Localization deserves some care

[SCMP, 16 Apr 02] The Chinese language presents a challenge to Web developers and technology interface specialists due to the variations that exist within the numerous Chinese-speaking communities in Asia.

As evidenced in Japan and Korea, the representation and input of characters into machines and computers will help or hinder the adoption of technology. Japan had long resisted PCs until Windows 95 developed a workable Kanji interface. Korea too remains loyal to a domestic word-processing application that depicts written Korean better than one developed by Microsoft.

For the Chinese, written form becomes in important component to consider in developing technology. What technology Chinese users purchase or use may have less to do with processing power and even price. How well and quickly applications and products become localized and translated may be the critical factor. Unfortunately, that is also the weakest component for technology companies who usually stress power and innovation over usability.

Although written Chinese ought to be understood by most Chinese speakers, the reality is that enough variation exists to require different characters. Having one regional Web site using only set of Chinese characters would be next to impossible without making the content too bland or too simple. Users still need to click on to their own character set for a better experience.

Print media has more control over the physical distribution and platform that people will use to read content-essentially paper printed locally which takes hours or even days to reach its readership.

Web sites however provide instant access, with distribution taking only seconds. The speed and reach of the Internet mean that confusion over online written Chinese will ensue as Taiwanese find some Singaporean words unintelligible and Hong Kong readers laugh at the unintended innuendoes and puns of Beijing writers.

Although the Internet makes distance irrelevant, it also highlights the need for local editors ad native readers to check content prior to distribution.

The first big challenge in written Chinese comes from the choice of simplified vs. traditional characters.

People who understand traditional characters usually read simplified with some effort. However, people accustomed to reading simplified Chinese will find it more difficult to read and understand traditional characters.

Even when readers can read the characters, they can misinterpret them, particularly when the have no context of what they may be reading.

Aside from the slang and insider "code" words, Chinese as a language of tomes means that many words sound alike with only tonal qualities to differentiate them. What may be an innocent phrase in Taiwan may be a crude remark in Hong Kong.

Many United States companies work with Taiwanese partners and one of the biggest mistakes that they make is to base all content and interface development in Taiwan on the assumption that written Chinese is a generic medium. Microsoft itself angered the Chinese Government in the past when its first localization of Windows was developed primarily from Taiwan for both coding and documentation.

As China marches on to become a central market for consumer goods, all products will need written Chinese in their marketing, branding, documentation and interface. Although in some cases the product may sell itself, in most cases consumers will still need to understand what it does, why they should buy it, and how to use it. Companies especially tech companies, should set aside a bit of their budget to ensure that localization is done right.

Francs Yu
Principal research consultant for e-business consultancy Ion Global