Internationalization vs. Localization

Old Blog Import

The vast majority of the world is multilingual. Not only are they
multilingual, but many people use multiple scripts as well, including
character based scripts like Chinese and right-to-left scripts like
Hebrew and Arabic. In the old days of computing each of these various
scripts was handled differently, with each computer platform using
various different ways of implementing each script. This meant that
one had to choose your default script (i.e. Traditional Chinese) and
stick with that. It was difficult to mix and match scripts, and if you
were using a computer which wasn’t set for that script as your default
you had to know which script a website was encoded in before you could
read it properly. In short, it was a pain in the ass to be
multilingual on the internet.

 All that changed with the development of unicode” a standard which
allows (almost) all scripts to peacefully coexist. And most websites
have adopted this new standard. But many have not. In Taiwan, for
instance, many sites still expect your browser to be set for
Traditional Chinese in order to work properly. Some sites (like the
site I have to use to enter grades at my university) won’t even work
unless you are using a Traditional Chinese version of Internet
Explorer running on a Traditional Chinese version of Windows. Ugh!
Other sites are botched because they use Adobe Flash which doesn’t yet
accept unicode input methods on OS X. And still other sites, like, are botched because they strip all unicode data when doing
something as simple as uploading files. One reason I love my iPhone so
much is because Palm never introduced unicode support on its PalmOS.
Fortunately its new WebOS is built on WebKit, which has unicode
support built in. Things are getting better, but there is still a long
way to go.

 But the biggest hurdle is in the mentality of web designers. I often
write to complain that some site or another falls short in its support
for international text. Not just to complain, but because I like the
site but can’t use it because it won’t accept Chinese language file
names, book titles, contact information, or some other international
text I need in order to do my work here in Taiwan. What drives me
crazy is when, in response to such an e-mail, I get a blanket response
telling me that the developers are working on a Chinese version of
their website. This is *not* what I want. Localization means that all
the menus, help text, etc. are translated into Chinese. This is great
for people whose English is less than fluent, but even many of my
Taiwanese colleagues here in Taiwan prefer to use websites in English.
What they want is to use Chinese data! Support for international
scripts is not the same thing as localization.

 I think the problem is that these web designers assume a one-to-one
correspondence between users and languages. If you are Taiwanese you
want to use their site in Chinese. Google assumes this every time I
log in to their mobile website from my iPhone. This is even worse
because it assumes I am Taiwanese simply because I am logging in from
Taiwan. Not everyone in Taiwan is Taiwanese. At least on the iPhone
they have a button to access the site in English — but on some of
their websites, like Youtube, it seems impossible to figure out how to
get the site in English (it is easier from some other language sites,
but the Taiwan website makes it very difficult). Even worse, if you
want to change the default language of the main Google homepage, the
list of languages appears in Chinese — which not everyone using the
website in Taiwan can read. Would you know to click on 英文 to get

 Web designers need to put more thought into the fact that users might
be non-native speakers in the country in which they reside. Spanish
speakers in the US might want a Spanish interface, and English
speakers in China might want an English interface. They also need to
understand that people who speak one language might need to use and
access data in other scripts. Many Taiwanese websites have an English
language” version which is devoid of most of the data on the Chinese
version, and is rarely updated. Even worse, important information,
like a business address, are presented entirely in Latin text. Even
non-native speakers who can’t read Chinese often need to have the
Chinese characters for a name or address since most locals can’t read
the romanized version of their language. The solution is to not
ghettoize the English version of the website, but to present the two
languages side-by-side.

 The internet is multilingual in that there are many different
languages spoken on the web, but very few websites have really thought
through the needs of multilingual users. Understanding the problem is
the first step.