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What is Localization (l10n)?

Learn everything you need to know about localization here!

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The animated TV series The Simpsons famously reworked its script in every country it aired. This may be surprising, as this is typically not done in the arts. However, given its core idea—jokes with cultural references—they had no choice. They had to change the tone and idiom of the dialogue, and even some scenes, to suit the new audience—all in the name of comedy.

However, they didn’t change the show’s nature; they localized their script to reach new markets.

Online-based companies do the same, they localize their content on their landing pages, e-commerce stores, blogs, marketing campaigns, and social media, to give their brand and products a local flavor.

What is localization?

The localization process converts the original version of content into something else. It usually begins with a classic translation from one language into another, such as French to English. Then, to localize the content, the translator changes the tone, cultural references, and idioms to appeal more directly to a new target audience.

But it’s not always about translation. You can also localize the same **language. For example, you can convert Parisian French to Canadian French to reflect vocabulary differences. The same goes for localizing British English into American English, making spelling and idiomatic changes.

As good as that sounds, you don’t have to localize every piece of content. For one, it’s not easy to localize, and it has some drawbacks, as we’ll see below. The decision to localize depends on how you want to appeal to your readers. Advertising and marketing content usually benefit from direct appeals through localization. On the other hand, more authoritative and formal content, or documentation, may need to stay in one form, in which case, standard translation is all that is needed.

For example, you could standardize a text by avoiding idioms and cultural references altogether, aiming for a more global appeal. This is the case for using “global” English—an English that any native or non-native English speaker can understand so that every reader has the same reference point.

However, localization is an important tool for content creators. It helps them reach a wider audience with more impactful, locally-flavored content. As if local business had written the texts.

The elements of localization

There are many ways to localize content. As discussed, changing the language to use the reader’s local vernacular is a key localization step. This includes idioms, vocabulary, local phrases, slang, and cultural and brand references. This comes naturally when you hire a local writer or agency.

But localization is not only textual. You can arrange the interface to reflect cultural expectations. Again, a local designer can help with using better symbols, colors, fonts, layout, and other such elements. that have a better cultural impact.

On a more mundane level, it should go without saying that dates, numbers, units, and laws should adapt to each country.

Finally, it’s important that the content is relevant. Going back to the The Simpsons example above. Maybe some readers of this don’t know The Simpsons. Or they don’t have the same social media usage and messaging. Or a company may have expertise in a technology that a country has not yet adopted. The messaging, references, and examples will need to change.

Relevance is a key concern when thinking about localization. You don’t want to waste the time and resources it takes to localize content that, in the end, may not have the local impact you're seeking. For example, localizing can be used with case studies, showcasing Japanese companies for Japanese users and customers.

What it takes to localize

Translating idioms can be difficult because they don't always convey the same meaning across cultures. Humor can be challenging to reproduce. Additionally, maintaining consistent terminology and branding will be challenging.

Technically, every language affects the layout and design of visual content. For example, it requires a lot of design and coding to display text from left-to-right, right-to-left, and vertically depending on the culture. In the end, any second or more version of content will cost time and resources for the translation and the design.

Luckily, there are techniques that greatly simplify localization. For example, internationalization is a coded framework that provides placeholders and configurations to localize content.

If you weigh everything out and decide to try built-in internationalization as a first step before localization, then here’s how. Modern Content Management System (CMS) like Prismic come with built-in internationalization and locally-flavored templating. Prismic separates content from the display, enabling creators to mix and match the correct display and content for a given country. Creators using a modern CMS can easily publish and update their content to different localities without requiring engineer involvement.

Conclusion: the larger context, globalization

Localization broadens the appeal of a brand, making it feel local. Because of this central role in branding, there have been many efforts to simplify and deepen the localization process. The main advance in this context is the conceptual framework GILT.

GILT stands for Globalization, Internationalization, Localization, and Translation. Globalization is about designing and developing products or content that can be easily adapted to different cultures. An internationalization architecture supports different languages and regions. It does this by managing character sets, date formats, and currency symbols. It should also separate code from the display. Localization involves adapting the product for a specific locale or market. Translation converts text from one language to another keeping the original meaning and tone.

GILT gives multinational companies a framework, helping them take a structured approach to making products with a global reach and a local feel. The process can be iterative—if a company finds that just translation doesn’t give the best UX, they can move to localization and internationalization.