In his highly informative webinar, Why We Shouldn’t Translate Marketing… And Why We Do It Anyway, Wayne Bourland, Director of Localization at Dell, tackles a common problem facing most businesses operating across international lines: how to produce efficient and scalable marketing content that also meets the unique cultural expectations of a foreign market. The issue is trickier than it seems and often misunderstood.

The crux of the problem, Bourland argues, is that many businesses fail to understand the difference between the two processes used to “translate” content—translation and localization. Both entail different means and resources; and both yield different results. In this post, we’ll cover Bourland’s main points: his thoughts on the translation vs. localization problem, and his proposed framework for balancing efficiency and quality in delivering globally-oriented marketing content.

Translation versus localization

For starters, translation is about crossing the language barrier, whereas localization is about crossing the cultural barrier.

Translation is about taking existing content and converting it to its closest equivalence in another language, while localization is about adapting a content’s “message” to make it more meaningful and relevant to a foreign market (even if it means significantly altering, or transcreating, the original content). Translation processes are more manageable and cost-effective, whereas localization processes are less controllable and costly.

Marketing content and the language/culture barrier problem

Let’s take a step back and consider the role that marketing content plays in a global product campaign. Businesses expand into foreign markets for one primary reason: to gain revenue by capturing market share. Sales revenue is contingent upon market demand; demand is preceded by product awareness; and product awareness is driven primarily by marketing operations. Following this sequence, it is clear that marketing content plays a critical role in the opening moves of a campaign.

But for marketing content to be effective, not only must the workflow be operationally sound (efficient, scalable, and cost-effective), the content itself must be capable of penetrating the target market; it has to resonate with prospective customers. This latter task often serves as the space for a major “disconnect.”

As Brand Quarterly’s Paula Shannon puts it, brands must “speak to customers not just in their language but in a voice they understand.” For a brand to “speak their language,” a good translation might suffice, but the content won’t necessarily “speak in a voice they understand.” To accomplish the latter goal, content needs to be localized—adapted to meet the cultural expectations of a local market–and not merely translated.  In other words, there’s a big difference between language and localization.

Language and “localized” language

Bourland opens the webinar with a humorous introduction: “English is my 3rd language…I spoke only Texan for the first 20 years of my life…I spoke only [U.S. Army] jargon for the next 10 years.” Joke aside, Bourland is providing an example of different localizations within the same language. Obviously, Texan and U.S. Army jargon share a common source language: English. But speaking to one group in the localized language of the other will not work in certain situations. The tone of speech, idioms, specific terminologies, and sentiments shared by one group will not always “translate” well into the other despite their common source language.

Knowing that differences exist between a language and localized uses of that language is critical to understanding the translation/localization issue. Content may be translated from one language to another, assuming that the words and structures have a proximate equivalence in the target language. But localization is a particular way of using language that reflects the experiences, activities, values, and sentiments shared within a cultural group. It’s an experience of language that is often felt rather than structurally perceived.

The translation/localization trade-off

From a business perspective, translation and localization imply different sets of pros and cons.

The translation process receives most of its source input from a marketing campaign that is developed in-house.  Because the original source is created and managed internally, the translation process is much more controllable with regard to scale, efficiency, and costs. However, this has a number of limitations. First, it would be unreasonable to expect a marketing team to have expert-level knowledge of all functional and cultural expectations in every target market. Second, the very fact that a marketing campaign is developed in-house—in other words, from a domestically “local” perspective–already assumes a particularly localized (read: exclusive) viewpoint. Third, the nuances contained within domestically-created messages will often get lost in translation.

Localization processes, on the other hand, are typically outsourced to local ad agencies in the target markets.  Local ad agencies are capable of producing more culturally relevant content. But this process too has limitations. First, local ad agencies have limited knowledge of a company’s culture (they’re hired guns, not employees). Second, ad agencies may create content with little detailed knowledge of a company’s marketing briefs. Last, locally-created content can sometimes be indecipherable to the home company, as the total content process—from inception to final product—might be carried out exclusively in a foreign language.

