#AtoZChallenge: L is for Localisation vs. Internationalisation



For those outside of the computer field, localisation and internationalisation are two sides of a foreign coin. What do they have to do with us writers? And, you may ask, why are they not spelled as “localization” and “internationalization”?

Localisation, or L10N (where 10 stands for the number of letters between the first letter L and the last letter N in the word), refers to the process in which an internationalised product is adapted for a specific region or language by adding locale-specific components and translating text. Indeed, when this concept is discussed using British or Australian English, it is spelled as “localisation” instead of “localization”. Another example is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which became Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the American market.

On the other hand, internationalisation or L18N refers to the process of adapting a product to different languages and regional and cultural requirements of target markets. Specifically, it concerns how to design a product so that it can potentially be adapted to various languages and regions without making fundamental changes. I would suggest that in writing, this involves not only using universal themes and values, but also removing those unnecessarily explicit parts of writing that may hinder readers’ understanding of a specific locale.

For example, if you are writing about New York City, then readers outside of the United States may find it easier to comprehend your content when compared to, say, a book set in Arapahoe. But this is obviously not the point. The point is whether you have provided enough background material to help readers understand your chosen locale and the people and events there. Indeed, “world-building” is difficult but vitally important, not only in science fiction and fantasy, but in any genre of literature. Whatever place and culture you write about, it has to be convincing.

Good internationalisation helps to make the localisation process easy, particularly if your writing expresses universal themes and values that everyone, irrespective of their language, gender, culture or religion, can understand. Which is precisely why the classics are classic — while we assume we are different across all sorts of physical, invisible, natural and man-made boundaries, these themes and values demonstrate how similar we really are.

Obviously, localisation involves translation. As an author, you can help to make the translation process smoother by providing a little extra detail about your chosen locale and culture. A good translator can do research and eventually figure out your story takes place in Arapahoe, Nebraska, but it is you job as an author to explain how different this town is from those of the same name in Colorado, Wyoming and North Carolina. More importantly, why is this locale significant to the people and events there? Will everything be considerably different if you move them to, say, Aleknagik, Alaska? If not, then you are in some very big trouble.

(I should note here that in the translation process, it is unavoidable that little bits of information are added to or subtracted from your writing. For example, while your translator may insert “Nebraska” to clarify your Arapahoe story, he or she may remove the repeated mention of New York City from a story set in Brooklyn. Sometimes there may even be alterations, such as turning your “raining cats and dogs” into something like “bucketing down” or “opening the floodgates”. You get what I mean. And we have not even started talking about censorship in some markets yet.)

I guess this is why things in literature do not just happen — they “take place”, with specific cultural characteristics attached. Whether it is to internationalise your writing, or to localise it for a specific market, more issues than translating text are at stake. Think carefully about your target market and its readers. What do you think of them, and what are their common perceptions of your culture? However different you think your readers may assume you are from them, your reason for entering that market should be to remind them of the things you can share, i.e. the universal themes and values that connect all of us as a global community.


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