Translation is UX

by Antoine Lefeuvre

21 Reader Comments

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  1. Fantasic article. Localisation is truly a discipline within web design that needs more attention and respect. Native English speakers can often forget the annoyance that is associated with untranslated content and design.

    With Mandarin set to overtake English as the most prominent Internet Language in the next two years and most of the worlds Internet users originating from Emerging markets by 2016 It’s time to taking localisation more seriously.

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  2. This is an excellent article and points out the single most important issue facing any organization reaching across a border: communication.

    I’ve learned several things managing the roll-out of multiple international sites.

    First, geo matters. Spain Spanish is not Mexican Spanish; France French is not Canadian French. Whenever possible, we localize for regions, not language. This annoys many people who think “wtf … it’s just spanish” but there is no quicker way to alienate an audience than to promise to speak their language and then literally do not speak it correctly.

    Second, many companies need to change their focus from “translation” to “localization”. Large translation houses like SDL or Lionbridge focus on mass-quantity, glossary-driven translation that goes sentence by sentence (or string by string for software). For error messages, this is acceptable—but so is Google Translate. For persuasive content or anything involving concepts or abstractions, this is the road to failure.

    Proper localization is culturally sensitive. It takes time, and it usually requires native speakers. It is, at its heart, copywriting, because often entire sentences/paragraphs need to be rewritten to have good narrative flow.

    One final point. While good translation is good UX, good localization is good accessibility. Making websites consumable to all users is as much about language as it is the technology, and moving from language to another is the single biggest point of failure.

    Great article. Best I’ve read on ALA in a long time.

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  3. Shame it doesn’t deal with how to decide which language to show a user by default—something so many sites get utterly wrong (I’m staring at you, Google, you idiots).

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  4. Look to the web community in places like Belgium where they’ve been creating sites in 3-4 languages by default for years.

    A lot of the lesson have already been learned.

    It goes beyond language though. Often services that need to be integrated into a site ( e.g. certain payment processors ) simply aren’t available locally.

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  5. Excellent article. I’ve developed an iPad app for a local dental system in the Milwaukee WI area, and part of the requirements was to provide three to four language options. Aside from English, this also has to cater to Spanish and Hmong (which, if anyone has had to translate, is not the least bit straight-forward).

    Thankfully for me, as the developer, most of the translations are handed to me in the customer-provided data, but it’s my responsibility to ensure that I have all the translations and once translated that “Remember, you can tap the ‘Next’ button to advance to the next available question” still fits in the same help box, no matter how the tablet is oriented.

    The application was launched with three languages, with support available for a fourth.

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  6. @all Many thanks for your kind words. I’m glad we can talk about translation and localization amongst web makers.

    @Kevin Yes, I do agree, translation is an accessibility issue. In some multilingual countries or areas, you may even be required by law to make your websites available in several languages (e.g. EU language legislation), the same way legislation exists to enforce accessibility—for people with disabilities (e.g. RGAA in Québec).

    @Gilbert Thank you for pointing this out: Europe and countries like Belgium have a lot to teach us about multilingual design. When on a daily basis you’re exposed to several languages, you begin to see translation as something natural, a requirement rather an commodity.

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  7. Like other commenters above, I also think localization is ignored too often and could use more attention (much like security, by the way!)

    Your article really helps to draw attention to these issues. However, I’d really like a more technical in-depth article too; as a programmer, I’ve seen a few systems for translations, but most of them are annoying or awkward in some way or other.

    If you could point out some examples or best-of-breed libraries available for various languages, I’d much appreciate it.

    Also, what advice can you give to small shops who need to deal with localization? In the past, we’ve sent out texts to a professional translation agency to be translated to English (we are Dutch), but the results were so horrible we could’ve done better ourselves! Furthermore, this company didn’t know how to handle GNU Gettext .po-files (perhaps not many translators need to work on software translations?), so we had to mess around with Excel sheets and such. This was definitely a bad experience.

