Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Internationalisation - ooo, err

Perhaps it is Internationalization? We live in a global market now with a web site in Nepal appearing in the Google results of Brazil and one of the knock-on effects of this is to make sure your web sites are foreign speaker friendly.
Unfortunately, this whole area is very complex because languages are complex, alphabets vary and you might have a Chinese person living in an English speaking country - all of this adds up to a headache which for most people is simply avoided. It needn't kill your brain however, I thought I would guide you through some of the pitfalls and give you some pointers to how to make your web sites work for more than just English people.

  1. Use a pre-built application framework where possible, one that already includes functionality for multi-locale functionality. It is much easier if you use something pre-built even if it is slightly different than you might have designed it.
  2. Learn what the words mean. A locale is a means of formatting dates and times. It is generally related to a single country or groups of neighbouring countries and to a single language. For instance, you can get a locale for Spanish (Spain) and a different locale for Spanish (Mexico).
  3. A language is a complex idea since some languages are really just dialects of each other. For the most part we are concerned about languages that have different written forms rather than spoken forms since our websites are predominantly written down.
  4. For practical reasons, if we make our site multi-lingual, we should restrict the languages we support to a minimum. For some of us, we might be happy with English, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and Chinese as covering most of the globe. For others we might have Mandarin Chinese and Yue Chinese (Cantonese). Of course, if we are a Chinese site, we might have 12 Chinese languages. We would probably also decide that Scots English is close enough to English English to not need a separate translation (although again in some specialist areas this might be required).
  5. It is easier to de-normalise databases for language work and make each row a single language selection. This row might have a country name, locale, language name (possibly translated into the other language e.g. Deutsch instead of German). Some of these values might be duplicated but it makes for easier administration.
  6. If you want your site to be highly multi-lingual, consider adding a system whereby volunteers can translate the words for you rather than you having to pay people to do it.
  7. Use as few words as possible on your site and use pictures where these are clearer. A picture of an exit door saves you umpteen translations of the word "Exit".
  8. Try and auto-detect the language from the browser post variables for convenience.
  9. It should be easy to get to the language you want. If you have, for instance, logged onto a site in China but are an English speaker, your site might have detected Chinese as the browser language and left you staring at something you cannot possibly understand. By using something like a flag in the top corner of all pages and translating the language names into those languages, it should always be easy to find the language you want.
  10. Try and monitor the translation status of languages on your site and if you feel they are not adequately finished, include a mechanism to disable the language. It would look pretty lame if your site was only 10% Tajiki when switched to that language.
  11. Default all messages to English if there is no suitable translation (don't put blank strings there instead!)
  12. Do not re-invent the wheel. Even if you are building your site from scratch (which you hopefully are not!) the data for countries and locales is all out there for free, do not type in the names of 6400 languages.
  13. Unlucky for some
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