Developing Multilingual Software Applications

“Your business applications cannot bring with it the habits and customs of your country without colliding with the habits and customs of your users in other countries.” ‐ (IBM Globalization – Guideline C – Respect for culture and conventions)

If you are a software developer and you aspire to any kind of growth in this fast-moving world, you will at some point consider making your applications multilingual. This is because the overseas market is an ideal (and sometimes inevitable) way for you to expand. Making your software applications multilingual is not necessarily difficult, but, like all aspects of expansion, it can be hard to successfully manage if you do not watch out for some pitfalls.

Why do it?

Software is now truly global, and any downloadable application can be accessed from pretty much any location in the world. This means that a potential customer in Italy may hear about your application and decide to download it or purchase it online. If your application is not in Italian, this may cause problems.
While it’s true that English has long been the lingua franca of the software industry, foreign language use is steadily on the rise.

Creating a ‘bespoke’ version of your software application exclusively for the Italian market is a great idea if you are looking at steady growth, effectively picking and choosing where exactly you expand.

However, if you have plans for world domination, multilingual software is the answer. And this is where it all becomes a little more in-depth and demanding.

Things to Consider

The topic of multilingual software applications is a huge one, but the following considerations are absolutely crucial. Take these into account when planning the process.

  • Text Translation: This is the most obvious aspect of multilingual software. This needs to be done well, and this means having a team that can create translation with language, phrasing and vocabulary that is natural sounding as well as accurate. All aspects of the application, such as menus, dialog boxes and buttons, need to be translated. While it may be tempting to use an online translation tool such as Google Translate, it is notoriously inaccurate, and terrible at translating metaphors, turns of phrase or quirky sayings. Remember the ‘All your base are belong to us’ fiasco? You want your software to be remembered for all the right reasons, not because of shoddy translation.
  • Create a Portal: Multilingual software works best when you provide one ‘portal’ through which a variety of language users can pass and achieve the same results. What you need is to create an app that a customer can start up, and then clarify the language they would like to use, choosing from a menu. Then, the rest of that customer’s experience with the software is entirely based in his or her language.
  • User Interface: The user interface (UI) or layout of what is on the screen is also another area to which the development team must pay particular attention. Menus and buttons on a UI may have to be ‘stretched’ because text in other languages may be longer than that in English. Teams can combat this issue by making the UI adaptable to many different languages or foreign-language script systems. Take into account that some written languages read from right to left, or even horizontally…You might find that when you’re creating your software, you’ll want to separate certain elements from the source code. This makes it far easier to go back and make changes to certain aspects (like language, currency etc) without messing around with the rest of the code.
  • Graphics: While graphics are universal, to an extent, they could still cause offense in some countries. The ‘thumbs up’ symbol is an insult in some Eastern countries, for example. In addition to this concern, some graphics may contain text, which again demands that your development team consider the footprint of letters on the screen. Even different colors mean different things in various cultures: Red is good luck in China, but over in South Africa, it’s a color of mourning. Reading up on the customs and cultures of your target country will work wonders.
  • Keyboard Shortcuts: This is a classic stumbling block. Take the shortcut ‘F’, which usually transports English software users to a file. The word for ‘file’ in German is ‘datei’, which means that the keyboard shortcut will not work.

The benefits of creating multilingual software applications far outweigh such concerns, but the concerns do highlight the need for your development team to plan well ahead, and conduct rigorous research, before taking the plunge.

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