A truly multilingual web?

A unanimous decision last night by ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers which regulates the naming system for websites, to permit domain names to be written in scripts other than English, is being heralded as a new era of international web use.

Traditionally, domain names have been restricted to 26 characters in the Latin alphabet and could include ten numerals and a hyphen. Critics have long argued that this was unfair on groups whose languages did not use English characters. In many ways this is true – is it really fair to expect someone in China with a Chinese keyboard to figure out how to input English characters so that they could visit a website in their own country? Absolutely not. Similarly, it is hard to justify forcing someone in Israel or in Saudi Arabia to transliterate the names of companies or organisations just so that they can get a website.

Promotional video from ICANN explaining internationalised domain names (Source:

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Localisation – When Language, Culture and Technology Join Forces

First published as: Byrne, Jody (2009) “Localisation – When Language, Culture and Technology Join Forces”. Language at Work, Issue #5

When you switch on your computer and type up a letter, what language do you see? What about when you visit a website or play a computer game? Does your mobile phone speak your language? Chances are that each of these technological marvels of the modern age communicates with you in your own language. For many of us, this is so commonplace and seamless that we hardly give it a moment’s thought but behind the scenes there is a whole industry dedicated to making sure that technology bridges the gap between language and culture without you even noticing.

Once upon a time, if you wanted to use a computer for whatever reason, you had to be able speak English. The alternative was a tedious process of trial-and-error using a dictionary and your powers of deduction. The reason for this is that Personal Computers were originally developed in the sunny, English-speaking climes of Silicon Valley in the USA where engineers and programmers concerned themselves with producing the next technological break-through. Back in the 1980s it never occurred to companies that there could be people in the world who did not speak English, or worse, who, even though they spoke English, actually preferred to speak their own languages. Over time, however, companies realised that in order to break into foreign markets and maximise profits, they would have to provide foreign language versions of their software rather than expect those pesky foreigners to learn English.

And so, once software was developed it was sent back to the developers who were told to “translate” it into whatever languages were required according to the company’s sales and marketing goals. Developers were less than enthusiastic about this, naturally. After all, they had done their job and now they were expected to do even more work which, strictly speaking was not their job. What’s more, because individual products, like languages, had their own peculiarities, customs and conventions, the process of translating the software was often time-consuming, incredibly complex and not always successful. One way of describing this process is to imagine baking a fruit cake and then being told afterwards to remove the raisins from it!

Read the rest of this article on the Language at Work website…


Extreme localisation courtesy of Microsoft

A story has just emerged that Microsoft has been forced to apologise for what can only be described as the localisation equivalent of ethnic cleansing in an advertisement which appeared on its website. The original photo on the company’s US website showed two men, one Asian and one black, and a woman sitting at a conference table. Everybody’s smiling, everybody’s happy. But have a look at the same picture on Microsoft’s Polish site and the affable-looking black man’s head has mysteriously been replaced with that of a white man although his hands are left untouched. Unless he has been struck down with the same skin complaint that affected poor Michael Jackson, someone obviously reckoned that this guy just wasn’t up to the job of selling Microsoft to Poland and localised the living daylights out of him.

Consider yourself localised!

Consider yourself localised!

It’s not the first time, however, that Microsoft has gotten itself into trouble over racial and intercultural clumsiness. When Windows XP was released in Latin America, the Spanish version gave users the option of specifying their gender as either “Male” or “Bitch”. Then there was one of their computer games, I can’t remember what it was called, which used extracts from the Qur’an as lyrics for a catchy soundtrack for the on-screen violence and mayhem, quite understandably causing massive offence. But while these slip-ups could be attributed to the careless ignorance of Microsoft’s “Geopolitical Product Strategy Team” who apparently have “only a hazy idea about the rest of the world”, you have to wonder what goes through the mind of someone when they decide “Nah, the Chinese guy’s ok but let’s get rid of the black guy”.