Does Localization Always Require Translation?

Aug 23, 2018


Article ImageCan we localize without translating? This question may sound provocative, or even silly, if you have been involved in global and product management for some time. You can see plenty of examples showing that translation is the foundation of local experiences as it propels language effectiveness in terms of sensitivity, accuracy, and relevance in local markets. So the default answer to that question is “No,” logically enough. But, in order to reply to that question, I recently had to rephrase it for the sake of clarity and rationality. It had to be understood as "Can we leverage content, products, and services locally without having to linguistically adapt anything?" Here again the immediate answer should be an unequivocal no, as we are in the digital age that sets personalization as a performance standard and differentiation as a competitive advantage. So I stuck to my definition of translation as the baseline of local experiences. That being said, I could share a bit of food for thought for people challenging this short definition--or who are not eager to adopt the merely binary approach of using source content.

Some localization cases might be debatable, as far as the scope and absence of translation is concerned. Cautiousness and due diligence are not optional. Such cases may come up in the following instances.

The localization of advertising campaigns and commercials implies much granularity and sensitivity to fit nicely in the linguistic, cultural, and functional framework of each market. Europe and Asia are interesting and challenging examples of regions where localization is not black or white. In Northern Europe, some campaigns are run with little (or no) adaptation as they promote globally strong brands or products that are associated with the characteristics --and sometimes clichés--of the country they come from. The adaptation may be focused on the initial duration, displayed visuals, or associated music of commercials while text and voice are kept in the original language. In other parts of the European continent doing so would be quite counterproductive for legal or cultural reasons.

The localization of brand names, logos, and taglines is quite tricky as well. More often than not these are left untranslated and unchanged provided that there is no risk or conflict with local languages, cultures, and ecosystems. Sometimes one of them is adapted to be more intuitive for local customers, not offensive in light of political or religious imperatives, as well as more aligned with legal obligations. Whether translation is considered or not, preventive checks and tests must be performed to ensure seamless acceptance subsequently and along the way. Not translating brand elements may appear to be the easiest and safest approach, especially for globally renowned brands willing to put their values or reputation forward around the world. Yet it is not always true...

The localization of products sold in some countries might be best based on a mix of globally successful concepts and locally tuned products. As stated in a recent article from the New York Times about the opening of the first Ikea store in India it may be all about “Tweaking Products but Not the Vibe.” In other words, localizing products has been thought and executed while maintaining elements that have made the Ikea journey successful in other markets. This kind of best-of-breed approach has been a major bet to make this event in the Indian retail landscape successful. If you were to walk in this newly opened store you would find products that have been selected and priced for local customers, while retaining some experience drivers that have differentiated Ikea from its competitors internationally. The scope of translation efforts has been fairly limited in this case considering the common use of English, whereas the depth of cultural and financial localization has been prevailing during assessment and implementation efforts.

At any rate embracing the experience of local customers remains paramount. It helps you determine what needs to be kept, replaced, or removed to delight your local customers. Translation and localization combined with world-ready content and real-time data are your safeguards at all times.

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