Translation vs. localization (and those other long words)

It probably makes sense for me to clarify some terminology that I often take for granted in my industry, but that confounds others around me (including my wife, in the rare instance that I get her to listen to me). 

The language services industry loves words that end in -ation.  Not sure where it originated but here are a few quick definitions for terms that will be thrown around rather liberally during these blog posts:

1.      Translation - This applies to fairly literal, "word for word."  This is often out of necessity.  If you want to make sure that a person in Japan understands how to use a product (such as a medical device), it is important that the source and target-language text match up precisely. 

2.      Localization - This is a more involved process whereby the target-language content is adapted to more effectively convey a similar meaning or connotation in the target culture. Idiomatic expressions, puns and marketing material generally fall into this category, but localization can apply to any type of content based on what your business objectives are. The key point here is that your target-language version will often not be a literal translation.  As an example, if you want to convey the phrase "Like father, like son" in Chinese, it would read as something like "Tigers do not breed dogs." Although this doesn't match up with the source content, it has the same connotation in the target culture. 

3.      Internationalization - This relates more to the code-level work that is required to allow your website and/or software application to display or operate in different target languages. If your website is being translated into Spanish, you need to make sure that your style sheets can accommodate text expansion; if your application is going to be deployed in Japan, you need to make sure that your product is able to handle double-byte characters; if you want web users in the Middle East to be able to toggle between English and Arabic, you need to ensure that your web architecture can handle both Arabic fonts AND that all navigational elements and site functionality can flip to a right-to-left reading language. And so on...

4.      Globalization - Outside of its political and socio-economic context, this is the process of making your product or website accessible and comprehensible to people around the world.  It includes the other -ation terms described above.

We also love to take our -ation words and use strange abbreviations that only other folks in our industry can understand. So, at the risk of having the communication police come after me for spilling the beans on our secret code words, here is your "Rosetta Stone":

  • L10N = Localization
  • G11N = Globalization
  • I18N = Internationalization

See the pattern?

First letter + number of letters between first and last letter + Last Letter

For some odd reason, using the same pattern for Translation, which would be T9N using my secret decoder ring, never really caught on. Sounds like it could be an effective name for a workout/exercise program though.

Fascinating, right? If you ever want to find the life of the party, find the guy that works in the language services industry. Trust me on this one. So what does this mean for someone wading into the realm of multilingual communications for the first time? Here are the types of content most affected by our -ation processes:

1.      Translation - impacts more literal content such as documentation, legal, manuals, etc.  So, your functional areas here might be technical publications, compliance, HR, support, etc., and is typically billed per word.

2.      Localization - affects more the content that is driving customer action.  Web sites, marketing campaigns, branded content would all fall into this category and the majority of this would fall under advertising, marketing and business development. It can be billed per word or hourly or as a flat fee per project.

3.      Internationalization - concerns the tech side of the house, impacts development for software applications, websites, mobile sites, etc., and is almost always billed hourly.

Armed with these definitions, and of course with secrets into our cryptic coding system, you should be able to start mapping out what you need and who is impacted as you move into the globalization phase of your organization.

Matt Hauser is VP of Technology for TransPerfect Translations.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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