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Tips For Developing Multilingual Software Applications

megaphoneGuest article by Christian Arno

According to a Times Higher Education review, the UK is in danger of becoming one of the most monolingual places in the world. Being a native English speaker can certainly give a false perspective when it comes to the true prevalence of your mother tongue elsewhere. It's generally possible to find someone who understands enough English to point you to the nearest bar or loo, which is why many Brits abroad are happy to simply repeat themselves in a slower and louder tone of voice, confident they'll eventually get through.

English is also to some extent the language of both the Internet and the business world at large. Most software is in English but the application software market is a truly global one and it should be noted that large swathes of the world's population speak no English at all.

Understandably, even those who speak it as a second language prefer to use applications in their native tongue wherever possible. The biggest and most forward-thinking IT and software development companies have realised this and so they routinely localise their products, especially for Germany, France, Spain and the Asian countries.

What is localisation?

Localisation is simply the adaptation or conversion of a piece of software for use in another locale. The process will usually involve linguistic translation but may also require attention to certain cultural differences and possibly local legal issues such as copyright.

Localisation will lead to two or more distinct versions of what essentially remains the same application, with each version geared towards a certain locality. This differs from internationalised systems, which allow a single executable application to be used in more than one language and location.

Whichever system you go for, flexibility should always be built in from the design stage onwards.

Build flexibility into the design

Even if you only plan to localise for a minimal amount of additional territories and languages, in-built flexibility will make the process a lot smoother and will allow for additional localisation as and when the occasion requires. Using separate .INI files for all text strings will help make subsequent translation easier while development tools that support Unicode characters will facilitate the process of adaptation to non-Latin scripts such as Arabic, Hebrew and Japanese.

Bear in mind that word length will vary across different languages. English is relatively compact, whereas a language like German typically takes considerably more space to impart the same information. Extra space should always be built into preset areas such as text boxes and navigation menus to accommodate these differences.

Prioritise translation

Linguistic translation is not the only thing that must be considered, but it is hugely important. Machine translation might seem like a cheap and viable option for content but, unless you want to run the risk of looking distinctly amateurish, you should always employ the services of native speaking translators with software localisation expertise.

Machine translation is not infallible and can be prone to all sorts of contextual errors. A native translator will help minimise the risk of mistakes, retain the nuance and tone of content and will also be able to assist with cultural issues.

Identify the areas that require translation

There are several different elements that will need to be translated. The user interface (UI), input and display may all seem obvious but easily overlooked aspects such as online help files and product documentation must also be taken into account.

Take cultural issues into account

Ensure that visual icons and images are either universally accepted or tailored for the particular market version you are working on. A 'thumbs up' sign, for example, signifies 'okay' in most of the Western world but is perceived as an obscene gesture in Thailand, Bangladesh and Iran. Similarly, different cultures may have different standards of what is acceptable when it comes to what people wear in pictures.

Different countries use different formats and systems to express things such as dates, distances and weights. Address formats also vary from place to place, and again, a good native language translator will help spot any elementary mistakes.

The sheer number of issues involved in localisation and internationalisation can make the process seem daunting but the potential of opening up new markets it brings can be worth all the extra effort and expense.

This is a guest post by Christian Arno, founder of professional translation agency Lingo24. Launched in 2001, Lingo24 now has more than 150 employees spanning three continents and clients in over sixty countries. In the past twelve months, Lingo24 has translated over sixty million words for businesses in every industry sector. You can follow Christian and Lingo24 on Twitter.


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