Tuesday, December 06, 2011

There’s a time and a place for everything and it’s called college

I really really despise L18N. Especially when it is used in blunt way "just translate whatever text you see on screen". In my opinion, that's just plain wrong. Just like South Park's Chef explains about drugs, there's a time and place for localization too.

Since my first computer (good old times, 1984 with Atari 800 XL), I always used my gadgets (computers, dumb phones, smart phones, iPods, etc) Language settings set to English (while do setting Regional Settings to some continental value, since I use Metric system). And this is why: I do not understand what the fucking machine wants to tell me in Hungarian. Neither German. Or whatever else language, except English.

One typical example: my wife and I have exactly same smartphones. As I described above, mine is using English as Menu Language, while she insisted on "Hungarian menus", so she got them. One day, she realized that while using my phone, she is able to write way longer messages, but while on her phone, the text messages was about third as long (and if longer, cut into multiple messages automatically by phone)! So, she asked me "to do the same I did with my phone, since it's annoying for her to squeeze her messages in so little characters" (she's not a Twitter user either). Sure, no problem! I started wandering at her phone's menus around messaging options, and one menu did caught my eye: "Input mode" (naturally, localized in hungarian). Ok, enter here, and there was 3 options given: "Automatic" (auto-disposed, I don't like gadgets making decisions instead of me), "GSM Standard alphabet", and "Accented characters"… Hm, nothing suspicious… So I continued the search, but failed naturally. She was still able to send "short" text messages. Then I realized, and looked at my phone, same menu: "Input mode", options are "Automatic", "GSM Alphabet" and… "Unicode"! The precious translator translated the "Unicode" name into "Accented characters"! Dumb ass. That explained everything. Setting her phone to use "GSM Alphabet" solved her problem of short messages, but I bet examples like these are easily found in multiple places.

Another great example is Apple OSX. Naturally, her Mac uses Hungarian localization (available since Lion). I was frowned, that not only Finder and (those that are localized into Hungarian) application menus are in Hungarian, but Apple localized Application names too! Usually, when she asks me for help (usually I need to kill Flash plugin), I start what I do on my machine: Cmd + Space and start type "activi"(ty monitor), Spotlight brings it up, press Enter and start looking for rogue process. But not on her machine…. Spotlight does not reports "Activity Monitor" as something that exists on my wife's Mac, while we both use same OSX! Just really annoying. The application name "Activity Monitor" is localized too! This reminds me of the old Microsoft fiasco, when they "localized" Excel for Hungarian in a way, that even functions were localized too, hence, non-hungarian and hungarian spreadsheets were simply incompatible! Way too stupid. I mean, okay, localize Finder, but an OS tool???

So, just like Chef says: there's time and place for localization too. I believe if Mary (Mariska) type her email, it's okay to use Mail.app menus in English (Hungarian). Same for typing in a word processor. But.

English is the language (it could be Latin or Esperanto, I don't care) is well fit for these "one word commands", like "Save", "Quit" or "Copy" and "Paste". Many times the forced one word translations are hilarious, or instead, the almost "sentence like" translations ruins the UI design. And regularly, differs the meaning they carry at least to make you wonder what the original label was. Natural languages are that "by design", your never be able to translate the perfect meaning, due to language constructs, cultural differences or because of sloppy translator, or because of all these. And you just ruin the applications doing that, and waste a lot of resources and money doing it (is waste just like some companies are suing each other instead turning that money to R&D). Again, there's time and place for doing it.

But, if you do an application used by some narrow "set" of users, like a tool for developers, or tools for IT technicians, I'd never bother localizing that. There is a "lingua franca" for them, and that's English. Just accept it as a fact.

In my opinion, Chef was right. But he was talking about drugs: "Look children: this is all I’m gonna say about drugs. Stay away from them. There’s a time and a place for everything and it’s called college." Well said!


Dmitry Platonoff said...

That's a long post on localization hate ;]. Unfortunately, we IT professionals have a somewhat limited view of the world. We have too many friends and peers with similar background and education, so we assume the rest of the world is the same. The reality is, the majority of computer users in Eastern Europe (and many other countries I guess) can barely read any English. Their vocabulary hardly covers Coca-Cola and McDonald's, so using English software is an enormous pain for them.

There are also other reasons. Sometimes localizations offer the much needed functionality the original software does not. For example, back in the 90's you had to use the Russian version of Windows if you wanted to type and read in Russian. The English version did not have the fonts or the codepage support. Similarly, you had to use a custom Russian build of Apache, since the original could not handle the character encoding correctly. It's likely less relevant nowadays though...

Tamás Cservenák said...

Dmitry, your case is explained as "Mary and Mail.app" (or Mariska and Levél.alk in Hungarian). I ranted about tools for highly specialized audience (developers or IT professionals), but l18n is still needed, I do agree. But there is time and place for it :)

Also, today, in the world of Unicode encoding ("Accented characters" encoding in Hungarian apparently), the "windows codepage argument" should not happen (but sadly, sometimes it still hits back).