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  8. @Peter Bex. Using an agency (that isn’t specialised in what you do) is generally a bad idea (I’m a translator who works for agencies: I know).

    Your list of strings will arrive, without context, in the inbox of a random translator. They’ll do their best, no doubt, but asking the client questions is generally discouraged because everything has to be mediated by the agency, and they’re typically dealing with dozens of translators and hundreds of orders: they don’t have time for that shit. And the next order will likely end up with a different translator who has no idea about the first.

    Agencies are very rarely the right solution, unless you need a ridiculous amount translated in short time.the translation will.

    If you want a high-quality translation, you really have to find yourself a translator that understands what you’re doing and provide them with sufficient context to make a meaningful translation. And, most importantly, you need to have your own list of translations: if you don’t send your translator a list of the terms you’ve already had translated, you’re going to end up with an app with multiple terms for the same thing.

    It’s extremely hard to communicate to a (monolingual) client the difficulty and subtlety of translation.

    An example that sticks in my mind is Macromedia’s horrid translation of Flash into German:  both “layer” and “level” were translated as “Ebene”. Very clearly a case of the client failing to engage meaningfully with their translator.

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  9. I wholeheartedly agree that translation is UX.  What’s also true is that the business of translating is largely dependent on UX.

    Different types of collaborators in a given translation workflow need a different UX for each to do their own specialised task.

    Think about:

    • Software developers who need to manage keys and strings
    • Content owners who need to craft the original message and set the rules for the translations
    • Translators who need to leverage glossaries & memories & context to deliver the perfect translation
    • Proofreaders who need to see what’s changed, by whom, and why

    The challenge is to design the UX of translation workflow tools to cater for these disparate needs without cluttering everyone’s experience.

    Many err in favour of one particular group of users while penalising, burdening or compromising the others.

    “Locale”:http://www.localeapp.com is a workflow tool attempting to solve these problems for Ruby & Rails apps.  Delivering a UX that facilitates the translation process is the most challenging aspect.

    Here’s a great blog post by Jeff Casimir entitled “Avoiding the Tar Pits of Localization”:http://blog.localeapp.com/2012/11/21/avoiding-the-tar-pits-of-localization-with-jeff-casimir/ which deals with some of the problems and best practices when internationalising and localising Rails apps.

    Cheers
    Martin

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  10. This is simply a brilliant article. For me however, it underlines the need to collaborate on a large scale to make the whole process a lot easier and even, perhaps one day, enjoyable.

    Also I wanted to reply to Peter Bex, deanishe and @LocaleApp about what is technically wrong with the localization process/tools (comments 7 to 9)… Of course I’m completely biased since I’m part of a team that made Langur, a new software i18n system… That said, as far as we’re concerned, the elephant in the i18n room is context.

    As so eloquently stated by deanishe, it is simply impossible to produce quality translations without the context of use of whatever it is you’re translating.

    We believe the future of localization / internationalization is allowing translators to translate in context, in the app itself. This means translators see the when, the where and the why of the strings they are translating, in the exact same way end users will see them when they use the application.

    By doing this, you eliminate a lot of the hassle related to translations, you augment quality dramatically and you avoid things like untranslated stings and layout issues.

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  11. I would say this is a great article and discussion as well , I have learnt a lot here .
    Hope to keep writing such a good article.

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  12. This is a very interesting discussion indeed!
    I wanted to add a few things regarding outsourcing and software.

    Outsourcing translation is not much different than outsourcing graphic design or development. Say you need to hire someone to design a logo, are you happy with just sending a brief, not talking to the designer and receiving a logo with little room for change? This is called low-cost graphic design and you’ll find plenty “your logo for $100” offers.
    Likewise low-cost translation is widely available: you send a document, you don’t talk to the translator and you get a translated document in return.

    Is this the level of quality you’re aiming for?

