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Doing it rightto left

Localization in the Middle East

Let’s face it – if it weren’t for the Middle Eastern folks who decided to start the ambitious tower of Babel, we would have had a perfect understanding of each other with no use for the localization industry whatsoever, speaking one language, of a certain Semitic flavor. This notion naturally leads to a conclusion that our industry was created by divine intervention – at least according to the Old Testament. While I am not an expert to rule about the divine origins of the localization industry, I can certainly assert that we are contributing, on a daily basis, to achieve better understanding between people around the world – and hopefully in the Middle East.

For the last 10 years, in which I have had the opportunity to contribute to localization efforts to Arabic, and Hebrew, we have seen a tremendous shifts in the localization industry and in the localization efforts targeting the middles eastern region – moving from a feeble start in various software releases, via sporadic documentation efforts, to a full scaled “sim ship” efforts to introduce the Arabic and the Hebrew versions along with the leading European, and Asian versions of software, documentation, hardware and marketing collateral.

Gone are the days in which Middle Eastern languages were “Tier 3” or “Tier 4” for many software vendors and I am certain that there are not one leading company who is not introducing a 100% localized software or hardware products in the blooming Middle Eastern markets.

Thus, we are safely beyond the “Should we do It” phase, and by now, most vendors are busy making sure that they have a good answer to “How soon the Arabic can be shipped” from the various product groups and the anxious people from sales and marketing.

Yet, Localization into Middle Eastern languages still imposes a great challenge both to the vendors and to the localization professionals. While I am not diminishing the challenge of translating into Japanese or Urdu, the Semitic languages form a truly unique group of technical, cultural and design issues which need to be addressed on the earliest stages of the localization cycle.

During the years, we have seen different approaches to tackling the middle eastern challenge, at both software and hardware vendors and by now, I am comfortable enough to share the do’s and don’t when initiating localization of products aimed towards the Middle East.

Localization is an investment and not spending

I maybe stating the obvious here, but it is must be asserted again – the market is moving towards the user experience and towards user relationship with the product. This is especially true in the IT market since the overall impact of careless localization is immediately translated (couldn’t avoid it…) to a negative impact provided market and worldwide. When the software or hardware vendor change his perception and decides to implement localization at the earliest design cycles, while involving marketing and sales, the bottom line, eventually looks much better. The yield of investment in localization consideration, is saved time and resources on repetitive in-country reviews, intensive testing, and in some cases recalls of builds and remakes.

Localization scope

Nothing is left behind. The Middle Eastern markets have matured up to appoint at which they are accommodating a large variety of audiences with a different levels of skills and experience using software and hardware products. While the early adopters feel comfortable enough with English interfaces and Web based English documentation (which is a different issue all together), the larger bulk of the potential users and customers will require an extensive local interfaces. I will not go as far as recommending localizing the inline remarks and code documentation, but the growing developing community of native Arab and Hebrew speakers will likely to hold a different view on this matter.

When referring to the localization scope, we must look beyond the traditional sectors that were focused in providing localization rich products such as software producers and hardware producers such as printers, PCs, digital cameras and PC accessories.
Traditionally, these were the main players in the localization field but there are yet fast growing segments that are currently demanding localization attention:

Games – the game industry is the fastest growing segment in the software industry and it sprawls to role playing, feature and interface rich applications. Although the most popular games are still based on the shooting skills of the players, there are largely growing segments of role playing and strategy based games which require a higher level of interaction, richer interfaces and larger amount of information that needs to be conveyed and naturally, localized. The next generation of the games is already with us and it is web based, which again is laden with textual pages, websites and web based applications. These applications impose a larger challenge on the localizers since the actual pages maybe accessed across different platforms, using different operational systems and with different locales on the browsers used. Not an easy task, I guess.

Mobile electronics – mobile device penetration is huge around the world and Middle East does not differ. Mobile devices such as phones, PDAs, MDAs, UMPCs and the vast plethora of accessories are invading the streets and offices of Cairo, Teheran, Amman, Jerusalem and the Emirates. Since most of these devices are in sync with their respective offices and networks, compatibility is a key factor. You may want to imagine a business woman traveling from Abu Dhabi to Cairo and later to Vienna, while checking Email and SMSing her colleagues from these different locations.

Home entertainment, gadgets, mobile entertainment devices, PC accessories – Printers, VCRs and Fax machines traditionally led the pack in localization efforts, but recently, a growing number of DVD players, MP3 mobile devices and electronic gadgets followed suit. The vastly growing consumer electronics markets are readily accepting the vendors who chose to provide the local flavor of their products – including hardware, software and user assistance localization.

Automotive industry – While regulations in most of the middle Eastern states requires to provide localized documentation, the cars itself become invaded by interface rich devices, which in turn require precise localization, since it becomes safety related. Translating the list of parts is not enough these days and a proper localization effort is needed. As always – a great opportunity combined with an even greater localization challenge.

