Some of the problems with complaints about localization quality

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2008/02/17 10:01 -05:00, original URI:

I am not speaking for Microsoft here, so anyone who claims I am is subject to the utter moronic wingnut judgment for their lack of comprehension!

People love to complain about poor localization quality in software from Microsoft.

But if you think about it, other people talk about poor user interface and core product usability even before localization enters into the picture.

And it is really hard to separate the two.

But let's take that second point first and think about it.

Now if you ignore Microsoft Bob (as many in Microsoft like to do!) and that Windows Home Server book for a moment, the truth is that very little of the software produced by Microsoft has more than one user interface, despite the fact that there are definitely different levels of users in terms of knowledge of computers, experience, age, maturity, gender, and numerous other facets. So in the end the software may well be usable to some part of the audience (perhaps only geek developers with the same social skills as the original engineers, perhaps more!), and the usual problem being suggested is that it is not usable to some other segment of the audience, presumably (though not always) a wider audience.

This is easy enough to understand conceptually, and most of the buzz around Microsoft these days from UX people is about the usability, and those UX people have the job of trying to make the product usable by the biggest possible audience.

Some products are better at this than others. I do not know of a single person inside or outside of Microsoft who does not know of at least one negative example here, where a product kind of missed some chance to be considered usable in some error message or dialog or process or technique.

Sometimes that is a pure fault in the product, and other times it is a fault in this general idea of trying to average out the abilities of every single user even though every user is different and there is no way to have everybody find something 100% usable without giving different user interfaces for different groups (which most groups would find prohibitively expensive and even if they did not there is no generalized expertise around writing to such different audiences.

And so far such attempts to fix the problem suffer from the "expert mode" problems that Raymond Chen has spoken about in the past.

Plus there are only very limited mechanisms for "training wheels" that can be taken off for users who get more experienced and want to move into a different user interface experience.

Now when you add localization to the mix, you add additional dimensions to the problem:

At which point we get to the essence of the problem -- it is difficult to separate localization complaints that are indeed just purely due to bad localization and/or terminology versus those that are due to it just bring the wrong terns or the wrong interface or the wrong error message for a specific market segment.

The former problem, when it is discovered, can be treated as a pure localization bug, just as a core problem that affects localized platform can be treated as a pure localizability bug.

The fact that there are limited means to address the latter problem is kind of besides the point unless you really consider that this is completely the point. We need mechanism to address this problem.

Because this is the core problem related to localization quality that cannot be solved until after it is recognized and treated as a problem, and more effectively addressed from an engineering standpoint.

In a company and an industry that applauds ideas like Language Interface Packs due to how they make localization cheaper, I don't imagine that there are a whole lot of "Bill Gates" awards for people who make any language more expensive,even if the idea brilliantly solves the problem....

Know what I mean?


This post brought to you by(U+2dde, aka ETHIOPIC SYLLABLE GYO)

# Henry Boehlert on 17 Feb 2008 11:19 AM:

Start with letting localization be supervised by at least one Blue-Badge native speaker. This let's you make 80% of the easy catches. (For German, this would be mostly noun-verb confusions.) German speaking countries are a big market, that effort should pay for itself.

If an interface is complex and targeted at "experts", don't localize at all. Better, the experts learn some English instead of pondering about the crazy output of a Translation Memory System used out of context.

Do usability tests with localized versions.

Use your offices around the world for more than out-bound marketing, sales and consulting.

# Alexandru Bogdan Munteanu on 17 Feb 2008 2:28 PM:

The quality of the localized versions is a very serious issue and I am amazed by the fact that Microsoft as a company is very unresponsive on this subject.

