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!
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