Software for developers: translated or in English?

Eric Sink, ex-developer of what today is Internet Explorer, has today a company which makes software development tools. He always felt guilty for not internationalizing his software, but that might have changed after a conference in Spain:

Even though our product is English-only, we currently get between 30 and 40 percent of our revenue from outside the U.S. […] We’ve experimented with localization and received abysmal results. We’ve been to a trade show where most people’s first language is not English, and nobody even complained.

He acknowledged this wouldn’t happen with end-user software. But, do developers really want software in English?

We have to start separating localization from translation. Many readers said they preferred user interfaces in English, but virtually all wanted dates and numbers in the local format. A Russion company couldn’t use the version control software because it wasn’t compatible with filenames in the Cyrillic alphabet.

As a reader indicated, it’s hard to translate the IT jargon. The original term is often as known as the translated one, or even more. User and translators may disagree about translating or not an expression; I already wrote about loanwords. Another problem is when the translator doesn’t understand what he’s translating, causing amazing bugs. In free software, the open process minimizes this problem. Have anyone here ever translated proprietary/closed-source software?

Many readers complained about the translations’ quality; they found software in English easier to use than translated one. Comment #50 explains the reason: most developers spend as little as possible in translation. They delegate the job to whoever offers the lower job. Obviously this doesn’t happen with voluntary translation, as the Brazilian GNOME one; our motivation is acknowledgment and the satisfaction of a well done job.

Other readers mentioned they prefered software in English for the ease to search for getting help. One can search the Internet for an error message in English and find the solution, but this doesn’t always work for error messages in other languages. Furthermore, in international mailing lists and forums it’s easier to get help if everyone sees the same interface. On the other hand, this applies only to people who know English. In your country, do software developers know English?

I agree with some readers that the lack of requests for translation/localization is due to the very language barrier. The company is located in the United States, its site is in English, its workers speak English, its products are written in English. One has to know English to get interested in the software! I noticed most comments were writeen by Europeans, which are known to be proficient in foreign languages. A Belgian commented he never found, in 20 years of technical support in IT, a user which couldn’t use software in English. This is obviously not true in Brazil and other poor developing countries.

I have used a lot of software in English, many years ago, when the Portuguese version of Windows lagged an year or more after the English one. Today translated software is the norm, and with GNOME and GNU/Linux the releases are made in tens of languages. Since I’m not a developer, I’ like like to ask your opinion: do developers prefer software in English or in their native languages?

17 respostas em “Software for developers: translated or in English?

  1. I also have my Desktop in English, though I am not a native speaker.

    Using development states of programs I hate lack of translation and therefore use english directly.

    Though I really hate the American date format MM/DD/YYYY, which doesn’t make ANY sense in ANY situation!

  2. Same here, I use my entire desktop in English. And nothing annoys me more than localized technical terms (STOP translating design patterns and other words that were defined to standardize terminology.). That, and localized websites that identify the language by mapping the location of your IP address. Those make me angry.

  3. I use my desktop in english as well, being a native german speaker. The problem with translations to german is, that the strings often take more space than the english ones. Since GUIs are designed for the shorter english strings, this sometimes causes weird looking interfaces (be it on a webpage or in a desktop program). Often the only workaround is to use abbreviatons, which makes the text harder to read.
    That being said, I differentiate a bit between private usage and work-related usage. In my work-environment I’m mostly using technical terms which are mostly in english anyway and changing between english and german (even if I’m only thinking about some stuff) slows down my work-flow, so I use english there. If I’m at home and want to relax, I use translated software (e.g. Xbox Media Center), which anyone else in the household can use as well without language barrier.
    On the problem of which one is easier to use: it depends on how often you are using a translated version. If you develop a software and use its translated version during development, you’ll find that using the translated version is often easier than using the original version, just because you’re accustomed to it (as long as the translation is solid). This happened to me once, I couldn’t use the english version at all, because the translation differed greatly from the original, but still was coherent and made sense.
    In conclusion: I use both, but only where it makes sense.

  4. Disclaimer: my mother used to work as a technical translator and I’ve grown up watching her work on all kinds of documents.

    You problem are not translations. Your problem are bad translations. Any technical document (computer software, nuclear power plant description, brochure for industrial automatons, etc) is composed of technical language that is to say stuffed with specialized jargon. To translate it properly the translator needs the associated jargon dictionary and access to specialists that can identify this jargon, understand it and explain it in layman’s term. Professional translators know that. Foreign language students you hire dirt-cheap for a month don’t (they don’t have the dictionary library, they don’t grok tech else they wouldn’t have chosen this path, they’re afraid to ask questions that show they don’t understand the document, and they don’t care because they’ll do something else in 6 months anyway).

    The two core causes of technical translation debacles are:

    1. lack of communication between original authors and translator (because the translation is paid-for by a third party like a local sales office, because translation work is sub-contracted several times and each intermediary forbids communication with upstream to hide the sub-contraction bit, because the translator has not the guts to require access to someone that understands the jargon being translated)

    2. use of non-professional technical translators (developer-produced translations, non-technical translator/foreign language teacher doing technical translations as a sideline, rent-a-dirt-cheap-student translator agencies). Just like any random people in a US street can not write English computer documents, any random speaker of foo language is not going to write good foo language computer stuff.

    If you’re not ready to pay for a good translator, spend time explaining him your jargon, and make sure he got the right dictionary on hand there’s no use translating. Users will just reject the result and use English instead if they understand this language.

    OTOH properly translated stuff is very much appreciated by users, even if they didn’t expect to appreciate it in the first place because they had bad previous experiences.

