Why Localisation Is Vital For Your Site

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Globalisation is a very real thing. Your target market can stretch across the oceans to include people who don’t even share the same language as you. This is why online translation services have become so important.

Localisation and Globalisation

License: Creative Commons image source

Two terms, translation and localisation, are often used together, sometimes interchangeably, leading many people to think they refer to the same thing. However, this is definitely not the case, and understanding their difference is important to successfully translating your site/website, documentation or software for a global market.


Translation is the process of taking a source language and converting it to a target language. A source material, such as a document or software, is translated into another language so as to be understood by speakers of the target language. There are automatic translation tools online, most notable that provided by Google, which are free. Simple enough and you probably knew that already, but then what is localisation?


Localisation involves translation as well, but goes a step further. You see, a text can be translated into a source and technically be linguistically and grammatically correct, but the message can be scrambled along the way. Or else the original meaning just doesn’t come across well. So by the time someone reads the translation, the message falls flat. That’s because translation isn’t necessarily done with the target audience’s cultural and linguistic background in mind. Localisation is the added step to tailor the translation to the audience, bearing in mind the differences in semantics and culture. So as to translate the message in such a way that is relevant and meaningful.

Why localisation is important

Some things just don’t translate well, like jokes or cultural references, so it doesn’t help to provide literal translations of them. There are some amusing instances of this. In Germany, Starbucks had to remove several advertisements in German stores offering a “morning latte break”, because the word “latte” translates into erection. Ford also made an embarrassing, and expensive blunder when it sent many Pintos to South America. After spending a lot of money marketing the car, it was realised that Pinto was Brazilian slang for “tiny male genitals”.

A case where the importance of localisation is often noted is in Mandarin translation. Chinese signs have an endearing quality, as they adopt a tone of familiarity, friendliness and passion, and use poetic language. Rather than just trying to inform, direct or warn, they aim to inspire, motivate or provoke empathy. This is unfortunately not always translated across, however.

For example, a sign in Jiuzhaigou National Park has a meaning along the lines of “Please don‘t touch me. You are fearful of polluted water, while I am fearful of pollution!” In English, however, the sign bluntly reads, “Keep me clean, please don‘t pollute.”

Localisation isn’t needed just for words though, but also for images, icons, colours and symbols. Take this example. In third world countries where the majority of the population is illiterate, it is common practice to place a picture of what a product contains on the packaging instead of text. When missionaries donated Gerber Baby Food to tribes in Africa, the indigenous people were disturbed at the sight of jars of ‘baby food’. They had a similar aversion to ‘pet food’.

These are the kinds of mistakes you want to avoid, as they come across as alienating, insensitive and unprofessional. Making sure that your text is not only translated, but also localised, tells your target market that you know them, respect them, and have taken the time and trouble to get the details right.

About Author: Queenie Bates is a freelance writer currently based in Cape Town, South Africa, where she lives with her partner and beloved Great Danes.

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