Creating a More Accessible Localization Definition

Localization, in the simplest of terms, means creating an experience that resonates with customers in other markets. Localization is often confused with translation, which may or may not be part of the localization process. Translation entails adapting the message from one language into another.

Localization is also frequently mistaken for internationalization, which refers to making adaptations at the coding layer. Internationalization is what enables localization to be possible in the first place.

One-Word Definitions of Localization and Related Terms

Here are some clear and simple definitions that make it easy to understand what localization is, and how it differs from related processes.

ProcessWhat Gets Adapted
Definitions of Translation, Localization, Internationalization and Globalization

How do we define success for each of these processes?

ProcessWhat Success Looks Like
TranslationThe message resonates with other markets.
LocalizationThe experience delights customers in other markets.
InternationalizationThe code works in other markets.
GlobalizationThe framework is inclusive of other markets.
Definitions of Successful Translation, Localization, Internationalization and Globalization

What I learned when trying to come up with simple, one-word definitions for localization is that globalization is the trickiest one to explain to non-industry folks. Outside the localization 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.

People who work in the localization industry use tons of jargon, and loads of abbreviations and acronym, like these:

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

Collectively, these four common acronumeric 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.

The Importance of Simplifying 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!

Some Final Thoughts on Defining 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.

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 is VP Localization at HubSpot and has previously held diverse executive roles in marketing, international operations and strategy, research, and product development. Her latest book is "Take Your Company Global" (Berrett-Koehler). She writes for Harvard Business Review on topics of international marketing and global business. Nataly works remotely from New England, having lived in Quito (Ecuador), Donegal (Ireland) and the rural Midwest where she grew up.


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