What Is the Difference Between Internationalization and Localization?

by | Feb 26, 2021

The acronym GILT stands for GLOBALIZATION INTERNATIONALIZATION LOCALIZATION TRANSLATION. These terms all refer to the activities that businesses engage in when they go global. Of the four terms, translation is the most easily understood because it simply refers to the process of converting text from one language to another. But what distinguishes the other three, and more importantly, what is the difference between internationalization and localization?

internationalization and localization

Globalization, internationalization, localization: these concepts all sound similar, and indeed they are often used interchangeably. However, they have subtle distinctions that set them apart. This article explores what they have in common and how they differ. 

What Is Globalization?

The term globalization describes any activity designed to bring the populations, cultures, and economies of different areas of the world closer together. In the business world, globalization references practices by which organizations aim to become better connected to their customers in different parts of the world. Such practices encompass any facet of conducting operations in different national markets, e.g., product design, marketing, and sales. Here are some examples of globalization:

  • Online marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay make it easy to purchase products from individuals or businesses situated anywhere on the planet. Even products for sale in traditional brick-and-mortar stores like Walmart or Target have often made stops in more than one country before reaching their final destinations. For instance, consumer electronics are typically sourced from raw materials in India, manufactured in China, then sold in the USA.
  • Many giant restaurant chains, such as McDonald’s, operate in many different areas of the world. McDonald’s has franchises in more than one hundred countries, and diners everywhere are familiar with the company’s brand and logo.
  • The instantly recognizable swoosh Nike logo is able to transcend a host of different languages and cultures. Nike has partnered with athletes in many different countries and uses these endorsements to support its worldwide expansion.

What Are the Benefits of Globalization?

Globalization has come about due to the transformational happenings of the 20th century, particularly the development of international air travel and the Internet. Global inter-connectivity has dramatically enhanced the world economy.

  • In 2019, global GDP amounted to approximately US$87.55 trillion.  

The rise of globalization means that there has never been a better time to build a business into a worldwide company. Companies looking to expand have access to a global talent pool and an ever-increasing volume of data that can serve for positioning in a new market. 

However, to go global successfully involves a lot of preparation. Two of the most important steps in this process are internationalization and localization. While both of these terms fall under the heading of globalization, there are differences between the two that are important to understand.

What Is Internationalization?

Internationalization is sometimes abbreviated to “i18n”, where 18 represents the number of characters in the word. The term refers to a business strategy involving making products and services as adaptable as possible to easily enter different national markets. Products intended to be used by speakers of many languages need to undergo internationalization. 

Products with written content that does have to be translated are written to be as culturally-neutral as possible. In many cases, this is easier said than done. For instance, where software products and electronics are concerned, internationalization faces several difficulties such as:

  • Data encoding: Encoding with ASCII characters works for most Western European languages. However, other languages that use non-Latin alphabets (e.g., Chinese, Hindi, Korean, and Russian) need larger character encodings such as Unicode.
  • Hardware support: Software designers must realize that certain hardware devices may not be readily available in every country. 
  • User interface: If a software application is to be translated into multiple languages, the user interface needs to have enough space for the text in all of these different languages.

According to most business experts, companies need to first internationalize before they can successfully localize a product. 

What Is Localization? 

Localization refers to the process of adapting a product or service to a specific targeted market. Generally speaking, this happens after internationalization is in place. Internationalization concentrates on developing a product that can easily be adapted for target audiences in many different countries. On the other hand, localization takes the internationalized product and makes it as relevant as possible for one specific market. When thinking about the difference between internationalization and localization, it’s crucial to understand that successful internationalization precedes successful localization. Let’s again use McDonald’s as an example.

McDonald’s more than 30,000 restaurants in approximately100 countries is the epitome of globalization. The corporation has created a product menu that can be adapted to various local customs and tastes (internationalization). Examples of localization practiced by McDonald’s include:

  • Israel: The chain serves up kosher food and drink and closes during the Jewish Sabbath and Jewish holidays. 
  • India: McDonald’s has instituted a meat-free menu in some of its restaurants to serve the large number of people who are vegetarian. Its menu also caters to a large part of the Indian population that does not eat pork or beef.

In both of the above-referenced cases, McDonald’s has maintained its global brand identity but customized its products for local markets. This is a perfect example of localization.

Internationalization and Localization:
How Is Localization Different from Translation?

Basically, translation is the conversion of written text from one language to another. On the other hand, localization refers to the process of making a product or message resonate with a specific target culture – as if it were created there in the first place.

For most products, localization includes translation but goes far beyond it. Localization requires close attention to various cultural factors that go beyond the words used to describe a product. Here are some examples:

  • For its film Inside Out, Pixar modified its animation concerning a scene wherein a character is pointing to and reading a sign. For instance, in the Arabic version, the character motions from right to left instead of left to right as in the English version. 
  • When users ask Apple’s virtual assistant, Siri, for the weather report or directions, Siri can give the answer in Fahrenheit or Celsius or in miles or kilometers depending on the user’s location. A user can even choose a preferred accent. In English, the choices include American, South African, and Australian. 

Internationalization and Localization: To Sum Up

Globalization is the term that refers to the various undertakings that enable a company to take its business global.

Internationalization relates to how products or services, along with internal operations, are designed to make expanding into international markets possible.

Localization is the adaptation of a particular product or service to one specific market.

Suppose you are thinking of expanding a product to multiple national or even regional markets. In that case, you need to understand the difference between internationalization and localization and plan for internationalization first and localization second. This way, you’ll design products that satisfy users in all regions and cultures.

Localize has years of experience helping businesses of all types produce and adapt content for international audiences. Our platform can help you launch your website quickly and cost effectively. Contact us for more information.