Difference Between Translation and Localization

The Difference Between Translation and Localization for Multilingual Website Projects 

The terms website translation and website localization are often used so interchangeably, it’s not uncommon for marketers and others to be unaware of the differences—or even know that there are any. While the terms and processes share similarities, understanding what sets them apart can do more than just benefit your knowledge of the industry—it can also help you (and your brand) globalize more efficiently and profitably.

Language localization differs from translation activity because it involves a comprehensive study of the target culture in order to correctly adapt the product to local needs. Localisation can be referred to by the numeronym L10N (as in: "L", followed by ten more letters, and then "N").

The localisation process is most generally related to the cultural adaptation and translation of software, video games and websites, as well as audio/voiceover, video or other multimedia content, and less frequently to any written translation (which may also involve cultural adaptation processes). Localisation can be done for regions or countries where people speak different languages or where the same language is spoken: for instance, different dialects of Spanish, with different idioms, are spoken in Spain and in Latin American countries.

Freelance translators and staff translators alike must aim to transfer every factual detail to the translated document and do so correctly. Apart from missing a deadline, not getting simple facts – like numbers – right is one of the deadly sins of the translation profession. If you have a text which includes figures, always check their accuracy separately from spelling and grammar. Do formatting conventions of the country whose language you are translating differ from those of the source language’s country? Also always check that you have translated the complete text. Oversights are by no means as common now as they were when translators still translated from faxed pages but it always pays to double-check. CAT tools with their quality assurance features greatly simplify these tasks so that mistyped numbers and forgotten sentences become almost impossible.


The English word "translation" derives from the Latin word translatio, which comes from trans, "across" + ferre, "to carry" or "to bring" (-latio in turn coming from latus, the past participle of ferre). Thus translatio is "a carrying across" or "a bringing across": in this case, of a text from one language to another.

Translation must take into account constraints that include context, the rules of grammar of the two languages, their writing conventions, and their idioms. A common misconception is that there exists a simple word-for-word correspondence between any two languages, and that translation is a straightforward mechanical process. A word-for-word translation does not take into account context, grammar, conventions, and idioms. Owing to the demands of business documentation consequent to the Industrial Revolution that began in the mid-18th century, some translation specialties have become formalized, with dedicated schools and professional associations. The demand in the translating field is greater than ever before. Many translators work as freelancers and others are employed by international organizations as well as government agencies. Nonprofit and religious organizations also hire or contract the services of translators for document translation. Individuals who work as translators are highly intellectual.

Interpreting and translation are two closely related linguistic disciplines. Yet they are rarely performed by the same people. The difference in skills, training, aptitude and even language knowledge are so substantial that few people can do both successfully on a professional level.

Interpreting, just like translation, is fundamentally the art of paraphrasing—the interpreter listens to a speaker in one language, grasps the content of what is being said, and then paraphrases his or her understanding of the meaning using the tools of the target language. However, just as you cannot explain a thought to someone if you did not fully understand that thought, neither can you translate or interpret something without mastery of the subject matter being relayed.

Both translation and interpretation (sometimes abbreviated as T + I) require superior language ability in at least two languages. That may seem like a given, but in fact there are many working translators whose language skills are not up to the task. You can usually recognize these unqualified translators by extremely low rates, and also by wild claims about being able to translate any language and subject.

Mandarin vs. Cantonese, CHS vs. CHT

Chinese Language: Traditional vs. simplified

In mainland China a simplified writing system is used, whereas in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and overseas regions the traditional script is being used. Starting from the second half of the nineteenth century, there was a growing consensus that the writing system constituted an obstacle to the achievement of a higher literacy rate. The simplified writing system differs in two ways from the traditional writing system: (1) a reduction of the number of strokes per character and (2) the reduction of the number of characters in common use (two different characters are now written with the same character). A large-scale reform was continued after the founding of the PRC. In 1955 1,053 variant characters were eliminated. In 1956, the Scheme of Simplified Chinese Characters, known later as the First Scheme, was promulgated by the PRC government. It was composed of 525 simplified characters and 54 simplified basic components of characters. The Second Scheme of Simplified Chinese Characters was promulgated in 1977 but was repealed in 1986 amid general disapproval.

Chinese Language: Mandarin vs. Cantonese

Mandarin is by far the largest of the seven or ten Chinese dialect groups, with 70 per cent of Chinese speakers and a huge area stretching from Yunnan in the southwest to Xinjiang in the northwest and Heilongjiang in the northeast. This is attributed to the greater ease of travel and communication in the North China Plain compared to the more mountainous south, combined with the relatively recent spread of Mandarin to frontier areas. Cantonese is spoken by the people of Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong province, including Guangzhou (previously Canton in English). Most foreign Chinese communities, such as those in London and San Francisco, also speak Cantonese thanks to emigration from Guangdong.

Localization vs. Translation

Internationalization (i18n).
Localization (l10n).
Globalization (g11n).
Localizability (l12y).


Translation - This applies to fairly literal, "word for word." This is often out of necessity.  If you want to make sure that a person in China understands how to use a product (such as a medical device) manufactured in USA, it is important that the source and target-language text match up precisely. This effort often just impacts more literal content such as documentation, legal, manuals, etc. So, your functional areas here might be technical publications, compliance, HR, support, etc., and is typically billed per word.


Localization refers to the adaptation of a product, application or document content to meet the language, cultural and other requirements of a specific target market (a locale).”

This is a more involved process whereby the target-language content is adapted to more effectively convey a similar meaning or connotation in the target culture. Idiomatic expressions, puns and marketing material generally fall into this category, but localization can apply to any type of content based on what your business objectives are. The key point here is that your target-language version will often not be a literal translation.  As an example, if you want to convey the phrase "Like father, like son" in Chinese, it would read as something like "Tigers do not breed dogs." Although this doesn't match up with the source content, it has the same connotation in the target culture. 

Localization affects more the content that is driving customer action.  Web sites, marketing campaigns, branded content would all fall into this category and the majority of this would fall under advertising, marketing and business development. It can be billed per word or hourly or as a flat fee per project. Often thought of only as a synonym for translation of the user interface and documentation, localization is often a substantially more complex issue. Localization may even necessitate a comprehensive rethinking of logic, visual design, or presentation if the way of doing business (eg., accounting) or the accepted paradigm for learning (eg., focus on individual vs. group) in a given locale differs substantially from the originating culture.

Localization is sometimes written as l10n, where 10 is the number of letters between l and n. i18n allows applications to support and satisfy the needs of multiple locales, thus “enabling” l10n. It is because of i18n that we are able to localize all of the Mozilla project within its pantheon of applications and open the web up to the world!