Content is King

As we are deeply immersed in the information world, we are on a constant move from feature rich towards the content rich applications and services. This trend is strengthened by the newly emerging web services and the WEB 2.0 applications, which by definition; rely on content and the global terminology, since it involves world wide platforms, services and underlying coding structures. Added to this is the tendency of the vendors to provide online documentation and help, harnessing user forums and user induced feedback. The content centric approach brings to the center stage the quality of the localized content as presented to the local audiences. Thus, the localization efforts is dual since it requires special considerations not only in providing the best possible localized content by the localization vendors but also by the underlying structures an platforms (such as the OWL [http://www.w3.org/TR/owl-features/] and SKOS [http://www.w3.org/2004/02/skos/] initiatives) to assure compatibility to the Right to Left based locales, internationalization issues and adaptation of the content management platforms to accommodate the unique Arabic and Hebrew features.


While I certainly agree with Kara Warburton from LISA that terminology is the DNA of knowledge (http://www.lisa.org/globalizationinsider/2005/07/terminology_get.html), some vendors are tempted by the notion that given the right terminology and glossary, localization of content can become a merely automated memory translation based task. While this can be true (to a certain extent) for the software industry, given the fact that each release is usually an iteration of additional features, the same approach cannot be applied to localization of content, especially when the content is generated by various sources, different contributors and is targeting different communities of users. Again, I must state the centricity of the user experience which forces the localizers to alter the content so it will suite the tech-oriented crowd, the home users, the first time users and broad majority of consumers. Otherwise, and specifically in our region, vendors are to create a certain alienated approach from users who are used to personalized approach and to a much closer “verbal” contact with its counterpart. While a neutral, detached address may be in place in the Nordic countries or in the US, it will seem out of place in Israel or in Egypt.

In-country Review

Globalization moves funds and people around the globe. It creates vast opportunities and swift changes. It also allows a greater accessibility to a native Arabic, Farsi or Hebrew speakers to provide services on vendor’s site. It is certainly easier to employ a UK or US student and or local resident as an in-country reviewer or as a lead terminologist. Usually, they will provide their money worth in many cases it will be quite adequate for the needs of the vendors in terms of spending on these resources. This solution is not good enough as far as the local markets are involved and the reason for this is again local user experience. When the in country reviewer is actually detached from the local target market, she can only assume the ongoing lingual trends and the most current content spaces in which this terminology shall be applied. Terms are changing frequently if we are still sticking with the user-centric approach, then it is crucial to perform the in-country review – at the target market itself. My advice at this stage is to apply this approach through all the stages of the localization cycle – starting from the basic terminology compilation through initial translation samples, editing cycles and the final testing and reviewing stages. First and foremost – you will get much better, real life localization and terminology to start with. On the later stages, you will definitely save resources on testing and QA and finally, you will be much better of avoiding pruning the translation memory from the “weeds” introduced on the various stages of translation, QA and review. If time to market means anything to any of the vendors in question, in-country review (when applied properly), will reduce it as well.

Right tools for the Right to Left localization

When you Google “localization” tools, you are getting about 21,400,000 hits (well, actually this is the exact number). Now, I am not going to recommend any specific localization suite or any specific translation memory software, but I would recommend making sure that it supports the following:

  • Correct Right to Left representation of the translated strings
  • Typing order (mixed RTL and LTR typing)
  • Support ME typefaces
  • Allow on the fly testing of dialog boxes, web pages, script induces strings, error messages and dynamic alerts
  • Support ME time, date and currency formats

Hardware and graphic design

Hardware, packaging and graphic design are certainly to be included in the localization scope, as I have mentioned above. The reason for localizing the packaging is clear enough, especially form a sales and marketing point of view and localization of hardware interfaces is even more evident when you are considering to penetrate the mass consumer market and to address audiences which lack any knowledge of any other language other than the local one. This will be certainly true in the rural areas, older generation users and in the pre-school market segments. As a rule of thumb localization boosts sales of hardware. Any government financed tender, will force the participants to assure that all the interface are localized into the local language (in addition to the user assistance documentation).
There are certain issues that must be attended when addressing hardware, graphics and packaging localization:

  • Make sure that the images are gender neutral or at least adhere to a certain dress code – I would suggest consulting your localization vendor before introducing a Bikini wearing model to Saudi Arabia or Iran.
  • Make sure that images are layered so that it van be mirrored and the text can be separated from the actual visual.
  • There are coloring schemes that different local markets may feel either uncomfortable or has specific religious or cultural meaning
  • Is the images/visual containing male-female interaction?
  • Consider picking local media pools and image banks to provide better market/cultural compatibility

Culture, Religion, Tradition, language

Least but not last and actually, the most important of it all.

  • Calendars are different since it is lunar based and religion based.
  • There are many flavors to the same language – there is the high official Arabic and there is a common spoken Arabic.
  • There is a difference between the Arabic spoken in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt and other Arab speaking states
  • Religion and tradition play a significant role in the way people talk,, act and behave
  • There are diacritics for both Arabic and Hebrew languages. Consider the Hebrew word Ktav (writing), Katav (wrote), Katav (reporter) all of which the same word which is meaningless unless placed in a context.

And finally. In the Middle East we are doing it Right…to left.

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