It’s probably never going to work in German

It’s probably never going to work in German

A roundtable discussion with localization and internationalization experts from Amazon, Dropbox, and Kickstarter.
Part of
Issue 8 February 2019


Addison Phillips chairs W3Cʼs inter­nation­ali­zation working group and is the senior principal SDE for inter­nation­ali­zation at Amazon. During his nearly 30-year-long career in inter­nation­ali­zation, he has worked for Yahoo!, webMethods, and AT&T.

Adam Sawyer is a team leader and manager of localization at Dropbox, where heʼs worked for more than four years. Before that, he was a localization project coordinator at thebigword.

Georgina Rovirosa is an international strategist and localization product manager at Kickstarter. She oversees a team of translators and reviewers to manage localization across the company.

Content has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Defining our terms

Inter­nation­ali­zation (i18n) and localization (l10n) are often casually lumped together, and many use the terms interchangeably. While there is plenty of crossover between these concepts, there are also distinct differences.

Adam Sawyer: When I mention localization, I mean translation, adaptation, and the linguistic work that goes into localization. Inter­nation­ali­zation is the other half: You can think of it as anything a developer puts their hands on, from the scripts we’re using to our strings and the tools, the infrastructure, and the backend to provide different currencies for users.

Georgina Rovirosa: Translation is a part of localization, but in my view, localization encompasses taking a product, a message, or something like that and not just translating it, but also adapting it to a foreign language and for an international market. From an engineering or technical perspective, it could encompass anything. It might mean that as you’re building your product, you make sure that it supports things like [differing uses of] genders in languages. My job is probably 50 percent working with the product side—inter­nation­ali­zation— and 50 percent direct translation and localization. Both things are ongoing, and they’re not separate.

Addison Phillips: When I started my career, it was very rare to do bidirectional languages like Arabic or Hebrew. It was rare to do languages from many, many countries around the globe. Today, we see companies like Google or Apple or Amazon increasingly addressing tens and hundreds of languages and locales with their software. It’s really a marked improvement in support for the world’s languages.

As we’ve done more of this, we’ve also begun to expose where we’re weak in our capability and capacity. The inter­nation­ali­zation activity of W3C has [helped that] evolve. Today, we’re significantly surveying the different language populations to see how well they’re supported. It’s really interesting to see the publishing and the writing traditions of different cultures and languages and how well we have or have not supported them.

Sawyer: Because we’re so connected in this social media–heavy world, it’s easy to feel like we’re part of this global community. [This] is great in one respect, but it’s sometimes to the detriment of realizing the importance of other cultures and other languages. Providing as native an experience as you can to a user is one of the most valuable things you can do.

Speaking the same language

Handling the intricacies of different languages is one of the biggest challenges of both inter­nation­ali­zation and localization. Whether youʼre battling with code written in English to correctly determine gender in a language with many options, or youʼre ensuring that captions, quotes, and copy can vary in length without breaking anything, thereʼs more to think about when tailoring a product for a global audience than you may first consider.

Rovirosa: English is mostly gender neutral, but other languages—like German or Spanish—have grammatical genders. Likewise, you can’t just assume that people will always use a.m. and p.m. because some countries use 24-hour clocks. These little things come with the way you build your product, or product localization.

Sawyer: Officially [at Dropbox], we cover 21 languages, give or take, depending on the product and the service. My team handles all the localization, translation, and adaptation for all of Dropbox’s assets, from product UI to sales and marketing collateral, emails, press releases, help content—anything and everything. Even the user macros that our support agents work with, we translate those as well.

Rovirosa: At Kickstarter, there are strings every day that need to be translated, and they’re coming from designers and engineers. My job is to juggle or project manage the translations and coordinate between the translators, product managers, project managers, engineers, and designers. So it’s a lot of talking to the product side of the company every day, just trying to understand what the strengths are, what the feature is meant to do, and trying to get context for the translators—not to mention working with our translators to make sure they work to time. The roles in this job aren’t separate; they go hand in hand.

Sawyer: Engineers are wonderfully intelligent people, but they might not necessarily have a background in other languages, and they might not realize that what they’re writing has a huge impact. We turn it around and, talking a little bit with the developers, say, “This string, for instance, doesn’t support plurals.” I think to English speakers, the concept of plurals is very straightforward. It’s singular or plural. It doesn’t really work that way in other languages. Russian is one of the biggest proponents of this: They have three separate plural versions depending on the number they’re using. One apple versus three apples versus 12 apples would have slightly different translations in Russian. We need to allow for that.

