Translation versus localization: creating globalized content

Translation is concerned with bridging the language barrier, while localization is about crossing the cultural barrier.

Translation is concerned with bridging the language barrier, while localization is about crossing the cultural barrier.

In an interconnected world, your content has value far beyond your backyard – so long as people can understand it. As part of the globalized content market, design teams are faced with a fundamental choice: should content strategy prioritize translation, localization or some combination of the two?

Reading versus comprehending
The first obstacle in developing the most effective strategy is that content marketers often don't recognize the distinctions between the two approaches. The terms "translation" and "localization" are often used interchangeably. 

"Your content has value far beyond your backyard."

The simplest way to understand the difference between translation and localization is to think of the underlying values they serve. Translation is a very literal, data-driven process: it takes data from one locale and substitutes its equivalent value in another locale. This means that on a basic level, the document is being reformatted to be read by a foreign audience.

For enterprises operating outside of their domestic market, bringing native content to foreign readers represents a challenge – one often met with a ham-fisted "throw it in a translator" approach. But as anyone who has used an online translation service may have noticed, a substitution-style translation of text or other content doesn't always result in something that makes sense. Even technical documents, driven and quantified by empirical data, may end up virtually incomprehensible – although technically readable – after a such a translation.

Crossing the cultural barrier
Karl Montevirgen, writing in The Content Wrangler, explains that translation is concerned with bridging the language barrier, while localization is about crossing the cultural barrier. As with prose, a certain vernacular expression or linguistic shorthand in technical material written for one culture may not carry over into another culture. Even in the hands of a trained bilingual and without a simplistic word-by-word translation, content that speaks to readers in different cultures with equal fidelity can be elusive.

This is where the world of dynamic content writing has a unique edge when it comes to translation. Depending on the sophistication of the content management and editing system, the ability to divide content into hypertext components makes translation more than simply substituting words; it allows for complex reconstitution of content into another language.

"With localization comes added costs – both monetary and time."

The value and cost of localization

This is where localization can edge out translation as a strategy to market content. By creating customized content with a culture's native tongue, you can ensure that the content speaks directly in the language of your audience while taking on the cadence and cultural mores of that demographic. This can have significant value when it comes to avoiding any miscommunication or snafus that may arise by awkward translation.

However, with localization comes added costs – both monetary and time. Localization requires native speakers and contributors, which will be able to communicate in any specific target language but may not be experts or otherwise familiar with the subject matter of the content. Alternatively, locally created content may be functionally indecipherable to the home enterprise, making fact-checking and editing impossible.

In the end, an enterprise looking to spread its content globally employs some mix of translation and localization to achieve the optimal combination of cost, schedule, and meaningful outreach.

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