Brave New World: Globalization, Internationalization and Localization

Heather Leighton
(Terminology Update, Volume 34, Number 2, 2001, page 12)

Having a global presence, going global and globalization are all expressions that we have been hearing and reading about a lot lately. While it may seem obvious that they all pertain to launching products and services on a worldwide scale, globalization itself can be further broken down into internationalization and localization—two concepts that have and will continue to have a huge impact on translators.

Globalization has dramatically increased the demand for translation in recent years. As translators, we can expect not only to be called upon more often to provide translation services, but also to be asked for input into cultural aspects. An American business research institute estimated that one third of the $11 billion (US) world translation market in 1999 was in globalization; for this reason alone, translators and language specialists have a vested interest in finding out what this rapidly expanding business area involves.

As most of us are aware, the Internet has been a catalyst in breaking down conventional trade barriers, and it would appear that never before has it been easier to access new markets. With the advent of the World Wide Web, followed by e-commerce, retailers can now sell their wares around the globe simply by having a Web site. In fact, by virtue of having products available on-line, a retailer is, in essence, global. However, this does not necessarily guarantee the product’s success in an international market. As many companies have painfully learned, reaching a new international market requires more than speaking the language of potential clients. It also requires an in-depth cultural knowledge of the market in question.

To illustrate the importance of having linguistic and cultural knowledge of the target market, we have only to look at one failed attempt. The example often cited is the botched effort of marketing the Chevy Nova in Mexico. Obviously, the people in marketing did not realize that "No va" literally means "doesn’t go" in Spanish. For marketers, organizing a marketing campaign from their home country is no easy task. As a result, a number of companies started offering globalization solutions, which are in fact services to help other companies access international markets. The term globalization has become pervasive in recent years because of the large number of high-tech companies using globalization solutions to launch software products worldwide in a number of languages simultaneously.

Globalization is an extremely complex process requiring input from software engineers, user interface specialists and linguists. It involves both internationalization and localization, which are essential for successfully entering global markets. Internationalization is a multistep process whereby a product is pared down to a neutral or basic form so that it can be quickly and easily modified to suit any target market. This is by no means new in the world of international marketing; however, the process itself has become highly sophisticated with the development of software internationalization solutions. Any Web site selling products on a global scale must also be internationalized so that it can display different fonts, characters (Chinese, Arabic), accents, dates, currencies, addresses and number systems ("." as a place holder instead of ","), to name just a few. In addition, it must provide enough space to allow for languages that require more space than the source language. Internationalization provides the necessary framework so that a product can in turn be localized. To understand how important internationalizing Web sites is, just think of having your heart set on buying something on the Net, only to find out that the Web form doesn’t have a code for your province or won’t accept your postal code.

Localization is the other part of the process. It involves adapting a product so that it appears as though it has been produced locally. Translation is a large part of the localization process but additional emphasis is put on integrating target market cultural elements. A well-localized product will use a translator and a marketing specialist from the target market to ensure that the language conventions (spelling, capitalization, punctuation), jargon, colloquialisms, colours, symbols, humour, images and graphics, etc. will be well received and, above all, will not be offensive.

Localization studies have revealed interesting information on language and cultural aspects in global marketing. A personal favourite is that some companies have miraculously discovered that certain marketing campaigns are more successful if regional spelling is used. For example, an English Canadian may not continue reading promotional material if a different regional spelling is used. The reason is simple: when the spelling is not adapted to the market, potential customers assume that the product is not intended for them. It seems big business has finally understood that market and language are not interchangeable.

Studies have also shown that our own cultural bias may lead us to believe that certain cultural aspects are international. With respect to the use of colour, some hues should be avoided at all costs in certain markets. It has been noted that purple signifies grief and mourning in Mexico and Brazil, whereas light green used in a humorous context in Muslim countries may be offensive because it has a religious connotation. The use of red may also not go over very well in former Soviet Bloc Eastern European markets. The use of symbols is another area of focus. In the past, an American-type mailbox was used in localization projects, but it was later found that in European markets, the mailbox was often interpreted as a garbage can. The rose to many is symbolic of courtly love, and although it does have this connotation in France, it is also the symbol of the French socialist party.

There are a number of cultural issues that can be resolved only by employing translators and marketing specialists who are native members of the target market. Consequently, companies offering localization services generally request translators to specify the regional language(s) that they translate into: English (Canada) to French (Switzerland); French (Belgium) to Spanish (Cuba), etc. How much time translators have spent outside their native country may also be an issue since language and culture are constantly evolving. I recently spoke to a director of translation services who told me that he was having difficulty finding someone locally who could translate into German. Apparently, the local translators had been living outside Germany for a number of years and were not observing the German spelling reform in effect in Europe since 1998.

Globalization also covers other issues involving sales, logistics, shipping, customs and legal aspects. As it may already be apparent, both internationalization and localization are vast areas, and because every product or service is different, each process must be customized. What is most impressive is that companies offering globalization solutions are often expected to come up with localized versions of products in eight or more languages within a very short time frame.

The information age has taken yet another turn in its relatively short existence. Only a few years ago, English was assumed to be the lingua franca of the Internet and of the international business world. But when it became apparent that non-English speaking markets were growing exponentially, the focus shifted again to producing solutions that provided quality customized translations for target markets. Then it was discovered that localization efforts were more successful if regional language and culture specificities within a given language group were taken into account. While the concepts of globalization, internationalization and localization have been around for a long time, they are continually evolving and being refined, and they increasingly require the skills of professional translators.

Copyright notice for Favourite Articles

© His Majesty the King in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Public Services and Procurement
A tool created and made available online by the Translation Bureau, Public Services and Procurement Canada

Search by related themes

Want to learn more about a theme discussed on this page? Click on a link below to see all the pages on the Language Portal of Canada that relate to the theme you selected. The search results will be displayed in Language Navigator.