Translation vs. Localization: Everything You Always Wanted to Know but Were Afraid to Ask

November 11, 2022

Translation or localization: What’s the difference? When developing a global content strategy, many businesses tend to use these terms interchangeably, and while they are related and both contribute to the end goal to some effect, they refer to separate processes. In fact, translation is one step in the wider localization process.

More marketers are investing in translation and localization today than ever before: A whopping 89% of global marketers plan to translate into additional languages within the next year, according to Unbabel’s Global Marketing Localization Report. And those that have invested further in localization efforts are seeing their investments pay off: 84% say that localization has had a moderately to extremely positive impact on revenue growth.

Understanding each process individually, and knowing how to implement them into your global content strategy, will help your brand successfully scale into new markets.

What is translation?

You probably already know that language translation (sometimes abbreviated as t9n) involves rendering the source content in one language into another so that it can be understood by a different target audience. In fact, you’ve likely used a machine translation site or app like Google Translate to, perhaps, determine the meaning of a Spanish or French phrase you’ve come across.

In the past, multilingual machine translation might’ve given word-for-word translations that were awkward, hilarious, or downright offensive. However, over time, some algorithms have improved tremendously, even becoming good at deciphering idioms (e.g., break a leg!) found across different languages, so that the receiver comprehends the meaning of the phrase found in the source language.

Leveraging a translation service or tool, whether human, machine or a combination of the two, is essential for brands looking to expand into global markets.

💡 Translation exemplified

Live Chat:
Inbound and outbound chat for customer service. TuneIn’s customer service teams can easily understand, communicate with and support global customers through real-time chat, ensuring fast turnaround times and maintaining high customer service standards around the globe. The result: 14% cost savings by switching from its old model of hiring dedicated agents to leveraging Unbabel. Also, its percentage of positive CSAT for Spanish tickets has climbed from 30% to 59%, when comparing July YoY.

What is localization?

Localization (also known as l10n) goes beyond language translation and involves adapting a product or service developed for your home market in your source language to the target market so that it meets the cultural expectations, requirements (including legal requirements), and preferences of the people within that local market.

Languages differ across markets, but other aspects of localization include:

  • Currencies

  • Units of measurement (imperial vs metric)

  • Temperature scales (Celsius vs Fahrenheit)

  • Time and date formats

  • UX preferences on text, colors, visuals, and other media (bikini-clad models would be considered scandalous imagery for marketing materials in many/most Arabic-speaking countries)

💡 Localization exemplified

Suppose an American rug retailer wanted to replicate a Black Friday sale in North America for its Mexico market with an accompanying email blast.

An announcement targeting English speakers in the US might read:

This Friday only, 11/25, save $10 on 2x3ft rugs for the kitchen!

When localized for Spanish-speaking customers in Mexico, that same line would read:

Sólo este viernes, 25/11, ¡ahorra $200 en alfombras de 61x91cm para la cocina!

As you can see, localization involves translating the content into the local language (English to Spanish), but also adapting the date format (month/day to day/month), currency (US dollar to Mexican peso), and unit measurement (imperial system/feet to metric system/centimeters).

Localization is necessary for content to resonate.

Why is localization important to brands?

Localization goes beyond simply having content understood by customers. It’s about connecting with customers and users by sounding and appearing “local.”

Localization is all about respecting customs and creating a positive, empathetic customer experience across the entire customer journey, from early marketing exposure to customer services requests. In fact, it’s practically non-negotiable for brands looking to compete on the global stage.

Before customers can even engage with your product or service, they need to be able to find it. If businesses don’t adopt multilingual SEO, they won’t be discovered outside of their home markets. Online search habits often differ across cultures, and the keywords your customers use aren’t direct translations of your English keywords. Selecting the correct SEO terms is key, so that your clients can find your website in the first place. According to Unbabel’s Global Trends in Marketing Localization 2023, 41% of the surveyed marketers already localize SEO for all their markets, and the trend is only growing.

Any content customers engage with — products, websites, and mobile apps — must then be localized so consumers can easily interact with it, free from frustration or inconvenience. Something as small as having to click away from a website in order to convert centimeters into feet, or vice versa, can degrade the user experience and prevent a sale. This impacts how customers feel about a brand.

Ooni activates the power of localization

Pizza oven manufacturer Ooni discovered that the American phrase “pizza pie” did not go over well with its European customers, who would envision a cake made out of pizza. As such, the brand quickly dropped the phrase from materials in European markets.

By employing a data-driven localization strategy, Ooni achieved impressive milestones: In France, the company experienced a 61% conversion rate and 69% revenue growth YoY between April 2021 and 2022; in Germany, it logged 9.1% user growth, a 63% conversion rate, and a massive 88% spike in revenue growth during the same time period.

Localizing requires adapting content to the native language of a market so that your brand speaks the same way as your target customers. Fortunately, technology can make high-quality translation and localization straightforward, fast, and even scalable. This means today’s brands have more power than ever to get it right with potential and current customers — from the beginning of their brand interactions to converting them into loyal, long-term customers.

About Unbabel

Unbabel’s LangOps platform leverages advanced artificial intelligence and human editors to help brands break down language barriers with highly accurate translations and localizations at scale. It can be used in website localization, integrated with CRMs, and utilized across customer support channels (chatbots, emails, FAQs) to ensure customers around the world enjoy a frictionless experience when engaging with your brand.

To see Unbabel in action, sign up for a free demo.

About the Author

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Content Team

Unbabel’s Content Team is responsible for showcasing Unbabel’s continuous growth and incredible pool of in-house experts. It delivers Unbabel’s unique brand across channels and produces accessible, compelling content on translation, localization, language, tech, CS, marketing, and more.