The global software market contains numerous terms that may not be familiar to those on the outside. To the layman, internationalization, localization, and translation can all sound like they describe the same or similar concepts. In reality, each of these processes is unique, and understanding how they differ is critical for building software that will span multiple markets.
The Ultimate Goal: Localization
Companies with little experience working across multiple markets may believe moving software to another country or region simply involves translation. Unfortunately, translation is an often-rote process that can produce poor results at best. In extreme cases, blind translation can result in software that's insensitive, offensive, or that fails to conform to local cultural norms.
Localization avoids these problems by taking a complete approach. In some cases, localization may simply involve adjusting how certain items are formatted, such as dates or times. In other instances, localization teams will need to scrutinize language for unusual or offensive phrasing. Instructions or documentation also often require careful review to ensure they're understandable.
Using Internationalization to Achieve Localization
Localizing software can create a surprisingly large number of issues, particularly for inexperienced developers. It's easy to build everything from a user interface to data storage formats with a particular language or display format in mind. Localizing software in this condition can create numerous problems or even break its functionality entirely.
Internationalization solves these problems by building software from the ground up to support multiple languages and cultures. Internationalization (sometimes abbreviated i18n) involves more than just swapping and replacing some text, however. In essence, i18n development requires engineers to create the tools necessary for future localization work.
This process has many hidden pitfalls, and it's easy for inexperienced developers to miss critical features that are necessary for proper internationalization support. For example, hard-coding strings into source code or designing user interfaces without flexible spacing to accommodate international character sets can make future localization efforts far more challenging.
Getting Internationalization Right
The first step to creating an internationalized product is recognizing the value of i18n from the beginning. The features necessary to support proper localization are easier and cheaper to implement early in the software lifecycle and much more challenging and expensive to retrofit later. Likewise, an inconsistent or piecemeal approach to internationalization can leave gaps that will hinder localization.
Working with an experienced internationalization firm early in your product lifecycle can ensure that you don't face these difficulties. An internationalization company can help you assess and implement proper localization features to bring your software to a global market successfully.