i18n vs. l10n: Internationalization and Localization Decoded

October 28, 2022

Every industry has its jargon: Medical lexicons can leave patients chronically baffled, a car inspection report from your mechanic — equally exhausting, and localization and translation terms can sound like everyone is speaking a different language (and sometimes, quite literally). 

If your brand has started dabbling in localization, or you’re new to the world of translation, the phrases ‘i18n’ and ‘l10n’ may seem cryptic. But we’re here to decode i18n vs l10n for you.

First, let’s define: 

  • i18n means internationalization — the 18 represents the number of letters in internationalization between ‘i’ and ‘n’

  • l10n means localization — the 10 represents the number of letters between the ‘l’ and ‘n’

The terms i18n and l10n have gained traction in business parlance, so you will likely come across them at work or on the internet — especially if you work in marketing or customer experience.

So what exactly are internalization and localization, and how do they differ? 

What is i18n or internationalization?

Internationalization (i18n) is the practice of designing products, services, or communications that are immediately adaptable across global markets. Internalization can be thought of as designing a base that has interchangeable features. These must be switched depending on the specifications of particular locales — either adding, removing, or adapting them to each market. How would this work?

Let’s say you’re an automaker out of New Zealand, developing a new sedan for your market. You would likely put in the one mandatory airbag required by law in that location. But, you’d have to make changes to the design if you wanted to sell it in the US market, where there is a two-airbag requirement. And in the following year, you’d have to redesign it again if you want to sell this sedan in India, when a new law will kick in requiring six airbags in new cars. This is i18n in the physical product world. 

Internationalization is a step taken during the development process to create a base model from which a product or service can easily adapt to the culture or requirements — in this example legal ones — of target locales. So, as an automaker, you’d engineer the sedan with six airbag holes right at the start, and then fill them in or leave them unused depending on where you’d like to sell the model.

Software can also be an internationalized product. Developers may write source code that is easily adaptable to different markets. However, this rarely happens in practice at American tech startups, as developers frequently code in English. This means they type with left-to-right inputs, as they are focused on conquering their local target market(s) and those that also use left-to-right written languages. So when expanding into markets that use right-to-left languages — like Hebrew or Arabic — they need to consider script direction, which can be a challenge for English-speaking developers. If companies translate, or plan to translate, into these languages the software framework needs to be set up to handle the BiDirectionality (BiDi) of the text, and even images and page layout, e.g., bullet points.

Even if you’re not using right-to-left languages, you might have to deal with text expansion or contraction. For example, Japanese or Chinese characters are different from Latin letters. Chinese characters can take up 20% less width space but they are taller and use more vertical space. Developers will have a hard time adapting the product to them if they haven’t planned ahead — in other words, if the programming language wasn’t made adaptable right from the start. This means they’ll have to, in a way, start all over again in engineering the software rather than just inserting a few new lines of code. 

(Note: Most small companies and startups are resource-constrained. This often means they are unable to internationalize their products at the beginning. They may need to execute locally before attempting world domination.)

What is l10n or localization?

Localization (l10n) is the process of actually making a product locale-specific to meet cultural requirements. So here, the internationalization process involves designing a base sedan with six airbag holes. But localization is filling in the holes with the right amount of airbags for each market. Sedans sent to New Zealand get one airbag, while those sent to the US get two airbags, and those sent to India get six airbags. Boom! Localization.

Software localization goes beyond creating a product that delivers a pleasurable and frictionless user experience, from marketing and sales to customer usage, to one that is appropriate for each market. This means providing multilingual translations that are specific to each market. 

For instance, the Spanish spoken in Spain is different from Latin American Spanish. The French spoken in France differs from how the language is used in Quebec. So localization takes these differences into account to allow users to engage with a product from marketing to customer experience in their native languages.

The localization process also accounts for differences in: 

For example, the US uses MM/DD/YY dates, the imperial system, and Fahrenheit, while a country like Germany uses DD/MM/YY dates, the metric system, and Celsius. The ideal for software developers is to internationalize the app to make the user interface easily localizable for each target market, so the end user can seamlessly engage with the product, free from frustration.

Localize with Unbabel’s LangOps platform

We live in a global environment where products and services, particularly software products, can travel all around the world, providing opportunities for companies to meaningfully expand their businesses by reaching new markets.

But, to do this successfully, those products and services must be localized to fit the language, customs, and flavor of the local market, otherwise the target audience will refuse to engage. That’s true from initial awareness to sale and all the way through the customer (and hopefully repeat customer) experience.

Unbabel’s LangOps platform combines advanced AI and human editors to provide fast, high-quality translations and localizations at scale for both marketing and customer experience.

Experience it for yourself by scheduling a demo today.

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