    Computer stuff is actually easier to translate than other technical linguas because any active local computer community is going to produce online jargon references whereas some of the other technical jargon relies on paper reference books next to impossible to procure outside the target country (and only in very specialised shops there).

  5. If you are developing software, chances are very high that you need to write and document your code in English anyway or that at least you have to be able to understand English documentation to be productive (because there is no other). This is especially true in the world of free software where developers originate from many different countries with a multitude of native languages. It doesn’t matter if your English is as bad as mine, naming identifiers as well as documenting your code in English should be absolutely mandatory. I, for once, am much more confident of being able to produce and understand bad English than perfect Portuguese or some other crazy language. 🙂

    Programming languages contain English keywords, code and documentation you need to understand is mostly written in English, all technical terms of interest are of English origin (and virtually untranslatable) and there is a good chance that you have to write your own code in English. So, in my opinion, using localized versions of development tools does more harm than good.

    (Besides, your point of separating L10n and translation couldn’t be more valid. Because of the American date format (see mie’s comment) I tend to write dates as 2007-dec-22 in order to avoid misinterpretation.)

  6. Yep, I’m not a native speaker either, but all my software is in English. Windows or Linux, doesn’t matter, it’s all English.

    I’m still a bit undecided though. On the one hand, I really do appreciate software in my native language. But on the other hand, there are five problems with it (some were mentioned before already):

    1) A lot of software is translated very badly. It’s just annoying to use such software because when you have to read typos all day long, you start to use them yourself as well. Somehow, your own language skills are breaking down because of bad translations (it happens when you often read badly written news on the internet as well). That’s something I don’t want to happen, so that’s one reason.

    2) The other reason is half translated software. It’s not nice to use software that says something like “Click here to druk op the knop” (slightly exaggerated), when it should read: “Druk op de knop om verder te gaan” (this is Dutch). Also, you always have to wait on translations, which I’m not willing to do because I like to stay on the bleeding edge 🙂

    3) Another very annoying issue is that many translators (I’m sorry for saying this) just don’t know their own language, or they’re too academic, or they use too much of what they prefer for themselves, or they go too far in translating words or sentences. For example, the word “website” is a perfectly integrated word in the Dutch language. The whole Dutch languages consists of a mix of French, German and English words, in addition to the actual Dutch words. Those words are all valid to use, but often replaced with versions that sound really moronic, like “webstek” instead of “website”.

    4) Yet another reason is that much of the translated software does not blend in with the rest of the translated environment. One translator uses “Hulp” (English: “Help”), the other one uses “Help” (which is perfectly Dutch). Not a biggie, but still…

    5) It also happens that single words are translated out of context, giving weird and unhelpful translations.

  7. I’m a developer but prefer all my software in Polish. I do read and write a lot of English documentation and code but proper localization and translation makes the interface more friendly. I do however hate people who translate critical error messages that end up spitted into stderr. This forces me to relaunch the dying app with LC_ALL=C and pray for the error to occur again.

  8. mermshaus: You’re right. But, just to make it clear: many, many people suck in English much, much more than you and me. But then, I agree, they would have a very hard time becoming software developers.
    Patrys: I agree some error messages mustn’t be translated. But, even if translators must pay attention to it, this is primarily a developer-side issue, i. e., this strings shouldn’t be marked for translation.

  9. I use software in my native language (German), because I feel more comfortable with it and it allows me to better communicate with normal users who *always* use the translated version of the software. I also try to contribute translations when I encounter a program which is not fully translated.

  10. PS: And I agree, the American English date and time notations suck, for example I hate that Trac defaults to mm/dd/yy. And let’s not even speak of US letter. I hope that internationally targeted software will use the ISO formats more and more in the future.

  11. I have even seen a bug introduced by translation, sfdisk (a command line partitionning utility) can dump a partition table as a text on the standard output and re-read it to partition another disk. The french translator (I think it was on RHEL 4) had translated the comment character “#” as “Nombre”, every script that used this feature where unusable without a LANG=C.

    Translation is harmful for tools where the ouput can be used in scripts.

  12. > Since I’m not a developer, I’ like like to ask your opinion: do developers prefer software in English or in their native languages?

    Answer: Yes please, I am Dutch and I would like to use a localized English version as a developer. Though my mother (obviously) prefers the translated versions.

  13. I use software in my native language (German), because it feels more comfortable and it allows me to better communicate with normal users who *always* use the translated versions.

    And I agree that the American English date format mm/dd/yy sucks (not to speak of US letter and such). For example, Trac uses it as the default format, a strange choice for an internationally targeted application. I hope the ISO formats will gain traction more and more in the future (and that the USA finally adopts the metric system for that matter).

  14. Yes I do prefer English, and I get very irritated in Windows when I set my locale to German and some applications insist on using the German translation (including Gimp), I find that this often makes them barely usable to me. I’ve “fixed” this for now by using a UK locale and just tweaking some settings.

    Regarding the comment that the problem aren’t translations but bad translations, that may be true to some extend, but often I am much more accustomed to the English jargon than to the equivalent German jargon, simply because I tend to primarily study and communicate with English sources. Just because I am living in Germany does not mean that I necessarily prefer the German language, and I think all localization should take this possibility into account.

  15. To give you another data point, I am German and a developer, but run my whole desktop in English (actually, without localization). This makes stuff a lot easier to google (error messages, forum posts or mails about a topic). And I work and think in English all the time anyway, because doing Open Source is English-only. Hey, I even run US keyboard layout.

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