Localization Defined

Localization, sometimes referenced as the numeronym L10N (L followed by the numeral ten (representing the number of letters in the word) and N) is the process of adapting a product or service from its source country to the needs and uses of a particular cultural or linguistic market. An example of localization is converting a document written in European French to Canadian French.

Successfully localized products and services should seem as if they had originated within the local culture. To achieve this goal, technical communicators, software developers, translators, and product managers must consider many cultural and linguistic issues, such as:

  • composition issues in the source language, which might be difficult to translate
  • cultural differences and sensitivities, such as currency, national regulations and holidays, product or service names, gender roles, and geographic examples
  • machine translation and translation memory tools
  • usability assessment of the integrated product

Although translation of documentation (packaging, user manuals, training materials, and so on) is typically a central activity, localization also includes the following activities:

  • translating software source code (online help, error messages, user interface elements, etc.), websites, or database content
  • adjusting graphic and visual elements and examples to make them culturally appropriate
  • controlling quality of localized content and systems

Two Types of Localization

There are two types of localization: general and radical.

  • General localization refers to superficial cultural differences, such as language, currency, and date formats. For example, someone translating a document from Spanish to English (or vice versa) would simply translate the words as closely as possible, factor in currency and date formatting changes, and correct other small inconsistencies.
  • Radical localization is more in-depth, incorporating cultural differences that affect the way users think, feel, and act. As an example, Nancy Hoft explains that an American document localized for a British audience, “…needs to be adapted so that it uses the British spellings of words, British axioms and expressions, currency amounts in the British pound sterling, and measurements expressed in metrics, to name a few of the changes. A further distinction would involve adapting to the reading and learning styles of the British users” (12).

Business Issues

If a company is trying to go global, then the technical communication manager must keep in mind several business issues when entering an international market:

  • likelihood of the product selling, even after being localized
  • risks of entering a new market, whether domestically or internationally
  • minimum cost of localization, which can be $10,000 USD due to translation fees
  • liability and other legal issues

Localization is a means of bridging the gap between cultures. For localization to be successful, however, the technical communicator must be knowledgeable in linguistics, translation, rhetoric, and communication. To facilitate the localization process, technical communicators should:

  • avoid using slang and jargon.
  • learn what is considered acceptable rhetoric in the target country.
  • learn what is proper syntax and word order.
  • recognize the importance of smaller details, such as the meaning of specific colors (for example, English speakers associate jealousy with the color green; Chinese speakers associate jealousy with the color red).

Proper localization eases communication between cultures. Poor localization could result in awkward and unclear products, which in turn could lead to miscommunication between cultures.

Suggested Resources

Gudykunst, William B. Handbook of international and intercultural communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. 2002.

Hoft, Nancy. International Technical Communication: How to export information about high technology. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1995.

Jiménez-Crespo, Miguel A. “The intersection of localization and translation: A corpus study of Spanish original and localized forms.” Translating and Interpreting Studies 5.2 (2010): 186-207.

Zhu, Pinfan. “Language Problems to be Coped with in Web Localization.” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 39.1 (2009): 57-78.