Content for many markets in many languages – the difference between translation and localisation

Translation is a familiar word, and its meaning may seem obvious: converting text from one language to another. Localisation is a less familiar word, but the two concepts are closely intertwined. We rarely see one of these words without also encountering the other.

What is localisation?

‘Localisation means adapting a text to the cultural environment of the target language so that its contents serve the people in the target group equally well regardless of their native language. Typical texts that require localisation include instruction manuals, websites, creative marketing materials and user interfaces of applications,’ Lingsoft's Account Manager Janne Holopainen explains.

Holopainen himself has studied translation. He is responsible for Lingsoft’s customer relations with international language service companies. Translations are made through these companies to market leaders in various fields. For such globally operating organisations, fluent translations are an integral part of successful business operations, and maintaining a uniform brand in every part of the world is necessary.

Localisation can include both large and small changes. Different languages may use different units of measurement and mark the date or time differently. Foreign units of weight or length can make texts very difficult to read. This is probably a familiar experience to all speakers of Finnish who have used a recipe written in English using British units of measurement. A translation might have to use more formal and polite language than its source text. Sometimes entire sentences may look considerably different after localisation. The translator must consider the objective, target audience, style and tone of the text, as well as the text as a whole.

Most translations from one language to another involve localisation, as all languages have their own characteristics. In a way, each language sees the world from its own unique perspective. The translation must therefore be adapted to fit the target language, so that the target audience receives a coherent text that feels natural in their own language. To achieve this, the translator must be thoroughly familiar with both languages.

Small nuances and significant differences

Some texts need to be translated verbatim and thus require significantly less localisation. These include texts like medical texts, legal texts and contracts. On the other hand, localisation without actual translation is sometimes necessary between different variants of the same language, such as British English and American English. For example, American English uses the term ”French fries” for a food that British English calls ”chips”. Meanwhile, American English uses the word ”chips” for ”potato chips”, which are in turn called ”crisps” in British English.

Let us consider the differences between two different languages: Finland and Japan both have their own social cultures, which differ from each other in many ways. Saying something in a straightforward manner may be perfectly normal in a Finnish-language context, but it might not be appropriate when communicating in Japanese. In such situations, the translator must know Japanese culture well enough to use expressions that suit the situation while also conveying the meaning of the original text.

It is perfectly natural that people prefer reading texts that feel normal in line with their native language and cultural background, even when these texts are actually translations. A good translation is often not noticed, and its readers never even consider that the text was originally written in another language. On the other hand, translation errors may attract readers’ attention. For example, a poor translation in an online store is often perceived as a sign that the website is unreliable. A bad impression can result even from small things, such as unusual sentence structures or incorrectly used capital letters. Misunderstandings are also more likely if a translation is localised carelessly.

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