Localization Services From a User's Point of View

Back to Contents of Issue: January 2005

Localization Services From a User's Point of View

by Emily Kubo

An ill-informed translation can cause grave tensions with unforeseen consequences, especially in countries where the use of particular place names has been made illegal. For example, early Chinese versions of Windows were localized in Taiwan, which the PRC considers as a renegade province and not an independent country. Microsoft's choice caused considerable stir with the Chinese government. Currently, users of Microsoft software who want to use the more complex set of ideograms for Taiwan are requested to select the correct "Country and/or region," not just "Country." But even now, when tiffs occasionally occur between the technology giant and the Chinese government, some observers trace the seed of bad will back to that early Windows incident.

What Is Localization?..............................
Localization usually, although not always, refers to software. Its requirements include everything from documentation, software, layout design, and source code to even the sizing of dialogue boxes. A concrete example is date formatting in Japan, which requires slight alterations to the code to accommodate imperial reign years. Along with this process, documents need to be translated; new functionalities, tested; and then the product, packaged for the target market.

Trends in Technology...............................
Until quite recently, most of the world's computer, e-commerce and internet-related products have been developed in English, in the U.S. The "U.S. has gotten a lot better," says a software localization expert with more than 15 years' experience in Japan who spoke on a condition of anonymity. "But when I started in the 1990s, America was very U.S.-centric. A lot of people I worked with never spoke a foreign language."

In the archaic age before Windows, localizers dealt with Dos products--designed in America using an eight-byte character set--which were unable to handle Japanese characters. Developers eventually created a mixed single byte/double byte character set for Japanese, but it was a huge amount of work and most companies did not want both character sets to clutter their U.S. database. "So they would take the US product, rebuild it with all the Japanese enabling, then ship it," recalls John Talbot, an industry veteran who worked with both Lotus and Microsoft in Japan for over 15 years. "It was basically a whole new product at the end."

The process has been simplified drastically, thanks to new technology. The Unicode character set has become the standard operating system, allowing all products that are Unicode enabled to handle all characters for every country around the world. It has changed the dynamics of localization and has become a minimal prerequisite for globally-minded companies. Henes recommends the product be internationalized in the very beginning design phases so that it can be easily localized. Failure to do so, he says, "would be as if you built a house and then added plumbing after it is finished." The result would be both costly and laborious. For smart companies, however, the trend is to design and manufacture products adaptable to different locales whose source code can then be easily translated into different local editions. The latest version of Microsoft Office, for example, is now a single worldwide product. "If a company wishes to do business in Japan and avoid problems, they shouldn't do it as a Japanese localization product," Talbot advises. "They should find what features are needed here, then do it as part of the regular development cycle in America, and ship it as a single worldwide product. It relieves a lot of stress. It also means that the product is only tested once, which is the most efficient way of shipping the product."

Rebecca Ray, Global Business Editor for the Globalization Insider, a monthly publication from LISA (The Localization Industry Standards Association, a non-profit professional association based in Geneva, Switzerland), echoes Talbot, adding that companies should treat internalization not merely as a feature, but as an architecture. "The distinction is very important since treating internationalization as a feature means that it is negotiable and can be dropped if its priority is not set high enough. Integrating internationalization as an architecture into a company's way of doing business means that it will underlie how all products are designed and built and how all business processes are implemented." In other words, internationalization becomes "non-negotiable".

The Internet has also impacted the localization process and sprung a whole new method of doing things. Henes recalls a time when a software product came out in a source language and then in a foreign language a few months later. However, for companies with global websites, such luxury no longer exists. "Speed has become much more critical than before," he says. "If you run a website in 24 languages and make a change in the source language--well you then need to make a change in all other languages. To have them checked, tested, and uploaded--that becomes a tremendous challenge." But even web localization is not as straight forward as it sounds, "In the mid-1990s, people came to realize that launching and maintaining international versions of their web sites involved much more than simply translating original content," says Ray. As the concept of "local content" became important, companies began demanding global websites that would reflect local preference in their architecture, design, and content.

