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Language Signals on the Web

February 8th, 2012 joconner No comments

Languages

Presenting a user interface in the customer’s language should be a high priority from your product management team. If not, they’re not doing their job in my opinion. Assuming you have the feature in your product roadmap, how do you choose the UI language of your customer on the web. After all, web applications have multiple, sometimes conflicting language signals.

A language signal is an indicator that gives your application a hint of your customer’s preferred language. In a web application, these signals are numerous. To help you in choosing from all these signals, I believe you should honor the preferences in the following priority. That is, check each signal for its existence in this order, and use the first signal that is available:

  1. query parameters, for example http://example.com?lang=fr
  2. domain name or path parameters, i.e. http://fr.example.com or http://example.com/fr
  3. persistent application preferences
    • cookies
    • customer profile or settings
  4. browser accept-language headers
  5. geolocation hints
  6. default application language

Query Parameters

Query parameters are often used to override every other language or application signal. If parameters are used, your customer (QE engineers or even end users) are intentionally trying to coerce the application into ignoring all other language signals. Query parameters beat out any other language signal when they are provided in the same request.

Domain name or Path Parameters

Sometimes you will partition your localized sites by domain name or by language tag paths. A domain name partition means that you select different or even localized domain names for specific markets. For example, your French site could be http://fr.example.com. You can also distinguish language preference on the path like this: http://example.com/fr or http://example.com/en-gb. When query parameters don’t exist, this is the next choice in our prioritization.

Persistent Settings

Of course, if your application has allowed the user to select a language preference, the application should honor that preference. The preference may be stored in a cookie or even in a user profile attribute on the server.

Accept-Language Header

Most browsers provide a list of user language preferences in each request. These languages are provided in request headers as values of the accept-language attribute. This attribute can have 1 or more language codes, and they indicate the priority of the user when requesting content. In the absence of other signals, your application should respond to the accept-language header.

Geolocation Hints

The last signal that actually provides information about the user is the geographic location from which the user is accessing your content. Although imperfect and imprecise, geography can provide a hint to your customer’s language preference. It’s definitely not the best indicator because multiple languages can be spoken in any geographic location. In a pinch, though, you may be able to provide a language selection tool that provides a list of the most prominent languages spoken in a specific area of the world.

Default Application Language

Finally, when all else fails and there have been no other indicators, you can provide the UI in the default language of the application. If your company is in Germany, maybe the default is German. If it’s the U.S., your default language is most likely English…or maybe even Spanish. You have to display the application in some language, and the default at this point is your last option.

In Summary

To summarize, a web application can serve a global audience. In doing so, it may accommodate customers in a variety of languages. Your application’s user interface may be selected from numerous possibilities, numerous signals from the user. Those signals are important data points to consider when making the language choice to present to the user. Using the signals described in this article, you’ll be able to consider some of the more important language preference indicators. Follow the prioritization I’ve outlined here, and you’ll make the right language choice most of the time…until you don’t. And there will be times when you don’t make the right choice from all these signals. When that happens, and it will happen, you have to give your users some way to indicate that problem. Take a look at my previous blog entry about language selection widgets for help with that.

 

 

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Providing a Language Selection List

January 14th, 2012 joconner No comments

Lang listThe questions pop up often enough in internationalization circles so I’ll address them here:

1. how should I localize a language selection list?
2. how should I sort it?

Localized Language Lists

Customers use a language selection list to change languages. You must assume that the currently selected language is inappropriate for some reason. One possible reason is that the user cannot read the page content. This means that a localized language list that displays all target language options in the language of my current page probably won’t be understood. For example, let’s pretend that I speak English but am on a Japanese web site. Presenting me with language options that include ” 英語” will not help me if I don’t read Japanese. I can’t be expected to know that those characters mean “English” to a Japanese person. This option is unhelpful. What is helpful?

The right way to represent any language selection list is to display languages in their own language and script. For example, English should be English, Spanish should be Español, Japanese is 日本語, etc. You don’t need to localize this list into every language. One list using the target language’s own language and script for each language choice is both sufficient and optimal. This guarantees that I’ll be able to read and select my target language regardless of the current page’s language setting. This is the most universal option you have, and I consider this a best practice for creating language selection lists.

