Localization strategy

The Difference between Globalization and Localization Explained

Globalization is still unexplored territory for many. Get a fresh perspective on globalization vs localization—and why Casanova got the difference.
Localization strategy blog category featured image | Phrase

Casanova went to an opera in Paris and saw that the stage backdrop, which depicted his native Venice, had put the Doge’s Palace in the wrong place.

“What a comic mistake to make in our century,” he said. His century was the 18th century, of course, but when his Parisian hosts were mortified at his laughter, they undoubtedly looked at their localization skills.

Today, that stage backdrop could be a picture on your website or a button in your mobile app. One mistake in developing your global product, and you may lose confidence in a target market.

Now, before you ask your local Italian linguistic expert to check the reference above, bear in mind that Casanova actually wrote his memoirs in French. That was in the interest of creating a globalized product because French was the international language at the time.

It’s probably fair to say that it’s best to think of the Venetian spectator from the start. Put another way, designing and developing a global product requires a strong understanding of your international users—and differentiating between the many stages of globalization is just the beginning.

Globalization vs localization

Globalization is the process by which information, products, and services are distributed across national borders. Almost paradoxically, globalization also implies localization. When you realize that the world is your oyster and you want to run a successful global business, you must go back and factor in many different local aspects.

These can range from legal systems and religions to attitudes about colors, local traditions, or words. Even within a single country and language, there may be several local variants.

This writer was amused to find that an Estonian friend didn’t know that squirrels are nearly all gray in the UK (they are a beautiful russet in most of continental Europe). Equally intriguing, Estonians may find English small talk perplexing and even irritating.

That’s why you need to think carefully about those witty and chatty instructions for your products. Putting them through Google Translate probably won’t do the business for you.

Even tech giants like Netflix aren’t immune from making mistakes with localization. After introducing a Swahili subtitling service, Netflix got many complaints from Kenyans on Twitter for the bad Swahili translations.

Outraged viewers shared screenshots showing how terrible and laughable the translations seemed to be. After all the pressure from the community, Netflix had to eventually withdraw the service after two years and stay available in English.

Of course, you shouldn’t just see this in a negative light—as if localization were a minefield where you have to watch out against dropping cultural clangers. It’s not just avoiding errors but opening opportunities that may not be there even in the native context.

Localization vs internationalization

Failing to prepare is preparing for failure—and that’s the essence of internationalization. Internationalization refers to making your product ready for localization from the start because it can be challenging to change it once it’s been launched. A bit like Casanova writing in French, think about the global audience from square one.

For example, you need to make sure that your localizable resources are separated from the source code of your digital product. Moreover, addresses, zip codes, currencies, or measurement units may vary around the world. That’s why it’s best to prepare from day one for tackling details such as

  • Number formatting
  • Currency formatting
  • Date formatting
  • Time formatting
  • Time zones
  • Calendar differences
  • Addresses
  • Phone numbers
  • Measurement units, etc.

Is your text hidden in graphics? Translators will find it easy to deal with electronic text formats rather than having to find the text inside a JPEG or PNG. When paying attention to the overall visual impression of a layout with text and pictures, bear in mind that text will look different in different languages. In some cases, the word count will be different.

Romance languages normally use more words than English—Russian uses fewer but may take up more space because of the different script. On the same note, right-to-left scripts like Arabic will have a completely different visual impact.

The badge of honor for internationalization must go to IKEA’s assembly manuals—all in pictures, no words necessary. You can easily make mistakes or cause offense in languages you’re not familiar with. Not to mention causing damage or injury through poorly written or hard-to-understand manuals. Written instructions can simply be hard to follow.

That’s why IKEA’s flat-packaging engineers are part of a briefing for a new product from the very outset. Together with product managers and designers, they make it possible for customers to assemble a product the same way in any part of the world with the help of visuals.

Localization vs translation

Translation might seem like the easy link in going global by rendering the meaning of text from one language to another—now that we have got there through globalization, internationalization, and localization—but thinking that translation is just glorified retyping might put you at risk.

The pen is mightier than the sword, so it pays to be careful how you wield it. A misplaced word, misunderstood phrase, or sentence out of context can be at best funny and at worst very damaging:

  • Translate “I got up this morning” into Italian, and the translator is going to need to know if it’s a man or a woman speaking.
  • If a French text says something is red (like a euro cent coin), an English speaker might actually think it’s brown.
  • In Russian, there are two words for blue depending on the shade.
  • Be careful about that, you can end up on the wrong metro line if you don’t know the difference. By “metro”, of course, we mean subway or tube—people who say “subway” might not know what the metro is, people who say “tube” might be irritated to think their text has not been localized.

I’ve probably managed to confuse or annoy someone with this elaborate explanation. That’s why you need localization.

So let’s get it right

In case you were wondering, the Doge’s palace should’ve been on the left as Casanova was viewing it. Today, the set designer could have googled that before getting to work.

Likewise, with your next product, maybe “Angry Squirrels” could be your next great video game. Ask yourself who gets the red ones while the rest are left with the grey ones. Don’t wait for your disgruntled consumers to raise a brow at you and assume you got the squirrel wrong.