The Software Localization Paradox

Wikimania in Haifa was great. Plenty of people wrote blog posts about it; the world doesn’t need a yet another post about how great it was.

What the world does need is more blog posts about the great ideas that grew in the little hallway conversations there. One of the things that i discussed with many people at Wikimania is what i call The Software Localization Paradox. That’s an idea that has been bothering me for about a year. I tried to look for other people who wrote about it online and couldn’t find anything.

Like any other translation, software localization is best done by people who know well both the original language in which the software interface was written – usually English, and the target language. People who don’t know English strongly prefer to use software in a language they know. If the software is not available in their language, they will either not use it at all or will have to memorize lots of otherwise meaningless English strings and locations of buttons. People who do know English often prefer to use software in English even if it is available in their native language. The two most frequent explanations for that is that the translation is bad and that people who want to use computers should learn English anyway. The problem is that for various reasons lots of people will never learn English even if it would be mandatory in schools and useful for business. They will have to suffer the bad translations and will have no way to fix it.

I’ve been talking to people at Wikimania about this, especially people from India. (I also spoke to people from Thailand, Russia, Greece and other countries, but Indians were the biggest group.) All of them knew English and at least one language of India. The larger group of Indian Wikipedians to whom i spoke preferred English for most communication, especially online, even if they had computers and mobile phones that supported Indian languages; some of them even preferred to speak English at home with their families. They also preferred reading and writing articles in the English Wikipedia. The second, smaller, group preferred the local language. Most of these people also happened to be working on localizing software, such as MediaWiki and Firefox.

So this is the paradox – to fix localization bugs, someone must notice them, and to notice them, more people who know English must use localized software, but people who know English rarely use localized software. That’s why lately i’ve been evangelizing about it. Even people who know English well should use software in their language – not to boost their national pride, but to help the people who speak that language and don’t know English. They should use the software especially if it’s translated badly, because they are the only ones who can report bugs in the translation or fix the bugs themselves.

(A side note: Needless to say, Free Software is much more convenient for localization, because proprietary software companies are usually too hard to even approach about this matter; they only pay translators if they have a reason to believe that it will increase sales. This is another often overlooked advantage of Free Software.)

I am glad to say that i convinced most people to whom i spoke about it at Wikimania to at least try to use Firefox in their native language and taught them where to report bugs about it. I also challenged them to write at least one article in the Wikipedia in their own language, such as Hindi, Telugu or Kannada – as useful as the English Wikipedia is to the world, Telugu Wikipedia is much more useful for people who speak Telugu, but no English. I already saw some results.

I am now looking for ideas and verifiable data to develop this concept further. What are the best strategies to convince people that they should use localized software? For example: How economically viable is software localization? What is cheaper for an education department of a country – to translate software for schools or to teach all the students English? Or: How does the absence of localized software affect different geographical areas in Africa, India, the Middle East?

Any ideas about this are very welcome.


12 thoughts on “The Software Localization Paradox

  1. This is worrying: «some of them even preferred to speak English at home with their families»; this means that their language is in serious danger, it will be certainly be more difficult to translate software or whatever.

    Anyway, thank you for the post which gives me the opportunity to ask you a question after that conversation we had: I’m using a software written by an Italian and translated in English by himself (or perhaps written in English and translated to Italian, or both at the same time, who knows). Should I use it in Italian or in English? :-D

    1. You should probably use it in Italian. (And if you know Milanese and Venetian well, then in them!) That’s because most likely there are many more people who can improve the English version.

      Are you speaking about DownThemAll, by any chance?

  2. Maybe a campaign with a sitenotice for a week would help. Ask people to try a different localization language and report and/or fix problems.

    As for Indians and their preference of English. This is a known fact. Most education is done in English, as are the books. It will not necessarily apply to other native languages. It would apply for ‘dialects’

  3. People tend to do what’s easiest for them to do. I wonder how people would react to a screen at installation/upgrade (when they need to select the primary language they’ll be using the program in) that would let them opt-in “to improve the translation of this software into different languages.”

    If you clicked “yes,” it would ask you to list the other languages you knew. Then the program would install and run as normal, in English (or whatever other primary language you picked). Once in a while, though, it would pop up and ask “would you like to help improve this program’s translation by using this application in Spanish/Mandarin/Tamil (or whatever other languages you listed) for the next hour?” If the user clicked “yes,” they’d get a thank-you message saying “remember, if you find mistranslations, you can report/fix them at this link,” and if they did report something, they’d get at least a thank-you email.

    Basically, take the behavior you want to see and make it as easy as possible for people to do, then thank them profusely for doing it. I’m sure this would be far simpler to implement in some programs than others, but in the case of mature web applications or desktop environments and applications with stable translation/language-selection features, it could probably be a plugin that would toggle the startup language if installed.

  4. India is a particular case with regards to English given their former colonial status. My speculation is that people prefer what they were exposed to when they learned something, in the case of software, all too often, it arrived with only English as an option or was learned in an educational system that promoted English language skills as a path to greater employment opportunity.

    My answer to your question of what can be done to improve this situation is to create greater opportunity for learning (and computing) in native languages within the early educational system. At Sugar Labs we are working on localizing the Sugar Learning Platform into about 130 languages / dialects (at the moment). Sugar can be experienced as packages from many Linux distros, Live CD, Live USB (SOAS, or Sugar on a Stick), virtual machine images and, of course, on one of several million OLPC XO laptops currently in the hands of children.
    (Shameless plea for more localizers)

    The image on an XO laptop is basically a Fedora spin that is dual boot in Sugar and Gnome UIs, so we need the upstream localized too.

    The Gnome packages we pull are listed here:

    Links to additional upstream packages (Fedora, Translate Project) can be found in the comments of these “tracking ticket” strings:

    Catch the kids early and they will demand (or perform) localization of their tools later in life. I don’t disagree with any of your other suggestions, but I think that even more than localization testing, we just need more localization first.

  5. I’ve published a post agreeing and commenting your article and I’ve added that many translators are not users of the software they are translating so errors come also from that way. Translating a string that you don’t know what is does and on what occasion appears at the interface, can have many funny results. So we need translation from people who know English and are also regular users of the software.

  6. You made a nice point actually. My company works in the software localization industry, I am Italian and know English quite well. Funnily, I hate software in Italian and I use everything in English, starting from the operating system. Even my phone is configured with an English UI.

    So I guess it’s not only users that in the end prefer English, it’s even people involved in the localization process…

  7. Two more obstacles to using your preferred language in your browser:
    * Chromium has a nice in-place machine translation feature, however it always first translates to your interface language. Typically, at least for the languages I translate from, that’s too bad to be usable to I always manually switch to English.
    * Privacy: The second worst offender, with about 16 bits of identifying information (after Google Talk plugin, which I now disabled, at 21+), was my language choice “it, en, en-us”; I set it to “it” now but it’s not ideal (and some may do the opposite).

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