In-house vs. Outsourcing............................................................
One of the most frequently asked questions by newcomers to Japan is whether to localize their products in-house or to outsource. "The advantage of doing localization in-house concerns quality," says Kazue Hoshida, Managing Director of Language Documentation Services (LDS) and a member of the board directors for Japan Translation Federation (JTF). "The people working in-house work only on the products or services that their company offers and thus they can create appropriate methods. Moreover, they can communicate easily and solve problems very promptly if they arise." Henes agrees: "You have more control over everything--over who you hire, and how to manage your schedule." Furthermore, Ray points out that sensitive materials may have to be localized in-house, especially when they concern security and compliance issues.

Full in-house localization is not a suitable option for everyone, however. The biggest downside for in-house localization is the cost of idle workers during slow times. "You need a certain volume of work to justify in-house work," says Henes, who gives the analogy of taking the taxi versus owning your own car. "If you only go somewhere far once a month, it is much more economical to take a taxi than to pay parking for the other 29 days of the month." Hoshida agrees. "I would say only big players can do in-house localization, since only they have enough projects to keep in-house staff busy."

Outsourcing options...................................................................
But what if you were a little guy with a smaller budget--is there little hope? Not true, says Aaron Isgar, a freelance translator who has lived in Japan for 12 years. There are many outsourcing options available for small to mid-size companies looking for localization partners in Japan. One option is to outsource work to large, prominent localization agencies. A few big players in this industry include Lionbridge, Bowne Global, SDL International, and Toin Corporation. "Outsourcing can be advantageous if managed effectively," says Henes. "A large SDL vendor has lots of expertise and technical skills that would be hard for a small or mid-sized firm to match internally."

Going with an agency has the further advantage of speed. Because agencies tend to have a large pool of resources (most are freelancers also), they tend to get the job done quickly. However, there are downsides to large agencies as well. A former employee at a large localizing company thinks that large agencies have a tendency to mass-produce: "The company that I worked for was very good at things that they did regularly, and with big projects that they can pour a lot of resources into. However, they were quite dodgy at smaller projects that were somewhat technical." Our source, who asked not to be named, contended that this was a problem not only with his ex-employer, but probably across the industry: "It's quite difficult to get the right people who have the right combination of software and language skills and understanding of the content--because this is really very technical and specialized stuff--each product is so different." Due to the complexity and uniqueness of each project, it becomes a challenge for even large companies to deliver high-quality services consistently. Hoshida says that people ultimately determine the end quality of the product: "Nowadays, we use many tools in the translation and localization process, but the tools themselves do not have brains." She believes when looking for a localization partner it is important to find a company that trains people in-house to familiarize them with the clients' products and services.

In the end, however, the decision whether or not to outsource is still arbitrary. "It really depends a lot on the situation and on the company," Henes says. "There are people who outsource everything and accept the downside. Some are willing to pay more to control every aspect. These questions come up all the time." Finding a localization partner knowledgeable about your market is half the battle. But should the localizer be based in Japan? Opinions differ. "When the localization partner is remote, it might be difficult to keep in touch with current trends and the current vernacular of the industry," says a source who wishes to remain anonymous. "You might be able to get away with it with a developer-oriented product, but there is a strong reason to employ a local firm or freelancers for customer-oriented products, who might be more in touch with the cultural nuance."

On the other hand, Extensis, a mid-sized software company based in Portland has had great success with localization using an Oregon- based firm, translations.com. Toru Kawate, the Japanese business manager for Extensis, attributes Extensis' successful relationship with their vendor to the many years of collaboration and the vendor's willingness to accommodate last minute changes--important because updates are common in localization projects. "We have tried many companies in the U.S., but this is the company that would bend backwards to do things for us." Also, because Oregon has a decent-sized Japanese population, translations.com stays in touch with the current trends. In fact, almost all of localization at Extensis is done in Oregon--their Japanese counterpart only gets involved with QA.

Another option for companies with smaller budgets is to consult a freelancer. Freelancers are mostly used for document and help file translations, although Isgar thinks that many times an experienced freelancer with years of Japanese residence can also provide information and guidance beyond pure translation, "To me, after having done translations for so many years, localization is more like a consulting package to provide culturally specific communication materials." A key advantage with going with a freelance translator, says Isgar, is flexibility--about their budget and their time. He recommends that companies with small budgets should look for someone who understands the culture and can read and write Japanese, such as a foreigner who has lived in Japan for a long time, or a native Japanese who has lived in their country for a long time.

