, academic translation studies have since moved away from this aim, demolishing the idea that the basis of all translations should be the rigorous and strict allegiance to the original text.

The shift moved from focussing on the words and structure of the original text, to the underlining message, meaning and intention of the text itself, recreating those aims in the target language in a way that was natural, and in a way that gave greater importance to the end translation, the context in which it would appear, and the audience it would be read by. Theorists have called this approach to translation many things, such as ‘dethroning’ the source text, ‘domesticating’ the translation, obtaining a ‘dynamic’ translation – but it remains translation nonetheless.

The move away from linguistic theories of translation towards what is referred to as ‘functionalism’ occurred long before the term localisation was coined.

Translators and translation academics may have shifted their focus, or rather, their definition of translation along the way, changing their approach and processes, but when all is said and done, their goal and task is still referred to as translation.

Adapting text for local audiences

This includes adapting dates (28/11/2016 vs 11/28/2016), measurements (10.5 cm vs 10,5 cm – or even 4.1 inches), idioms, manipulating sentence structure, word order, words themselves, grammar, tenses, nominalisation, verbalisation, passive vs. active voices – the list goes on. All of the above has been happening in translation for years, in order to produce a natural sounding text, retain meaning, and reduce cognitive load and difficulty in understanding for the audience. These changes are considered standard among translators performing translation, and in many ways are a must if the translation is to make sense and function as a standalone text, and would, therefore, take place anyway, even if a ‘literal’ translation were requested.

That said, such changes are classed as ‘localisation’ in the industry. What, then, is a company selling when they offer translation vs. localisation?

Is localisation the industry’s way of describing what translators have been trained to do, and naturally do anyway? One thing is clear – the confusion appears to lie more within the industry itself, and there is clear need to offer different levels of service of translation, but these will undoubtedly vary from project to project, and customer to customer.

Perhaps what is more important for the industry is to understand and market appropriate levels of translation with the end user and purpose in mind, rather than the process itself.


Gary studied French, German and Spanish as an undergraduate, and then went on to complete an MA in Translation and Interpreting studies. Since leaving university, he has held positions in licensing, project management and account management, and also works as a freelance translator. In his spare time, he likes to play the piano, travel and keep fit, as well as socialising, of course!

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