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Translation and Localisation for international websites

Gareth Cartman

International websites are a bundle of complications. Never mind the technicalities, handling multiple languages is a headache in itself. For many international sites, though, the source site (usually English) tends to work well. The others tend to work less well, in terms of traffic and also engagement. That’s often because they’ve been translated, and not localised.

translation and localisation for international websites

So what’s the difference?

I take issue with those who say translation is literally just changing the words. I used to be a translator, and I both translated and localised in my time. Word-for-word translation results in bad translation.

Like the Paris restaurant that offered a starter called “Sofas of salmon”.

Simply translating it correctly to “Salmon canapés” is not localisation. It’s just correct translation.

Good translation takes a piece of text in one language, and puts it into another language so that it can be understood.

However, that’s often not enough. This is especially true when we’re translating for the web when we have so many other considerations:

  • culture, i.e. is it culturally acceptable or correct to say this?
  • technical, i.e. will this fit on the screen?
  • search, i.e. is this actually the most commonly searched-for term?

This is where we have to localise. Call it “translation plus”, if you want. Localisation is all about taking a piece of text and putting it into a given context.

That context often takes on all three of those elements above.

Let’s looks at a few examples:


Let’s consider a translation from English to Italian of a phrase found in the Guardian newspaper:

… while you’re queuing at the grocery store, sitting in a crowded tube train, or waiting for your morning latte at Starbucks…

A literal translation would make sense in the Italian language, but it wouldn’t make much cultural sense. After all, they don’t sit on crowded tube trains, and they don’t drink latte at Starbucks.

It’s not being stereotypical to say that they don’t do queuing, either. These are all things that make us sad about living in the UK while we could be having it much better in Italy (sigh).

A localisation would approach the text from an Italian point of view, and turn it round to say something like:

… while you’re waiting to be served at the market, or sitting on a crowded terrasse while waiting for your morning espresso…

With localisation, you don’t have to translate the words so much as you have to translate the meaning, and more importantly, make it mean something in the target language, to the target audience.


English is naturally a quite short language. There are a few exceptions (Russell Brand), but generally speaking, what we say in a few words, other languages will say in many more.

Even if they don’t use more words, they may use longer words. You will probably never have to translate from English to Basque, but the Basque language Euskara is an agglutinating language, which means that it has a small number of ‘base’ words which it binds together to form other words.

Therefore, they have a word for “to walk in a northeasterly direction”. It’s quite long.

If you’re translating for online, or for software, then you’re faced with a different type of task. Websites and interfaces have been designed for the English language first and foremost – so when the same website or interface is used for a foreign language, you’re faced with a unique challenge.

I’ve worked on software localisation projects where there were restrictions on number of characters – and on website localisation projects where there were restrictions on the number of words.

This requires special skills in keeping the target language in line with the source language.


Your international website might rank perfectly well in the UK – but the translated version doesn’t rank at all in France, Italy or Spain.

Aside from the technical (href lang) considerations, there is a new element for translators to consider when localising a website. The words might be correct. The meaning might be correct. But the data suggests that people are using specific keywords in that country that we haven’t included.

Most translators are not SEOs. Most SEOs are not translators.

But this probably has to change. Or, at least, translators have to work with SEOs in order to ensure that the target text doesn’t just fit on the screen and make sense in the target language – but that it can be found by people in search engines, too.

That’s the advantage of the source language – it was written for search.

But if you’re selling “Walkie Talkies”, did you know that the French often refer to “Talkie Walkies” as well?

Walkie Talkies in the UK:

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 15.54.15

Walkie Talkies in France:

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 15.53.48

You may benefit from Google’s semantic search, to a degree, but don’t rely on it.

How to handle a site or an interface that’s going to be localised


Before you start designing, know what you’re designing for. It’s not just going to be the English language – and it may not just be for the standard Latin alphabet. Try using Cyrillic instead and see how it looks.

Plan for double the length of your English words, especially if you’re translating to German (or Euskara!)

If you’re expanding - and you are restricted by an existing template (site or interface) for the new target language, then you’re at a disadvantage to start with. But don’t let that put you off. Move on to the test phase and see what you break...


Once you’ve got your source language for a couple of pages, test it out with another language. If it’s too much to localise immediately, translate with Google’s translate tool as a testing mechanism. It doesn’t have to be perfect (don’t worry, it won’t be).

You’ll see why sites that use Google Translate tend to look kind of messy.

Work together

Designers, SEOs, Developers and Translators. All in a room. Together. Learning to be flexible and adaptable.

We can do it. You know we can.

Translation and localisation are different. Translation is what you do for documents and menus and so forth. It’s difficult, but it involves getting the words conveyed correctly and strictly. That’s why there are so many legal translators, and not so many legal localisers.

Localisation is about taking a source text and having it make sense in a different context. That context could be cultural, technical or promotional.