Doing Away with “Reverse Localization”

When I first came across the term reverse localization early on in my career, I assumed that it meant something like “reverse engineering,” but applied to localization instead. I had guessed – incorrectly – that this concept referred to tracing the steps in a localization process in reverse, with the aim of arriving back at the source. I was surprised to find out that this definition was wrong.

For many people who work in the translation industry, the word “localization” has historically carried with it an implicit directionality – moving something from the center to the periphery. For example, some of the earliest software companies to embrace localization engaged in this process to help their companies move successfully beyond their home markets and into “international markets” – countries outside of their own. Early on, many of these companies were located in major world economies, primarily the United States and countries in Western Europe.

So, at a time when most localization was taking place within companies headquartered in the West and selling into other countries, the term reverse localization referred to localization originating from companies based in so-called “emerging markets” that were beginning to sell their products into “developed markets,” usually in the West.

Perhaps there was a time when this kind of definition of reverse localization was warranted – but not anymore. Increasingly, the center of global economic activity is more difficult to pinpoint, making this notion seem outdated (if not ethnocentric). In fact, it probably should have faded into the annals of history back in 2005, when Thomas Friedman wrote, The World is Flat, making it clear that such divisions are irrelevant in a global market.

More recent research that we often cite at Smartling comes from the Brookings Institution, and shows that by 2030, the middle class will more than double in size, from 2 billion today to nearly 5 billion. The European and American share? It will shrink from 50 percent of the total, where it stands today, to a mere 22 percent during the same time period.

What does this mean? “Reverse localization” as defined in the past is increasingly the new normal. The “center” that once existed has become widely dispersed, and this trend only stands to continue. For that reason, maybe we should all start referring to localization – no matter where it originates – as quite simply, “localization.” To do so is more reflective of current realities – and future ones.

About Nataly Kelly

Nataly brings nearly two decades of translation industry experience to Smartling, most recently as Chief Research Officer at industry research firm Common Sense Advisory. Previously, she held positions at AT&T Language Line and NetworkOmni (acquired by Language Line), where she oversaw product development. A veteran translator and certified court interpreter for Spanish, she has formally studied seven languages, and is currently learning Irish. A former Fulbright scholar in sociolinguistics, Nataly lives in the Boston area with her husband and daughter. When she isn’t working, you’ll usually find her translating Ecuadorian poetry, writing books, and exploring the world (36 countries and counting!).