Globalization and the forgotten language professionals

André Guyon
(Language Update, Volume 5, Number 1, 2008, page 31)

After graduating with a translation degree, I studied computer science. I have had the privilege of witnessing the evolution of microcomputers since 1981, a time when even French-language computer magazines were rare.

In 1985, software translation was on a roll. Companies realized that they could access new markets by finding a distributor and paying a few thousand dollars to have their software translated.

In the beginning, the companies were reaping the benefits. Then they realized that they had to do multilingual development, debug each version individually and answer service calls in other languages. Talk about complicating things.

Solutions to this problem quickly appeared. Software was designed from the beginning for a number of target languages, with text content separate from the code.

Even better, software was developed to manage unique local requirements, such as formatting for times, currencies, etc. For example, the following financial data in a spreadsheet program automatically displays according to the user’s preferences.

Financial data in the English-Canadian version:


Same data in the French-Canadian version:

5 285,33 $
125 322,35 $

There isn’t much for the average user to complain about. Computer science is getting better and better at serving people in their own language, including in some specialty niches.

So why are language professionals most often served only in English? I will admit that it took me a while to understand.

The answer is quite simple. Commercial logic wins out. Something is added to the product or software is translated when it could potentially increase sales.

No one bothered to show the developers of this type of software that they would sell even more copies if their products were available in certain languages.

Developers’ major clients are often companies that outsource their language services. They have one or more project managers on site whose working language is English.

Multinational software companies produced their software in different languages because they knew that if they didn’t, they would miss out on a segment of the market and therefore miss out on profits. Now, some sell more copies of their software in other languages than in English. Some users, even though they are able to work in English, have asked for and obtained local versions, which are easier for them to use.

It is up to the language community to tell producers that it wants localized software.

Language-processing software is produced in localized versions only when the "luxury" becomes a necessity, for example, when clients demand a localized version or when local laws and regulations require it.

It is interesting to note that in Canada, the language industry generally produces software in both official languages. Developers know that not only the laws, but also the general public would support language professionals if they complained that products were not available in English or French.

When you meet representatives of language-processing software developers, all you have to do is ask. These people respond to repeated requests.

The optimist in me would bet that soon we will see versions in Cree and Inuktitut. Language professionals, make yourselves heard!

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