Challenges of localization for the Burmese market

First of all, is it Burma or Myanmar? And what do you call the language? The answers will become somewhat clearer after a crash course on the country’s history.

The Bamar/Burman ethnic group entered the upper Irrawaddy valley in the ninth century and established the Pagan Empire in the 1050s, unifying regions that would later constitute modern-day Myanmar. In the early nineteenth century, the country was large and powerful, but had a long ill-defined border with British India. Burma first surrendered territory to the British and finally lost independence as a result of the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885.

Burma regained independence in 1948 and had a weak civilian government until 1962 when it was deposed in a coup. That event started half a century of economic stagnation under military rule. In 1989, the military government changed the English versions of many proper names that dated from Burma’s colonial period, including that of the country itself: Burma became Myanmar. The renaming remains a contested issue. Many opposition groups, including “The Lady” Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as some foreign countries, have continued to use Burma because they did not recognize the legitimacy of the ruling military government.

Radical political changes started in March 2011, when General Than Shwe stepped aside, making way for President Thein Sein. The new President began releasing political prisoners, relaxed censorship and held fresh elections. In May 2013, in a historic visit President Thein Sein met with US President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. In a nod to political reforms, President Obama used the name Myanmar for the first time. Although the constitution officially recognizes the English name of the language as the Myanmar language, most English speakers refer to it as Burmese.

The economic and political opening started an avalanche of rapid developments. Coca Cola, Pepsi and a host of other international companies are back and Google’s Eric Schmidt visited Myanmar in March of this year to announce his company’s big plans for the country. Most foreign sanctions were dropped or relaxed. There remain serious challenges to business such as the lack of an educated workforce, poor infrastructure, endless red tape and the antiquated financial system. In April 2012, as a result of a managed float of the kyat currency, the official exchange matched the black market rate and skyrocketed from 6 to over 800 per US dollar.

What about localization? There are an estimated 111 languages spoken in Myanmar. Burmese is the official language and is spoken by most of the population as their mother tongue and almost all educated people in the country speak it. It is the language of education in primary and secondary schools while English is used at the tertiary level.

The Burmese writing system derives from a Brahmi-related script borrowed from South India. The so-called Myazedi inscription inscribed in 1113 is the oldest surviving stone inscription of Burmese script. Aside from rounding of the originally square characters, this script has remained largely unchanged to the present.

The country almost entirely missed the computer revolution that swept most of the world in recent decades. Although character codes for Burmese languages have been allocated in Unicode since 1999, lack of agreement among stakeholders has slowed its universal adoption. There are currently several competing approaches in use. Some Burmese language websites have switched to Unicode rendering, some continue to use pseudo-Unicode fonts and others use an image-based method.

This remains one of the most significant challenges in localization as without a standard way to render the script, support of Burmese in translation, desktop publishing and word-processing tools is inconsistent or simply missing. Related to this are issues with non-automatic line-breaking and even word counting.

Access to the internet remains limited for the vast majority of the population. Few can afford the luxury of a fast internet connection at home and most have to accept working from internet cafes at low speeds. This makes communication with in-country linguists difficult and fraught with delays. Transferring large files can be nearly impossible. Payment to resources in Burma is another barrier, as there is no online banking system there, although ATMs are now being installed. PayPal has yet to make its services available in the country.

All this coupled with a poor education system force many translation providers to look for linguists outside Burma. This gives rise to new problems. Some come from ethnic groups whose first language is not Burmese. Others may be out of touch with how the language is used inside the country and what names their compatriots are giving to new products and ideas that have started to pour in. The lack of standards in terminology and of credible translator certifications makes this issue even worse.

There is also good news. Myanmar has set a goal of 80% mobile phone penetration by 2015, up from its current rate of only 9%. Internet penetration is certain to grow rapidly. Google’s search engine has recognized Burmese script since April 2013 and the company is working to provide full support for the script. Early this year, HTC launched the first mobile phone with proprietary Burmese language font support built in. Foreign corporations are investing considerable resources to train the local workforce.

The enormous business interest from overseas, as well as the coming establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Economic Community in 2015 means that market forces will push toward rapid professional development in all areas. The example of Thai language, which overcame similar challenges, gives us reason to be optimistic.