What Is the Difference Between Internationalization and Localization?


From SaaS platforms like Shopify to restaurant chains like McDonald’s, the most successful brands in the world thrive because of their strong internationalization and localization strategy.

You’re probably already familiar with the process of translation—converting text from one language to another. Before you expand your business to new locales, it’s important to understand localization and internationalization as well.

Internationalization is the process of preparing products, services, and internal operations for expansion into global markets. Localization is the adaptation of a specific product or service to a unique local market.

Let’s explore internationalization and localization in more depth.

What Is Internationalization?

Sometimes abbreviated as “i18n,” internationalization refers to the process of making products and services more adaptable to easy localization. Most business experts agree that marketers need to internationalize their content before localizing it.

Internationalization is a key step for selling products and services to consumers in different countries. However, it doesn’t involve any actual translation. For example, IKEA internationalized its assembly instructions by using only illustrations and diagrams, which eliminated the need for translating different sets of instructions for each region.

However, most businesses will eventually need to translate their content for international markets. Before translation, it’s important to internationalize the text by making it as culturally neutral as possible. For example, you might make a text more multilingual by removing culturally specific references or slang.

Here are a few important digital components that should be internationalized.

  • Hardware support:
    Certain devices may not be prevalent or available in every country. For example, mobile phones are more popular in India than desktop computers. You’ll need to optimize your website or mobile app for specific devices or operating systems to cater to your international locales.
  • User interface (UI):
    If your software or mobile app needs to be translated into new languages, the user interface should have enough space for every version of the text. Certain languages take up more space than others and have a larger number of letters or words. You don’t want to have to go through the time-consuming process of adjusting the design, resource files, or other locale-specific components for each language.
  • Customer service:
    When you start selling to consumers in new regions, you’ll need to offer multilingual customer service that makes sense for their time zones. If your company is based in Los Angeles, your business hours will be different compared to what European or Asian audiences expect from local companies.
  • Date and time formats:
    Time and date formats vary in different locations, so it’s helpful to adapt the format to your target audience. The American DD/MM/YYYY system won’t be familiar to most foreign consumers.
  • Data encoding:
    ASCII encoding works for most European languages. However, languages with non-Latin alphabets like Chinese, Hindi, Korean, and Russian require Unicode character encoding.

To sum it up, internationalization concentrates on developing a product that can easily be adapted for target audiences in many different countries. Next, localization takes the internationalized product and makes it as relevant as possible for a specific market.

What Is Localization?

Sometimes abbreviated as “L10n,” localization is the practice of adapting a product or service to a local target market. This typically takes place after a brand has prepared the content with internationalization.

Let’s use McDonald’s as an example. With more than 30,000 restaurants in over 100 countries, McDonald’s is a popular global brand. Their core product menu is designed to be appealing to various cultures and tastes around the world—this is internationalization. From there, McDonald’s also localizes its regional menus to cater to specific audiences. Here are just a few examples of their localization practices in different cultures:

  • Israel: McDonald’s serves up kosher food and drink, and their Israeli locations also close during the Jewish Sabbath and Jewish holidays.
  • India: McDonald’s implemented a meat-free menu in some of its Indian restaurants to serve the country’s large vegetarian population.

Successful localization maintains a global brand identity while simultaneously customizing products and services for local markets.

Translation vs. Localization

Translation and localization are sometimes used interchangeably, but there are some important differences. Translation is the conversion of text from one language to another. Localization takes translation one step further to make a product or message resonate with a specific target culture—as if it were created there in the first place. A successful localization approach requires close attention to various cultural factors that go beyond words.

Here are some examples:

  • Amazon:
    ECommerce giant Amazon.com has unique localized websites for regions like the United Kingdom, Japan, India, the US, and Canada. Each localized site has translated content, custom UI, and regionally appropriate product images. For example, Amazon.co.jp (the Japanese site) focuses on Japanese language, models, and products.
  • Pixar:
    When producing the film Inside Out, Pixar modified its animation for a scene in which a character points to a sign. In the Arabic version, the character motions from right to left instead of left to right. Arabic, Hebrew, and many other languages use a similar right-to-left system that may require special attention or even engineering changes.
  • Apple:
    When people ask Siri for information, Apple’s virtual assistant automatically gives them a localized answer. Apple’s software development team ensures that an American user will always hear temperatures in Fahrenheit rather than Celsius. Users can also select a preferred accent for Siri. English speakers, for example, can choose between American, South African, and Australian.


Choosing the Right TMS for Internationalization and Localization

When your brand is ready to go global, a trusted translation management system (TMS) like Localize can help you jumpstart the localization process. Localize is a no-code translation management system (TMS) translation solution for SaaS platforms, allowing you to easily translate your web app, dashboard, API docs, Statuspage, and much more.

With hundreds of language pairs, just 3 easy steps, and no technical knowledge required, you can localize your SaaS platform in minutes.

Contact us now to learn more about how Localize can help you establish your brand in new markets.

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