Posted on February 4, 2017 · Posted in Software translation

Expanding English-language software into international markets requires translating it. A product may get some sales in non-English speaking countries without translation, but it will get a lot more if the software, manuals, and help files are in the country’s language. Professional translation is necessary to doing a good job of it.

Translation of computer software is a specialty in itself. It requires not only knowing the original and targeted languages, but knowing the right technical terms to use. Close collaboration with developers is necessary to a successful translation.

Words which we regularly see on computers have special meanings, and they have equivalents in other languages. Treating words like “paste,” “document,” “flatten,” and “import” in their everyday sense and looking them up in a bilingual dictionary will produce completely wrong translations. Each language has its own terms. Sometimes they’re imported English words, and sometimes they’re native words adapted for technical purposes. The translator has to be technically literate to get it right.

Collaboration with the developer

A successful software translation project is a collaboration with the developer. Developers need to set up software with localization in mind. The issues to consider include:

  • Word order. Text chunks, such as file names, won’t go in the same place in a sentence in every language. A direct object goes at the end of a sentence in English, but in German it will often be in the middle.
  • Gender and number. English writers have it easy; the article “the” goes in front of any noun, singular or plural, and the language doesn’t have masculine and feminine nouns. In other languages, it’s necessary to adjust articles and adjectives to match the gender and number. In French, “a new file” will be “un nouveau fichier,” but “a new window” will be “une nouvelle fenêtre.”
  • Amount of screen space needed. Translating English into other languages usually results in longer text. It’s necessary to leave extra space in labels, controls, and dialogs for the translated text to fit, or make them automatically adjust to the text size.
  • Use of jargon. A lot of software applications use words in ways that aren’t even standard for software. There’s a tendency to use verbs as nouns or adjectives, e.g., “the last edit” or “a replace operation.” Nonstandard abbreviations can be confusing to English speakers, let along translators. Translating those expressions can be tricky, and a localizable application should stick with standard usage as much as possible. Some applications have special coinages, such as brand names, that can’t be avoided. They’ll typically stay the same in the translated version.

The right style for software

Text in software controls, menus, labels, and dialogs is literal and unemotional. This makes the translator’s job easier on the whole, since it isn’t necessary to match the emotional sense of the original text. Terminology should be consistent; an application shouldn’t use different translations for the same term in different places.

The style needs to be consistent, and the level of formality needs to be appropriate to the language. Many European languages have two levels of formality in the second person, for formal and informal use. In French it’s “vous” and “tu”; in German it’s “Sie” and “du”; English used to have “you” and “thou.” The translator needs to pick the appropriate level of formality and use it consistently. Usually it will be the formal level, but a children’s game might use “tu” and “du” in its translations.


When you have software translated, you also need to translate the manuals, help text, tutorials, and any other documentation. Some publishers will use machine translation, but it produces mediocre results and sometimes serious mistakes. We’ve all laughed at badly written instructions on cheap imported products; bad translations of English text look just as silly. Professional translators will do a much better job.

If possible, the same team should handle the software and the documentation, for the sake of consistency. The issues are similar, but explanations and instructions are different from the terse strings that an application uses. Documentation still needs to be precise and objective, and it has to use the right technical terms. The terminology needs to be consistent between the software and the manual and help text.

In addition, documentation has to provide a readable text flow. It doesn’t have to be as literal as the terms in an application menu or button; readability is more important, as long as it’s accurate. Examples and screen shots may have to be changed.

Tutorials are less formal than manuals, and they need to engage the reader’s attention. A certain amount of humor can help. Translating tutorials into another language takes some extra care to make them effective. They’re also one of the more optional parts of the documentation; it may be better not to translate the tutorial at all than to do a bad job of it.

Reaching markets with good translation

A well-translated application will give its users a sense of confidence. Seeing it use their language correctly is a sign that it does other things right. An application that has clumsy translations or falls back on English half the time suggests careless work, and that will carry over into people’s expectations about the software.

Good translation is a sign that the publisher cares about its audience. Sticking them with English-only software or providing a bad translation tells the users that their country isn’t important to the publisher. They’ll look to the competition for something friendlier.

The publisher that offers local translations stands out among the majority of software that isn’t translated at all. With translations reaching into several countries, the prospects for international sales are excellent.

Teck Language Solutions provides professional translation services to let you look good in international markets. Contact us to learn what we can do for your business.