Creating a More Accessible Localization Definition

It’s hard to find a really great localization definition. People who work in the localization industry use tons of jargon, and loads of abbreviations and acronyms. What could be worse? Using nerdy, shorthand alphanumeric terms, like these:

  • Localization = L10N
  • Internationalization = I18N
  • Globalization = G11N
  • Translation = T9N

Collectively, these four common terms in our field are known as GILT. Lately, I’ve been thinking that maybe the “guilt” is appropriate, because our terms are so confusing to outsiders that it’s almost as if we don’t want people to understand what we do.

Ironically, our entire industry exists in order to help bridge gaps in understanding. But it’s not until you work with tons of people who are from outside the localization field that you fully appreciate how odd localization practitioners sound to others when we try to explain what we even do. Even a localization definition we think sounds simple can often sound obtuse and overly complex.

Simplifying Our Localization Definitions

Here’s a challenge for you. Just try, in a single sentence, to explain the differences between localization, internationalization, globalization and translation. No more than one sentence. Can you? It’s nearly impossible. When I gave myself the challenge of doing this, I realized that you can barely fit all four terms into one sentence without it sounding really strange, let alone explain them in a way the average (college-educated!) non-localization person at a tech company could understand.

Yet, if you drone on for more than a sentence or so, the person you’re speaking to is likely to yawn, look at their watch, or cease making eye contact. You’ve lost their attention before you even really got started! How can you “sell” the value of localization if you can’t even properly talk about it?

That’s when the marketer in me said, “Aha! We have a branding problem!”

I searched high and low for concise definitions of our most common terms. Then I searched equally hard for graphics that might do a better job of explaining something that’s actually pretty complex, and distilling the meaning down to its most essential form. There are tons of definitions out there for these terms. There are loads of text-heavy graphics, too. But none of them really helped me in my quest to “rebrand” localization and its related processes in order to clearly explain them, quickly, to people from outside the field.

What I needed was even simpler, less than one sentence. I needed to think like a marketer, and get the explanation down to a single word for each process. They needed to fit on a single slide, in a way that nearly anyone working for a tech company, from an intern to a C-level exec, could quickly grasp and appreciate. That would give us the chance of some messaging that could actually resonate!

One-Word Versions of Industry-Defining Terms

After vetting several iterations with colleagues, here’s what I came up with:

Then I went on to explain what “success” means for each of these processes:

What I learned when going through this exercise is that globalization is the trickiest one to explain to non-industry folks. Outside our field, people tend to think of globalization as the biggest of all of these, because “global” sounds bigger than “local” does.

But within our field, we know what globalization means. It’s the enabler of the real goal, which isn’t global but local. It refers to a different way of thinking, creating processes, selecting technologies, and even hiring people. It’s the process of making an organization global-ready. That nearly always starts with changing the framework, including the framework for how a company thinks about things.

And with localization, after talking to many “customers” of localization to ask them what they think it means, I realized that they usually think it means something very different from what we do. They don’t define it as something as limiting as adapting a product for cultural, linguistic or geographic fit, the way many of us often do. Their localization definition doesn’t even begin or end with a product. The way they think about localization is creating a local, and delightful, end-to-end customer experience.

Some Final Thoughts on Re-Branding Localization

Any good marketer knows that you don’t get the luxury of defining your own brand. Your customers define it along with you by helping you see yourself the way they see you. It’s an ongoing exchange, a mirroring, a signaling, a relationship that strengthens more and more, as you better understand their lens and refine your message over time. This is why in these definitions, I’m highlighting localization as a strategic driver of customer experience. That’s something that any good software company actually cares about. For that reason, it’s also something all localization practitioners should obsess about too.

This positioning also happens to elevate the role of localization. It’s not just about a silo — limited to just content, or text, or product or marketing. When we localize something, we are re-creating a brand voice, a meaningful user experience, a customer story, for another market. It’s our job to help create a delightful user experience for people no matter where they are from or what language they speak.

Note: I also re-ordered the terms a little. Ideally we don’t use any acronyms to explain what we do to others. But if we do, I’d much rather we project something positive like, “TGIL” as in, “Thank God It’s Localization!” 😉 OK, that’s pretty unlikely to ever happen, but hopefully, someday small changes like this will help people embrace localization versus fearing it. Perhaps it’s a little better, for non-localization folks anyway, than associating our “brand” with GILT. I think we can keep using GILT with our industry peeps as much as we want, but I resolve to avoid GILT-tripping when talking with people who are not practitioners, which is the majority of people out there!

This is a marketing exercise, to help improve how others perceive localization, after all. Because I firmly believe localization is far more impactful than we can ever convey if we limit ourselves to the confines of industry jargon alone.

Nataly Kelly

Nataly leads localization at HubSpot and has previously held diverse roles in marketing, international operations and strategy, research, product development, and localization. She writes for Harvard Business Review on topics of international marketing and business. Nataly grew up in rural Illinois, lived in Ecuador, and resides in Boston (for now).

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