Given much of the imprecision in business meetings these days, it’s understandable that people assume they understand the definition of terms like “internationalization” and “localization” in the context of translating software and services for international audiences. Despite precious few clues as to their differences in conversation, they actually refer to distinctly different portions of the professional sausage-making process that is software in translation.
Internationalization and localization are translation industry terms which describe two distinct processes in the globalization of software. Internationalization (i18n) is the process of designing a software application so that it can be adapted to various languages and regions without engineering changes. Localization (l10n) is the process of adapting internationalized software for a specific region or language by adding locale-specific components and translating text. Metaphorically speaking, internationalization is like priming the wall for the localized color you’re preparing to apply.
There are good reasons to internationalize software before localization. Once internationalized, quality localization can proceed quickly, efficiently and at a controlled, predictable cost. Attempting to fix and adjust after translation has taken place may lead to extended deadlines and increased production costs.
Locale & language issues
Locale and language issues are the domain of localization, and largely come into view when you’ve picked specific markets for your software. Whereas internationalization cleans the code for locale and language bias, localization will tailor the cleaned code for these cultural preferences. Locale issues include: icons/graphics and colors, dates, times, and calendar formats, number and currency conventions, and personal data conventions. Failure to localize does not necessarily compromise the usability of software, but may discourage and/or annoy or offend users. Imagine your experience booking a hotel online in a language you only have rudimentary familiarity with and you’ll have a sense of the unease and “clumsiness” your users will experience if they have to deal with your unlocalized software.
Language pitfalls are the most critical of all considerations. Without sufficient attention to this aspect of localization of software, users will abandon your product. Language issues (apart from basic communication) include sorting and searching, strings and their display on screen, data input/output, and the organization of folders and file systems. It’s important to understand that not all languages follow the same grammatical rules as English, and that nouns, verbs, adjectives might require changes that do not happen in English, for example.
Who’s involved in internationalization?
Internationalization cuts across organizations and involves a wide range of stakeholders. You’ll need market research to investigate what global markets to approach and the local cultural and legal norms in those markets. Marketing teams will be responsible for designing your global look and feel, as well as creating content for marketing translations. Your engineers will have to become familiar with software development practices that can handle different language and locale requirements, and quality assurance teams will have to vet the fully internationalized and localized code prior to launch. Finally, your support documentation will need to be internationalized and translated as well, and your organization will need to have a plan for supporting global clients.