Sort Order

I don’t know how better to prepare you for my answer…so here it is. The actual sort order is less important than consistency. Two points make this obvious to me:

1. if your customer wants to choose a different language, they probably don’t speak the current one, and the current language’s sort rules won’t be particularly useful anyway.
2. you can’t accurately guess what language rules you should use because you don’t know which language the user will select.

With these points in mind, I don’t think the sort order matters. Correct linguistic sorts for this list are not critical, and anything you choose will be inconvenient to someone. For this reason, I think you simply have to choose a sort order and be consistent every time you show the language list. My suggestion is that you simply order the list in U.S. English order if you consider U.S. English to be the base language of your product. If you consider your base language to be something else, use that. My point is that it doesn’t matter. Sure, you’ll be tempted to provide this list in the sorted order of the language of the current page or host OS setting. Sure that’s an option, but it’ll be incorrect more often than correct when it’s needed. Save your sanity. Choose an order. Be consistent. Don’t worry about localizing this order.

So this sort issue is bothering you still? You just can’t accept it? Ok, that’s fine, but consider this. The solution I’ve described is already used by some pretty big players. Since I just finished evaluating Facebook, let’s use it as an example. Regardless of which localized site I visit, regardless of my browser language preferences, Facebook shows the same list of languages in the same sort order. They don’t even use a US English sort. Their choice is something different, something almost like a US English sort, but maybe using the Romanized version of the target language? Here’s an example — Japanese is sorted with other languages that start with an “N” sound. The Japanese pronunciation is romanized as “nihongo”. So, “nihongo” starts with an n and sorts with other languages that start with n? I can’t quite figure the sort rules out BUT that’s my point…it doesn’t matter. Its consistent every time I go to the page, and it works. Here’s a shot of that Facebook page:

Fb lang selection

Conclusion

Providing a language selection list for your multilingual product is a great idea. It lets customers conveniently change the UI language of the product. Don’t over-think this problem. You can provide this feature without spending countless hours of debate. Follow my suggestions:

  1. Provide a single language selection list in which each entry is translated into the target language and script.
  2. Choose a sort order, any order. Be consistent in displaying this order.

Have a suggestion or comment? I’d enjoy hearing from you.

 

 

 

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Job Post: Localization Engineer in San Jose, CA

January 4th, 2012 joconner No comments

Please comment on this post or email me if you are interested in this localization engineer position. I’ll put you in contact with the recruiter.

Direct from the recruiter:

The requirement is for a Localization Engineer in San Jose working for one of the leading Web Commerce companies.  They are looking for more than the typical Localization Engineer as they need someone who has done some programming, not just scripting.   I have attached a description and also listed below some things the manager said they have been missing in the candidates so far.

What I’ve been missing so far in candidates is

-        Experience with web localization (more a focus on i18n engineering, but then without real coding skills), and enterprise localization tools (e.g. WorldServer)

-        Significant modern coding skills (going beyond a simple VBA macro or Perl script), e.g. ability to write some Java application, understand/fix/enhance existing code, or a simple plug-in against a documented SDK (more than just passive knowledge of Java, etc)

-        Ability to clearly articulate concepts or thoughts, describe processes

 

If this sounds like a good fit, I can email you more details. Good luck!

//John

 

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PDF files are bad source documents for translation?

October 12th, 2011 joconner No comments

While reading my latest copy of Multilingual magazine, I found an interesting assertion about creating translation-friendly source documents. One article starts its discussion by stating this:

Whenever possible, avoid using PDF files as the source document format
for translation. Always try to provide the original file format … [because]
PDF files cannot currently be edited in some programs and instead have to
be transformed into another format (usually Word) before translation.

[Multilingual, Oct/Nov2011, "Creating translation-oriented source documents," p. 43]

This statement makes sense in some ways I suppose. For example, I don’t usually think of PDF files as being easily editable, and perhaps translation tools don’t usually understand the format. However, being somewhat new to the PDF format, I’ll ask that you please forgive my ignorance, but I do have some questions, especially if you are a translation or translation tools company:

  1. Do you agree with the author’s statement. If so, why?
  2. If PDF files do fall into this category of being difficult source documents, can translation tool vendors do something about that? What is possible?
  3. If you get a PDF document to translate, what do you do? Return it? Does it fit into your translation workflow and toolsets?
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