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What’s the connection between localisation and language?

When explaining complex concepts, I often use potatoes to make examples, so please bear with me.

From the business perspective, the relationship between localisation and language is the same as that between restaurants and potatoes.

The two concepts are very loosely connected, without a cause-and-effect relationship. If you go to a restaurant or run one, you don’t have to eat or serve potatoes. If a business needs localisation to enter and compete in international markets, it doesn’t mean it needs language services such as translation.

But many “localisation industry” professionals providing language services don’t seem to agree. They say that language and cultural differences are a barrier for doing business in new geographic markets, and localisation is the way to overcome it. Therefore, any business expanding internationally needs localisation.

It’s generally true, but there is a difference between what localisation can mean for a business and localisation as a language service.

It’s not a potayto-potahto difference

As far as I am aware, localisation, including what it involves and how it’s done, is a business choice. It’s a choice driven by a particular combination of external and internal factors. It’s not an imperative dictated by language and cultural differences that all businesses have to overcome through some form of translation in every market they enter.

In the business management context, the term “localisation” refers to a strategic approach to compete and effectively operate in diverse international markets, considering factors such as local market conditions, regulations, and talent. Localisation falls under the geographical scope of a company and under the umbrella of corporate strategy which answers the question “Which business should we be in?” This article about Uber’s localisation challenges abroad is a good overview of what localisation can mean in practice.

In the language industry, a common definition of localisation seems to be “the process of adapting content, products or services to meet the linguistic, cultural, and functional requirements of a specific target market or locale”. I’m quoting ChatGPT here for the lack of a more reliable source, because the industry professionals don’t agree on what localisation means in the context of what they do. A lot of their definitions, even when formulated better than this one, still suggest that there is a need to adapt some elements of a business’s offering to abstract concepts such as assumptions about users of digital products translated into settings (i.e. locale). No wonder it’s hard to measure the impact of this type of localisation on the business.

In addition, two more terms related to localisation (“internationalisation” and “globalisation”) are also used in both contexts with completely different meanings. This often creates a lot of confusion for people who understand the business view of localisation but not what it means when it’s a language service. It’s hard to reconcile these diverging perspectives, so let’s try a potato analogy.

If business management and language services shared the same language

If businesses expanding internationally were restaurant-goers, localisation would be their choice of items from the menu, and translation would be potatoes. Language services providers offering “localisation services” would be selling root vegetables, mostly potatoes. Collectively, they would call themselves “the main dish industry” and say that all main dishes should contain root vegetables, especially potatoes. They would advise diners to choose a main dish when visiting a restaurant that doesn’t serve their national cuisine, because 65% of waiters prefer orders with potatoes and 40% would refuse to take them otherwise.

This analogy might sound ridiculous, but the logic and reasoning here are not that far from what happens in reality.

It seems that in the worldview of the language industry, Uber shouldn’t and couldn’t have acquired Careem to penetrate the Middle East, because it’s just not an option. You need to localise your content, product or service, they say, to “meet the requirements of the target market”.

But even when adapting your product to meet those “requirements”, you don’t always need localisation as described by language services providers. Did they recommend McDonald’s to replace beef with chicken in their burgers in India? Nobody would have thought of asking their advice on this matter. Nevertheless, they keep mentioning the McDonald’s case as an example of great localisation when marketing their “localisation services”.

Semantic ambiguity, deceptive marketing, wrong positioning, or just ignorance?

I wonder why some language services providers can’t use a more precise language to describe their offering. They’re supposed to be language experts after all.

Why not at least “content localisation”, “software localisation”, “website localisation”, and “image localisation”? Because these concepts don’t fit under the same umbrella unless you call it “localisation”? But if you provide language and related services and call them “localisation”, it doesn’t put you in the “corporate strategy” business.

Or do language services providers expect the leaders of companies buying those services to use the term “business localisation” when talking about localisation in the context of what they do? How is that for adaptation to meet the linguistic requirements of your target market?

I used to work at a cross-cultural marketing consultancy. My colleagues and I helped companies find ways to:

  • offer locally-relevant products and services to customers worldwide

  • increase the effectiveness of their international marketing

  • overcome positioning challenges and communication barriers, including but not limited to cultural and linguistic differences, when entering new markets and further expanding in existing ones.

When advising clients on content, product, and service adaptation, we didn’t call that process “localisation”. Because businesses should choose the most appropriate approach from a range of options involving more or less adaptation to the local market conditions, customer expectations, and cultural norms. Some clients referred to the final result as “localisation”, but we couldn’t call what they had in mind and the process of achieving it anything other than “adaptation”.

Even when translation was part of the process, we never used the word “translation”. Why? Because language services providers typically priced it per unit of output and offered volume discounts, which made customers perceive it as a commodity.

This continues to be the case. I know translators who for this very reason started calling their services “localisation” and themselves “localisers”.

Should localisation as a language service exist?

When people start using the word “translator” mostly to refer to tools that translate, what business will localisation services providers be in?

It’s a question of when, not if. In some countries, Google Translate is known as Google Translator. (Is it because the name was translated and translators shot themselves in the foot, or was it intentional?)

Computers used to be human. Those human computers became programmers. A few generations later, they are automating the process of creating content and digital products based on linguistic, cultural, and functional requirements specified in a prompt.

Doesn’t this make the relationship between localisation and language closer to that between restaurants and McDonald’s?

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