Businesses are then faced with a set of trade-offs:

  • Translation vs. localization
  • Efficiency vs. quality
  • Business expectations vs. market expectations

Striking a balance between these trade-offs is key to successfully creating a global message that also meets business objectives.

Managing efficiency in the translation process

As Bourland states in an article in Brand Quarterly, “we don’t translate to get good local copy.” Instead, he continues, “we translate for revenue, period.” Revenue dictates the need for a scalable process; one that is efficient, manageable, and cost-effective. Translation costs are a fraction of localized copy; and translation teams are best equipped to produce and deliver at scale.

In the graph below, Bourland explains how he was able to reduce the cost-per-word (CPW) and turnaround time by 50% in the translation process. By increasing machine translations over human translations, and replacing translation reviews with selective sampling (1,000-3,000 words per sample), Bourland was able to reduce CPW from $0.23 to $0.12. The reduction in translation CPW means an increase in profit margin.

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Having made the translation process more efficient, Bourland was able to effectively integrate the localization process. This presents another challenge. How do you decide which content (and how much content) to translate and localize? Assuming you are dealing with multiple foreign markets, how can you strategically allocate translation/localization efforts across multiple languages keeping in mind budgetary and other project-related constraints?

Integrating translation with localization

To tackle this challenge, Bourland suggests a tiered approach.

Start with integration at the organizational level

Executives and managers need to be fully aware of the capabilities and limitations of each operational unit that may be involved—marketing, translation, and ad agency—in relation to the translation and localization process.  This awareness is a fundamental step toward accomplishing the following:

  • Preventing misallocation of tasks due to ill-informed expectations (such as expecting localized content from the translation team)
  • Avoiding content silos in which multiple teams work on the same content project but in an isolated manner
  • Establishing better communication and coordination between teams; and
  • Developing benchmarks to manage the overall workflow with regard to time, quality, and cost

Once teams have been integrated, Bourland suggests working backwards from market to process.

Assess the value of markets

Which markets among those currently served are showing the strongest sales? This information helps establish a sense of priority; it can also serve as a benchmark from which to assess the potential effect of increased localization on sales revenues.

Which markets have the largest potential for revenue? Whether you are entering a new market or trying to compete for a larger share in an existing market, it is important to know which markets will require greater focus, effort, and investment based on potential returns.

Determine which markets and content are “locality-critical”

Not all foreign markets require localization. Bourland provides an example of the Nordic IT industry where the majority of the population speak English in addition to their domestic language. Localization may not be as critical in the Nordic regions as in other countries such as China where currently only a small fraction of the population speak English.

Similarly, not all portions of marketing copy need to be localized. Content that can be read literally (descriptive, technical, instructional, etc.) depend more on readability than rhetoric. By determining which markets and content are locality-critical, capital reserved for localization can be directed toward areas that need it the most.

Determine resource allocation

The ultimate goal is to keep the bulk of the effort on the translation side so that more capital is available for select localization projects. At Dell, Bourland was able to implement a 4:1 ratio in which roughly 80% of the effort was directed toward translation and 20% on localization. The reduction of expenses in the 80% allowed for greater capital investment in the 20%.

This ratio will not work for every company, as each company will have a different set of markets with different values and locality-critical regions. But a tiered approach does serve as an effective framework for balancing translation and localization processes in light of budgetary and resource constraints.


Content cannot cross the language barrier without some degree of transformation in message and meaning. The extent of the transformation depends on the connotative aspects of the message. Marketing content is packed with connotative nuances reflecting the cultural perceptions of those who created it.  It is this aspect that often gets “lost in translation,” as the feelings evoked by certain words and phrases cannot be “translated” into a culture that doesn’t share the same “code” for unpacking it.

Yet the conversion of marketing content from one language to another is fundamental to global product sales. This calls for a balanced approach that combines translation with localization.  And such an effort requires a clear understanding of the differences between both processes and close coordination of the teams involved. “If marketing and localization leaders invest time in pulling these often conflicting parties together,” Bourland states, “the end result is a highly scalable, polished global message that meets business objectives.” Only through a tightly integrated approach can a company deliver marketing content that achieves, “the best of both worlds” with regard to “scale and quality of message.”