Bringing a new tone to CEE product localization

Let’s face it. There has always been a difference between the language used in software applications (user interface, help and all the associated content), and the language actually spoken every day by users. Not just in the case of the source-language versions (typically English), but even more so in the case of the localized versions used globally.

Yet there is a major shift happening in the style, tone and terminology used in recent software such as the new Microsoft Windows 8 platform, Office 2013 or Windows Phone 8. Microsoft looked specifically at the situation with Central European languages — how these are developing, and what translation strategies they may have to adopt to stay current.


That was then, this is now

The language — terminology, style and tone — used in software products is constantly evolving; some of the changes are gradual and some are more radical with major new releases. It is probably fair to say that the language used in localized products always lags a little bit behind. There are multiple reasons, but two are probably the most significant.

First, localization introduces new terminology, concepts and often communication style to the target language. Some may be right on target and some may turn out to be not the right choice, but it will take some time before the common parlance in the given language passes a final verdict. Local languages adapt to the influx of new terminology coming from English, in their own way, style and speed. Second, product localization tends to conserve the language, pretty much like translations of religious or philosophical texts used to in the past. There is a natural tendency to leverage and recycle translations between releases, and changes to codified terms or stylistic guidelines require special effort and, of course, extra cost to implement.

Resistance to change is not uncommon, and radical changes also call for new approaches from translators, reviewers, in-country experts or even marketing and field people. As a result, there may be little willingness or reason to make such changes in localized products, or only in a very limited way.

CEE languages and Russian are a good case in point, and here the situation is even more pronounced. The opening up of their markets in the early 1990s brought with it an influx of (then) new technologies, for which many users, not to mention their languages, were not fully ready. A few years later, this was followed by the emergence and rapid expansion of the internet, and the changes have never stopped. The major drivers and influences over the past 20 years are:

Early 1990s: PCs, platforms and software

Mid 1990s: Early internet

Late 1990s: Mobiles

Early 2000s: New types of applications

Late 2000s: Social and a new wave of mobile use

Early 2010s: Smartphones 

In addition to these developments, the actual demographic situation in CEE is now also radically different. Knowledge of English was low in the early 1990s, unlike today. That meant that most CEE languages chose to use a combination of existing words rather than necessarily creating neologisms or adopting English terms. E-mail, web or click are some of the examples. Many of these did not catch on with the users and had to be changed later on.

At the same time, the more IT-savvy users in these countries preferred to use the English terms, often adapted to their languages, and often with a varying degree of grammatical and stylistic correctness. Many of these Anglicisms have, over time, found their way into the established way of speaking.

Today’s users and consumers in CEE are much more cosmopolitan, equally versed in new technologies, and much more consumer oriented. They have caught up technologically, but the language that goes with the products they use has yet to catch up. Producers realize they must change their image in these markets. Even though they may have updated the source English language to stay current in every new release, this has not been fully reflected in the target languages.

Platforms have always played a special role when it comes to establishing localized language standards, since other developers tried (or had) to be consistent with these systems. It was Microsoft, as the dominant software producer, that was the first to invest heavily in the initial localization of their products into the CEE languages in the 1990s. As a result, Mircosoft helped to establish much of the IT terminology still used today in most CEE languages.

Microsoft also made the move early on of making glossaries and style guides publicly available for the whole range of languages they have localized their products into. Its language portal is available at This open-source transparent approach has paid off. It has become easy and almost the norm for producers to ask translation companies to use “Microsoft terminology” for their own localized products.

But it was not just Microsoft. Other local language ecosystems evolved around other platforms and products. Apple, for example, has always had an ardent following and a distinctive voice and style. This has only expanded over time, and even more so with the popularity of their iOS systems and the devices they run on. Later on, Google did something similar with its web applications on the Android system, and the same would apply to mobile platforms like Nokia’s OS.

In a way, it is not just a battle of products and technologies; it is also a battle for the accepted terminology in individual markets, and by extension the mindshare of users and consumers. Does it matter to consumers? Yes, it does. Arguably, the language your application uses may be as important as its actual functionality. It’s like someone you have a conversation with and, to take this analogy a bit further, like a trusted sidekick you “talk” to during the day a lot more than with many of your actual living friends and relatives.

If software speaks your language, you tend to develop a much tighter, personal relationship with it. The trouble is, users are not a homogenous group, and working with Mr. Typical User is always tricky. A better (and more complex) approach is to develop several target profiles and gear your style and usage scenarios to them. Yet producers also need to develop their core style and language, which have clearly become more conversational.


Microsoft’s new voice and tone

In this respect, the new and modern language introduced in the recent wave of new products from Microsoft — Windows 8, Office 2013 or Windows Phone 8 — has meant a brand-new ball game, and a major shift compared to the language used by Microsoft over the past 20 years. Tied to the new design style, the Microsoft Design Language, it sounds more personal, using everyday words, simpler terminology, and even colloquial and playful expressions.

It has also brought an opportunity to “unfreeze” the approach to local language versions, and make more radical changes, which would otherwise be less likely.

In the case of Office, for instance, Microsoft organized focus groups, in which the participants were asked to write down one word describing the application today and one word describing it as it should be in the future.

These have shown that users wanted Office to leverage the reliability and flexibility that is attributed to it, while the word friendly showed the biggest difference between the clouds, and was the biggest on the desired cloud. Together with simple, helpful, easy and playful, a clear trend emerged. Office users wanted Office applications to be more approachable and helpful.

