What’s the difference between traditional translation, localization, transcreation and transliteration?

Discover the different types of translation—and learn which ones your multilingual content needs most.

Degrees of Translation

Most people consider the word “translation” to mean something fairly straightforward. It’s the process of converting content from one language into another, word-for-word, right?

Well, not exactly. That definition only tells part of the story. Translation, like language itself, is more art than science. Depending on your industry, target audience, business goals and budget, word-for-word translation might not be the only approach—or even the best approach—to use, as you serve global customers online.

You’ll want to consider these four key approaches to translation as you move forward with your website translation project:

  • Translation
  • Localization
  • Transliteration
  • Transcreation

Each approach has its own unique benefits and drawbacks. These various “flavors” of translation can help you serve foreign markets, support existing global customers, or simply stay competitive in an increasingly global online marketplace. For companies going global in certain industries, such as pharmaceutical or manufacturing, translation may be required by law.

Read on to gain insights into each, and which approach—or combination of approaches—is best for your growing brand.


Content translation for websites is exactly what you think it is: Taking your website content in its original language—let’s say English—and adapting it for your target audience by rewriting it in the language they prefer—Spanish, Chinese, French, etc. Translating your website makes it accessible and useable to local customers.

Your website is brimming with translatable content, in obvious—and not-so-obvious—places. The most apparent content is the on-site static text used to describe or promote services and products, or to provide information to customers while in the conversion funnel (such as shipping information).

Multimedia content such as images (featuring text), videos and PDFs are other fairly obvious media to translate, too.

But your site is packed with hundreds—if not thousands—of strings of additional metadata text that only search engines see. There’s also gobs of translatable phrases and assets that are stored in a content database, which are dynamically presented to customers in unique ways. No single customer ever sees all of this dynamically-served content … but all of it must be translated, to ensure all customers experience an immersive in-language experience.

Finally, you probably have a wealth of omnichannel content that can help your sales and marketing efforts in new markets, such as:

  • Marketing campaign emails
  • Order confirmation emails
  • Brochures
  • Catalogs
  • Smartphone apps
  • And more

This material can also be translated to deliver a terrific customer experience for global audiences.

There are several ways to approach translating the content, ranging from low-cost (and generally low-accuracy) software “machine” translation to pricier (but much better quality) human translation. Learn more about the differences between machine and human translation.

Companies that are worried about translation costs might be tempted to mitigate their investment by using in-house solutions, even going so far as to use non-translators. These approaches are far riskier in the long-run because of their lack of experience or technical expertise in the nuances of website translation.


Localization goes beyond the linguistic word-for-word conversion of conventional translation and instead uses words and phrases that resonate within specific markets. By using these regionally-preferred translations, you can generate more interest and engagement among customers. You’re not only literally speaking their language—you’re talking like a local.

Using region-specific terms can boost SEO by matching terms customers use in local search engines, too. An 80/20 split is the best balance of translation and localization.

Localization goes beyond word choice. It can also apply to how your website presents information, how it’s designed, or even how it functions. Elements such as currency, payment options and dimensions for products can—and should—be localized to local standards whenever possible. If local company contact information is available, it should be clearly presented to users as well.

Customizing on-site imagery or running promotional campaigns that reflect regional culture, holidays or sensibilities is another way to localize content. This builds brand credibility and trust.

Even the functional ability to accommodate non-Latin scripts—such as Chinese, Arabic or Russian—in name and address forms will positively impact the user experience, and conversions.


Translation is the conversion of content from one language to another. Transliteration is the conversion of written content from one writing system to another.

Instead of translating the meaning of a word, transliteration relies on phonetic elements from the original word to recreate the sound in another language without rendering meaning. With some creativity, however, transliterations can use sound choices or wordplay to evoke certain meanings and qualities to local customers.

Transliteration often occurs when companies expand into markets where the preferred language doesn’t use non-Latin alphabets, such as China, Japan, South Korea, Russia or MENA markets. For instance, when auto maker BMW expanded into China, it transliterated its brand name to 宝马 (bǎomǎ). In Chinese, this means “treasure horse,” which evokes the brand’s spirit of luxury and reliability.

Localizing your brand name, as well as product names and slogans associated with your brand image, should be a key part of your global branding strategy. Depending on the market, it also might be required by law.


Transcreation is “creative translation,” in which a message is adapted from one language to another not necessarily word-for-word, but by preserving intent, context and tone. This is translation at its most artful.

Transcreation is most commonly used for marketing materials. Brand slogans, advertising copy and other wordsmithed, nuanced content requires more than conventional translation to deliver the same impact in other languages. Skilled linguists must recreate the messaging’s wordplay, wit and intent.

Transcreation is sometimes also necessary for markets that use the same language. Due to cultural references or local sensitivities, the content’s message must be recreated in ways that still resonate with local customers. For instance, in the 1990’s, British telecommunications company Orange UK ran into trouble with their slogan, “The future’s bright… The future’s Orange,” when it expanded into Northern Ireland. There, orange is a symbol of Protestantism, a hot-button topic for an Irish Catholic population still dealing with sectarian violence at the time.

Great transcreations require a combination of linguistic expertise and marketing creativity, which means it can be pricey. Consider reserving it for marketing materials that need to be brand-perfect or culturally sensitive. If appropriate, use it as part of your global digital marketing strategy.

Choosing the Right Flavors of Translation

If you’re looking to serve global customers, but you’re not sure what types of translation you need, use this chart to determine which combination best serves your business needs.

The Solution

Now that you have a better idea of what kinds of translation will meet your business needs, the next step is to find a digital-first translation agency that gets it done right.

You need the expertise and technology to master the localization of your website and global marketing content. MotionPoint’s translators are professional linguists, subject-matter experts, and brand mavens that can help you achieve the best balance of translation approaches.

Other vendors say you need translation, localization, transliteration or transcreation, but are vague about how they define those terms, and how they deliver the right translation approach to suit your needs. MotionPoint’s translation teams are knowledgeable and straightforward, and will help you strike the right balance that matches your goals and budget. No matter what your needs, MotionPoint has the right website localization services for you.

Take a Deeper Dive

Want to learn more about the translation and localization industry? Check out our resource section and become an expert on all things related to a great multilingual experience.

Learn More In Our Resources Section