Zen and the Art of Localizing Code and Content

Article ImagePeople naturally adapt what they say and do, personalizing their interactions to the situation at hand. You speak differently to your children than you do you to your colleagues. The email you send to a friend will be less formal than the paper you submit for publication. When you send a video to a friend abroad, you ask if his internet provider can handle 4K files. And if you encounter someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you, you might speak more slowly, raise your voice, and use simpler constructions.

Your adaptations are natural and often automatic, largely because you know your audience, speak their language, and share a common context. Contrast this with what your company has to do to present its case and sell its wares in markets around the world. It adjusts the offer, the product, the language, the website, mobile apps, SEO, marketing collateral, its way of selling, how it delivers the product, and who supports it.

What is it that you do automatically as an individual that your company must invest budget, staff, and technology resources in? They undertake three initiatives—localization, translation, and internationalization.

Localization means adapting product, code, content, imagery, and other elements of a product, brand, or experience to the national, linguistic, legal, and logistical needs and expectations of a specific market. Frequently referred to as a “locale,” this combination of factors could define a country and its majority language or a domestic market with a minority language. The localization cognoscenti often abbreviate the practice as “L10N” (the 10 refers to the number of letters between “L” and “N” in the word “localization”).

Translation involves taking information in one language and conveying the same details and thoughts in another. It applies both to text and software that interact with users or display results textually or graphically. You’ll also hear about transcreation (a more involved type of adaptation that develops content for international markets from a creative brief or a more freestyle translation).

Internationalization refers to the behind-the-scenes engineering work that supports localization and translation. It ensures that applications can support additional languages or countries for alphabet, message tables, currency, regulations, and other infrastructural components. Internationalization becomes “I18N” in the shorthand.

Many practitioners and suppliers make a distinction between translating words (translation) and adapting code (localization). But it’s not that straightforward. Because content and code often interact in a transaction, game, or device, many people freely interchange the two terms. Translation is part of the localization process. However, where translation is applied within localization, it generally consumes the lion’s share of the resources. Thus, translation is often referred to a function within the practice of product, application, and website localization. Whenever you see or hear the term “localization,” remember that it means both code and content and frequently implies translation.

Finally, all localization is subject to a few basic market realities. It follows product or content development rather than leads in most firms. Practitioners typically do not control content or code lifecycles; therefore, it’s important to educate product designers, developers, and testers so that they understand and internalize localization well enough for the practice to become second nature. 

The next reality is that it’s far better to localize early in the development process. It will be cheaper, and the final product will be higher quality. Specialists tell our research team that early, systematic work on internationalization can cut up to 80% of subsequent localization problems. Waiting costs money: Once a document, product, or app is in production and in the hands of customers, it’s very expensive to fix internationalization or localization problems.

The last reality is about the expectations that content creators and developers have about technology—everything will always be better tomorrow. You can be sure that future releases of any OS will improve out-of-the-box localization support and deployment. Similarly, next-generation translation memory, translation workflow management, machine translation, and machine learning will improve the practice of adapting documents and applications for other markets. However, technology is just part of the localization puzzle.

Localization success can only be attained through alignment with business strategy and a corporate commitment to seek global opportunities. Dedicated staffers, an agreed-on process, and specialized technology are critical to mastering it.