Anthony Pym


_Video material

Localizing Localization in Translator-Training Curricula

Anthony Pym 1999 

(Published in Linguistica Antverpiensa, 1999, pp. 127-137) 

Abstract: The discourse of localization, along with variants of multilingual information management, seamless documentation workflows and the like, was originally developed in the realms of software marketing but is now more generally associated with highly adaptive and technologized translation in a teamwork environment. Since the discourse threatens to outflank the traditional categories of translation studies, there are theoretical as well as labour-market reasons behind increasing calls for localization techniques, along with training in various electronic tools, to be incorporated into our curricula. Yet the very ideology of localization should require that the discourse itself be modified to suit the teaching environment. The hype of the project managers and the promises of ever more efficient paradises may yet be questioned by our more humanistic university disciplines. 

The discourse of localization began in the specific field of software marketing, probably in the United States and probably in the 1980s (I have been unable to find reliable information for either dimension). For most laypersons, to “localize” a programme means just about the same thing as to “translate” it. Yet the newer verb would seem to be spreading out as a sexy substitute for our tired old jargon: hurried intimes insist on calling it “L10N”; international news items are increasingly “localized” rather than “translated”; marketing material is likely to undergo the same revamp; indeed any text requiring what traditional theorists once called “translation and adaptation” is now probable prey for a localization branding. This is happening out there, in the markets that surround our training institutions. With a few timid exceptions, it is not happening in here, within our training curricula or academic debates. Or more exactly, when the term does jump the gap--as has happened in discussion groups in Spain in recent months--, it is either as a fancy replacement for “adaptation” or as an open question: What’s in “localization” that isn’t already implied by “translation”, understood and taught in the best communicative sense? 
Or, to wrap it into one simple doubt: Is there any reason why we should take the discourse of localization at all seriously? 

Solving Theoretical Problems

Here is one possible reason: Since at least 1984, if not for several thousand years, translation theorists have been arguing over the meaning of the term “translation” and its cognates. If we can now do away with the term, we might also pull the plug on a lot of quite stupid nominalistic debates. For example, I cite 1984 in honour of Justa Holz-Mänttäri’s renaming programme published as Translatorisches Handeln--translative action--rather than Übersetzen, Translation, or any other term consecrated in the world of training. This “translative action” was, and remains, a vague blanket term for everything that translators might be called upon to do, including many wonderfully adaptive things (such as writing a text for which there is no source text) that lay beyond any restricted definition of “translation”. In German-language theorizing, that tradition can be followed right down to explicit calls for various new professions able to embrace the various extras. When Vermeer envisages translators entering a new profession called “the ‘intercultural management assistant’ or ‘consultant’” (1998: 62) and Austermühl et al. talk about the translator becoming a Sprachdienstleister--language-services provider-- or a cultural consultant--they leave the term in English--(1998: 336) or occasionally even an “information broker” (1999), they are using new terms basically to describe what Gregory Shreve at Kent State more modestly names as the “multitasking translator” (cit. Austermühl 1999). That is, since more or less 1984, some parts of translation theory have been recognizing that, beyond translation theory, the market has been calling on translators to do more than translate. Hence the various names for this “more than”. 
 What is at stake here?  Generous minds might suppose that translator training has been adjusting efficiently to labour-market demands. Ungenerous minds could venture that little academic empires have been built as students labour to learn new theories instead of practising the communication strategies required. But more honestly, in terms of theory, what was and remains at issue is really no more than a traditionalist technicality. For the newish terms, translators can now be called upon to add and delete without reference to source-text constraints. For good old translation, even in its more adaptive moments in Nida, it was legitimate neither to add nor to take away (cf. Duet. 4:2; 12:32; Rev. 22:18-19). Everything that was said or meant in the source had to be somewhere in the target. Whether or not the term “translation” can really be stretched out to include a lot of adding and subtracting has largely been a matter of questioning this time-honoured biblical legitimacy, historically behind the general trust accorded to the translator as conduit. 

Of the many other things that have happened in translation theory over the past two decades, perhaps the most important is the similarly idealized shift from prescriptive  to descriptive approaches. When Toury (1980) started to see equivalence as something automatically produced by all ostensible translations no matter how bad, and when he later proposed that for the purposes of selecting a descriptive corpus,  “a ‘translation’ will be taken to be any target-language utterance which is presented or regarded as such [i.e. as a ‘translation’], on whatever grounds” (1985:20), he effectively challenged pedagogically restricted definitions of “translation”, and thereby created much trouble. Discussion and critique of the descriptivist move is not hard to find (cf. Gutt 1991: 7; Hermans 1995; Toury 1995: 33; even Pym 1998: 58-61), but it’s all rather ho-hum scholastic stuff. Worse, as we can see now, the move was fatally flawed in its immediate historical context. After all, if one of the major growth areas in the labour market starts dropping the term “translation”--and that’s why we have the discourse of “localization”--, then any theory that relies on that context for its definitions will eventually be left dancing without a partner. 

