What is localisation?

Published by: Tim Bakkum,

  • Internationalisation
  • Localisation
What is localisation?

Often, when I tell people that I did a masters degree in localisation, they nod and seem to act like they understand what it is, but most of the time I know that they don’t. In this article I will try to clarify the term localisation and give a more in depth explanation of the localisation industry.


Admittedly, it is a confusing term. It makes you think of localisation in the sense of geolocalisation, the google maps kind of localisation. And although localisation has something to do with the location part, this discipline has nothing to do with geolocalisation. According to the W3C, localisation is :

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).

Localisation is sometimes written as l10n, where 10 is the number of letters between l and n. That definition may sound like translation to you, and you’re right. Translation is at the heart of localisation, but a whole lot more comes into play when localising a product. Your product might have documentation with images with text on them that may need to be adapted. Or think about audiovisual content, like videos with voice-overs or on screen text. The editing and adaptation of graphics, videos, documents, images and texts are all part of localisation. As a result localisation requires more than just translation skills.

Is a locale the same as a target language?

The W3C mentions the term ‘locale’, the target market of a product, but what does this really mean? If we want to localise our product for the Canadian locale for example, you will need to translate to at least two languages: English and French. If you are targeting the francophone market with your product localisation, you shouldn’t just adapt your product to the French spoken in France and to the cultural parameters of France. You should also consider regional differences in language, culture, political situation, currency, formatting standards and many more things. The French used in Quebec can be quite different from the French spoken in France and the usage of the right terms is very important, especially in technical or medical documentation, or in legal documents.

Coca Cola and Pepsi redraw Russia’s map

When localising, the political situation of your target locale might just be the last thing you think about which can sometimes lead to painful situations. A recent example of this was Coca Cola posting a map of Russia without the recently annexed Crimea, Kaliningrad Oblast, and the disputed Kuril Islands on VK (a Russian social network) as a New Year's wish to the Russian Community. Russian community members complained about this image and Coca Cola changed it to include these 3 territories. This in turn resulted in a massive uprising of the Ukrainian social media community. Many Ukrainian users were calling for a Coca Cola boycott through the hashtag #BanCocaCola. As it turns out, Coca Cola’s main competitor also included Crimea as part of Russian territory in their official documents. This shows how important and complicated good localisation can be. If you do not do it properly, your products might not be adopted by the target locale.

No more gambling in Pokémon video games

Another important aspect to keep in mind whilst localising a product is local legislation, certification and classification. For example, in the Pokémon video games since the Red and Blue versions (1996), there has always been a location in game where the player could spend his virtual money to play on slot machines to win virtual tokens to spend on prices. But ever since the Platinum version of the game came out in 2009, European users did not have access to this location anymore, whereas players of the American or Japanese version of the game could still play the slot machines. It was a conscious decision of Nintendo to remove this feature from the European version of the game, because it was not compliant with the PEGI (Pan European Game Information) game classification guidelines concerning gambling in a game destined for children.

the pokémon video game slot machines

Globalisation and Internationalisation

When talking about localisation we can distinguish two more steps in the process : globalisation and internationalisation. Before you can localise your product, you need to set it up technically so you can effectively adapt it for different locales. This process is called internationalisation (i18n). For instance, for a website, internationalisation would involve doing the programming in a way that makes it easy to extract and input all the localisable content for any locale.

Globalisation (g11n) refers to the adaptation and revision of the business, management and marketing processes and tools to facilitate internationalisation and localisation. To make it more clear, consider the following example. Let’s say your company wants to produce and sell software worldwide. The first thing you would do is consider the globalisation aspects. Is your company structure set up to handle global marketing, sales and distribution (simultaneously)? Do you have customer support set-up in the locale’s languages? What are the local legislative differences to take into account? Are there any certifications or quality standards to comply to? Are the target markets viable markets (e.g. what competition is there, is there a demand for the product?)? How will different taxation systems impact the financial aspects of your product launch?

After the globalisation phase, it is time for the actual building of the product in the way that it is ready to be localised: the internationalisation phase. The developers of your software will make sure that everything that is locale specific, can be easily extracted and put back into the software in order to save time and money on the localisation phase and on future maintenance. This doesn’t just apply to textual and audiovisual content of your software, but also to behaviour and structure. Let’s say your software sorts data like in excel. In western versions it would make sense to have an option to sort alphabetically A to Z, but this kind of sorting would not make much sense in locale that don’t use the Latin characters like Chinese or Japanese. The technical structure of your software also needs to take into account the encoding of different language and their proper text directions. Japanese for example has a lot more characters than English and needs two or more bytes to encode a character. Before the product is ready to be localised, quality assurance is carried out to avoid problems during localisation. In a future article, I will try to explain some good internationalisation practises when it comes to web development and provide some more technical examples.

Once your product is internationalised, you can start the localisation process, which includes the translation of texts, translation, transcreation and cultural adaptation of audiovisual content and any other change to content from one locale to another. Once again quality assurance is an important part in this phase. The product is tested once again but with the localised content in place to check for errors that weren’t previously anticipated.

Not just translators

So as you can imagine, it’s not just translation that’s involved in localisation. A lot of different professions intervene during the globalisation-internationalisation-localisation process: translators, graphic designers, video and sound engineers, project managers, localisation engineers, language engineers, product managers, testers, marketing and business professions. Therefore, it is not only useful for translators to have general knowledge of localisation, but for anybody that is working in an international business.