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What to consider for Mobile Application Localization

Mobile applications are becoming increasingly popular, spurred by the phenomenal growth of smart phones and the recent wave of tablet devices, such as the iPad. Some users may only use a few applications on a regular basis, while others may download applications on a daily or weekly basis. In any case, mobile applications are in demand to meet almost every conceivable purpose we could almost ever imagine.

An area that often is overlooked in any of these app stores is vetting of localized applications beyond the source language. Given the size of a typical mobile application, it can probably be localized into other languages for a very reasonable cost. The cost of entry to open additional global markets for mobile applications is therefore within reach with even a modest investment.

Mobile application stores are in place for each the leading mobile device operating systems, such as Apple, Blackberry, Windows Mobile, and Android. While some stores, such as Apple’s App Store, will approve applications to be sold within their store other ‘app stores’ may have a much less stringent vetting process to review and approve applications to be sold to their customers.

Considerations for localizing mobile applications

Here are a few items to consider for successfully localizing your application:

Pseudo-localization testing

Run a pseudo-localization test before starting any localization process to make sure the product is internationalized and ready for localization. This will verify that your application does not have to be re-engineered to support your language and/or locale requirements. Does your application support double byte characters (for East Asian languages), and support bi-directional display (for mid-east languages); does it support local time/date, currency, address formats, and other local requirements.

Internationalize code first

A good internationalized-ready application should avoid the use of concatenated strings. A lot of developers like to concatenate strings because this can reduce their work to input the same words again and again, and make the program look fancy and clean. However, this is not a best practice for globalization. Since languages have different sentence structures from one to another, when partial strings are translated and put together based on English structure, most of them will be incorrect in meaning and grammar.

Limitations of screen size

Consider screen size. While you may have designed your application to read well in English it may not read as well in the German language or other languages in which the character count will likely require more space. Some target languages will increase character and/or word count by as much as 35% over the English source content. Some languages like the Chinese language will have a much lower character count, and may require larger fonts to make characters readable. Chinese characters are much complex in structure and display than Latin characters, while the screen size is very limited.

Leave room for expansion

When designing the English user interface (UI), try to leave text boxes a little larger if possible. Most European languages are more space consuming than English.

Font considerations for mobile applications

As many manufacturers are still using digital screens, special fonts, using Italics, and/or bolding of text are not suggested, as they may affect readability of languages with complex characters (such as within leading Asian Languages).

Importance of context

Due to the small screen of the mobile device, a lot of shortened phrases and words are used which lack context. This can lead to confusion and errors during the localization process. So to localize a mobile application, the whole localization team (PM, engineers, translators, editors) needs to be very familiar with the application and its related field. Only in this way can the application be localized with the appropriate local phrase/words. For example, in one project that GPI localized, there was a single-word string “Kill”, used to mean to “stop the application”. In Chinese, the literal translation of “kill” only means “kill a person/kill an animal”, and never to mean to “kill a program”. So we needed to translate this term as “stop”, instead of “kill”.  Unless, of course, you wish to scare the users.

Mobile applications Terminology

The mobile industry is mature in many global markets today. It is beneficial to use terminology that is creative, but yet accepted and understood in local markets.

Mobile applications and Word length

In English applications, try not to use too short a word or term, like “H2”, which means “2nd home phone number.” In some languages it will be impossible to find such a short word that has the same meaning.

Mobile application localization needs specific to MENA region

Our company performs a great deal of Arabic localization work for end clients and a number of other localization vendors. Very little has been written about Arabic mobile application localization thus far. Here are a few points for mobile application developers to consider who may be considering entering the MENA (Middle East / North Africa) region with their applications:

  • Most mobile applications today do not support Arabic encoding and Right-to-Left text support.
  • Mobile apps with Arabic UI will be increasing rapidly as smart phones (iPhone and BlackBerry currently the regions market leads for smart phones) are growing in the Arabic market. Smart phones will have 50% market share in the region by 2015 for mobile devices.
  • iPhone, BlackBerry, Android support Arabic reading and typing. Google is working on native Arabic support for Android; it’s coming soon, but no date has been set yet.
  • Google has promised that they are developing a paid Android Market for the MENA region, as a free app market is already available.
  • Mobile application usage and downloads in the Arab world: 50% is from Nokia, 30% from Apple phones.
  • The number one mobile broadband community in the world is Saudi Arabia.

Conclusions regarding global markets for mobile applications

Whether you are seeking to enter Europe, Asia, the MENA region, Latin America or elsewhere development of a mobile application needs to be thought through for the global marketplace from the initial design to ease your entry to open up these additional markets. Cost of localization can be quite expensive, but you should only aim for global markets once you have developed an application that can be successfully adapted for your intended users.