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Are localisation professionals lost in translation?

Would you believe me if I told you that the word “localisation” actually comes from “locale”and, therefore, means “making something appropriate for a specific combination of language and country”?

You shouldn’t, unless I reference a reliable etymological dictionary, although even dictionary definitions aren’t always reliable.

But last night, when I saw that a person considered by many one of the top experts in the field explained “localisation” like this, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I could never imagine that a language industry professional with decades of experience would indulge in and popularise folk etymology.

What kept me awake wasn’t the astonishment but this question and a few more that follow.

If localisation experts position localisation as “making something appropriate for a combination of language and country”, why are localisation professionals surprised when their work isn’t seen as valuable, let alone strategic?

Do senior executives, people who decide whether their business needs localisation, think about it in these terms? Do they think “We really need to make sure that whatever we do is appropriate for different language-and-country combinations”?

Or do they think along these lines?

  • To win in international markets, we have to prioritise local responsiveness over global integration.

  • We should create a unified brand and customer experience across different markets.

  • How do we adapt to local market conditions while achieving cost efficiencies?

How leaders of the world’s largest companies see localisation

Last year I interviewed 20+ senior executives at one of the world’s largest software companies that has been localising its solutions for decades. I asked those executives to explain how they and their customers (leaders of the world’s largest companies) understood localisation.

I’ll quote a couple of them so you get an idea.

“Large corporates have multiple subsidiaries. They normally set up operations where it’s most economically viable to support those subsidiaries. And based on their goals, they need processes that give them the operating rights to be in those countries from a financial, legal and taxation perspective. And that’s where localisation supports that process.”

“Even when a company may be manufacturing the same product in different regions, the way they do that, the processes they go through, may be completely different. From the software perspective, you have to have the adaptability to say ‘You can alter your processes to the way your plant operates, easily’. The objective is to have solutions that can be agile enough to be tweaked, changed, customised to ensure that you meet the processes in the local area versus other areas.”

Don’t these people see localisation as something strategic and fundamental to the success of their entire business? They surely do.

Do these executives think that localisation has anything to do with “locale”? I haven’t asked them, but I really doubt that they understand this word as “a combination of language and country”. Most of them don’t even consider language a key element of localisation.

Why do localisation professionals feel the need to “evangelise localisation”?

Do they want to convince localisation stakeholders that language is the most important aspect of localisation? Do they think that their company’s leadership or customers don’t understand the importance of localisation?

Here is one of my favourite quotes from those interviews with senior executives.

“Localisation is the kind of topic that is not, let’s say, super fancy. But it is one of the few topics where differentiation appears immediately, and obviously it is a must in all organisations. If you are in the US, and you want to operate in Europe like you operate in the US, and you have software that doesn’t support localisation in France and Germany, there’s nothing you can do, as simple as that.”

Or perhaps localisation professionals believe that everyone should know how localisation should be done, the way they see it, and how challenging it is?

Quoting another executive, here is what customers think.

“Customers don’t want to think about localisation when they make the buying decision. They want one piece of software that works everywhere.”

How is this perspective different from that of a localisation sponsor? Why would anyone other than localisation professionals want to think about localisation when dealing with localisation processes or their outputs?

When I asked one VP of Global Marketing what she would make happen if she was leading localisation for her line of business, she said she would “make localisation a non-issue”.

For her peer from another business unit, this is what localisation success looks like.

“It’s great to identify a champion or someone who cares within that region, who understands it. I’m just never going to understand how to put content into Norwegian as well as someone who is from that area.

If we can enable them to provide the core message, provide the core tools, and then allow that region to take it from there for that last 10%, without having to impact the core product and the core message, that to me is what localisation success looks like.

From an investment perspective, we need to build some knowledge and expertise within those regions so they can do it, so they are not dependent on us. We can hire a translator to do something, but if it’s driven by the region, it will just have a better output, and they are more willing to sell it, too.”

Even when localisation is limited to content, is this what localisation teams achieve for the business? Where even are they in this ideal scenario? How far is this expectation from what localisation success looks like for a localisation manager?

Wouldn’t localisation managers be more successful if they better understood what localisation means for their stakeholders? Perhaps it’s time to stop trying to evangelise it and start looking for common ground instead.


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