Localization: Redundant? Or a useful neologism?*

For many years now, we’ve been hearing the term “localization” bandied about to refer to the cultural adaptation of a translation, especially in the IT and video game fields. Why did the translation industry need this term?

According to the Larousse French dictionary, localization is defined as “the adaptation of a product, productive or commercial activity to a geographic area based on a variety of natural, technical, economic, cultural and social factors” [our translation]. At first glance, this definition does not directly refer to translation.

Also according to Larousse, translation means “the expression in a target language of what was stated in a source language, while maintaining semantic and stylistic equivalencies” [our translation].

The Wikipedia article on localization states that “language localization differs from translation activity because it involves a comprehensive study of the target culture in order to correctly adapt the product to local needs.” But isn’t this a flagrant misunderstanding of what translation is?

At university, I learned that translation was a global language transfer process characterized by faithfulness to the source text, respect for the author’s tone, mastery of the source and target languages, writing the target text idiomatically so that it can be understood by its target audience, and cultural adaptation. This process goes well beyond Larousse’s brief definition.

The term “language localization” seems to arise from market globalization. Perhaps this was an opportunity to create a niche.

Later in the same Wikipedia entry, it says this: “In addition to translation […], the localization process might include adapting graphics, adopting local currencies, using proper format for date and time, addresses, and phone numbers applicable to the location; the choices of colours; and many other details, including rethinking the physical structure of a product.” Yet aside from the choice of colour, translation professionals take all these precautions before sending the document to their client.

Creating the notion of localization seems to have bifurcated the translation process, dissociating it from the cultural adaptation implicit within it, rather than meeting a need. The question remains: is there a reason for the neologism? Or is the term redundant?

*Text translated by Alison Newall.