Achieving the ultimate goal of making Office “a friend who speaks my language, talks to me, not at me, actually helps me when I run into trouble, encourages me to explore, and wants me to enjoy creating my best work” has not been an easy process. But the final product is well worth it. Table 1 shows some of the main new approaches to style that differentiate the new Office from past versions, as well as some of the sample terminological changes.

While such changes may mean a lot for the overall look and feel of the English source product, these may not be significant for the localized versions, and not just for CEE languages, since these terms are more or less interchangeable synonyms when translated from English.

Instead, the real impact had to do with the brand new voice and tone, showcased in Figure 1, and the opportunity to “unfreeze” past decisions, and take a fresh look at some of the existing terms and style guides, to see how compatible they are with the new voice.

The key consideration was the actual differences between English and the individual CEE languages. English is still much more “relaxed” and personal than most of these languages. The big thing in this context, of course, is using personal pronouns and the formal or informal version of you. Software would traditionally always use the formal voice, and this has remained the case here. But there is a distinctive move away from using the passive voice, with the active voice now creating a more personal tone. The English source text currently uses idioms and jokes. These required highly creative translations to retain the intended meaning, while still sounding credible in the given language. In some cases, however, the localized wording had to be toned down. In their search to adopt the new simple, modern language, translators were actually helped by looking for examples of grammatical variants or synonyms which were on the list of prohibited words in the previous versions of their style guides, or which were “failed” during past quality tests.

There is a strong prevalence of English in the CEE languages in everyday computer-related speak. The challenge, of course, was how far to go in incorporating English into these mostly Slavic languages, where codification of loan words may take longer, while making the products understandable to the young as well as the older generations. Table 2 shows examples of some high-profile changes in Czech and Polish in this regard.

Bringing the new voice and tone into the local languages meant going beyond the translation and focusing first and foremost on the current end users and their user experience — as well as the actual language they use today compared with ten or more years ago. It required identifying and understanding the key contributors to making the new products win the local markets — and the hearts and minds of local users. Finally, for anyone involved in the process of translation, it meant forgetting about prescriptive rules and guidelines, and being rather creative and always considering oneself accountable for the translation.


Russian transliterations

Russian is another good example of how the IT terminology continues to develop. Here, two different IT languages exist in parallel in Russian: an “official” one used in localized products and content, and another which is more colloquial yet widely spread and commonly understood by advanced users. There are currently two trends in this colloquial IT language. Part of the lexis is pure transliteration or similar adaptation of English terms, which are increasingly making their way into the “official” variant, and another part comprises Russian common words that sound like English but are in fact mere slang, one that a novice might not understand at all.

For example, it’s not unusual to hear a conversation between adminstrators or advanced users that goes something like: “Поставил новую маму, подключил винт, накатил дрова, а клава всё равно не работает. Скину тебе лог на мыло,” where мама literally means mom, derived from motherboard; винт literally means screw, derived from винчестер; дрова literally means firewood, derived from driver (rough phonetic similarity); and клава is the diminutive female name Claudia, derived from клавиатура (keyboard).

The above phrase would literally mean something like: “I’ve posed a new mom, connected a screw, rolled firewood but Claudia still doesn’t work. I’ll drop you a log onto soap.” This apparent nonsense should be understood as “I’ve installed a new motherboard, connected an HDD, installed a driver but the keyboard still doesn’t work. I’ll e-mail you the log file.”

As in just about the whole CEE region, Microsoft was the first company to dedicate huge resources to localization in the 1990s and in the process setting the de facto terminology and style standards for the Russian IT domain. At the very beginning, the terminology adopted by Microsoft for Russian tended to be as purist as possible, avoiding transliterations and “inventing” Russian equivalents.

But some terms, such as веб-обозреватель for browser, were never broadly accepted by the Russian IT community. Microsoft’s new tone for Russian tends to use more transliterations that are already absorbed by the IT community, and in general is much more attuned to the everyday language. See some examples in Table 3.

Ukrainian and beyond

But the trend toward embracing and allowing loan words is not universal, and Ukrainian is a case in point. Here it has often been vice versa, or at least progress has been more complicated. Major products came to be localized into Ukrainian some ten years after other CEE languages. In addition, Russian continues to play a significant role as a major influencer, rather than just English.

So, for instance, the first localization of Windows XP translated browser using the phonetically similar loan word браузер. Then it was changed into a native Ukrainian word переглядач, but a couple of years ago Microsoft products reverted the translation to браузер. Mozilla and Apple would use the same term but Google and Opera products use переглядач.

Localization and multilingual computing in general are an exciting area for myriad reasons, but one of them is certainly the ability — and responsibility — to help devise products that appear perfectly local and natural in the target locale. After more than 20 years of technobabble, here we have a resolute commitment to redefine the way software speaks to its users. Given the widespread use of the Microsoft products, these changes have a major impact globally.

Today, it is the consumer markets that are the main drivers in technology, and consumers expect a language they can understand immediately. This shift is great news for us in the business of localization. It may be more challenging to use the local user’s experience as the main guiding principle, rather than always falling back on the existing glossaries or style guides. But at the end of the day, it empowers us to focus on the localization of a given product in its true sense.