Internationalisation and Localisation of Web Applications

If you’re designing a web application, you may think that developing it in English will be quite enough. Remember, though, that only 22% of internet users speak English as their native language, and 85% of ecommerce consumers won’t buy a product if they can’t read about it in their native language, which leaves only one question to be asked: are you prepared to miss on those millions of potential customers?

Software developers worldwide know that a web application will only work the way it’s supposed to for its target market. Even if two countries speak the same language, there are plenty of other things to consider when it comes to localising an app. Take, for example, the UK and the United States. The date format in the UK is day/month/year, while the US uses month/day/year, which could be cause for problems if an app is not localised for its specific market.

But before we move forward, you’re due an explanation of what internationalisation and localisation are. Internationalisation is the technical process of preparing a web application for use in a range of different countries without further changes to the platform. Localisation means adapting a web application for a specific market, translating the text and taking into consideration every component of the app.

This is a two-step process, because internationalisation is a precursor of localisation. Developing an application to reach a large number of countries from the start will simplify the process of localisation later on. Having an internationalised web app from the get go will ensure that once you figure out the market, you’ll only need to translate the text and change the necessary formats, rather than having to start from scratch.

The internationalisation process

Not every web application can be internationalised in the same way. From differences in platform to the very basics of the application, there are key differences programmers must identify before starting work. Nevertheless, there are some basic internationalisation principles that can be applied universally.

If your application is to be developed using English as its base language, the best thing to do is use clear and simple language. Remember that once the localisation process begins, the text will have to be translated, and nothing makes the translation process more difficult than dealing with abbreviations, jargon or slang in the text.

Another thing you should keep in mind is that not all languages require the same amount of space. For example, a sentence in German will, in general, be around 30% longer than the equivalent sentence in English. If your app hasn’t been designed with enough space for extra characters then you may end up with serious formatting issues. It’s always a good idea to design apps with room for text to grow or shrink.

If you do have to set a fixed space for the text, remember to inform your translators of the available space before they start work, so they can work with that character limit in mind and won’t have to skip any text to make the content fit.

The localisation process

The most important part of the localisation process is translation. The best course of action is to hire a native translator. As you might already know, translation is more than just changing words between languages – it requires a cultural background in the target language to understand nuance and subtlety, which something machine translation programs can’t do.

Before you hire translators and start localising your app for a range of languages, though, it pays to take a closer look at which countries actually have a gap in the market that can be filled by your app – for instance, if you’ve developed an application that’s specifically designed to link with Facebook then there’s not really any point localising it for China, where Facebook has no market presence.

Once you’ve identified the best foreign markets for your app, the localization process involves researching the specific charts and tables of the country, such as date formats, measurements of length, temperature, weight, currency, etc, to ensure your app feels like it’s been designed specifically for that audience.

Cultural differences

There’s more to developing a localised software app than just translating the text and changing the formats and measurements, though. Visual symbols, colour, images and icons are also an important part. Colours can be crucially important, as they can have widely differing meanings in different cultures, for instance, white is often interpreted as being ‘peaceful’ in Western societies, but it’s a colour associated with death and funerals in China. A little research can go a long way to developing the perfect app for your market of choice.

Icons and images are another integral part of your web application and should be picked after thorough consideration. A ‘thumbs-up’ icon is widely accepted in western societies (see Facebook’s ‘like’ button), but it’s also seen as very offensive in some parts of the world, such as parts of Africa and the Middle East, where it has a similar meaning to the middle finger in western cultures. The same can be said of the ‘table’ icon, which signifies a spreadsheet to English-speakers, but not to anyone else.

Developing a multilingual internationalised and localised web application isn’t the easiest thing in the world, but creating a detailed project plan and conducting thorough research of your target markets will make the process infinitely easier.

This guest post was written by Christian Arno. Christian is the founder of professional translation agency Lingo24. Launched in 2001, Lingo24 now has over 150 employees spanning three continents and clients in over sixty countries. Follow Christian (@l24ca) and Lingo24 (@Lingo24) on Twitter.