Phillips: It’s getting less common to see a company that’s completely ignorant of the fact that they have customers outside the United States or outside their home territory. That’s a great improvement. That makes my life easier.

Rovirosa: I’m putting on the hat of an international audience, which often includes being empathic, not thinking in Eurocentric terms, and coming up with content that we think is relevant to them. Localized content is about not just translating but generally thinking, “What does this audience want?”

Phillips: When I started my career, the mode for software was packaged software or private, enterprise-type applications: the Oracles and whatnots of the world. Obviously, software has evolved tremendously. We have mobile and we have the web—there’s been a significant change in how software works.

Inter­nation­ali­zation is very, very different from when you knew the locales and languages in which you were going to have a product on the first day. You’d build the product, and the product would go to the factory to be burned onto CDs or would be turned into a download or something like that. Today languages and locales are somewhat more dynamic, and we address a much larger population in the world.

What makes a good i18n and l10n expert

Inter­nation­ali­zation and localization experts juggle many challenges at once: They must advocate for the end user while working between product, design, and engineering branches of their company, and they need to speak many different languages—and weʼre not just talking about Italian, Japanese, or Arabic. Being as comfortable talking about code as you are about white space is of vital importance. Our experts discuss the skills needed and explain some of barriers theyʼve come up against. Common pitfalls? Currency signs and phrases like “Get started.” Oh, and German. Always German.

Sawyer: Most people that I’ve worked with in localization have a strong love of language, new concepts, and different cultures. We act as ambassadors for the rest of the world as well as for other languages. Our job is to make other people think outside the box, whether it’s designers building web pages, UX writers writing strings, or engineers building the UI.

Rovirosa: Speaking another language is essential. You think differently when you already know what could potentially be an issue. But you don’t necessarily need to know how to code. You don’t need to know how to design. You just need to be able to communicate and understand.

Phillips: It’s a very diplomatic role because you have to earn trust and show that you’re not going to be unreasonable. That you’re going to respect the other priorities different teams have. At the same time, you’re not allowing people to just go: “Oh, well, you know, the users can lump it because I have other things to do, or I just don’t understand, or I don’t care.” There’s a constant need to be rational and reasonable and still hold up a high bar. One might have to play a very long game in terms of eliciting support from a team or a standards group or a vendor over time. That’s certainly very true of my day job, and it’s also very true of working in the standards community.

Rovirosa: Your biggest challenge is to make sure that other stakeholders, especially on the product side, understand that your company is global and your audiences are international. Investing time and effort in inter­nation­ali­zation and localization is super important. Many people struggle to understand that, but it’s key.

It’s an ongoing battle at Kickstarter. Ideally, my team—not just me as a translator but even people that work with international audiences—should always be able to give feedback on the product early on [as it’s being built]. The earlier in the process that we have access, [the earlier we] can catch things and fix them before they go out to the world, as opposed to when it’s too late. As a short example, we place our currency by hard-coding it with the currency sign and then the amount. But this doesn’t work for French or other languages, so [each time] we go back and fix it.

Sawyer: An example that I love to use is the term “Get started.” We use that in our products in a lot of places and, in American English, it’s pretty standard. It’s so understandable that people don’t even think of the fact that it can be used in three or four ways. It could be a call to action on a button. Like, “Get started. Click here.” It could be the title of the page that’s showing how you get started. It can be the name of a file: a Get Started guide PDF. All of those instances need to be translated differently in most other languages.

Rovirosa: I use pictures a lot because I love to cook. I love to look for recipes, but if you’re searching for breakfast foods and you’re living in New York and you’re an English speaker, what you get as a result is what you expect to get for breakfast in America: waffles and eggs and whatever. But if you’re in the UK, that’s different. If you’re in Japan, it’s entirely different.

Phillips: You have to think: “Is what I’m doing culturally influenced in a way that I might [otherwise be unaware of]?” If you design your data structures for addresses to have a two-letter subregion code and call that a state, then you’ll probably be disappointed when you take your software to a country that doesn’t use subregions or that needs something that’s not two letters.

These kinds of core assumptions can become really insidious, but they’re not that hard to foresee. They require only minimal amounts of thinking before you write the code to ensure that you allow for your future global needs.

Sawyer: Dates, times, and currencies are things we shouldn’t have to handle manually and, instead, we should use readily available libraries. Even then, you have to be careful. [Libraries can] provide a lot more of an efficient, automated, quality experience, but a lot of libraries have issues with them. We’ve had to modify a lot of open-source libraries.

