Translating Software: Eight Tips for Making It Easier

Software is, first and foremost, instructions to a computer. But it doesn’t just tell the computer what to compute; it also tells it what to display to the end user, everything from date and number formats to the images shown to draw in that user.

This is because a lot of what goes into software is aimed at people, not computers. And people, of course, don’t always speak English. Neither do they subscribe to one universal standard, be it in details like address formats or the payment gateways they’re used to.

According to Quartz, barely more than a quarter (27.3 percent) of web users were native speakers of English by 2010. Since 1996, Arabic speakers have increased by 25 times, and Chinese by a factor of 12. But that was then: today, Chinese speakers far outnumber their English counterparts on the internet.

There is no “global market” of people, either—only a world of many local markets. Hence, for your customers, software localization matters. Mistakes in localization and translation can leave your customers puzzled at best, and put off at worst. Here are six useful tips to make sure you can reach customers wherever they are:

1. Internationalize, Then Localize

The first, crucial step in localization is separating the parts of the software that will need to be localized – the parts aimed at people – from the parts that will be the same everywhere (such as internal computations). This process is called internationalization. By internationalizing code first, you make it easy to find the parts that need to be adjusted for each new local market later on.

2. Localize the Screen Layout

English and European languages are read left to right. Arabic and Hebrew are some of the right-to-left languages. East Asian languages are typically (but not exclusively) read top to bottom. These variants will influence how your customers “see” your screen layout: where they expect to see main points, versus supporting details, and so forth. This includes where images are best positioned.

3. Dates, Weights, Measures, and Currency

Quick, what month is 4/10/15 in? If you thought April, you’re following US date conventions. But in many European countries, that second number is October (People would also write “4 October,” not “October 4”). Currency is just as critical, not just for online payment, but for comparison shopping by potential customers. To avoid making your buyers memorize exchange rates, follow the conventions of their local market.

4. Professional Translation Is Your Best Bet

Computer languages are supposed to be precise, but human languages are filled with subtle nuances in meaning. Don’t expect rely on Google Translate for enterprise-critical content. Small errors can be glaringly obvious—and sometimes embarrassing—to your native speakers. Call on professionals to do this job correctly, and use translation software to organize and manage the process.

5. Know Your Customers’ Customs

Translation and localization aren’t just about words; they are also about cultural attitudes and values. Small missteps in these things can have big consequences, even sinking entire marketing projects before they get out of the port. When reaching out to a new local market or formulating a market penetration strategy, cultural sensitivity is a must.

6. Don’t Forget Image Translation

You may think that a particular picture conveys an universal emotion, but that really depends on your own culture. An image of happy European customers may not connect with potential Asian viewers. But you could do worse with images that may be sending a offensive message, unbeknownst to you. Images, like text, should be chosen for cultural appropriateness.

Doing software localization right can be a challenge. And let’s be honest: it involves some hard work. Following these six tips will make that work easier and more reliable. The reward for localizing and translating software? You’ll connect with people who would love to learn about your product or service. You just need to speak their language.

Image source: BigStock

Preparing your web code for translation and localization doesn


About Rick Robinson

Rick is a "near-native" Californian with a background in computer linguistics. He writes about technology and the technology industry, as well as a personal blog about space travel and related subjects. His first novel, CATHERINE OF LYONESSE, was recently published by Random House UK.