The socio-epistemological problems here can become as knotty as you like. For translator training, though, the underlying aim of the words on or instead of “translation” remains a fairly straightforward matter of preparing people for a changing market. From this perspective, theorists’ acrobatics over the meanings or non-meanings of the term “translation” have been to remarkably little avail; they would seem not to have solved many problems. In such circumstances, as Althusser was wont to say (in 1965, if we must), it pays to look at the way theoretical problems are solved in practice. More exactly, it pays to look at the theory (little-t) that is a part of quotidian praxis, rather than the Theory (big-T) that is our own reflexive praxis (sorry, this epistemology is so old that not even Venuti cares to cite it anymore). And that is precisely what I now propose to do with the discourse of localization. I will ask, seriously, if it has solved some of the problems that our more up-front translation theorists have reached such little consensus on. 

What is Localization? 

A basic research method is to do an Altavista internet search for the term ‘localization’ (as I am doing right now). You’ll get about... let’s see, 160,490 webpages, since this is a fairly popular term. The most useful of those pages, and among the first in the list, are written by language-service companies and consultants. I’ve picked just one sample from the pack, largely because of its overt pedagogical virtues: it is called Localization 101. The document has been produced by a California entity called International Consulting, which would appear to be the brand-name of someone called Willem Stoeller. Like many of the documents listed, it is designed to explain how localization can help software providers market their products internationally; it is addressed to prospective clients. 

First remark: Some theorists, including Gouadec and various proponents of Skopostheorie, have long been talking of the need to teach clients about translation. Here we have a document that is actually doing it, albeit under a different name. There might be something strategic to learn. 

Second remark: As the name “Localization 101” suggests, the document is structured like notes from a first-year university course, even though it is entirely within the commercial domain. I suppose it’s nice to know universities are still prestigious enough to imitate, but perhaps there is something else going on here. Perhaps, just as our theorists could learn something from the discourse of localization, perhaps the discourse itself requires something from the more traditional fields of education. 

But let’s get to the meat of the matter. 

The secrets of localization are recounted in two easy steps, worth citing: 

Locale: Those features of the customer’s environment that are dependent upon language, country/region and cultural conventions. 

Internationalization is a way of designing and producing products that can be easily adapted to different locales. This requires extracting all language, country/regional and culturally dependent elements from a product. In other words, the process of developing an application whose feature design and code design do not make assumptions based on a single locale, and whose source code simplifies the creation of different local editions of a program, is called internationalization. 

Localization is then to be understood as more or less the opposite of internationalization. But let’s consider just these two terms for a moment. 

 “Locale”, I propose, has serious virtues as a short word for all the “language and/or culture” collocations that occasionally litter our more pretentious or exacting theories. Further, the very newness of “locale” usefully shrugs off attempts to associate our target loci with whole national societies or cultures; locales may even be quite small professional coteries. 

“Internationalization”, on the other hand, would seem to offer rather fewer ideological virtues in that, like the dream of pure meaning without language, it requires a utopia without locale. As far as I am aware, there is no such place (and no such meaning) in the life that we know. Yet there is probably little philosophy at stake here. What localizers have in mind has more to do with the various international codes for language scripts, where a good deal of the world’s different letters and diacritics are indeed encoded. There is also no doubt the naturalizing assumption that the world of programme developers is so refined as to be not worth calling a locale (the zero-locale natural language is elsewhere glossed as American English). But let us leave such naïvetés lie. Our interests are more with the term thus ushered in: 

Localization is the process of creating or adapting a product to a specific locale. With a properly localized product a user can interact with this product using their own language and cultural conventions. It also means that all user-visible strings and all user documentation (printed and electronic) use the language and cultural conventions of the user. Finally, the properly localized product meets all regulatory and other requirements if the user’s country/region. 

So that’s it; now we know (and terribly written it is too). The point of most interest here is, of course, the notion of adapting to “the language and cultural conventions of the user”. What is translation if not this? The document seems to pre-empt the question, however, by immediately offering a list of things to be localized: 

Formatting requirements:
Different regions in the world use very different notational conventions for writing time, date, numbers, currency, etc.
1. Time is represented by both a 12-hour clock and a 24-hour clock. The separators can be period or colon.
2. Date has many representations: sequence of month, day and year; different separators; different calendars (lunar, Gregorian); different abbreviated names for the months, etc.
3. Number representations differ in separators.
4. Currency units and presentation differ greatly from country to country. 

