Localization lessons from intercultural mentoring

It could have been the start of a multicultural take on a classic joke premise: an American, a Moroccan, an Algerian and a Yemeni were riding in a car — and it did end up a joke of sorts. Not understanding Arabic, I listened to the cadences of language among my passengers, until they burst into laughter and then into English. It turns out they could not understand each other, and were laughingly accusing each other of not speaking Arabic.

For the second year, I’ve had the privilege of volunteering as a cultural mentor for technical women visiting Silicon Valley under TechWomen, sponsored by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The program brings emerging leaders from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to work in a professional mentorship and exchange at companies in the Silicon Valley, where they work with a professional mentor on a three-week project, and are paired with a cultural mentor to help navigate through cultural differences and exploration. The Department of State partners with the Institute of International Education (also known for implementing the Fulbright scholarships) and the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology.

All the participants are women. The emerging leaders go through a rigorous selection process: their applications are reviewed and narrowed by panels of technical women and program administrators, then they are interviewed at the US embassies in their countries. The mentors are chosen and matched to these emerging leaders according to their fields and interests.

Last year, I was a cultural mentor for two women from Algeria: Assia, an IT manager, and Hania, a lead software developer working on geolocation solutions. My role was to support their personal and professional growth and help them take advantage of the opportunities presented by the program, as a sort of map reader, tour guide, cultural interpreter and, in the end, friend. This year, I’m the cultural mentor for Hind, a network administrator from Yemen. She’s the first female in her company’s IT department.

The program’s role of “smart power diplomacy” makes sense, creating opportunities for greater understanding across cultures and nations where a bit more understanding could go a long way in furthering discourse and negotiations. And that understanding works in many directions.

In “Comparative cultural values,” in this year’s January/February issue of MultiLingual, Kate Edwards stated, “Our keen ability to observe and compare is the same force that can really open doors to localized and culturalized content or very quickly close them.” I find that my colleagues in the localization industry, like myself, are fascinated by cultural issues along with the language issues that challenge our work. In last year’s TechWomen program, two mentors participated from the localization industry. This year, the word got out, and there are, not surprisingly, nine professional and cultural mentors from localization fields.

Why would we participate, giving our own time and resources? Giving comes full circle. I’ve grown and advanced in my own career with the support of some remarkable mentors, and I find it enriching to give back to others. And I’ve found that in every mentoring relationship I’ve participated in, I’ve learned about my mentee and about myself, about communication and, in particular, about the activities and challenges that my mentee is interested in.

For example, in that car ride, the TechWomen were trying to come to consensus on an activity when they burst into English. The good-natured accusations flew: the Algerian woman peppered her Arabic with French, the Moroccan spoke too fast, the Yemeni used too many words that the others thought could not possibly be Arabic. The Moroccan laughed and said she could understand almost everything the others said, but couldn’t seem to be understood by the others. I’ve known that Arabic dialects vary across the MENA region, but I now know just how much. One of the TechWomen explained that each country has introduced its own words or variants to the Arabic language. Sometimes they could understand the gist of conversations with those from geographically adjacent countries, but not from those further away, with the biggest differences found between the North African countries and Middle Eastern countries. One language, major variations to address.

Christine Duran, senior manager of translation technology at Adobe, is the other second-time TechWomen mentor from the localization industry. Duran addressed the difficulties of finding the right Arabic for localization: “Last year, I had a conversation with a mentee from Jordan. We talked about trying to find a common Arabic, since we can’t afford a specific version of Arabic for every country; as it is, for some companies the return on investment for Arabic is not enough to justify the translation, much less many versions of Arabic. If you’re planning to localize to Arabic in the MENA region, you have to be judicious in your choice of Arabic because you can’t localize to all the variants. Even people in the region struggle with that — it’s a compromise similar to ‘mid-Atlantic’ Spanish used by many companies. You need to make choices. Years ago Adobe chose to go with Emirates Arabic, but we might easily have chosen Egyptian Arabic. The language choice has to have some ability to endure over time.”

Part of the project Duran worked on with last year’s mentee explored gestures, looking out for cultural differences. “We were working on touch applications from the point of view of Arabic users. How would gestures, for example, be different to an Arabic user? Would your gestures be different? They weren’t. So enlarging something by putting fingers together and then spreading them apart, moving something from right to left, or in their case left to right, was the same. I was surprised there weren’t more differences. I wondered if this was because they grew up using Western technology.”

Along with coming to grips with the nuances within a language, I’ve learned that these emerging leaders from the MENA region shatter the stereotypes. They are passionate about technology, outspoken about their roles as women in the workplace, and eager to learn about American culture. I talked with them about technology and working in technology companies. We also talked openly about work/life balance, religion, current events, cultural activities, and our lives and families. And while my personal understanding about them has changed, I have grown in my professional understanding: the products that we build for the MENA markets must meet the needs of people as diverse as those here at home. For many of the TechWomen participants, the political changes of the Arab Spring have opened up further opportunities and promise. They are leading the way to greater gender diversity in the region and in high-tech fields in particular.

Bringing together a diverse workforce can lead to a team that better understands its customers and participates more effectively in problem solving for them. It is easier to develop products that meet the needs of both men and women if you have both men and women on the development team, and technology teams throughout the MENA region are therefore becoming more effective.

Studies by the National Center for Women & Information Technology support arguments for gender diversity. One such example deals with innovation, as tracked by patent citations. In the United States, teams that included both men and women produced the patents that were the most frequently cited patents within the IT industry.

Gender diversity is apparently growing in the MENA region, but still remains hard to achieve in US technical companies. Studies show that fewer women than men are entering fields in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Yet salaries in technical fields are often higher than other fields, and are thus a promising way for women to reach economic parity. Hence, supporting women in technical fields supports whole families. That, too, is part of the vision of TechWomen, and of the emerging leaders who are involved. The mentees I’ve worked with are not in their technical fields for the short-term; they envision long-term careers in technology, along with families and a full life. Many of them recognize their role as pioneers for women in technical fields in their countries.

But getting back to localization — it has its technical fields, too. This year the TechWomen program comes even closer to the hearts of technical localization professionals. Duran’s specific field at Adobe is machine translation (MT), and she is hosting Ouafa Benterki of Algeria. Benterki has been pioneering research in the field of statistical MT.

Benterki has also worked as a translator. “When I translate, I use the old monolingual dictionaries as well as bilingual dictionaries,” said Benterki. “The old monolingual dictionaries allow me to choose the right word with great accuracy. As for the difference between the words used in the Middle East and those used by Algerians (North Africans) — they are all Arabic words and you can use both. It is like British English and US English. In British English they use the word handbag; in American English they use the word purse. What is the right one? I’d say both are right.”