The difference between translating and localizing

Yes, you got it right! There is actually a big difference between translating and localising your website or your entire advertising campaign. If you didn’t already suspect it, you weren’t reading this post.


Let’s start with the easy part (so to say): translation. A translation is a process of rendering the meaning of a word from one language to another (Oxford dictionary). So if I want to translate the word “car” in Italian I can take the word “macchina” without altering the meaning that much. Although it could at first seem simple it is not: first of all, if you reverse the process we have just made the result could be different and translating “macchina” into English could equally give you -for example- “car” or “machine”. This is because words never perfectly match from one language to another. Take another example: the Italian word “casa” is both a valid translation for the English words “house” and “home”. How to choose then the right translation? Here comes the second level of the translation work, that is the examination of the context.

Every language has words that have more than one meaning, and the selection of the right one depends on the context the word is used in. Let’s take the house/home example: while the first is the brick-and-mortar tangible building, the second is a much more complex business, encompassing the sphere of the feelings and of family relations. But since in many languages you have no such distinction, a translation that is not mindful of the context would result in oddities such “feeling at house” instead of “feeling at home”.

Why are we dealing in such subtle distinctions? Because they have a great deal of importance in a domain, that of marketing and advertising, where the mastery of the word is essential. Think for a wee second about the slogans you use for your campaigns, and the wordplay jokes they sometimes are built on. We will take two examples, the slogans used for the Ritter Sport chocolate and that used by the home improvement chain Homebase in their last TV ad.

The original German version of the slogan for the Ritter Sport chocolate is “Quadratisch. Praktisch. Gut” (square, practical, good). The exact same slogan is used in the Italian campaign, translated as “Quadrato. Pratico. Buono”: here that translation is perfect, and the snappy and direct effect conveyed is the same as in the original. Something different happens with the French version: “Carré. Pratique. Gourmand.”, where the last word has been adapted to give a sense not only of good quality but also one of luxury, refinement and delicacy that is very appropriate to an upscale food. Very different from the original on the other side is the English version of the slogan: “Quality. Chocolate. Squared.” that, while retaining the same snappy three-words structure, focuses on the quality aspect of the chocolate only but “squaring” it, thus reinforcing the visual element of the famous square chocolate bar. In this case, a simple translation would not have been as effective, so the marketers decided to tweak the slogan keeping it as faithful as possible to the original, in order to achieve a better effect.

Totally different is the case of slogan for the Homebase TV ads campaign, that says: “Make your house your home”, with a word play constructed upon the relation between house and home coexisting in the same place when this is conveniently furnished. Given what we have already said about the absence of such a distinction in other languages, it would be really difficult to transmit the same message to other audiences than the English-speaking ones. Totally impossible would be, on the other end, to make a word-play with a plainly translated version of the slogan (that would result in a painful “rendi la tua casa la tua casa”). Obviously, given the fact that Homebase sells in the UK and the Republic of Ireland only, this is not a major issue for their marketing department, at least for now. But what will happen should the wish to project themselves to other markets, where their potential customers are not speaking English?

Before proceeding in our exploration of the difference between translating and localising, have a look at a little collection of odd translations!


When planning your online marketing strategy to attract customers from foreign markets the simple translation of your contents, slogans and ads is not enough. To be effective the must “go native”, they must sound genuine to the reader and/or the listener. Here I give you a list of the most common mistakes you should avoid:

  • Units of measurement: it would be awkward, to say the least, if you were selling your beautiful tartan fabric in yards to people that barely know what a yard is.
  • Currency: you should always display prices in the local currency, so your potential customers can instantly perceive how convenient your product is compared to your competitors.
  • Taxes: double-check the levels of VAT and the presence of additional charges on your products before advertising your prices. It takes very little to lose a customer for the promise of a competitive price that you cannot fulfil because of tax-miscalculation.
  • Time: if you say that you will be available for customer assistance from X hour to Y hour every day, you should verify this time span doesn’t fall in the middle of the night for you oversea customers.

These are the most common mistake to avoid when localising your website, but there is more you should do if you want to be found on the Search Engines by your local potential customers:

  • Have a local TLD (Top Level Domain), like .it for Italy, .de for Germany and for the UK, because domain extension affects ranking
  • Have the local version of your website hosted on a local server to improve ranking
  • Translate also the SEO elements into the language of the place you want to rank in (like page titles and address, keywords, meta tags and descriptions, categories and tags)

Concluding, I hope to have demonstrated how big is the difference between translating and localising your website, and how important both operations are. Should you want to know more about this subject or have a closer look to what Normanica Ltd can do for you, just GET IN TOUCH WITH US and we will be happy to go through your needs and plan a tailored international online marketing strategy for your business!

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