Localization Should Not Be Viewed As Just a Cost, But As the Opportunity Cost to Unlock New Markets

Indiska, a shop in Stockholm, Sweden                                                                                                       Photo: Baltic Media

Localization is often treated as nothing more than “high-tech translation,” but this view does not capture its importance, its complexity, or what actually takes place during localization. It also hides the fact that localization must be integrated with other business processes if it is to be effective. Localization is an integral part of globalization, and without it, other globalization efforts are ineffective.

So what exactly is localization if it isn’t simply translation?Localization is the process of modifying products or services to account for differences in distinct markets.
While this definition sounds simple, it actually impacts many business and technical issues and requires a good deal of expertise to implement successfully. Localization involves the adaptation of any aspect of a product or service that is needed for a product to be sold or used in another market. This process significantly impacts both technical and business functions within organizations. This includes how sales are made; how products and services are designed, built and supported; how financial reporting systems are implemented; and so on. While there is overlap between translation and localization, localization generally addresses significant, non-textual components of products or services in addition to strict translation. Localization commonly addresses the following issues:

Linguistic Issues

Almost any product or service that will be sold to individuals who do not speak the language in which it was created will require linguistic adaptation.
For example, a piece of computer software will require translation of the textual components of the user interface, online help, user documentation, installers, etc. Beyond the product itself, business needs will require translation of marketing and product collateral materials, web pages, and support materials, and perhaps training documents, internal service bulletins, and other similar components. For media or informatics products, linguistic aspects of localization may also include dubbing and adaptation of speech-based audio components.
While translation of text generally constitutes the bulk of a localization project, it is seldom the only component and may directly impact other aspects of product design. For instance, a product’s user interface may require modification to support characteristics of particular languages or space requirements may need to be adapted for languages that require significantly more or less space than the original language.

Physical Issues

Beyond translation, localization often involves physical modification to products or services in order to be acceptable in the local market. These changes can represent substantial time and cost. Examples of physical localization include the following:

  • Automobiles sold in Australia, the United Kingdom, India, Japan and much of southern Africa (as well as a number of other countries) need to have their steering wheels on the right side of the vehicle. Cars sold in the rest of the world require that their steering wheels be on the left side.
  • Electrical equipment sold in the United States and Canada requires 120-volt power, while most of Japan requires only 100 volts. Most of the rest of the world uses 220- or 230-volt power. In addition, there are thirteen different sorts of electrical plugs used around the world, meaning that even if a piece of equipment is configured for the proper voltage, it may still not work with a particular power system. While it is common now for computers to automatically adjust for power supply variations, other electrical equipment may not work or may even catch fire if the wrong voltage is used.
  • Radios and wireless equipment sold around the world must be modified to conform to local standards and governmental regulations. A product acceptable in one country may not be legal in another one.
  • Computer keyboard layouts vary from country to country (and even within a country if more than one language is used). For some languages, there are multiple ways to input the language (e.g., Chinese and Japanese, or even English). All relevant input methods must be supported if local users are to have access to the equipment.
  • Some products may also require adaptation to the average body size of people in a given country or need to be adapted to fit local customs. The first hybrid automobiles sold by Toyota in the United States required larger trunks (“boots” in the United Kingdom) than their Japanese counterparts because many American families transported large baby carriages in their vehicles.

While physical modification is not required for most software and user documentation, physical differences may impact software and documentation that refers to or is embedded in hardware. For example, graphical representations of products or items such as electrical outlets may need to be adapted to reflect the particular hardware used in specific markets.

Business and Cultural Issues

Local business and cultural issues can affect all aspects of product design and localization. Local currencies and accounting conventions must be supported. Local address and telephone number formats need to be supported, and even the format of names must be appropriate to the target market. These sorts of issues are often missed by product designers, simply because they are not aware of them. However, they often make the difference between a product that works and is successful in a market, versus one that is frustrating for or even rejected by customers.
Other areas of adaptation include colors and graphics that must be adapted to meet local cultural norms. In addition, product designers must be aware of political and business issues and local cultural expectations. For example, e-commerce solutions must account for local payment preferences and methods, i.e., they cannot assume that credit cards will be available everywhere or universally accepted. These issues vary by country and region, so the importance of local market knowledge cannot be overstated.

Technical Issues

Supporting local languages may require special attention and planning at the engineering stage. For example, support for East Asian languages that require thousands of characters requires special design and attention. Other languages, such as Arabic and Hebrew, are written from right to left, requiring the adaptation of user interfaces and the use of special text-handling routines in software. Other issues include the order in which text is supported (e.g., in Norwegian, the letter å follows z, while an English speaker would expect it to appear after a), date formats, the separators used in numbers, etc. Provision must also be made to allow input of text in the local language. If these technical issues are not considered from the early stages of project development, they will add substantially to the expense and time required to localize a product.

Localizing a product is not a trivial task. In practice, not all products are localized to the same extent. Some products require extensive localization, while others require less. Research by LISA indicates that, in general, the more important textual information is to the function of a product and the more the user must interact with the product, the more localization it will require. 

Anti-virus software is a good example: since properly understanding what anti-virus software will do to a computer system is vital when a virus is encountered, accurate and easy-to-understand localization is vital. In contrast, a back-end system that requires little interaction with users will generally require less localization.

In the real world of business today, factors influencing the extent of localization include the nature and scope of the product concerned, the size of the target market and audience, the length of the product lifecycle and anticipated update frequencies, competitor behavior, market acceptance, and national or international legislation. Only after performing a thorough analysis of these issues, along with the related risks, should a decision not to localize, or to localize only in part, be made.

Choosing what to localize and into what languages (and how extensively for those languages) depends on an organization’s specific business priorities and needs. Localization is thus another business process, not a task done for its own sake. That said, localization should not be viewed as just a cost, but as the opportunity cost to unlock new markets.