Localization rant

I’ve been living outside the Netherlands for a while and have noticed that quite many web sites are handling localization and internationalization pretty damn poorly. In general I hate the poor translations unleashed on Dutch users and generally prefer the US English version of UIs whenever available.

I just visited Youtube. I’ve had an account there for over two years. I’ve always had it set to English. So, surprise, surprise, it asked me for the second time in a few weeks, in German, whether I would like to keep my now fully Germanified Youtube set to German. Eehhhhh?!?!?! nein (no). Abrechen (cancel)! At least they ask, even though in the wrong language. Most websites don’t do even bother with this.

But stop and think about this. You’ve detected that somebody who has always had his profile set to English is apparently in Germany. Shit happens, so now what? Do you think it is a bright idea to ask this person in German whether he/she no longer wants the website presented in whatever it was set to earlier? Eh, no of course not. Chances are good people won’t even understand the question. Luckily I speak enough German to know Abrechen is the right choice for me. When I was living in Finland, convincing websites I don’t speak Finnish was way more challenging. I recall fighting with Blogger (another Google owned site) on several occasions. It defaulted to Finnish despite the fact that I was signed in to Google in and have every possible setting Google provides for this set to English. Additionally, the link for switching to English was three clicks away from the main page. Impossible to do unless you know the Finnish word for preferences, language, and OK (in which case you might pass for a native speaker). I guess I’m lucky to not live in e.g. China where I would stand no chance whatsoever to guess the meaning of buttons and links.

The point here is that most websites seem to be drawing the wrong conclusions based on a few stupid IP checks. My German colleagues are constantly complaining about Google defaulting to Dutch (i.e. my native language, which is quite different from Deutsch). Reason: the nearest Nokia proxy is in Amsterdam so Google assumes we all speak Dutch.

So, cool you can guesstimate where I am (roughly) in the world but don’t jump to conclusions. People travel and move around all the time. Mostly they don’t change their preferred language until after a lot of hard work. I mean, how hard can it be? I’m already signed in, right? Cookies set and everything. In short, you know who I am (or you bloody well should given the information I’ve been sharing with you for several years). Somewhere in my profile, it says that my preferred language is English, right? I’ve had that profile for over four years, right? So why the hell would I suddenly want to switch language to something that I might not even speak? A: I wouldn’t. No fucking way that this is even likely to occur.

It’s of course unfair to single out Google here. Other examples are iTunes which has a full English UI in Finland but made me accept the terms of use in Finnish (my knowledge of Finnish is extremely limited, to put it mildly). Finland is of course bilingual and 10 percent of its population are Swedish speaking Finns, most of which probably don’t handle Finnish that well. Additionally there are tens of thousands of immigrants, tourists and travelers, like me. Now that I live in Germany, I’m stuck with the Finnish itunes version, because I happened to sign up while I was in Finland. Switching to the German store is impossible. I.e. I can’t access the German TV shows for sale on iTunes Germany. Never mind the US English ones I’m actually interested in accessing and spending real $$$/€€€ on. Similarly, I’ve had encounters with Facebook asking me to help localize Facebook to Finnish (eh, definitely talking to the wrong guy here) and recently to German (still wrong).

So, this is madness. A series of broken assumptions leads to Apple losing revenue and Google and others annoying the hell out of people.

So here’s a localization guideline for dummies:

  • Offer a way out. Likely a large percentage of your guesses as to what the language of your users is, is going to be wrong. The smaller the amount of native speakers the more likely you will get it wrong. Languages like Finnish or Chinese are notoriously hard to learn. So, design your localized sites such that a non native speaker of such languages can get your fully localized sites set to something more reasonable.
  • Respect people’s preferences. Profiles override anything you might detect. People move around so your assumptions are likely broken if they deviate from the profile settings.
  • Language is not location. People travel around and generally don’t unlearn the language they used to speak. Additionally, most countries have sizable populations of non native speakers as well as hordes of tourists and travelers.
  • If people managed to sign up, that’s a strong clue that whatever the language of the UI was at the time is probably a language that the user has mastered well enough to understand the UI (or otherwise you’d have blind monkeys signing up all the time). So there’s no valid use case for suggesting an alternative language here. Never mind defaulting to one.

Anyway, end of rant.