    At Novius we prefer to build lasting relationships with both designers and translators. If you choose to work with an agency, chances are you won’t have much interaction with the translator. Which is a shame as good translation—like good design—starts with team work.

    About localization software and platforms, we have used and tried many different solutions. Yet we still haven’t found THE perfect solution which would offer all the following key features:

    • Collaborative translation and workflow. Translation like coding is a social activity. We need GitHub-like functionalities: comments, issue-tracking, version and quality control.
    • In-context translation, as discussed above by Langurius.
    • Translation memory. Don’t be mistaken, TM is not a translator thing. This is an important asset for your business. You want to be able to share it across different projects and export TMX files (Translation Memory eXchange).
    • Translator-friendly UI and developer-helping tools (e.g. APIs)

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  13. Further readings on “deconstructing these sentences is a translator’s nightmare”: “Working with Composite Messages”:http://www.w3.org/International/articles/composite-messages/Overview and “Re-using Strings in Scripted Content”:http://www.w3.org/International/articles/text-reuse/Overview

    BTW, there are no accent marks in Russian language (except in dictionaries for non-native speakers). 4 ????????, 5 ???????.

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  14. I have been a translator and have worked with clients who run multi-lingual sub-domains using the Google translate app. No one it seems has the budget or the time to speak to anyone in their own language and yet they demand to have a web presence and the ability to collect payments. There is a big difference in speaking with one voice and having to use the only voice. Using proper, idiosyncratic local language increases ROI because it automatically shows respect and when someone is treated with respect…they tend to buy the product.

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  15. Great article. My other half is a translator and has often received spreadsheets of terms that are completely out of context and nigh on impossible to provide reliable Japanese translations for. And Japanese sentence structure works differently from English, so it’s not as simple as string replacement.

    The suggestion to work directly with translators would be music to my partner’s ears: it would make the work much more interesting while cutting out the greedy middlemen agencies (if you find a good translator, re-hire them privately).

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  16. Excellent article. I was almost cheering along with you at times, because you said things that I’ve thought for years. And you said it in an extremely accessible way—one that I hope to share with stakeholders to help them understand my localization concerns.

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  17. Antoine:  Your ‘wish list’ for collaborative language-focussed content multipurposing tool already exists.  Our solution (qarto.com) is one of them, but there are a few others out there too.

    Get in touch if you’d like to know more.

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  18. What an amazing article, Antoine. I subscribe 101% of what you said. Having a localization specialist in the early stages of the development cycle is just essential nowadays.

    Keep up the good work!

    Cheers,

    Pablo

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  19. Great article! All good UX is contextual. Language included. Context of course, is an issue faced, ironically by both the UX and L10n domains… http://www.slideshare.net/uvox/context-of-use-and-use-of-context-localization-and-ux However, the L10n industry can help itself by promoting techniques such as L20n, moving with the times instead of far too often demanding dumbed down strings devoid of any real meaning for any language…

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  20. Vraiment interessant, on est en plein dedans avec notre soft. Etant le seul francais dans la boite je suis devenu le traducteur officiel. Je bosse avec l’IT, et on se creuse la tete pour trouver la meilleure solution. Mais toutes tes remarques sont tres interessantes. Merci pour l’article.

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  21. Large scale thinking like this is important, but we still have a long way to go in terms of communication even within our own community. For example, What do you call those text boxes that have the little up and down arrows to the right or left? I just got done doing some research on the trending names for those little widgets. Here are my research findings…

    http://uxfindings.blogspot.com/2014/06/is-numeric-spinner-best-name-for-this.html

    …and what I learned is that with each step forward, we potentially introduce yet more communication hurdles. Example: The “spinner” can be interpreted as “an animated icon that communicates to the user that a page is loading”, or it can be interpreted as the the infamous “numeric up/down widget”.

    ugh… commend you on the great article, but I feel like the more I look at the topic of communication, the more flabbergasted I become at how we are able to even really make it through simple conversations.

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