I told you already about the very low quality of the romanian translations made for the various MS products, especially the OS (XP and Vista) and the Live services. And nobody at Microsoft USA does a thing about that, as if the translations were the best in the world. But they're really bad, in fact I rarely saw a software translation as bad as the ones for Windows XP/Vista and Live Messenger. This situation just trashes the company's image in the eyes of romanians. I know that the real culprits are those that work at MS Romania and are responsible for coordinating the translation of MS products. They have dragged the reputation of MS through the mud and I don't know when MS will again regain this lost reputation for making quality products.

It is not possible that a localized operating system, viewed by hundreds of thousands of people from a country (many of whom are in schools), is so badly translated, to the point that the phrases are incomprehensible. Anytime that a string to be translated contains two or more words, the romanian localization gets it wrong. The Windows Control Panel is barely usable in romanian because of that. It's a shame and no one believes that a big company like MS doesn't have the money to hire professional translators to do the work. Instead the romanian MS localization team (?) used LocStudio, which is of course free for anyone that works at MS. But this is a software, not a human that speaks romanian, so the resulted translation was bad. It's like somenone takes one blog post from SIAO and then translate it in romanian using Babelfish or another automated translation system. The post will be barely understandable. That happened to the romanian translation of WIndows Vista. They say on the MS Romania site that the translation was checked by the romanian programmers at MS USA, but it'a lie, no one who speaks romanian and english could accept the mistakes made in the "translation". The translation was not revised at all, otherwise the mistakes would have been corrected.

If you know someone at MS USA that supervises the activity of Romanian branch you can forward them this comment. The situation is really bad and MS is lucky that its competition is absent at this time. But think a moment if Linux or Mac had interfaces translated in romanian. There are many romanian people that don't know english, but they want to use computers for simple activities (writing or communicating for example). They would be the prime candidates for a "switch" if romanian versions of Linux or Mac would be available. At this time this is not the case, but what if Apple will offer in 2009 a romanian version of OSX ? It can be done in a year by a team of 10 translators (maybe less), not to mention that MAC OS 7.6 was translated in romanian and from what I've heard the translation was good. What if in 2009 Ubuntu will have a complete romanian translation ? And what if both these translation would be ten times better than that of Vista ? It would mean of course some market loss for MS, probably not that big at first, but who knows what can happen in 5 years from now on, if the quality of the MS translations remains bad.

So my opinion is that the person that has "coordinated" the romanian localization of Vista and Live should be fired immediately and at his place hired a specialist, someone that has studied romanian language at the university level (a linguist for example). And the translation should be taken form the "hands" of LocStudio and put in the hands of a professional team of translators.

# Mihai on 18 Feb 2008 1:23 PM:

Some comments


<<supervised by at least one Blue-Badge native speaker"

Not sure if a "Blue-Badge" is something special, but all localization should be done by trained linguists, not just regular native speakers.>>

<<If an interface is complex and targeted at "experts", don't localize at all.>>

This one is really debatable.


I have seen Romanian Linux translations. And they are worse than the Windows translation (yes, it is possible).

And I agree, the Windows localization is not great. Is it a disaster? I don't know, I did not use it enough, and I know the English version too well (so I get the "word by word" translations).

But it is definitely not machine translation (Babelfish style). LocStudio is (from what I know) a CAT (Computer Aided Translation) tool. Does leveraging, terminology management, but translation is still done by humans.

Checking the control panel I can see a mixture of good, obvious translations, English, and options that make me exclaim "WTF?"

In the same time I agree that for some things I cannot find something better. But hey, I'm just an engineer :-)

Overall, to me it looks like an "ok" translation, definitely done by a human, but not by someone with training as professional translator/linguist (it might be done by professionals, but this is the overall feeling).

