Fine-tuning cellular physiology in response to intracellular and environmental cues requires precise temporal and spatial control of gene expression. High-resolution imaging technologies to detect mRNAs and their translation state have revealed that all living organisms localize mRNAs in subcellular compartments and create translation hotspots, enabling cells to tune gene expression locally. Therefore, mRNA localization is a conserved and integral part of gene expression regulation from prokaryotic to eukaryotic cells. In this Review, we discuss the mechanisms of mRNA transport and local mRNA translation across the kingdoms of life and at organellar, subcellular and multicellular resolution. We also discuss the properties of messenger ribonucleoprotein and higher order RNA granules and how they may influence mRNA transport and local protein synthesis. Finally, we summarize the technological developments that allow us to study mRNA localization and local translation through the simultaneous detection of mRNAs and proteins in single cells, mRNA and nascent protein single-molecule imaging, and bulk RNA and protein detection methods.