For an industry that sells language, the world of professional translation isn’t always clear in how it uses it. Like any profession, translators have their jargon. Terms like translation, localization and transcreation float around, but what does each mean and how are they different? Understanding the difference will help you know which service should you be asking for when, for example, you just need to have your company website in Spanish.

Translation vs. Interpreting

Kevin McQuire with the Association of Language Companies says translation is exactly what you think: “Converting information and meaning from one language to another.” It’s always written — not just according to McQuire, but per the Supreme Court. 

In a 2012 ruling, Taniguchi vs. Kan-Pacific Saipan, Ltd., SCOTUS declared translation and interpreting — the term for oral language conversion — separate. Interpreting is verbal — like for meetings or phone calls, translation is written, and never the twain shall meet.

Related Article: A 5-Point Checklist for Finding a Translation Management System 

Translation vs. Localization vs. Transcreation

Your average marketer tends to live in a wholly written land. However, content type still impacts what you should buy, as the differences between translation, localization and transcreation are more gradient than fine line.

Think of the three as different levels of the same service: The task is to convert content for another culture or country. The question is how deeply nuanced does this conversion need to get? While translation [level one] changes words into another language, localization [level two] adapts collateral to a specific locale — hence the name.

Learning Opportunities

In something like a technical manual, Judy Jenner with the American Translators Association says translation would change the language while localization would adapt the machine’s measurements from the US system to metric. For marketing material, localization looks at colors, pricing, images, analogies and everything else that has meaning. Are women’s heads covered in the pictures on your Arabic site? Is the company having a Super Bowl or a World Cup-sized sale?

Then there’s Transcreation [level three]. Arle Lommel, Senior Analyst for Common Sense Advisory, describes it as “the creation of content in the target language that is inspired by the source, but highly adapted for the language and culture where it will be used.” In other words, while translation and localization adapt existing content, transcreation pretty much starts over.

Let’s say your Super Bowl-sized sale is supposed to connect with your customer’s fun side. Translation would convert “Super Bowl” into Spanish, localization would change it to “World Cup,” and transcreation would build a brand new, country-specific campaign around the idea of fun. This makes it perfect for slogans and product names, as they’re more subliminal. But for a blog post, transcreation is overkill, that content isn’t mission critical. “In general, creative and advertising texts are even more anchored in culture and meaning than other types of texts and I think what’s key is producing a text that works in the target culture and is well written and doesn’t sound translated — whatever you want to call that process,” Jenner says.

Related Article: Tips for Building a Content Translation Strategy

What It is Matters More Than What It's Called

Basically, getting the service you need is far more important than being able to identify it by what it's actually called. She notes a current trend of linguists billing by the hour (instead of the word) to ensure proper work gets done, explaining how some even include “extensive consultation with the client to make sure the translation is just right."