# Michael S. Kaplan on 18 Feb 2008 4:11 PM:

FYI -- "Blue Badge" refers to a full-time Microsoft employee

# Alexandru Bogdan Munteanu on 18 Feb 2008 4:21 PM:

Mihai, I have also seen the Linux translations. They are not great, but they are better than the translation of XP or Vista. The problem with Linux is the fact that many programs are dependent of KDE or Gnome. These two platforms are not translated entirely in romanian, so each program (text editor, multimedia player, etc.) appears with a mix of romanian (50-70%) and english (30-50%) strings. This is bad, but if the KDE and Gnome translations will be completed, I can see a big problem for Microsoft. Many computers (including laptops) are sold here with Linux preinstalled instead of Windows. I know that probably 90% of the buyers wipe Linux and install a pirated copy of WIndows. But if the Ubuntu translation will be completed in the next year there is a chance that the romanian distribution named Kiwi Linux will stay on the computers, especially on those that are used for basic tasks, like browsing, writing e-mails, seeing movies and listening to music. Firefox and Thunderbird are already translated by Alexandru Szasz and their translation is good. SMPlayer, a multimedia player based on Mplayer is translated in romanian and the translation is also good. Cristian Secară has translated Opera and is in the process of completing the translation of VLC (another multimedia player). OpenOffice is also been translated at the moment and maybe by the end of this year the translation will be complete. Songbird is translated, Picasa also. The number of Linux programs that have good translations grows little by little.

But the biggest threat comes from the Mac camp. They have the money to hire the best translators and they will probably do it. I am absolutely sure that the translation of Mac OSX will be much better than that of Windows, because they do care about quality and they have a reputation to protect. All their products are more expensive that those for PC's, but if they will offer a good translation of their OS and included applications, people will probably not complain about the price.

Now let's get back to the romanian translation of Windows and Live services. You are an insider and know better what is happening with the localization process at MS. However, let me say it once again, the romanian translation is not done by humans, it is done by robots that barely speak romanian. The style of the translation is completely outlandish, alien, it has nothing to do with the romanian language. It is not natural, it is a completely new dialect that is not spoken by humans, maybe only by illiterate androids. You have probably heard about  the "lolcats" and their childish dialect of english. I say that the romanian translation of Windows has created the dialect of the "lolrobots", because it is robotic and humourous at times. But it's not a dialect that the romanians want their children to learn at school or at home when they use computers. You cannot teach a kid some proper grammar rules at the romanian language class and then at the computer class the same kid sees that the menus and options from Windows make a mockery of all the rules of the romanian language. I really don't think that any human has revised the translation of Vista, or maybe MS had the "luck" to hire the most incompetent translators in the world. But even so, it is impossible that all those that have tested the beta for Vista romanian didn't see the obvious mistakes present in the translation.

And there is something else. I had 6 months ago a long argument with Tudor Galoș, head of Windows business department at MS Romania (the address of the discussion is on the site presented at the bottom of these post under the section "Discuții"). I don't know what he is thinking now, but at that time he refused to see the truth, he refused to acknowledge that the translation of Vista was bad and should be repaired (it was before Vista Romanian appeared on the market). It's really beyond comprehension how he and the other that are in charge of MS Romania could launch a product with such a bad quality of the translation on the romanian market. It's bad business practice and it has a long lasting effect in the eyes of the consumers. Could you imagine another big american company (Procter&Gamble, Gilette, etc.) launching a product with the instructions translated poorly? I don't think so. A big company like MS with plenty of money to spend could not hire some good romanian translators for their flagship product ? This is really unbelievable. And nobody can say that there are no romanian translators specialized in software. They are of course, they have translated books about computers and software for more than ten years now. Some translated books are from Microsoft Press and there are many translated books about Windows and Office. So it's not like there are no good romanian translators or they are in hiding. How was it possible that MS Romania had picked the worst translators ? Nobody knows, maybe the process of selecting the translators is flawed, maybe some people at MS Romania have hired their relatives to do the job, unfortunately nepotism is rampant here. An audit of the activity of the romanian translation department is indicated in my opinion. The current "translators" have been paid, but nobody uses their "work". Because how somebody could use Live Messenger in romanian when the translation is so hilarious ? Not that an IM could not be translated in romanian, take a look at the translation of Pidgin (available for Linux and Windows). How is it possible that the non-professional translator Mișu Moldovan could make a good translation for Pidgin and the professional translators at MS Romania are incapable to do the same for Live Messenger?

