The 101 on Localization, Globalization and Internationalization

Lee Densmer 25 Jul 2019
The 101 on Localization, Globalization and Internationalization

What does “going global” mean to you? For many companies, it seems sensible to start by simply translating their products and services into additional languages—that is, until they learn more about their target markets.

Like the fact that certain words mean very different things across Spanish-speaking locations. Or how Asian languages can be read both horizontally and vertically. In Africa, people prefer to consume online content on mobile devices because the population favors phones over computers.

These details can only be addressed by three essential services for entering new markets: localization, internationalization and globalization. Yes, translation is important, but it’s only a sliver of this three-part foundation. Let’s start with basic definitions.

What is localization?

Localization (also known as “l10n” for the number of letters between the “l” and the “n”) is the process of adapting content, products or services to the needs of a specific market. It means adapting not only to the language(s), but also to the cultural preferences of that market.

Localization and translation are sometimes referred to interchangeably. But in fact, translation is only one part of the localization process—the part having to do with converting text from one language to another. Localization also addresses:

  • Dialects, meaning local and regional variants in language: ensuring content pays close attention to appropriate linguistic and cultural references such as idioms, slang or naming conventions
  • Imagery, symbols, colors and emojis: respecting cultural taboos or norms for visual content. For example, Russians don’t care much for images of smiling faces, and in Japan, the checkmark means incorrect
  • Numerical differences: things like changing the units of measure, varying date and time formats and using the local currency
  • Script direction: switching from left-to-right for most languages to right-to-left for languages like Hebrew and Arabic
  • Legal requirements: for example, adhering to GDPR for the use of European customers’ personal data
  • ...and many other elements.

The goal is to make your brand, content and offerings appear native to target markets. And that’s important, because it shows a level of sensitivity to other cultures that cultivates true customer loyalty.

Many companies view localization as a drag on release cycles or an inconvenient cost of doing business. But they soon find that one-size-fits-all messaging isn’t worth the risk of losing customers, 75% of whom prefer to buy products in their native language (according to industry think-tank CSA Research). On the other hand, global companies see positive ROI from thinking locally.

What is internationalization?

Whereas localization refers to the actual process of adapting to specific locales, internationalization (or “i18n”) prepares for it. Internationalization refers to the prep work needed to ensure your product, service, web content or application works well or can easily be localized for any culture or language.

Suppose you want to release your software in African markets. Internationalization would involve:

  • Providing support for Unicode character encoding, bidirectional text and other international typographic features—including for non-Latin languages like Fula, for example, which reads from right to left.
  • Separating localizable elements from the source code to ensure text remains properly formatted each time you localize for a new country. You’d have up to 54 countries to consider!
  • Designing buttons, navigation, layouts and other user interface elements to allow room for text expansion. Text expands as much as 260% when translated from English to French, a lingua franca in most Western and Central African countries.
  • Developing easily translatable content, for example by using simple, culturally neutral language and examples with global meaning, or by creating images with text labels that can be translated into different languages.

The result is easier and faster localization services without changing the source code. If you don’t plan for international deployment from the start, that’s when localization can become disruptive to your timeline and budget. Attempting to retrofit a product after it’s localized is much more difficult, time-consuming and costly than designing something with the intent of localizing it in the future. (Imagine resizing dialog boxes across 25 versions of your software…)

So ideally, you’d make internationalization integral to the development process rather than an afterthought that can lead to awkwardly timed and expensive re-engineering. (Take a look at our deeper dive on preparing for localization for more on how this works.)

Internationalization can be useful in its own right, even if you don’t localize. But combining the two ensures content both resonates and scales across multiple locales.

What is globalization?

Globalization is a widely used term whose definition varies according to the context. In the language industry, globalization and internationalization share a common goal: planning for localization. The difference is that globalization is an all-encompassing concept that refers to the many processes needed to operate and launch products and initiatives globally.

Think of it as the foundation needed to sell abroad, made up of strategic activities like:

  • Structuring internal operations in a way that supports global growth.
  • Investing in the technologies and tools that streamline global content production.
  • Deciding which products to sell where and adapting them to target markets.
  • Building strategic partnerships with suppliers, translators and other local resources.

Going global is a huge feat with many strategic considerations. In short, a complete globalization strategy can ensure your message reaches the right customers at the right time in the right languages.

To summarize

If you intend to make your products or services available in multiple locales around the world, essentially, you intend to globalize them. Internationalization and localization—the former enabling the latter—will help you achieve that goal.

How does it all come together in practice?

Let’s wrap up with examples from Netflix, a company that’s fast becoming emblematic of global success. Some elements of their international strategy include:

  • Using user feedback to improve global offerings in order to enter 130 markets at once.
  • Designing on-screen menu options to be user-friendly for new languages.
  • Localizing subtitles and descriptions for their video content with the help of highly specialized human translators.

Companies like Netflix grow their global brands through their proactive and agile adaptability to local tastes and customs. They knew translation alone wasn’t enough to provide truly local, meaningful experiences—without which you can’t build trust in this customer-driven world. Together, localization, internationalization and globalization form the comprehensive strategy you need to break down cultural barriers to customers and win their hearts and minds.

That just about covers the basics. For more on localization strategy and the practices that support it, check out how our Go Global Model can help you start bringing your products to more markets. Read our eBook about dominating global markets for even more tips.

Lee Densmer

Lee Densmer

Lee Densmer has been in the localization industry since 2001, starting as a project manager and moving up into solutions architecture and marketing management. Like many localization professionals, she entered the field through an interest and education in languages. She holds a master’s in linguistics from University of Colorado. Lee lives in Idaho, and enjoys foreign travel and exploring the mountains of the region.
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