The evolution of Latvian localization

Latvian, one of the three Baltic languages along with Estonian and Lithuanian, is now listed as a source language by over 100 firms. We’ve come a long way from my youth, when I considered Latvian a smugglers’ language. We spoke it at home, but Latvian was a second language even in Latvia, having been suppressed by force-fed Russian. In fact, the Russians of my childhood referred to Latvian as sobacij yazik, or dog’s language.

Latvian contains a standard alphabet of 33 letters, with diacritics. Latvian orthography has used a system based on German phonetic principles. Its present-day orthography was developed by the Knowledge Commission of the Riga Latvian Association in 1908.

Things changed in 1991 when Latvia and the other Baltic countries became free from Soviet rule. Translation was not easy. One of the first jobs was from Coca Cola, which wanted its bottler agreement with Baltic firms translated. The problem was, there was no word processing ability in the Baltics and thus the translations were done in the United States by émigrés. I know because I organized them.

One of the first foreign currency purchases made by Latvia was for 72,000 reflective road signs, all in Latvian. The previous ones were in Russian.

Independence changed the language landscape and potential diplomatic headaches. In 2004 the new European Union (EU) had 21 countries (now 28), which meant 420 different language pairs. The Baltics wanted everything in their languages, particularly when they became part of the EU. Joining the EU meant 80,000 pages of documentation had to be put into all of the EU languages.

Sensing the change, both IBM and Microsoft made investments in Latvian IT. IBM had incorporated Latvia as part of their “Java Beans Around the World” project, which also included Belarus, India and China.

I invited the key Latvian project managers to a conference in Budapest in 1999 to present their findings. This was their first exposure to an international conference and I saw them huddled in a corner during the opening reception. I asked them why they weren’t out mixing with the other delegates. They answered “We don’t know anybody.” I said “No one knows anybody,” and pushed them into the crowd.

Then Microsoft decided to localize Office XP in all three Baltic languages and opened up its Baltic headquarters in Riga. Torben Andersen, then the general manager of Microsoft Baltic, said that establishing a subsidiary in Riga helped Microsoft get closer to its customers.

Latvian researchers created the official Latvian computing standard, also known as LVS 8-92. The creation of standards enabled Latvian, Estonian and Lithuanian languages to be included into Unicode. For example, every Latvian web page includes a UTF-8 or UTF-16 in the header of its source code. This has enabled Olympus to produce digital cameras with onscreen instruction in Latvian and Electrolux washing machines to display a Latvian menu.

All these changes launched an entrepreneurial spirit in the Baltics and led to the creation of many firms that you see at LocWorld conferences today.

Diana Vidina, CEO of Ad Verbum, notes that many people come to the Baltics and are shocked by what they find. “We love technology and all sorts of gadgets. If something is not developed or sold in our countries we try to create something on our own and find ways to get it to work. Did you know that Skype and Kaaza were born in Estonia?” Ad Verbum used to rely on the domestic market, but now only gets 10% from it. Scandinavia gets the bulk of their business and they now have an office in Bulgaria.

One of the major players in Central and Eastern Europe localization is Tilde, which began in 1991 by marketing fonts. From this simple beginning, Tilde launched all kinds of localization tools. Tilde informed me that the languages with the most diacritical markings are Finnish and Hungarian, and Latvian comes in only around seventh.

The localization community in Latvia now boasts 51 firms. Localization courses are found in Latvian Universities. In short, the strides Latvian has made in language technology go far beyond the language I learned at home.