Localization: If It Makes Sense, It Makes Cents!

Contrary to what you might think, localization isn’t the welcome you get when you move into a new neighborhood. It isn’t the over-zealous neighbor wanting to show you around town, or the local gossip wanting to bend your ear over coffee.

Localization actually has to do with the printed word: namely, what happens to text when it’s translated into other languages. How does it appear in the UI? Are fonts distorted or sentences cut off? How about usability? Is the meaning – to borrow a cliché – lost in translation? These are just some of the questions a localization manager must ask when adapting text for a foreign market.

We caught up with CodeFuel’s localization specialist, Lena Aronov, to get an insider’s perspective.

Why don’t you start by briefly telling us what localization means?

To understand localization (or l10n, as it’s known in the industry) you first need to understand internationalization (or i18n). This is the process of adapting an application, webpage, or other code to different languages, while allowing for regional differences.

We start by “externalizing” the text from the code, which basically involves inserting a placeholder text, or key, into the code, rather than hardcoding the text itself. This way, if we have to make a small change to a page that exists in 20 languages, we don’t have to update the page 20 times over – we simply update the one key and we’re done! Of course, such changes are bound to affect the layout, so it’s essential that the UI design is flexible enough.

How do you internationalize language that’s specific to a particular region?

We build an infrastructure that’s capable of supporting all kinds of variables, from number formats and currencies, to zip codes and clothing sizes. Also, we prefer using copy that’s easily translatable … that means no obscure local phrases!

How do you judge whether the text will fit?

There are several ways of approaching a UI challenge. For example, if we’re dealing with a language that takes up more space than English, such as German or one of the Slavic languages, we’ll convert the text into a “pseudo language”. We usually define it to be 40% longer than standard English, to give us an indication of how the text will look in the UI, but it can be any length.

Using a pseudo language saves the developer a lot of time and effort in the long run, even before translation has begun. Otherwise, he’d have to check and update the text for each language separately.

What else goes into creating a localization-ready website or application?

Many hands are involved, each with their own set of challenges. Developers, for instance, will look for technical solutions, ask the author to shorten the source text to fit, or work with the designers to modify the layout. Copywriters will try to write neutral copy, avoiding things like slang wherever possible. For their part, designers will create a “breathable” UI that allows for linguistic nuances. It’s a truly collaborative effort.

So far you’ve talked about internationalization – how does localization fit into the picture?

The localization process starts with the creation of an app language. This is essentially an app’s most widely-used terminology compiled into a “glossary”. We do this for the sake of consistency, so that the same language is used throughout the texts.

When preparing a file for translation, we’ll check the structure of the text for common mistakes, such as incorrectly split sentences, bad syntax, or failure to use placeholders where needed. This helps us avoid problems with the translated text later on. We also prefer to have some form of context – whether that’s an explanation or screenshot (or both, if the author is feeling generous), as this gives us a general sense of how the text should read.

Sometimes, we’ll ask a foreign language copywriter to write the copy from scratch, rather than translate the English copy, as this method produces the most organic results.

Once the text has been translated, it passes a linguistic QA stage, it’s implemented it in the app UI, and finally, it undergoes a functionality and layout QA. After all this has been done, the application is ready for use by a foreign-language speaker.

Localization is an integral part of an app’s development process and, as such, should be carefully coordinated along with the other development tasks. Many businesses come unstuck because they leave localization to the last minute. In this industry, it pays to plan ahead.

Finally, can you think of any examples of translations gone horribly wrong?

Oh my goodness, there are so many!

Engrish.com has a pretty good selection of funny mistranslations. Some are just so ridiculous, you’d think they were made up. But in parts of the world where English isn’t commonplace, writers may not know if their text contains a double entendre or simply doesn’t make sense!

Thanks to the efforts of people like Lena, it’s possible to speak to users in a way that’s so natural and familiar, they don’t even realize they’re reading a translated text. To achieve this, you’ll need a fully localized installer that adapts its language settings automatically to user location. This will bring the linguistic and cultural barriers crashing down and maximize your download monetization in the process. For everything else, there’s Google Translate!