Writing system (script) and language: 
There are many linguistic differences, some of the major ones are mentioned below: 
1. Word order varies between languages; 
2. Word delimiters are non-existent in certain oriental languages (Thai, Japanese); 
3. Capitalization: oriental languages often do not have capitalization, some languages allow accented capitals: 
4. Hyphenation: 
6 [sic.] Spelling and grammar: 
7. Punctuation conventions; 
8. Character sets; 
9. Cultural context: 

 Color and graphics
 Jokes, sports and humor
 Standards and laws: 

  Measurement units
  Paper sizes
  Titles and addresses
  Keyboard layouts

I have copied out these banalities precisely because they are such crashing banalities. We might, for example, fit the whole of Chomsky into the trite observation that “word order varies between languages”, and the rest is surely just as insultingly obvious. What (good) translator would not pay due attention to all these things? Is this collection of commonplaces the only material justification for the discourse of localization? 

But we are not the potential clients for whom the text was written. This list should be seen as a reasonable piece of marketing; a sequence of easily demonstrated items that, even if we always remember all of them (though I must admit my students don’t), the client may never have thought about. Horror stories about date orders are easier to get across than the intricacies of comparative syntax; the potential results of non-localization can be made to sound more immediately disastrous. 

A second virtue of the list is that all these items are explicitly mentioned as things that a client should pay for. The “all inclusive” translation service is still often paid by the number of words; in localization, on the other hand, the client knows from the outset that there are more than words involved. While we’re on the point, it is perhaps worth noting that while the term “translation” is carefully excluded from the above definitions and lists, it does appear elsewhere in the text, when the first of six “major localization activities” is described as “Translation of all natural language strings that can be displayed or printed” (italics mine). The other five activities are then what we would want the client to pay extra for: adding spelling, hyphenation and grammar checks; selecting notational and other conventions (I have no idea what this means); adjusting menus, dialogue boxes etc. for changes in the length of natural-language strings (some of my Spanish-language applications have not been localized in this respect); managing changes in the original application in order to reflect changes in localized versions; and testing the localized software on the target platform. These undertakings are far from banal; they explicitly break with the “neither add not take away” strictures of straight translation; they should certainly not be considered gratis. 

Localization may thus have one major justification: it can get clients to pay higher fees than what they are prepared to cough up for translation. This is a serious virtue. Yet the extras are not necessarily for translators. There are several accounts of how the various cakes can be cut, but a general rule of thumb might allow up to 30% of the localization bill for language transformation (“translation” in the narrow sense), 30% for various engineering and publication activities, and the rest for “management” of one kind or another (10-15% for project management, plus communication, travel, training  and on-site work). Given the sums involved, there are very good financial reasons why the localization discourse should be proving enormously popular with virtually everyone except traditional translators. 

Where should we put localization? 

I take it for granted that some kind of introduction to software localization should be part of any full-degree translator-training programme, and should probably figure in many specialized short-term postgraduate programmes. There are a few material problems, of course (on the politics of which, see Wright 1999, among others). First, you need computers for students to work on (but this is necessary for virtually all translator training anyway). Second, you need staff who know something about localization and are prepared to work for a humble teacher’s pay (but this is also a problem for the training of conference interpreters, for example). A few basic localization principles might ideally fit into courses where information technology is already important, perhaps in terminology management, electronic tools for translators, or alongside something on HTML translating. However, although the word “localization” does appear here and there in the programmes of the 280 or so translator-training institutions of which I am aware (Caminade and Pym 1999), the only actual training courses I have found are in Ireland, in departments of computer science. This could mean that our translation schools simply do not have enough of the computers and experts needed to teach localization. Alternatively, it might mean that the best solution is to send our translation students to the computer-science departments for their enlightenment. 

Nonetheless I am prepared to argue that the discourse of localization, perhaps even more than its actual techniques, be brought across into our more general training programmes. There are several reasons for this. 

First, as I have tried to show, parts of the discourse address and may help to solve a few problems involving the interface between language and culture (the newness of the term breaks clearly with certain ideological constraints that have accrued to the word “translation”; the discourse engages successfully in client education; and the notion of “locale” could help attenuate the petty mud-slinging between linguistics and cultural studies). 

