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.