Why Localization is the Key to Good Translation


Much of the time people are confused by these two overlapping terms. While it is doubtful that translation and localization ever had completely separate meanings, today they mostly describe one and the same thing – a good translation into a foreign language. Today, we will talk about why localization is the key to a good translation.

What is a good translation, and how do we achieve it?

We could easily link this article to our articles on style guides, and expand on one important aspect – culture. Cultural differences are what defines good localization, and it is very important to keep this in mind, especially when trying to reach a global audience comprising of cultures you are not familiar with. We believe that examples stay in the minds of readers better than pure definitions, so we will cover both some very familiar and some less familiar cases below.

Example #1. The Harry Potter Book Series

This might be one of the more famous examples in recent history. J.K. Rowling’s work has been translated into 74 languages, including Ancient Greek, and you can only imagine the hurdles translators had to overcome to adapt her work into their native languages.

When localizing the books, translators had to translate the names of the houses at Hogwarts, the names of the characters, and choose local dialects for characters who had specific British dialects in the books in order to convey the same atmosphere or feeling as the original. Some interesting localization choices were made for the US publication of the books, especially the first one.

The original title of the first book in the series is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the US version and also the French one, the title was changed to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The main reason for this change was that publishers did not believe that mentioning philosophy in the title of a children’s book would be appealing to children. Other examples include changing everyday-use words, such as jumper to sweater, as it’s the word used in the US.

Example #2. The Simpsons

While we all know the yellow family from Springfield as the Simpsons, not everyone is aware that for the Arabic market they were renamed The Shamshoons. This change might have gone down well, had there not been other changes as well.

The most obvious ones were that Homer was not drinking Duff beer, but soda and he also didn’t eat pork, but beef sausages (which would have been another issue in India, probably) and hot dogs. The whole show was Arabized, but the final product did not appeal to audiences, so the show was canceled earlier than expected, airing only 32 episodes.

The human factor

In both cases, the content localization was done properly, but the reception was completely different. While Harry Potter received the worldwide fame, The Simpsons did not do well in their Arabic form. That’s the best example of the so-called ‘human factor’, which can be translated to ‘we guess some content is simply not made for other markets.’

The human factor is something that you need to remember, even if your content is not of artistic form. In short, there are two things that you can get very wrong: one is the visual aspect, and the second is the one relating strictly to written text like slogans and copywriting.

Visual Localization

Regardless of what people tell you, humans are highly visual beings. This is an evolutionary trait which helps us more easily define what is pleasant and what repels us, what is good and what is bad, what calms us down and what scares us. The problem is that images and symbols bear different meanings, depending on the culture.

Some examples of the above include:

#1. Colors

While in most cultures black is seen as the appropriate color for mourning, in many Asian cultures, white clothing is worn as a sign of mourning. Red represents luck and fertility in China but symbolizes death and violence in African cultures, such as South Africa.

#2. Hand signs

The ‘OK hand sign’ was popularized in Western culture by the US, but it can be highly offensive in countries such as Brazil and Russia, where it symbolizes something completely different. It also symbolizes money in Japan, so there’s another interesting application. The peace sign, if shown in reverse, with the palm pointing inward, is offensive in Australia and UK as it basically means ‘Up yours’.

#3. Various other cultural differences

Physical contact like holding hands and kissing is more acceptable in certain cultures than in others. Using a person’s name, rather than surname, is perfectly acceptable in the US, but it’s not recommended in German-speaking countries unless you know the person very well. Winking can be seen as something flirty or playful in most countries around the world, but in China it’s considered rude.

Pampers is perhaps one of the most famous imagery-localization-gone-wrong cases. When the company decided to branch out to Japan, they noticed that the product was not gaining the traction they hoped for. The packaging used an image of a stork delivering a baby, and after some research, it was discovered that consumers were confused by the image, as it is not a part of Japanese folklore.

Content Localization 

Depending on the prominence and nature of the content being localized, translation fails can cause you massive problems, especially from a marketing perspective. Slogans and name products are the first thing to keep an eye out for. We are not talking about obvious mistakes in translations, causing harm to the brand and company, like typos or a misspelled product name. We are talking about serious localization issues, which could have been avoided with a little bit of research.

The most famous one comes from Electrolux who tried entering the US market with the slogan Nothing sucks like an Electrolux. Of course, you will quickly understand why this is not the best choice of wording for any product, something which the company, unfortunately, failed to do beforehand.

American Motors also had a problem when it was entering Puerto Rico with its car, the Matador. Believing that the name represented strength, the car did not become popular because it simply translates to a killer. Not a killer joke, we suppose.

Last, but not least, we have Ford, who tried to sell the Pinto in Brazil with similar problems. This case turned out to be even worse, as Pinto is associated with male genitalia in Portuguese slang.



After reading all of the above, you probably understand that a lot can go wrong if your message or imagery is not appropriate for the target market. This can be avoided with style guides that will explain how to localize jokes, phrases, and cultural references, as well as by researching and cooperating with your translators to check if there is any hidden meaning you may have overlooked. Localization is an essential part of a good translation – if you want to go global with your company, you will sooner or later find out that one doesn’t exist without the other.

At Text United, we encourage users to make use of the In-Country Review functionality, which can be used to invite users from subsidiaries or partner companies to have a quick look at the ongoing translation. The In-Country reviewers can leave comments for problematic parts, guaranteeing that the user’s product will become famous not for localization blunders, but the adequate message conveyed by the translator.

Written By:

Gosia loves copywriting and product translation. Additionally, she's a content marketing and lolcats junkie.

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