Some Context On Localization
A slippery and troublesome word, localization means different things to different people. Inherent in the term, however, is the locale. Given the word is primarily used in a context of international business, we can extrapolate that it has something to do with communicating business concerns to people outside of one's domestic market. In fact, in its most widely-understood meaning, the term denotes a process of cultural/regional adaptation that may encompass any or all of the following:
- design/user experience (UX) considerations
- formatting & layout issues
- legal issues that may vary by country
- adapting of symbols, icons, and other extra-linguistic semiotic content
- market analysis / segmentation
- attention to subdialects within a language
- aesthetic considerations
- cultural references (entertainment, pop culture, fashion, other trends) of the target market
- historical references of the target market
- insider humor (puns, memes, jokes, etc) of the target market
- cultural conventions
Or, as Julie Layden describes it, 'Localization is the customization of all components of a product for a particular target market.' According to the Globalization and Localization Association (GALA), a product should seem to each market sector as though it had been designed and created by and within that demographic, 'no matter their language, culture, or location.'
Leyden's description, while apt, conveys a limited sense of the term. Sure, if you're selling a product in Hungary, you've got to make sure Hungarians understand all of your info. However, localization applies to supply chain relationships as well. Ditto to regulatory compliance, transnational project management, distribution partnerships, and all of the other 'hidden' functions of an industry.
It's For Everyone
If you're a procurement director importing raw materials from Indonesia, say, you and your Indonesian suppliers will need to be able to mutually understand one another's contracts, emails, import-export documents, and all the rest. Likewise, if you're exporting into a foreign country - let's stay with the Indonesia example - a compliance attorney in corporate headquarters must read Indonesian regulatory requirements, submit forms, and otherwise handle the voluminous paperwork involved. All of which must be translated to and from English/Indonesian. In short, unless you're confining yourself to US markets, US suppliers, and US subcontractors, localization will be part of your operation.
Learn From Ben & Jerry's
Ben & Jerry’s Black & Tan ice cream sold poorly in Ireland. The reason? Inadequate localization. In the US, and possibly other countries, Black & Tan connotes a popular beer cocktail (the thought process behind naming an ice cream flavor after an alcoholic beverage lies beyond the scope of this article). In Ireland, however, the term is laden with baggage from the country’s turbulent history. The Black and Tans (officially the Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve), a pro-British paramilitary force, allegedly committed a number of war crimes against the Irish population during the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921). Long story short, the term did not help Ben & Jerry’s sell ice cream in Ireland. Though the Ben & Jerry’s lesson is less tragic than Irish history, it demonstrates how historical legacies and cultural nuance can disproportionately impact transnational commerce. And that was between two English-speaking cultures.
So, use professionals, or at least cultural insiders, do your research, and give localization its due. Rather than relegating it to the sidelines or treating it as an afterthought, embrace it as a vital part of multinational trade.
Jacob Andra researches and writes on industry for U.S. Translation Company, a language services firm that helps industry bridge linguistic and cultural barriers