Localization – Making Technology for Everyone

What is Localization

Many years ago, the majority of video games were produced in China and Japan and then introduced to the North American Market. The first wildly available platform, the Nintendo Entertainment System, was introduced to the North American market in 1985 and with it came a flood of Japanese produced games. I was just a kid at the time so my reading skills weren’t as strong as they are today so some things were lost on me that weren’t lost on my older siblings. I didn’t notice how poorly translated these games were from their source language (Japanese) to their target language (English). Now, at the time, top-notch localization wasn’t necessary as there was little competition in video game development. We, in North America, bought the games that were available at the time. And that was that.

As the video game and software markets expanded and products travelled across borders in all directions, localization has become far more necessary. But, as much as the market has expanded, it has also become extremely saturated with development companies struggling to fill niches or create a unique value proposition to help differentiate their company. The situation has become far more competitive since the tech start-up revolution where individuals combine tech-savvy ideas with a DIY (do-it-yourself) mentality. These businesses are light, agile, flexible, and growing at a rapid pace.

To combat the oversaturation of the software, app, and web development market, firms are turning to localization to help them conquer new, less competitive markets. The top 8 fortune 1000 software companies have seen tremendous growth since they began focusing on localization. One industry expert notes,
“Customers are more likely to purchase a localized product or software application than one that hasn’t been localized…they also experience higher satisfaction with localized products, and are more likely to make repeat purchases. For producers, support costs are lower when products are localized, and when product support and services are available in local languages. That’s the power of quality localization services.”

Localization, or L10N, is the process by which software, apps, and websites are made relevant to a specific cultural market. Localization involves four major components: Linguistics, physical, business and cultural, and technical.

Linguistics –

There is a widely held belief that localization is basically the translation of the linguistic components of software, apps, or websites. Translation is actually just one step in a multi-step process. In its simplest form, the linguistic component of localization involves the conversion of text from a source language (the language in which the original software is written) to a target language (the language of your target market). This process focuses on terminology, flow, and grammar.
In more complex localization projects, the localization professional will likely take a deeper look into the construction of the text in order to optimize it for the target market. For example, a direct translation of a phrase may still make sense to the target market but it might not use the actual, everyday language that the target market would use for that expression. This becomes especially important when working toward localized search engine optimization (SEO). In this instance, you need to use relevant – exact, phrase, and broad match word variants in order to rank well on search engines. These variants need to be the most popular terms searched in that locale for your product offering.

Localization is extremely powerful in the sense. Google Translate, a translation tool deployed on many websites as a quick and dirty localization tool, converts text dynamically by user control. Although the tool does make the site accessible to most languages, it does nothing in terms of search engine optimization. The reason being, the site isn’t indexed in the target language. It is only indexed in the source language. A website can’t rank well if the term doesn’t appear on the page.

Physical –

The physical component of localization is multifaceted. Generally, this is when your localization expert will deal with the graphical elements of your project. Different locales respond to graphics and interact with interfaces in different ways and your project needs to reflect that.

In this stage, images might be changed to suit the local audience. For example, a website might feature stock images of people from the source locale. They need to be changed to feature the target locale. Text and image colors may also be changed to suit local tastes. Different cultures associate different meanings to colors and their combinations so attention needs to be paid to this element.

Beyond swapping graphics, text arrangements on graphics need to be adjusted to fit the new text and its direction. As you may know, some cultures read from right to left or from top to bottom. This configuration would have to be considered when preparing images for your software, app, or website.

Business or Cultural –

In this step of localization, business and cultural conventions are addressed. Of course, the linguistic aspects of business and cultural conventions have been adjusted but there are issues that go beyond terminology and written conventions.
Business and cultural conventions deal with issues such as currency, date, phone numbers, and address formats as well as issues concerning formality and business decorum.

Technical –

The technical aspects of a localization project are usually the most complex, especially if the software, app, or website hasn’t been internationalized ahead of time. Internationalization is usually the precursor to localization. Normally, software is internationalized at the time of development in order to make localization easier. The software architecture is designed in a way that facilitates localization. For example, one would design software that uses resource files that are dynamically inserted at runtime. Basically, all of the translated text would be stored in the resource files and the language would be chosen by the user and dynamically inserted in place of the source text. The design of the program would be such that the translated text could be inserted without major change to the interface.

During the technical phase, especially when considering web design, navigation menus and containers would need their height and width adjusted to incorporate the changes of text length that is inherent in the translation process. Another example would be making keyboard shortcuts relevant to the local market.

To summarize, the four main considerations during localization are linguistics, physical, business and cultural, and technical. Each of these steps is extremely important to having a clear, coherent localized product. It becomes more complex but more necessary to follow this path as the number of markets you would like to engage increases.

It is important to note that each of these steps can be made far easier and less expensive if your software, app, or website is internationalized in the first places. Structurally, it will be prepared to meet the demands of localization thereby reducing the time spent on physical and technical details which are the steps that are most complex.

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