If you’ve done business in another country, or sometimes even within the same country, there’s a good chance you’ve dealt with the need for translation and localization. Especially if you’re involved with sales or marketing materials, documentation, websites and those sorts of things.

Translation and localization are connected, but not the same. Translation involves taking materials developed in one language and making them available in one or more other languages. In Europe, for example, it’s not uncommon for corporate websites to have half a dozen languages on offer.

Translation can become even more specific the more international the business needs are. Portuguese, Spanish and French, for example, are written and spoken far beyond Portugal, Spain and France. But, like variants of English around the world (thanks, imperialism!), they can be very different.

So we arrive at localization, which isn’t just getting the language right, or even the variant of it right, though that can be part of it. It’s getting the specifics of terms and phrases and local usage right. That could be part of regionalization, where we call this thing X but in that other country they call it Y. It could be industry-specific language, where certain terms have evolved as descriptors for certain products, services or concepts.

Localization can even save your translation from an unsightly homonym faux pas. No word if the Babel Fish from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy does both or only translation, though.

It helps make messaging feel familiar and understandable to a specific audience. This is both for clarity – good luck selling to people if they don’t understand what it is or why they might want it – and for psychology. Messaging that is clear and understandable, that feels familiar, will have more credibility than messaging that has only been translated. Or worse, not even translated.

For example, I could go to France and get by with my high school French, but no one is going to mistake me for a local. If I tried to sell cheeses while I was there, would anyone talking to me come away thinking it was a quality local product? Probably not. Listen to her! She’s clearly not from around here. What does she know? Those cheeses look sketchy…

(I’m sure there are also laws that would prevent me from trying to sell cheeses in France. No worries, more cheese for me!)

Localization is what makes you look professional, credible and competent. Or engaging, fun and friendly. Or perhaps all of the above.

Now, sometimes, even when you do translations, you still want it very clear where your business or brand is from, because the place is a strong part of that brand. German cars, French wine, Italian fashion, Belgian chocolate, Scottish whisky.

But other times, where you’re coming from might just make you feel foreign and as though prospective customers or audience members don’t know you. Which puts the onus on them to make the effort to decide if they want to know you. Or work with you or buy from you. Why should they? What’s in it for them?

Maybe they have more reasons if there aren’t comparable local companies or products. But if the market is mature and you have solid competition, that’s harder for you. You want the experience of engaging with your company and getting to know and like your products or services to be as frictionless and easy to understand as possible, not tripping over some version of “not invented here” syndrome. At a bare minimum. Better, you want your organization’s personality to shine through, to make a connection with people, to make them feel positive things and believe in what you’re offering.

Localization, done right, helps with this.

Here’s the thing, though. Translation and localization aren’t just for external use. They are necessary and valuable within organizations as well. Now, many international companies will standardize the corporate language, commonly using English. (Personally, I tend to feel a bit bad about that – again, imperialism – but also since English is a clunky language to learn and use well.)

But even when people are all speaking the same language, there will be variations in fluency, how often they use it, how they learned it and from whom. And, yes, localization. The other week I learned that in Denmark, ghosts say “bøh,” not “boo.” If you paste that into a translator and play the audio, you will hear that ghosts have a very different vibe and level of enthusiasm in Denmark. To be honest, it makes Hamlet make a lot more sense…

When you’re working in your native language, it’s pretty much impossible to make it truly “standardized.” Because there really isn’t such a thing. Even if you’re from a tiny country and it’s the only place that language is spoken. Just removing slang or colloquialisms doesn’t come close to achieving it. I know people who’ve been taught things in English classes in other countries that my knee-jerk reaction would be to say are wrong.

In work life I have to ask on a regular basis if this phrase or that translates for non-native English speakers, or Europeans, or people who aren’t part of our industry. Practically, the only definition of “wrong” is “no one knows what I mean,” and I’m not referring to accents or anything like that. Although, you can practically start a riot in the U.S. by bringing up the pronunciation of “crayon.”

Standardization, even though necessary, can be the thief of joy. Sometimes I will receive content that was drafted in another language and either quickly translated or run through a translation program, and there may be words, phrases and terms that are just amazing and colourful and it makes me very sad they don’t compute in English and we have to cut them. The Germans really do have a word for that, bless ’em.

That’s part of localization, too. To try and reconstitute some of the charm and colour that gets stripped out of language when it’s removed from context, as can happen when it’s translated. I love seeing posts online where they take a single concept and show how it’s expressed in a bunch of different languages. They can be wildly different and reflect nuances of culture, geography, taboos, etc., and yet still all perfectly get the point across.

Some kinds of translation, like with books, ideally are a different story, since book translators work very hard to maintain the colour and texture of the work in addition to the actual words and narrative. Even if it’s being tweaked to be understood by a completely new audience. They try to maintain the work, rather than stripping it then trying to rebuild it. It is hard, and very impressive work when done well.

Now, as much fun as it can be learning how people express themselves in other languages, in business you’re probably not going to find a lot of use for that amazing scatological insult you just learned (hopefully). But you probably bonded with your co-workers over dinner or drinks when you learned it. Congratulations, you have been (slightly) localized!

In addition to helping businesses grow and find new markets, audiences and customers, translation and localization help teams communicate and collaborate, and help companies develop their culture. Which, ideally, is made up of a bunch of cultures.

Sure, it also helps ensure you don’t try to sell a car in new markets with a name that translates to something that ranges from mildly unfortunate to eyebrow-raising. (Google it, there’s an impressive number of examples of car-naming when people clearly didn’t do the research. Or even ask one local person.)

More importantly, translation, and especially localization, help make the world both bigger and smaller, in good ways. They help us get on the same page so we can move on to the more interesting stuff. This not only helps you expand your skills and experience in international business, it makes you a more engaging and well-rounded person.

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at me@melle.ca.