Advice on Internationalization

*Reprinted from Chicago Software Newspaper

Interpro's Ralph Strozza is an expert in the arcane world of making software "world-friendly"

CSN: What is localization? How does it relate to the concept of internationalization?

STROZZA: Localization is the linguistic adaptation of a product for specific target markets. Internationalization, briefly, is the functional adaptation of a product for specific target markets.

As an example, localizing a product would be translating a software program's user interface, on-line help text, documentation and training materials from, let's say, English into Japanese. Internationalizing a product would involve enhancing a U.S. accounting package with VAT processing functionality for the European market.

CSN: How important is localization? Do you have any examples of what can go wrong without it or with localization done incorrectly?

STROZZA: From the advent of the computer age, the U.S. has been the leading developer of software. Without any real competition, U.S. firms did not have to localize their products in order to sell and gain market share. With the mass acceptance and proliferation of personal computers in the early 1980s, the percentage of software written by non-U.S. companies increased, creating competition where relatively none existed before.

European companies, having coexisted in multilingual environments for centuries, long ago realized the importance of localizing products before computers and software ever existed. Once they began to develop software, they were already aware of the need to make it available in the languages of the geographies in which they wished to sell or use it. Whereas localization has been a necessity for doing business in Europe, U.S. companies needed (and, in many cases, still need) to be convinced that their products need to be adapted to the target markets in which they have chosen to compete.

The increasing availability of non-U.S. software products together with a more competitive global market have been pushing U.S. companies to localize. In addition, many countries have legislation on their books requiring products to be localized in each country's language. What this adds up to for U.S. companies is this: localization is no longer a luxury. If you want to compete globally, localization needs to be another phase added to the product development life cycle.

There are classic examples of what happens when localization is done poorly. Everyone knows about the Chevrolet "Nova" fiasco and what happened in Spanish-speaking markets ("no va" means "it doesn't go" in Spanish). The consequences of poor localization can range from the comical (creating a poor image of a company and of the product or service it is marketing) to the incomprehensible (making it, for all practical purposes, unusable). In addition, bad localization can cause untold grief for unaware users: important information may be excluded from the foreign-language version (usually to allow it to fit in the space originally allocated for English). Or, translation mistakes may provide incorrect information to the user, causing an undesired action (i.e. deleting something rather than saving it, etc.). My personal opinion, at least for U.S. developers, is that they are better off leaving their program in English than creating a "quick and dirty" localized version because they haven't budgeted to get it done correctly. As with most things, it's difficult to overcome a bad first impression. Sometimes you don't get a second chance.

CSN: What must be done to achieve localization?

STROZZA: It's fairly straightforward: First, find experienced people to do the job. Whether this is someone who is hired as an employee, or a localization service provider to whom the project is being outsourced, be sure to do some up-front investigative work to make sure that you have the right people for the job. Secondly, be committed, and allocate resources accordingly. Whether the localization is done with in-house resources or subcontracted to a service provider, a first-time localization effort is going to consume time and people resources. A contact person from the "technical" side of the firm, meaning someone who is familiar with the product, its architecture, the programming language in which it is written, and its functionality needs to be made available to the localization resources. Without this product expertise, localization will take longer, and the risks for error are infinitely higher.

Thirdly, assuming there are competent resources executing the localization, be responsive to their questions, feedback, and suggestions. They have a wealth of knowledge stemming from having done this before that developers involved in a first-time effort can take advantage of. Finally, be realistic. The source product was not developed in three days; don't expect the foreign language version to be available overnight. Depending upon the product and which components are being localized, a quality localization effort may take some time.

CSN: What are the resources you provide for localization?

STROZZA: The key resources that Interpro provides to its clients are: an in-depth knowledge of the entire localization process as it applies to each component: user interface (i.e. software), help text, documentation, desktop publishing, and multimedia, to name the most common. An experienced, multilingual executive and project management team that understands the localization and translation industry and can provide optimum solutions for its client base; a team of professional and experienced native-speaking software localizers working on-site; competent engineering resources to support the localization staff and to build the target language components; a "Client First" attitude and service policy stemming from the desire to develop long-term partnerships with its clients.

CSN: What is the cost of a localization project?

STROZZA: This really depends upon the size of the product, the platform, the components being localized, and the services being requested by the client. Localizing the user interface for a Windows application may take as little as 5 days and cost $2,500. An AS/400 localization project may require four weeks and cost $40,000. Translating a Web page may cost $500. Help text and manuals almost always contain more text to translate, regardless of the platform.

And, although these components are easier to translate than the user interface, they usually require far more time and resources in addition to constituting the largest expense, since localization services usually charge by the word being translated. So, as with most things, it boils down to what is being done, and how long it will take to do it.

CSN: Are there any prerequisites to success for the software company involved?

STROZZA: Obviously, those companies who have been through localization projects have an edge over first-time localizers. Basically, if they follow the points that I mentioned concerning what is required to achieve localization, there is no reason why the effort should not be successful.

CSN: What other resources exist to help with localization? Are there any US government programs? Do other countries ever help with it? Are there professional groups in the localization field?

STROZZA: There are abundant resources to point developers in the right direction concerning localization. Most, if not all, of the major hardware and software developers have themselves localized extensively, and offer a lot of information to their clients. For example, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Microsoft, to name a few, publish volumes of information ranging from how to design your products with localization in mind, to the actual foreign-language glossaries that they have developed through the localization of their Services. Organizations such as LISA, the Localization and Internationalization Standards Association, focuses exclusively on localization and the key issues involved therein. The American Translators Association, while promoting all aspects of translation and interpretation, also is an excellent source for localization-related issues. Publications such as Multilingual Computing and Language International are excellent sources of information for those interested in localization. I am not aware of any U.S. government programs which provide assistance with localization, and although most countries have organizations involved in regulating language issues in general, I don't know if any exist relative to localization. Anyone interested in going the government route may want to start with the Chambers of Commerce.

Ralph Strozza is President of Interpro Translation Solutions, Inc. While in graduate school in 1982, he began to work part-time for a company (Worldwide Communications Corporation) that developed computer-assisted translation software and provided translation services. He first worked as a translator, then, after finishing his degree, moved into the product support area, and eventually went into marketing and sales. In 1983, he moved to Europe to assist in setting up WCC's European distribution channels, and returned to Chicago in 1985 as Vice President of Marketing and Sales. In 1988, he went to work for Intergraph Corporation in order to set up and staff their in-house localization team. In 1989, he accepted a position at System Software Associates, where he set up, staffed and ran their in-house as well as external localization teams until 1995. Interpro Translation Solutions opened for business in March of 1995.

He has undergraduate degrees in International Marketing, French, and Spanish from Northern Illinois University, and an M.A. in French and Italian from Northwestern University. He is fluent in French, Italian, and Spanish.