Rovirosa: Even if it’s straightforward, clean copy to you, it’s probably not when it comes to translation. The more context you give to translators, the better—and the quicker the turnaround times will be because they don’t have to be out there looking for context. I think that’s super important for product managers, engineers, and designers to keep in mind.

If you’re not running copy [through your inter­nation­ali­zation or localization team], you’re designing products just for U.S. English audiences. Keep that in mind every step of the way. If you write copy that’s really punny, it’s not going to translate well. It’s just not going to mean anything. Or if your design is hard-coded and the metatext cannot be translated, then that’s not good. Or if, in your design, the copy barely fits in English, then it’s probably never going to work in German.

Sawyer: My job is to say: “You have multiple columns on the screen. That’s not going to be great for lengthier languages. You ought to provide room for at least 30 percent growth in all of your strings.” That’s one pitfall. [Others are] all the way over to inappropriate or not-so-great images for the rest of the world. Something as simple as a thumbs-up or an “Okay” sign with your hand is not okay in other countries and regions.

Phillips: There’s a quote in my email signature, which is semi-famous: “Inter­nation­ali­zation is not a feature, it’s an architecture.” It’s not something extra. It doesn’t take longer. It doesn’t require additional engineers. There isn’t an itinerant fairy who comes and solves it. There’s not some other team somewhere. It’s not any different than software development. It’s just software development with your eyes open.

Much of it is about rewriting organizational DNA. Organizations need to think about their international customers from the beginning and build products in a global fashion. Understand that customers are all over the place and that they have different needs. Carry that over to your product.

I’ve been in a meeting where the executives approved this user interface design. They say to me: “Why do you have comments on it? We can’t change this. So-and-so approved it.” I was like, “Did you show so-and-so the German? You didn’t think about the German, did you? You designed this so that there wouldn’t be enough room for people to see all the words in German, and no, you can’t abbreviate all the German words.”

If you’ve ever worked with a right-to-left language, it can be daunting and confusing to get it to work right. A lot of users that I meet in the Middle East, they kind of fudge it until it looks right. That’s still kind of the mode of operation right now. There are many aspects of that space that are still somewhat broken.

We did an initiative some years ago that was self-organizing as a Japanese layout task force [to standardize requirements for Japanese language layouts]. The task force produced a book, basically. The book was on how Japanese text layout works. That was super helpful because you could go look at that and you could see pictures of how it worked and textual descriptions in Japanese, and then the translator made it in English. You could hand the app to the standards writers and to software developers.

The future

Having fought so many fires in internalization and localization, our experts have some ideas on where these practices will go in the near future. Theyʼre also thankful for the help of machine intelligence. But thereʼs a bigger, more fundamental issue: the pipeline.

Sawyer: Machine learning has definitely come into the foreground in tech in a lot of different arenas. Localization translation is not detached from that.

Rovirosa: I think artificial intelligence and machine translation is definitely the biggest trend right now. It’s not something that we fully embrace at Kickstarter, but I definitely think that in the industry in general, that’s where it’s headed.

Think of companies like Amazon or eBay: They translate so much content every day, and with such quick turnaround times, that there’s no way a human could handle it—especially in a cost-effective manner. Machine translations are definitely the biggest trend, and they’re a huge opportunity to cut costs and increase efficiency.

I don’t think we’re replacing human translators, but the mass of translation has grown so much that we don’t have enough translators to keep up.

Phillips: We’ve still got miles to go in terms of achieving a richer and broader availability of support, particularly for what we sometimes figuratively call “minority languages,” the thousands of languages that exist outside of the core 50 or so that are broadly spoken and in no danger of extinction. We have a lot that can happen to support that over the next few years.

There’s also a fundamental educational problem. Developers don’t learn anything about [inter­nation­ali­zation] in college, frankly. When they come out dripping wet with their CS diploma in their hand, the first thing every company that cares about inter­nation­ali­zation has to do is teach them how it works. That’s a pain in the ass.

About the author

Chris Stokel-Walker is a UK-based features journalist for The Economist, Bloomberg, the BBC, and Wired UK. His first book, YouTubers, was published in 2019, and his second, TikTok Boom, was published in July 2021.


Artwork by

Charlotte Ager

Buy the print edition

Visit the Increment Store to purchase print issues.


Continue Reading

Explore Topics

All Issues