Locale and culture in Slavic localization

The globalization era is not coming, it is already here. We are eating products from Brazil, drinking the best tea from Vietnam and wearing jeans made in China from Turkish cotton. Our era is really one of the most exciting and most unifying ever. There has never been such a need for intercultural understanding between different nations as there is now. 

But what is this so-called intercultural understanding? What are the main components of it, and how far should we go while preparing our product for new markets? To answer these questions we consider the former Soviet Bloc, basically formed from the Slavic countries. This largest part of Europe was isolated from the rest of the world for over 50 years. Additionally, the Soviet countries were closed off from the outer states for almost a century. But let us first give you some general traits of Slavic localization from different points of view. 

The first and probably the most notable fact is that the market volume of language services in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) is constantly increasing. According to the research published by Common Sense Advisory, the market share of Eastern Europe grew from $1.312 million in 2011 to $1.472 million in 2012. This is partially explained by the developing economy of the Eastern European countries: the exchange between the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries and the rest of the world grows from year to year. Local companies enter the global market, where language support plays a vital role. Additionally, companies based in Central Europe, which long ago entered the European Union, remain attractive destinations for doing business due to lower costs and, at the same time, geographical proximity to Western Europe. This benefit, however, is true for Eastern Europe as well, where the cost of living is the lowest in Europe — the region is still close to economically well-developed countries. Not only has the market share of Eastern European companies grown, but the market itself has become more diversified. In Common Sense Advisory’s list of the top 100 language service providers (LSPs) for 2012, Czech-based companies continue to be toward the top of the list of the major LSPs, but now only two of them are found in the top 30 positions, followed thereafter by a dispersement of five Russian companies. Polish LSPs are on the list as well, and are found together with Ukrainian, Slovakian and Hungarian ones for the first time ever.

So we see good potential in the region for further development in the language industry, which could mean the boost of Slavic languages’ popularity as the target languages for localization — but one cannot deny the role economics will also play in localization. The financial reality of Slavic localization is that the rates for language services are comparatively lower than for languages used in the other parts of Europe. It might be worth considering this when planning globalization strategies.


Linguistics in Slavic languages

Now let us turn to the linguistic features of the Slavic group. Noteworthy from a linguistic point of view is the similarity among the languages within the Slavic language group, which includes Belarusian, Ukrainian, Czech, Slovak, Polish and, further south, Bulgarian, Macedonian and Serbo-Croatian. Ukrainians in the western part of Ukraine have no difficulties understanding Polish. Russian tourists in Bulgaria point to the fact that they do not encounter any major difficulties understanding Bulgarians. Czechs and Poles will most likely understand each other, too. This will in no way mean, of course, that native Ukrainians will be as good in translation into Polish as a native Polish translator. However, this could mean that the average Ukrainian would rather read the instructions for a domestic appliance in Russian or Polish than in English. Most Slavic languages are highly inflected, meaning the words are mostly modified depending upon the tense, number, person and other grammatical categories. Localization project managers should be aware that the implementation of global changes in such languages will not be as straightforward as it could be for English, for example.

A lack of proper terminology is another difficulty that translators and localization professionals often encounter. For fast-paced technology industries, terminology has become an issue for Slavic languages. For example, many English IT terms are “Slavicized” in professional software developer’s jargon. It means that new terms are created based on the scheme: the English word is given as a root, and a traditional ending for the corresponding part of speech is added. For instance, the majority of young Polish people will say upgrade’ować software instead of wprowadzać nową wersję oprogramowania for the English phrase upgrade software.

Widespread use of the internet has influenced everyday life with the huge amount of information exchanged between users of different communities. Language lags behind in adjusting and creating a new terminology, especially for such a dynamic and innovative industry like IT. This causes difficulties for technical translators, who are forced to create their own terms based on literary language standards. Nevertheless, these neologisms usually do not survive, giving place instead to the words borrowed from the English language. For example, the term computer was once translated in Russian as ЭВМ (EVM, abbreviation of electronic calculating machine) and it was very widespread in the 1980s. However, over the next ten to 15 years, the term компьютер (which sounds a lot like computer) won the battle and replaced ЭВМ in everyday usage in Russian.

