Lost in Translation: Understanding the difference between localised and translated content

“We’ll localise this content”
“OK sure, send me the translation when it’s done”
“Erm, well the thing is…”

Exchanges like this – while sometimes a little awkward – reflect a common misunderstanding within the international communications world: what exactly is the difference between translation and localisation?

“Localisation” is at the heart of all the content developed for our clients operating in different markets and languages, and it is how we describe content tailored for local market use. Without localisation, content will likely fall flat and struggle to resonate with the region’s media and audiences. It’s an important skill to master but can be challenging to explain how exactly it’s different from “translation”.

While on the surface they may seem the same, these are two distinct, different things, so let’s dive into the differences between the two…

Translation vs localisation – what’s the difference?

The Cambridge dictionary defines a translation as “the activity or process of changing the words of one language into the words in another language that have the same meaning.” While it considers each language’s standards and guidelines, it stays as closely as possible to the original text. Hence, translations are good for user manuals, scientific articles, survey questionnaires and earnings releases.

Localisation on the other hand, is much more nuanced. It means adapting content and stories to local audiences, contexts and standard practices. Arguments and opinions expressed in localised content must be backed up with relevant local insights, statistics and data points. Localisation also goes as far as to change the tone of the content itself to adapt to different attitudes and cultures, and ensure it is well-received: for example, does a piece need to be more light-hearted or serious? More neutral or factual? Those questions (and much more) must be answered if we want to localise something.

Example: I need to localise US press releases into French – what should I expect?

Press releases have different structures in each country, and sometimes the format differs even within the country – depending on the topic, the context, etc. If we want to achieve our goal of generating maximum coverage or media opportunities with a press release, it needs to be tailored and modified accordingly.

To give an example to help demonstrate localisation in action, what might you expect if you needed to localise a US press release for the French market?

  • Adapting and formatting: the content will likely need to adapt to some extent, which can include re-working the original formatting, the ordering of ideas, and the tone – but don’t be alarmed, all core messaging and factual integrity will remain respected.
  • Getting to the point: the main topic of the news needs to be understood in the first few lines of releases shared with French journalists, as their hectic inboxes usually mean they can’t read everything they receive. To catch their attention, we’ll need to ensure the most interesting news is right at the start, in the first paragraph, so we may trim softer and more context-setting intros.
  • Proving it and making it local: why are you announcing that or launching this? What’s the reason and the end goal? And, most importantly, why should readers in France care? We will likely add additional local context to explain what issue this new solution or service is responding to, and in what context this appointment or news is happening. These local market context points should ideally be backed by publicly available data.
  • Keeping it short: many US releases tend to be several pages long, and much of the information and key points can be reinforced a few times. In France, press releases should not be longer than one and a half pages, but media are open to being offered more supporting additional content, such as fact sheets or infographics, attached to the distributed press release.
  • Adding imagery: including some imagery within or attached to the press release – such as a visual of a platform or solution, a headshot of a speaker, or an infographic – is often well received, so don’t be surprised if we ask for or create these assets. Anything that French journalists can directly include in their article and save themselves some time is always welcomed!

Localisation is not the same as making a direct translation – it is complex, takes careful consideration, and can even take longer than drafting the original piece!

It’s a vitally important skill that, as your trusted PR advisors, we will guide you through to ensure your content delivers the right messages, in the right format, and in the right tone that will best resonate with local audiences and achieve your communications goals.