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Multilingual localization: The process

By Scott Bass

The term “localization” can be somewhat slippery, depending on who uses it. Within the language industry, it connotes the technical integration of translated content into digital media (software, websites, and e-learning software). People from the software industry tend to use the term in this manner, since the concept of localization took hold nearly 35 years ago in that industry. The use of the term “localization” among customers varies widely from zero recognition of the term to full-on jargon within their organizations. Within the language-service industry, the prevailing usage for “localization” involves the close tie between translation and technical integration of translated content into software and/or digital products.

Another hallmark of localization is the multilingual nature of the work. That does not mean that localization does not often occur from only one language to another; however, typical localization projects involve multiple target languages from a single source language. For large enterprises, it routinely encompasses thirty or forty languages at one time.

In a translation market like Canada, with a predominantly bilingual culture, multilingual projects are a statistical rarity. What is the significance of multilingual projects? In the world of simship (simultaneous shipment) and agile development, multilingual is everything.

Releasing software across multiple markets

For software manufacturers, being able to release software across multiple markets is their path to growing robust, stable businesses. The best-known example is Microsoft, which has had continuous support for over 30 languages since the late 1990s. Localization is a standard feature in most mobile phone platforms as well. Switching the language of your phone’s interface is as easy as connecting to Wi-Fi. Being able to deliver complex products that can be used by people across the globe requires a specific discipline and adherence to repeatable processes, which may be unfamiliar to many translators.

Successful multilingual localization projects share these characteristics:

The translation effort emanates from a single source. In other words, translation is truly a one-to-many relationship. The same set of source content/files is translated into all target languages with minimal variations to the source across languages. Exceptions might be special features available only in certain markets, or different legal environments that require unique content in an end-user licence agreement. For every exception to the rule “one source for all languages,” significant risk is introduced into the project workflow.

All languages tend to be treated in the same way. Assumptions usually must be made as to the amount of time needed to translate into each language (often assumed to be the same) and that translation from the same source to 10, 15, or 20 different languages will yield similar types of questions and raise similar technical issues. While these assumptions are arbitrary, making them helps standardize the workflow and attempts to enforce a degree of predictability in a project environment that most closely resembles “cat herding!” Think of it: a single project might consist of 25 target languages, requiring translation and editing of 1,500 files, resulting in the creation, management and delivery of 37,500 files.

Translation for localization projects has become increasingly de-contextualized. In localization, documents are rarely translated. The trend now is translation of what can best be described as “data” or merely “content.” It is very challenging for translators to translate de-contextualized labels for software interfaces. It is important to work with clients to find the best ways to provide context for translators-— reference copies of the user manuals/help systems, software demos, and, when possible, access to the actual software. When working on the initial localization of a product, there is often time to take all these mitigating steps. However, once localization starts, then the continuous processing of small batches of updates does not allow for additional steps to address de-contextualization. It is up to the translators to rely on their product knowledge from earlier work to guide their translation choices. It is also critical that they admit when they don’t understand what a new feature name or label means and ask questions.

Queries are another facet of multilingual localization that may be different. Queries are usually across all languages, since most questions are related to context or ambiguous information. But there are language-independent questions, and the answers to them can benefit the whole translation team.

Applying “agile” methods to localization

Another trend in multilingual localization is the advent of “agile” methods being applied to localization. Agile software development is a methodology that is widely used by many software makers. It is a framework that enables software developers to break the process down into manageable chunks, known as sprints. Sprints are work phases that last 2 – 4 weeks which focus on specific features being added to a piece of software. This workflow impacts translation in that work packages are usually quite small (350 – 1,000) words; they usually involve larger groups of languages, and the project pace is very high — 3 to 7 days. This type of work is challenging, but from a business perspective, it represents good “bread and butter” projects.

The traditional definition of localization is to make a document or product conform to the language, standards, norms and cultural context of the user. Translation is simply a single dimension of localization — the adaptation of written content (documents) from one language to another. Localization in the contemporary commercial context is ultimately a specialized practice of globalization, which requires localizers and translators to think far more broadly about their audience and the context in which the content they are translating is going to be used. Localization as a professional path for language professionals is at an interesting crossroads. It is finally emerging from the shadows and taking its rightful place in global commerce.


Scott Bass is the founder and current Managing Director of ALT Translations, LLC,, a technical translation and localization services provider. With over 25 years of experience in corporate language services, he currently handles R&D and key accounts, working with customers to find the best technical and language solutions for their organizations.

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