There are many good romanian translations for Windows software. It is not a hard task to do a good translation. It's not easy at times, but overall it is not even remotely as hard as doing a translation for a novel or a poem. It's most of the time "mechanical" work, with a little creativity here and there, and it's not very hard for someone that knows romanian, english and how to use a computer.

There is a site with good romanian translations, its address is below. Anyone can compare these translations with those of the MS products. And anyone can draw the conclusions regarding the quality of the latter translations. But those that are in charge at MS USA should take action and make sure that the romanian translation is repaired as soon as possible.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 18 Feb 2008 4:49 PM:

Hey Alexandru,

This is kind of getting off the point I was trying to make here about usability and localization in general which eclipses all of things you are talking about (except when it includes them)....

# Alexandru Bogdan Munteanu on 19 Feb 2008 10:52 AM:

Yes, Michael, my comment was more like a long rant about the localization of MS products in romainan, than about your blog post. I had to take that off my chest, because at times it seems no one is listening at MS Romania and the only solution is to speak with someone that works at MS USA. It is not that hard to do a software localization, it is not like translating something written by Faulkner, not even like translating "Upgrading and Repairing PC" by Scott Mueller or the books of Donald Knuth. And all of those were transated in romanian, all the translations being well done, except for the MS products that were actually the easier from the examples given above. I don't even ask why this is happening, I only say that the reputation of MS is badly damaged because of that. It took MS many years to get rid of the impression that Windows is unstable so the BSOD is a very common occurence. Who knows how many years will pass before people will not associate anymore MS with bad software translations. The romanian situation is probably one of the worst, but to my surprise it is not an exception. Henry Boehlert spoke in the first comment about the mistakes present in the german localization. And it seems that the french one has also some problems. I was reading a forum the other day with a discussion from december 2007 about the french translation of a security software ( ). The two participants are obviously knowledgeable people about translations in general and one of them said :"We don't want Sandboxie's translation to be half as bad as Microsoft's Windows "French" version, do we ?"

There is also a more "perverse" consequence of the bad Windows translations. If you say to romanians to use software translated in their native language many will say : "Are you out of your mind, the romanian language is not suitable for use in software, have you seen how bad is Windows in romanian?" People think that if a big company like MS could not do a good translation, then nobody will. Which is wrong, because there are many good translations, but people are reluctant to use them because of their prior experience with translated MS products. Anyway, maybe this impression will change as more good translations become available, but this does not solve the reputation problem for MS. I don't even want to think what will happen at MS Romania if in 2009 both Ubuntu and Mac OSX will have good romanian translations, which by the way is possible, both Mark Shuttleworth (or maybe Google) and Steve Jobs having deep pockets to pay for translations in many languages, not only romanian. But maybe it is the only way that the people at MS RO could be awaken from their monopolistic sleep.

Now back to your blog. You said in an earlier post that:

"[...] bad localization is cheap and fast. But you also won't find many people buying it."

That is true. But you also said :

"Good software localization is hugely expensive, and involves expertise that is hard to find and keep -- knowledge of the source language, the target language, and most importantly the technology and how it is described in both languages."

I do not know wht is the amount that MS paid for the romanian translation of Windows. I don't think that software localization should be very expensive, these translations are not that hard to make. There are many people with those skills that you have mentioned, and I think that those translators habituated with technical or scientific translations can translate software with the help of a programmer that could explain some of the features or concepts of a particular software (or with the help of the internet via Goggle). But it is also important to beta-test the translation, to let as many users as possible to try it before launching it officially. A special beta version of Windows Vista with limited time valability (maybe 3 months or less) could have been used for that. Put that version on the MS site and on CD/DVD's of computer magazines and the feedback will come from many users interested to have a good localized version.

