Translation versus localization

Posted 16 January 2011 by

I have been asked what the difference is between “translation” and “localization.”

Sliced BreadMy typical response is to recall something from my high school Spanish class. We once ran across a sentence that described someone as being “as good as bread.” There was some discussion on how bread is a staple and staff of life, and this is what was applied to that person.

It was pointed out how a literal translation, “as good as bread,” did not convey the meaning to someone who is a native speaker of English. We do not use this phrase, at least in the United States. If we were translating the text to English, it would be better to say that person is “the salt of the Earth.”

Most accepted my explanation. But, I do not think most people really understood the difference.

Highbrow HareToday I saw the Seattle Opera Company’s production of the Barber of Seville. A localization of the Italian libretto was shown above the stage, which is not unusual for an opera company to do these days. These captions provided a great example of translation versus localization.

Near the end of the opera, Count Almavira tells the notary to witness his marriage to Rosina. The notary does not want to do this, as he the reason he is there is to witness the marriage between Don Bartolo and Rosina. In response to his hesitance, the Count said (in translation), “For you two bullets in the head are waiting if you offer any opposition.”

Later, Don Bartolo complains to the notary of betrayal, having acted as a witness to the wedding. Compare the answers in Italian, an English translation, and an English localization used by the Seattle Opera Company at the performance.

Ah! Don Bartolo mio, quel signor Conte
certe ragioni ha in tasca,
certi argomenti a cui non si risponde.
Ah! My good Doctor Bartolo, the Count
has certain reasons in his pocket,
and arguments to which there is no answer.
He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

(Libretto and translation from the EMI liner notes, page 118, retrieved 16 January 2011)

I think the localization text is a bit clearer to an American audience than the translated text. This also clearly shows the difference between “translated” and “localized” text.

The way it is supposed to be done.

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