Whatever Happened to the Real Irish Localization Industry? The Lessons for the Community

I’ve worked in, and around, Irish-based localization for 20 years. Once, it was heralded as a cornerstone of foreign investment in Ireland. Government ministers fell over each other turning up at the opening of the latest localization facility. The rest of the world looked to Ireland for lessons about their own localization sector. Now, some in Ireland accord localization the same level of respect and attention as they would an embarrassing, drunken uncle dancing to a Lily Allen tune at a wedding. There are lessons there…

The nature of localization in Ireland has changed, we’re told. It’s all about tools, smart processes, research, “higher value” activities, and so on, now, they tell us. We know. Except, as anyone seriously engaged in Irish localization for more than a decade knows, these things have always been pursued. Anyone who worked in Lotus Development in Ireland in the late 1980’s could tell you how tools and processes were strategic to localization. And what has this “change” got to do with real innovators and businesses today, anyway?

Once, localization in Ireland was a driving force of the “multi-lingual and cross-cultural information society”.  Now, Irish-based localization is a “lower-level activity” we’re told. That Microsoft’s 25 Years in Ireland article can be such an underwhelming assessment of the contribution localization made to Ireland’s growth (let’s put aside the other incorrect facts in there) is particularly disappointing (I should disclose I am a former employee and current MSFT stock-holder and have let Microsoft know my feelings – with no response). Remember all that stuff about Ireland being the world’s biggest exporter of software? All in English, was it? That’s some low-level activity.

Where Have We Ended Up?

Ireland’s in an economic mess. One of the ways out of this mess is through individual Irish innovators and entrepreneurs reaching out to global markets, instead of waiting around for the government, universities, and the Americans to give us our own Google.  And no, those global markets don’t all speak English either. We need to localize. Users want to use the language they use at home.

In the last few weeks, developers of mobile applications in Ireland asked me (yes, me) how they could get their apps localized (for example, on the iPhone and Android platforms – platforms with excellent internationalization and locale-handling support). There are no resources available to the small business sector and individual entrepreneur for this kind of activity (or at least they can’t find them). So for localization needs, they find friends to translate their strings, use Google translate, or go to big localization vendors that, of course, will say that can do it for the usual prices (fair enough, if you can afford it).

There is not one localization resource on www.apps.ie, the main store for Irish mobile applications. Small wonder, as localization is a “low-level activity.” Yet, Glyph conducted a localization survey of iPhone apps for 11 major markets in the Americas, Europe, and Asia, underlining the power of localization in the mobile app sector: 80% of the top apps in Japan and Korea are fully localized; at least 70% of the top apps in France, Italy and Germany are either fully localized or have localized app store descriptions.

Markets for localized apps. Copyright Glyph 2010

Machine translation, crowd sourcing, next generation research, data sharing, and the other initiatives we hear about at localization conferences – it’s all good. But what relevance is it to anyone in Ireland struggling to get the strings on their little app properly translated so they can sell abroad? I see absolutely none.

None of this is helped when the major Irish business newspaper, the Sunday Business Post publishes an entire supplement about the importance of the web to Irish business, without once mentioning translation at all, and gets away with it, unchallenged.

Let’s be clear: I’m all for next generation research and higher value activity (a relative term anyway). But, what is being done for real people with real products and services now? How do these huge localization initiatives we hear about at conferences actually scale down instead of up? Where are the resources for Irish small and medium enterprises that want to localize and export? Where are the resources for the little guy with the killer app who wants to go global? Instead, they all have to watch Popfly carousel demos “so simple your mom could do it”?


It’s down to interested and motivated members of the community to solve these “low-level” localization demand and supply issues for the little guy now, not the government or the public sector, big LSPs, or large multinationals – as I did in this case with my friend’s localization needs (I hope they’re solved satisfactorily by now!). The lessons for Ireland, and other countries, are clear:

* Keep in touch with the localization needs of the community.

* Find the pulse of local innovation.

* Know your markets and users.

* Stay small, smart, and agile.

* Use your contacts, and leverage social media.

* Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

As Oscar Wilde might say, “It’s better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating.”

The opinions in this piece are my own, and not those of any employer or contractor.

sunday business post

Ultan Ó Broin
Ultan Ó Broin (@localization), is an independent UX consultant. With three decades of UX and L10n experience and outreach, he specializes in helping people ensure their global digital transformation makes sense culturally and also reflects how users behave locally. Any views expressed are his own. Especially the ones you agree with.


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