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  September 23rd, 2016 | Written by

What is Localization and Why Should You Care?

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  • "Localization is the customization of all components of a product for a particular target market."
  • A product should seem to each market sector as though it had been created locally.
  • Implementing every aspect of localization would be prohibitively expensive.

A slippery and troublesome word, localization means different things to different people. Inherent in the term, however, is the locale.

As Julie Layden describes it, “Localization is the customization of all components of a product for a particular target market.” According to the Globalization and Localization Association (GALA), a product should seem to each market sector as though it had been designed and created by and within that demographic, “no matter their language, culture, or location.”

In its most widely-understood context, the term denotes a process of cultural or regional adaptation that may encompass: translation; design/user experience considerations; formatting and layout issues; legal issues that may vary by country; adapting symbols, icons, and other extra-linguistic semiotic content; market analysis/segmentation; attention to sub-dialects;

aesthetic considerations; cultural references of the target market; historical references of the target market; insider humor of the target market; and cultural conventions.

Cultural insight can play a sizable role in the success or failure of a localization project. Ben & Jerry’s Black & Tan ice cream sold poorly in Ireland. The reason? Inadequate understanding of the connotation of the term for the company’s Irish audience. In the U.S., and possibly other countries, Black & Tan connotes a popular beer cocktail.

In Ireland, the term is laden with baggage from the country’s turbulent history. The Black and Tans (officially the Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve), a pro-British paramilitary force, allegedly committed a number of war crimes against the Irish population during the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921).

Long story short, the term did not help Ben & Jerry’s sell ice cream in Ireland. Though the Ben & Jerry’s lesson is less tragic than Irish history, it demonstrates how historical legacies and cultural nuance can disproportionately impact product reception.

The multifaceted nature of localization means that a company must selectively localize, as implementing every aspect of localization would be prohibitively expensive and difficult. For example, a campaign may not have the bandwidth to address foreign user experience, due to its prioritization of cultural humor as a means of reaching its audience. Or, with regards to market analysis, any market can be segmented with infinite granularity; however, past a certain point, increased segmentation produces diminishing returns and compounding difficulty.

In short, to again quote Julie Layden, “A successful localization project requires a balance of time, cost, and quality.”

Rarely will an organization have the budget and time frame to localize in every aspect, much less to do so with meticulous attention to detail. As a Harvard Business Review article puts it, “Too much localization can…lead to ballooning costs. Too much standardization can bring stagnation, dooming a company to dwindling market share and shrinking profit.” In the localization goldilocks zone, however, an organization will prioritize its localization outcomes and allocate resources accordingly.

Regardless of the resources a multinational devotes to various aspects of localization, an accurate and precise translation is a bare minimum. Without your texts, website, and other materials translated into the language of your target market, there is no localization. For certain types of communication, a good translation alone does the trick. For others, additional layers of localization are needed to fit the message to the culture. Translation almost always comprises the bulk of any localization effort; other considerations, when they come into play, piggyback atop the translation project.

Generally, the more technical the text, the less it warrants localization considerations beyond an accurate, precise translation. One can hardly imagine that some great faux pas would emerge from the translation of a set of operating instructions for a wet centerless grinder. Or, that the same manual would need to be localized for seven Arabic sub-dialects. An advertising campaign, on the other hand, usually relies on innuendo, metaphor, and allusion. Every phrase must be considered carefully with regard to each language, dialect, and other segmentation factors. Localizing a marketing piece for seven sub-dialects of a language would probably be wise. As would avoiding references, however oblique, to historical atrocities in the region (a la Ben & Jerry’s).

With localization departments sprouting up in companies around the world, the concept, if murky, is going mainstream. Now it’s up to each organization to figure out what it means to them.

Jacob Andra is Senior Industry Analyst for US Translation Company, a firm specializing in helping US companies localize their offerings for foreign language markets. This article was adapted from a previous post on the US Translation Company blog.