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What are localization, internationalization and globalization?

Every day, companies doing business in different parts of the world look for ways to ensure that their products are well-adapted to their target audiences. And you have probably come across terms like localization, internationalization, and globalization. But do they all mean the same? Should you just “translate” your product or is there something more to it? Let’s take a look at the differences.

Localization is the term we use when introducing a product (including websites) into another country. It is not limited to just translating the instructions for use or the text in the packaging of the product; it can sometimes be a second stage, once a given text has already been translated, that includes cultural adaptation for specific countries, regions or even groups. It goes beyond the mere translation activity, since it entails a comprehensive study of the target culture. In this sense, localization is more of a marketing strategy: if implemented successfully, people will buy products that they perceive as having been produced in their own country, when they are actually exported from a different country.

More often than not, localization is related to the adaptation of websites, software and video games, as well as other multimedia content (such as voiceover or subtitles). In fact, the term localization was coined by software developers in the late 1980s. The same product, translated into the same language, may be localized for different regions. For example, Spanish subtitles for a movie will differ if they are to be distributed in Spain, Mexico or Argentina, just to name a few examples. These regions will have different idiomatic expressions, use different puns or approach certain topics from different perspectives, and all of this must be taken into account when localizing.

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Internationalization refers to the first stage in the process of adapting a product for a multicultural audience. Ideally, internationalization takes place at the design and development level, and entails removing any cultural assumptions and setting aside any language- or country-specific content, to make the localization phase easier. In this sense, localization and internationalization go hand in hand.

Finally, globalization (in this context) refers to the entire process of internationalizing and localizing contents, and encompasses planning in advance, always keeping a multicultural audience in mind. Excellent planning is essential, since it implies avoiding increased costs and quality problems, saving time and generally streamlining the localization process.

To use these three terms in context: a company should internationalize its website and then proceed to localize it, while referring to the project as the globalization of the website.

You will often find some common abbreviations (or numeronyms) for these three terms: L10n, i18n and g11n, where the numbers represent the number of letters omitted.

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