Assimilation of English IT terms has become typical for Slavic languages; it does not matter whether it is the Western, Eastern or Southern Slavic language group. For example, in 2010, Polish Scientific Publishers PWN, which is one of the major and most renowned Central European publishers of scientific, educational and professional titles, advised us to use an apostrophe combined with Polish case endings for the declension of the term pendrive: pendrive’a, pendrive’owi, pendrive’em. However, in 2012 they established the fact that the English IT term pendrive can be written in Polish as pendrajw according to the language norm. This means that the term can be declined as a common Polish word: pendrajwa, pendrajwowi, pendrajwem.

For young countries like Ukraine and Belarus, the largest IT corporations become a prime mover in the industry language development terminology. Thus, Microsoft Language Portal has become one of the basic Ukrainian software-related terminology sources. They have done a great job consolidating Ukrainian IT terminology into one location. However, at the beginning they had a problem of whether the used terms were translated correctly into Ukrainian. If you ask an ordinary Ukrainian what застосунок (zastosunok) means you will hear a long pause in response. The term actually refers to the word-to-word Застосунок application used in Windows OS, and means software program. However, there is no such word in Ukrainian. The term application should be correctly translated as програма (programa) as in Figure 1 — similarly, this is how it is translated in Russian (программа) — or аплікація as in Polish (aplikacja). As Ukrainian language spelling standards were created during Soviet times (more Russian-oriented), it is still widely used and a new one has yet to be developed. Such difficulties actually hampered the release of the retail version of the Ukrainian Windows operating system to the market, which happened during the period of the Orange Revolution, when the level of national self-consciousness was very high. Thus, Ukrainian end-users received a localized OS as a part of Language Interface Packs after several rounds of precise linguistic review and with a slight delay.

From the technical side of the matter, it is worth noting that many Slavic languages use the Cyrillic alphabet, namely Ukrainian, Russian, Bulgarian, Belarusian, Macedonian, Serbian and several others. Other Slavic languages whose alphabet is based on the Latin script feature diacritical signs. This trait of the Slavic languages needs to be taken into account when encoding matters or when font sets are chosen.

From a cultural point of view, let’s take a look at some language peculiarities developed quite recently as a result of cultural and political transformations in the countries of the former Soviet Bloc, usually defined as the former communist states of CEE, generally the Soviet Union and the countries of the Warsaw Pact. The post-Soviet states are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. The post-communist states that were not part of the Soviet Union are East Germany (now Germany), Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia (currently the Czech Republic and Slovakia), Romania, Albania and Yugoslavia (currently Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia and two autonomous regions within Serbia, Vojvodina and Kosovo).

Considering the fact that language closely interconnects with its respective society, its development directly depends on political, economic and social changes. Sometimes drastic political changes in the country give birth to a specific lexicon, which makes linguists suffer when trying to translate texts into foreign languages. Such a lexicon is widely used in the Slavic countries of Eastern Europe of the post-Soviet Bloc, particularly in countries such as Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

There is an entire set of jargon that reflects the social, economic or political regime of Soviet time. For example, a hruschovka (Figure 2) is known to be a type of apartment building that was constructed on a massive scale during the administration of Nikita Hruschov, and is understood to be poorly constructed, with little comfort provided in living there. Another term is kommunalka (community house), meaning an apartment for several families with many rooms but a shared bathroom and a kitchen. These were widely used after the October Revolution and during the Soviet regime.

One can also observe the interesting phenomenon of a proliferation of prison jargon in everyday spoken language. This comes from the political tactics of the Soviet administration that resulted in the massive imprisonment of a large number of people of all social tiers, including representatives of the social elite — scientists, writers, artists and poets. The examples of prison jargon particularly used in Ukrainian and Russian languages are ponty and fraer, just to name a few. A fraer means an alien among the criminals; it is also someone with an unconventional look. Ponty means showing off; it also describes pomposity and rude behavior.

The term newspeak describes the language trends that were developed in the countries of the former Soviet Bloc and are still being used today. The term is borrowed from 1984, a novel written by George Orwell, and refers to the created language of a totalitarian society, distorted by the ideology of the ruling party with the focus of losing the initial meaning of the words. For instance, the word free in newspeak means vacant, thus avoiding the meaning of freedom. Such language adaptations to social and cultural transformations cannot be overlooked when doing localization for these markets, although there is probably nothing as extreme as in 1984.

Although we have not covered the cultural and linguistic aspects of localization in depth, we hope that the challenges outlined previously will help global corporations avoid some of the critical localization mistakes possible in this region.