Gary Larson, a seasoned localizer, who has lived in Japan for over 25 years and been involved in localization since the late 1980s, says that he learns everything about the product he is localizing. He finds that once he truly understands the mechanism of a product, it becomes much easier to work on User Interface, Help and Documentation, and to work on version additions in the future. He also agrees that passion and flexibility are his advantages: "As a freelancer, I can be very flexible and work within the budget of the company--just because I love what I do."

However, because freelancers are often limited in their resources, they cannot always handle large volumes of work under tight deadlines, and might not be the best option for technical work. Again, there is no one model that works for everyone.

Challenges in Japan....................................................................
Even when you have chosen a localization model, the Japanese market presents a set of its own unique challenges. For one, Japanese people are especially poor at English. Competition is fierce and failure to match expectation of native language support in most products would significantly hurt market share. For this reason, localization and translation are regarded as absolutely necessary. "It is the only place that Microsoft still spends time and money localizing its development tool, Visual C," Talbot pointed out. In the rest of the world, the English version is used since development tools are targeted at highly educated people who are likely to read English--a case that is true everywhere except Japan.

The Japanese also are fussier about the concept of "quality," an all-encompassing word that could mean anything to the Japanese customer, from the look and feel of the product, to the bugs in the system. Talbot gives an example with elevators: "In Japan, the elevator ride tends to be smooth and unnoticeable. In the U.S., however, the elevators are much more jerky and people are used to that there--reflecting the fact that people in the U.S. live with rough edges more and accept it as part of everyday life. This is not the case in Japan, where customers do insist more on things feeling and looking good and traditionally have been willing to pay more for that kind of feeling."

The emphasis on "quality" as the number one priority contrasts with the mentality of U.S. companies, who tend to focus on returns. The conflict of interest can sometimes cause tension between the U.S. and Japanese teams. "Japanese tend to be perfectionists," says translations.com's Kawate, who not only manages all aspects of the business for the Japanese market, but also plays the important role of bridging the two business cultures: "I am a Japanese who lives in the U.S., so I know exactly where each side comes from," he says. "But there will always be bugs in the system." When tensions do rise, Kawate must somehow work things out with the Japanese side, assuring them that any problems that are not dealt with in the first release will be addressed in the future. Such compromise is a mere fact of the business. "You have to do that to make money," he says blankly.

Tips for the undeterred..............................................................
If you are a software company coming to Japan, localizing your product is just the first step. "Who is going to provide support?" asks Larson, who recommends that western companies work with an outside distributor who can provide help in Japanese.

Kawate recommends that a small American company without in-house expertise can hook up with a Japanese distributor, who can then find a localization firm in Japan. "I have seen companies smaller than Extensis that have been successful doing exactly that," he says.

But even when companies work with a Japanese distributor, or a localization agency, Kawate cautions, the U.S. company must manage a strict timeline--management is one aspect of localization that should never be outsourced. Because localization is a difficult, tedious process, the job of the localization manager is particularly important. Talbot recalls the frustration amongst engineers in America during the early days of Microsoft and Lotus localization in Japan. "There was great frustration because the engineers didn't feel the new features were very important because they weren't for their own, American, customers. But once a directive came from management, however, to explain that their customers who are doing business worldwide demanded these new features, then it became a lot easier to push the development team to do a good job."

Talbot recommends responsibility for localization should be given to higher level executives, who have broader powers to demand change wherever necessary. "[Localization] is really taking a domestic enterprise into a global enterprise, and it will involve changes in engineering, sales, accounting(II(Jeverything. If the responsibility is given to a lower level person, it can be very frustrating when the person is not given the power to change the whole process."

As a manager of a software firm in the U.S. who has done localization extensively for the Japanese market, Kawate is well aware of the possible issues that seem destined to creep into any localization project: "The toughest part is finding some critical bug at the very late stages--you have to involve everyone and scramble to get it done. This affects everything and you need to reprioritize everything." However, he is still optimistic and believes that having a good partner and knowing the schedule can minimize disasters and greatly reduce stress level. Once you find a partner, Kawate says, expectations should be clearly stated in the beginning from both sides. And when problems do come up, they should be brought to the partner's attention right away.

But since late-stage problems are a fact of life for companies engaged in localization, Kawate cautions them to be patient. "And don't get emotional about anything," he says. "Because no matter how well you prepare beforehand, when you are dealing with new functionalities, things still happen.

Note: The function "email this page" is currently not supported for this page.