Localization and internationalization in a nutshell

In the globalization age, companies make efforts to offer their products and services to different markets all over the world. However, the same product that is a great hit in North Korea may be a total failure in Italy. To be successful, this process of reaching foreign markets should involve much more than just replacing words in language A for words in language B. Conveying meaning and ideas across different cultures may require all sorts of adaptation to make the product more appealing to the receiving culture and, consequently, boost sales and revenue.

Here’s our attempt to explain in simple words a few concepts related to this process.


The term “locale” indicates the combination of “language + country.” For example, “en_us” is English language for US users, and “en_gb” is English for Britain. First goes the language code and then the country code. There are, for example, Spanish language variants for Argentina (es-ar), Uruguay (es-uy), Spain (es-es), and so on.

“Localization” (commonly abbreviated as l10n, first and last characters of the word plus 10 characters in between) means not just translating software and web services, but making them look and feel as if they were originally developed for that particular target market. Apart from translation, the following issues should be taken into account in order to avoid user confusion:

  • Dates

October 5th, 1994 is commonly written as 10/05/94 in the USA, whereas in Spain, Canada, Brazil, Italy, and many other countries, it is traditionally conveyed as 05/10/94. That said, people in many cultures would automatically mark their calendars in May—not in October—for an event happening on 10/05 (without further context). When space is not a problem, writing the month is a good way to avoid misunderstandings.

  • Time

In North America, the AM/PM format is traditionally used, but most of European and Asian countries adopt the 24-hour format. Most Americans and Canadians, for instance, would probably need to read a sentence twice if it said a meeting would be held at 19:00 on Tuesday.

  • Numbers

In the US and Canada, the thousand separator is a comma (2,244), in Germany and Brazil, it’s a period (2.244), in Russia, a space (2 244).

  • Units of measurement, telephone numbers, addresses, currencies

The average Brazilian most likely needs to do some research and math (or use an online converter) to understand how tall a 6’3” person really is.

  • Cultural references, images, idioms, proverbs

Some colors or signs/symbols may have different meanings in different countries and cultures. White symbolizes death in Japan, whereas in Western cultures it is a symbol of purity, peace, etc. Therefore, an advertisement photo of someone wearing black might symbolize mourning in some Western countries, but this nuance would be lost in Eastern places where people wear white for this purpose.

  • Product names

In most cases, trademarked names are left in the source language, like Microsoft, Nikon, etc. However, service names may need to be translated. For instance, “Google Books” is translated into German as “Google Bücher”, and into Spanish as “Google Libros.”


“Internationalization” (or i18n) aims to make the product more general and ready for use in multiple languages and different cultural environments, i.e., ready for localization. In most cases, it’s highly recommended to carry out this step during the development phase. Otherwise, much extra time and effort might be needed at a later stage to prepare the material for localization.

Internationalization includes the following activities, among others:

  • Separating translatable text from the code (externalization)
  • Avoiding hard-coding translatable texts, otherwise you’ll have to make extra efforts during string externalizing and localization testing to spot all untranslated text
  • Enabling display of different character sets and support of local standards
  • Enabling usage of different regional settings like date and time formats, number formats, calendar formats, units of measurements, etc.
  • Attempting to write texts with the international community in mind, so that they will require less cultural adaptation to fit each culture at the localization stage (we say “attempt” here because we know this is not always possible)

You may come across the term “simship,” which refers to simultaneous shipment of all language versions to the global market so users don’t have to wait for a product to be localized to their locale. The advantage of this approach is that the buzz about your product release has the most effect globally, but you will most likely face challenges during this endeavor.

The localization of your product into major languages will not only increase sales and revenue, but also allow customers to understand the product more clearly and use it properly, decreasing the need for customer support, which can be rather costly.

Suggested reading:
Dialects: a culturally-sensitive issue

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Marta Chereshnovska is a translation and localization specialist who works with English>Ukrainian and English>Russian. She has six years of translation, localization, and subtitling experience, and her projects have included information technology, telecom translation, and localization projects (software, web, mobile, games). She shares her experience at her Translation and l10n for dummies blog. You can also follow her on Twitter at @Martav88.

Bianca Bold is the main author and editor of this blog. She has a BA and an MA in Translation and is a native speaker of Brazilian Portuguese. She has been working with English, Spanish, and Italian for over ten years, offering translation, consecutive and community interpreting, subtitling, revision/editing, and training for professionals. Find more information about Bianca on her website or bio.

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