The translation is strongly related to the usability of a software. But if usability has various degrees and some degree of "lack of usability" can be tolerated, a translation is either good or bad, and a half-good translation is perceived as bad, so it will not be used/purchased. It is very good that MS wants to localize the OS in many languages, but if the quality of the translations is not above average, all the money spent is lost without any positive results beyond some PR stuff about Windows being translated in such a great number of languages.

I don't know what to say about "expert" and "novice" mode as separate interfaces that could be toggled at will. Maybe they could be useful, although the less experienced users tend "by instinct" not to mess with the options that they do not understand. I've seen very few programs that have this design, only Azureus comes to mind now. Another idea would be that the advanced options should be colored differently than the regular ones. Or that all the applications should have a ribbon menu (like in Office 2007) that could be modified automatically with a simple switch with two positions : advanced / regular. But maybe this would be overkill for Wordpad or Paint.

Anyway, the current system of LIP's and MUI's used in Windows is not at all friendly to the advanced user/translator. I understand that it has advantages, but it also has a big disadvantage, the translations cannot be modified without hacking the resource files. So if an user doesn't like some terminology or style of translation used by MS, he cannot change it. Compare this with the way that most Windows programmers chose for localizing their software, simple text files (INI, LNG or XML) that can be opened with any text editor. These files can be translated and modified by anyone, so if an user is complaining that one localization is bad, he is invited to do a better one. This is not possible with the MS products. In an earlier post someone spoke about an integrated translation system based on LIP/MUI, so that various non-MS software could be more easily translated with the MS tools and maybe also MS glossaries. I don't think this is a good idea, the current situation where each software has its own translation in a simple text file (not in a DLL) is the best. This minimizes the impact that a bad OS translation has on those that want localized software, because they can use software that is similar to that included in the OS, but is better translated. MS also benefits from that situation because it doesn't lose customers, the people will stay on the Windows platform if there are many programs with good translations.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 19 Feb 2008 11:35 AM:

Last warning -- the next big comment will be deleted. In the words of Rich Schaut, "Be concise. Comments are not the place for lengthy treatises. If you want to respond to a number of points that I raise in a particular article or post, then the right thing to do is set up your own weblog, and compose a response with the appropriate links."

I am not kidding here, Alexandru. Be brief, be concise, or be posting in your own blog and putting the link here. This is not a democracy....

# Mihai on 19 Feb 2008 12:28 PM:

<<You are an insider and know better what is happening with the localization process at MS>>

I am not in insider, it is just an educated guess.

And I had my share of problems with MS Ro.

But that translation is definitely not machine translation.

My best guess: translation (or review) done by Romanians living abroad for a while. The computer terminology for Romanian is quite fresh, it only settled in the last (maybe) 5 years.

<<the current situation where each software has its own translation in a simple text file (not in a DLL) is the best>>

I will have to contradict you here. Good localization means changing more than strings. Text files might be easy to translate, but the result (usually) has other kind of problems.

# Alexandru Bogdan Munteanu on 20 Feb 2008 1:17 AM:

No problem Michael, I won't post another lenghty comment to this blog post. I can be very concise, but not on the topic just discussed, it needed examples and explaining, because I had such a strong negative opinion on the quality of translations done for MS products. And if I criticize something I always explain in detail my point of view, otherwise it could be taken as a defamation.

As much as I'm known for verbose commentaries I am also known for posting them very rarely, so it may take months (or years) before posting another one on SIAO.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 20 Feb 2008 6:16 AM:

Please just restrain yourself completely next time, even years from now. Or otherwise post it somewhere else.

This is a soapbox, this blog. Definitely. But it is *my* soapbox. Not yours....

Please consider a donation to keep this archive running, maintained and free of advertising.
Donate €20 or more to receive an offline copy of the whole archive including all images.

go to newer or older post, or back to index or month or day