At work, one of the projects I’m involved in is localization. Our online math platform, Netmath, was only available in French, and last year my team translated nearly 30 000 pages of content to English. Along the way I discovered that many of the little things we take for granted vary immensely from place to place, and from one language to another. Most of the time there’s a good reason for it, but sometimes it’s pure madness.
This post is going to be a bit of a rant…
One of my biggest pet-peeves is when people’s time is wasted. We all have a limited time on this planet, and we should really be making the most of it. Unfortunately, the act of localizing content, that is to say adapting it to a given territory or language, involves a lot of wasted time. Wasted in the sense that because of arbitrary conventions made by humans, thousands of developers, writers and translators have to make pointless and expensive changes to their content.
Localization should only involve language, location, and culturally relevant changes. Here’s a list of things I’ve come across that shouldn’t change from one place to another, along with some things we could do about it:
Throughout the world, there are 3 accepted ways to write the date: Day/Month/Year, Month/Day/Year, or Year/Month/Day. Someone had the sanity to spare us from Day/Year/Month and Year/Day/Month, but that still leaves us with 2 extra date formats that serve no purpose other than to confuse people. In Canada, all three of them are officially accepted, so someone could write 11/08/17 with August 11, 2017 in mind, and someone might think it says November 8, 2017. We are so smart 😀
Solution: get rid of Month/Day/Year immediately because it’s the root cause of all the confusion, and transition to Day/Month/Year everywhere, since most countries are already using it.
The Imperial system:
An inferior way to measure things devised by the British Empire in the 1800s, it made its way across the globe at around the same time as the far more logical metric system (made by the French). The sun never sets on the Imperial System! Or so the saying went.
Today, most countries have switched over to the metric system, but some quirks still remain. In Canada, though we officially use the metric system, in practice this isn’t always the case. Most people measure themselves in feet and inches, but use kilometres for distance. We also use pounds for weight, and people who are my parents’ age still use Fahrenheit for the temperature. Other previously British countries, along with Britain itself, are similarly adjusting, while the United States still uses the Imperial system exclusively, to the chagrin of the rest of the world.
Solution: Stop using the Imperial system and embrace the International System of Units (SI). 12 inches to a foot, 3 feet to a yard, 1760 yards to a mile, 16 ounces to a pound… in the metric system (which is part of SI), everything is in base 10. Easy.
US-EN: 123, 123.123
CA-EN: 123 123.123
CA-FR: 123 123,123
Once again, the US has to make everything more complicated for nothing. At first glance, these look pretty equivalent in usefulness, but the comma is actually a bit of a nuisance when you’re plotting points on the coordinate plane. You can end up with things like (6, 5, 5) as a technically correct but confusing way to write x=6.5 and y = 5. The Canadian English notation doesn’t have a comma, and thus doesn’t have this problem.
Solution: We should use the official Canadian English number notation. The SI recommends either the comma or the space as the decimal separator, depending on the language, but that just adds complexity and messes up point notation.
Why, in the name of sanity itself, would math need to change from one place to the next?!
The standard linear equation is y = ax + b in one part of Canada, and y = mx + b in another. The second degree quadratic equation has similar letter changes and likely changes in other parts of the world. For intervals, in some places 1 to 10, excluding 10 is written [1,10[ and in others it’s [1,10). Some changes to math, like using a different long division algorithm from one territory to the next, are warranted and in many cases useful, but I don’t understand how different notations of the same exact thing could benefit anyone.
Solution: One type of notation… whichever one people find easier to use when learning math.
Standard punctuation has very little, if any, linguistic value. We need it, but a space is a space, a comma is a comma… right? Nope! In French, the colon has a space on both sides of it, like so: ” : “. In English… well I just used it outside of those quotes. In French, <<you’re supposed to write a quote between these angle bracket things>> instead of quotation marks. What these differences are supposed to accomplish is beyond me.
Solution: Pick one, use it everywhere, and stop making up useless conventions.
The Many flavours of English:
It’s pretty normal for a language to evolve differently from one area to another, especially without an efficient way to communicate… But it’s the 21st century now and words cross oceans in a less than a second! Honestly this one isn’t really a big deal for most people, but if you’re producing a single piece of English content for clients in multiple English speaking countries and the content is expected to be localized, you either have to maintain multiple English versions, or come up with some creative programming to get around it (we chose the latter).
Solution: Standardize! Standardize! Standardize! Surely we can agree on the correct way to write colour?
List-based rant: over.
Perhaps one day we’ll live in a world where the Imperial System is no more, and localization will return to its purest form, devoid of the editorial noise and clutter mentioned above.