Localising translations can be problematic ‒ particularly when it comes to academic grades

Localising translations can be problematic ‒ particularly when it comes to academic grades

Localisation is an important part of translating texts, but it’s not always easy to understand exactly what it involves. In brief, you could say that localisation involves adapting something linguistically and culturally in line with local conditions. In this post, I would like to focus on the purely linguistic perspective.

Published 8/8/2016

Localisation is part of the translation process

Localising text is a natural aspect of all translators’ everyday lives. The translation process itself always includes some form of localisation – things are adapted linguistically according to certain conditions. When translating the English word school into the Swedish equivalent skola, this is purely a translation, but translation ‒ even of individual words ‒ can also involve localisation. For example, this is the case when translating the Swedish word bensin into English. When choosing whether to translate this as petrol or gasoline, I am already localising my translation depending on the target group, adapting the text to suit local conditions. The degree – and the difficulty – of localisation depends on the source and target languages, the type of text in question, where the translation will be used and its purpose.

How hard is localisation?

Some phenomena and words cannot be translated directly, as there is no direct equivalent in the target language. These concepts and terms require more localisation than others. For example, a text about a piano might not need much localisation, but a text about ice fishing would probably require a fair amount of localisation for a Brazilian audience.

Different types of localisation solutions

When translating about a phenomenon that doesn’t exist in the target language, the translator can choose to localise in various ways or not at all. If, for example, I want to translate an article about an employee in a staff magazine into American English and the Swedish source text mentions that Laila is eating a ‘semla’ during the interview, how do I translate this? There are a few possible alternatives:

  • I could write semla in my translation and assume that everyone reading can find out for themselves what this is.
  • I could also write semla and add a brief description of what this is (along the lines of “a type of Swedish bun filled with almond paste and topped with whipped cream, usually eaten during Lent”).
  • Or I could simply take an approximate equivalent in the source language and write that Laila is eating a sweet roll. My readers probably won’t react to this, but nor will they have the cultural knowledge of a semla.

Of course, the best thing is to make the customer aware of the problem, ask whether they have an opinion and suggest a solution. Whatever I decide to do, it’s worth sending the customer a comment about my chosen solution.

The complexity of grades

Some phenomena can exist in various different languages and still be hard to translate, requiring a great degree of localisation. Academic grades are certainly one such example. I would imagine that all countries and languages have words to describe educational and grading systems, but these systems differ significantly from country to country. And not just from country to country ‒ there can also be differences within a single country depending on the level of education (schools may have one system, while universities have another) or the year (grading systems are replaced from time to time in many countries), and there can even be differences within an educational institution or a course. Take the Swedish higher education grading system for example. The grading scales can vary within faculties, with three, four or seven available grades, or simply a pass/fail system. How does one ‘translate’ between these systems? For example, is a Pass with Distinction on most university degree courses the equivalent of AB or Ba on a law programme?

Don’t localise grades

Grades are a special case, in that they should not generally be localised. It’s not the translator’s place to try to decide whether a grade in a foreign grading system is the equivalent of a grade in his or her own country’s grading system. In fact, it’s nobody’s place. Certificates show the grade the student was awarded at the time of grading ‒ in the country, at the educational institution and in the calendar year, year of study and grading system in which the grade was awarded. Grades cannot be converted directly. How can a grade on a ten-point scale be converted into a grade on a three-point scale? Instead, it’s up to the end-user to interpret the grade for the appropriate purpose. Here, in contrast to many other types of translation, the end-reader has a greater responsibility to make a decision or an assessment on the basis of the text. It may be hard for an uninitiated reader to interpret, but it’s correct – and that’s the point. The translator always translates the subjects studied and other information on the certificate, but the actual grade should not be localised.


However, a note to the customer or a translator’s note in the translation is always helpful. For example:

Subject                Grade

Mathematics B     7 [On a scale from 4 to 10, where 10 is excellent and 4 is a fail – translator’s note.]


This helps the reader to get an idea of roughly how good the grade is.

Can grades never be localised?

In certain texts, grades can be localised a little loosely. I mainly translate from Finnish, and a grading scale from 4 to 10 is normally used in Finland, where 10 is excellent and 4 is a fail. Let’s go back to the example of the article in the staff magazine. If it says in the Finnish source text that Laila got a 10 in physics, I could localise this by writing that Laila got an A or the top mark in physics. In this context, her competence isn’t the most important thing. The article simply mentions that she did well in her physics studies, and the reader doesn’t need to know exactly how clever she is in comparison with the equivalent English grade. It’s still clear that she did well.

No global grading scale yet – but the beginnings in Europe

So there is currently no consensus between different countries, educational institutions and grading systems in terms of being able to localise grades accurately. Of course, the dream for the future would be some kind of standard scale – or at least a reference template to see easily which grade corresponds to which – for all the world’s grading systems, both old and new. Universities in Europe have made some progress with the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS). A uniform global system of this type would make translated certificates much easier to interpret ‒ and to localise, if the customer so desires.

Order translation