Second, there is a growing market demand for graduates able to undertake localization activities, especially at levels involving more than language transformation (“translation” in the narrow sense). If our training programmes are ethically justified to the extent that they help students find good jobs, this may be one major area in which we have to improve. Just consider, if you will, the three diverging classes of language-service providers that I see developing around me. At the bottom of the heap might be the part-time language teachers and unspecialized freelance translators who get paid just enough to reproduce themselves, or better, are exploited until, many of them female, they seek the greater joys of marriage and children. Second, then, would come tenured teachers, non-salaried conference interpreters, in-house translators and stable-client freelancers, all of whom might drive reasonable cars and have fun paying off mortgages. The third group, where I find a few of my former colleagues and increasingly my better, more street-wise former students, comprises language professionals who have either specialized in business or legal domains, or who have managed to combine their language competence with training in information technology, marketing or commerce. They are generally earning two to four times what I earn as tenured academic staff; their work is usually their life; though they know what time they start in the morning, they never know what time they’ll get home at night; they buy luxury goods that they don’t have time to use. That third group includes many of the software localizers, the people who do rather more than just translate, and who are paid rather more than are translators. As trainers, we might feel we have some moral obligation to help our students get into group three; localization and its association hype might actually bring our graduates closer to innovative and enriching employment. 

There is one final reason why the discourse of localization might be brought across into translator training. It involves the following catch. If localization is based on the supposed need to adapt a  discourse to the standards and conventions of the receiving locale, then the same adaptation should of course apply to any displacement of the discourse of localization itself. That is, in its transfer from the commercial to the educational fields, localization must be localized. And this might be good not just for our current training practices but perhaps also for the discourse of localization itself, which might one day do rather more than imitate first-year undergraduate classes. 

What might this localization of localization involve? First, one would hope, the trivialities could be dispensed with as such, since what works with clients tends to ruffle the thinning feathers of know-all academics. Second, perhaps more ambitiously, the actual checklists and techniques could be repackaged so as not to restrict “translation” to the simple mule work of moving between languages; translators could and should be invited to take on the more ambitious roles and move into the more fertile fields of expertise. And third, now as a merely pious hope, the discourse of localization might actually gain a few humanized considerations, if not quite a humanistic conscience. I mean, if we look at the fragments cited above, or even at the ten or so pages they have been snipped from, we find no mention of people. There is no consideration of why users might need localized products, nor of what effects such things might have on the world configuration of locales, nor of any other kind of value, beyond money, that might motivate localizers or make them humanize their lifestyles. The absence of people is more generally a feature of the many current discourses on globalized communications, where the odd recycled McLuhanism rubs shoulders with numbers about the rapid growth of data (sometimes confused with knowledge) and the disastrous consequences of missing whatever boat is thought to be leaving. Scarcely a word about the regional economies now beyond democratic control, about hugely asymmetric relations of production, about our widely diverging classes of intellectual labour, about, in a word, ethics. 

I have argued that the discourse of localization might help us solve a few problems in translation theory and translator training. But my more profound hope, beyond the games and polemics, is that an academic localization of localization discourse might eventually transfer some of our secular humanism to the power-holding professionals of tomorrow. 


Althusser, Louis. 1965. Pour Marx. Paris: François Maspero. 

Austermühl, Frank, Evelone Einhauser, Joachim Kornelius. 1998. “Die elektronischen Hilfsmittel des Übersetzers”. AREAS Annual Report on English and American Studies 15. Trier: WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier. 335-381. 

Austermühl, Frank. 1999. "Between Babel and Bytes. The Discipline of Translation in the Information Age". AREAS Annual Report on English and American Studies 16. Trier: WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier. 439-450. 

Caminade, Monique, and Anthony Pym. 1999. List of Translator-Training Institutions. 

Gutt, Ernst-August. 1991. Translation and Relevance. Cognition and Context. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. 

Hermans, Theo. 1995. “Toury’s Empiricism Version One”. The Translator 1/2. 215-223. 

Holz-Mänttäri, Justa.1984. Translatorisches Handeln. Theorie und Methode. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica. 

Pym, Anthony. 1998. Method in Translation History. Manchester: St Jerome. 

Stoeller, Willem. Visited May 1999. “Localization 101”. 

Toury, Gideon. 1980. “Equivalence and Non-Equivalence as a Function of Norms”. In Search of a Theory of Translation. Tel Aviv: Porter Institute. 63-70. 

Toury, Gideon. 1985. “A Rationale for Descriptive Translation Studies”. Theo Hermans, ed. The Manipulation of Literature: Studies in Literary Translation. London and Sydney: Croom Helm, 16-41. 

Toury, Gideon. 1995. Descriptive Translation Studies and beyond, Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins. 

Vermeer, Hans J. 1998. “Didactics of Translation”. Mona Baker, ed. Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies. London and New York: Routledge. 60-63. 

Wright, Sue-Ellen. 1999. “Strange Bedfellows No Longer. Reconciling University Language Studies with the Interests of Industry”. Language International 11/2. 14. 

Last update 11 March 1999  

© Anthony Pym 2014
URV. Av. Catalunya, 35
45002 Tarragona, Spain
Fax: + 34 977 299 488