Marketing teams often use the terms 'translation' and 'localization' interchangeably. Even field teams who are engaged in both processes tend to default to the term 'translation'. They are however, very different, and our understanding of those differences is part of the bigger picture of how our audiences engage with us, so it is vital that we have a solid grasp of how they are distinct.
Translation is literal, but whilst this means that the text will be expressed 'word for word', grammar and syntax need to be taken into account if the translated text is to make sense. However, whilst translation makes allowances for the differences in the structure of languages, it makes no attempt to interpret the content to ensure that the meaning is something the reader would expect and understand. That is where localisation comes in.
Before we come to that, it is interesting to note that some content is deliberately translated rather than localised to ensure it is strictly uniform. Publication groups delivering technical, process, procedural and legal documentation may treat content this way out of choice. In these specialised use cases this can be a valid approach because the content is much less subject to cultural influences. In some use cases, such as safety critical equipment documentation, it might actually be dangerous to interpret the translation in order to localise it.
For other uses, and particularly for customer facing content, we apply localisation, as our goal is not just to translate the text but to ensure it is truly equivalent to the source text on the audience's terms. There is more work involved in achieving this. An article inComputer World describes the process well:
"This is a more involved process whereby the target-language content is adapted to more effectively convey a similar meaning or connotation in the target culture. Idiomatic expressions, puns and marketing material generally fall into this category, but localization can apply to any type of content based on what your business objectives are. The key point here is that your target-language version will often not be a literal translation. As an example, if you want to convey the phrase "Like father, like son" in Chinese, it would read as something like "Tigers do not breed dogs." Although this doesn't match up with the source content, it has the same connotation in the target culture."
Localisation goes beyond the translation of words to ensure that one piece of content is equivalent to another in how the audience will engage with it. To do this it has to address word selection, particularly in adjusting the tone, the use of expressions (many of which do not translate very well) and any references made. Excellence in localisation requires attention to details such as capitalisation (which is different between German and English for example) and any salutation used (some countries expect the salutation to align with academic qualifications). Failure to pay attention to how the audience expects to be communicated with will inevitably result in lower engagement.
Ultimately, localisation has to interpret the objectives of the content and adapt it to meet those objectives. This requires local knowledge, not just of the language but of the people of the country or region; including how they think, conduct business, and live their lives. It requires empathy, which can be defined as 'the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.' If this sounds overly sentimental, it isn't - it is good business and helps establish sound foundations for engaging with an audience. Corporate Visions use the phrase 'talk to me like you like me' to capture the empathy necessary to build engagement, and that is an essential part of Marketing today. The fact that our audiences are different, and that engaging them requires some local knowledge, is part of what makes Marketing such an interesting profession.