The Practical Guide to Software Localization

Very few companies have a strategic expansion plan for software localization.
Rodrigo Demetrio
8 min
Table of Contents

Very few companies have a strategic expansion plan for software localization. The fact that you need localization at all might come as a surprise—and if you’re just starting out, there are many other surprises yet to come. Localization is expensive, time consuming, and complex, yet absolutely necessary for the success of your international expansion. As such, there’s a large margin of error and a long list of potential concerns when you try to establish your first localization engine. This guide can help you bridge the gaps in your experience and your readiness for what lies ahead. With 7 clearly-defined steps, followed by an in-depth discussion of each, this practical guide will help you establish and execute a successful localization strategy so you can achieve all of your company’s international goals and avoid pitfalls along the way.

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As you can see in the infographic above, we encourage our clients to spend a lot of time preparing and strategizing before localization begins. That’s because without proper planning, localization turns into a highly reactive process. A holistic approach is key to an on-time launch with fewer problems and greater cost savings. Let’s start by defining the scope of your localization project and move sequentially from there.

Step 1: Define the Scope

Before you can really map out the road ahead, consider the scope of your localization ecosystem and identify all of the content in your company’s wheelhouse. In addition to your software product(s), you’re also maintaining a website, a help desk, legal documentation, and marketing collateral, among other things. Which types of content absolutely must be localized? Which are “nice to have”? And which aren’t needed at all? This is the time to determine what content is worth prioritizing.

At this point, you should also narrow down the number of markets and languages you plan to target. This is not the time to dream big. Think critically about which markets will be the most valuable to your company, and set aside the rest for a later date. If you act strategically now, you’ll prevent the mistake of overspending on localization.

For example, many newcomers to localization don’t realize the importance (and the associated costs) of language variants. Spanish has more than 5 variants—from US Spanish to Castilian—depending on the market you choose. The more variants you introduce, the harder it is to manage the localization process. More variants multiply your total localization cost. Plus, some variants aren’t supported by major operating systems. iOS supports US Spanish, Latin-American Spanish, and Castilian but not Argentinian/Uruguayan Spanish. Do your research and cut your language list down as much as possible to reduce costs and increase your chances of a positive ROI.

Step 2: Set a Timeframe

Chances are, you’re already well aware of the deadline you need to meet for software localization. The challenge is reconciling that timeline with the scope you identified in Step 1. We’d be willing to bet that your deadline to launch is tight and won’t allow you to complete all of the activities you identified above. You’ll have to set your priorities in order. Consider the ideal timeline for successful adaptation, from localizing your UI to localizing your marketing materials and support content. You may need to lean on a localization expert’s experience in this case so you don’t get too far ahead of yourself and then realize that you put the cart before the horse.

When setting timelines, it’s also important to consider the needs and constraints of your translation team. You may hire an in-house team, outsource to a localization agency, or hire a platform and use your own translators. Whatever the case may be, consistency will be crucial for efficient and effective localization. Ideally, you want a small pool of translators working on your project—about 4 linguists per language—so you can accommodate time crunches and weather the storms of vacation time or employee exit. A reasonable number of team members also allows you to maximize linguists’ talents in both translator and reviewer roles, which offers extra flexibility in terms of timeline. If you don’t already have a translation team in place, now is the time to start evaluating the available translation services out there.

Step 3: Begin Internationalization

Only after determining the scope and timeline of your project should you set a team of developers to the task of internationalizing your software. Most apps weren’t designed to accommodate multiple languages and will need to be retrofitted. This will undoubtedly cause problems. Before you get there, we recommend creating a “problem roadmap” that will help you anticipate these challenges and prepare to mitigate them.

For instance, the first problem you’re likely to run into is the parsing, segmentation, and filtering of files. File types like YML and JSON often present the most issues, depending on how they’re structured. If your development team followed best practices for coding those files in the first place, your chances of smooth localization are much greater. Make sure to run appropriate tests and deterministically isolate all the important variables, including spacing, line breaks, and other anomalies. Each file needs to look perfect from a programming structure and syntax perspective so you can prevent hiccups when you translate into other languages.

This element of internationalization is something most companies don’t address early enough. Dev teams often perform manual workarounds to produce code that looks good, but that doesn’t mean the internal process is clean. Most product managers don’t realize how much trouble these mistakes will propagate through the entire localization process if neglected. Your process may be working now, but is it scalable, repeatable, and automated? These are the elements that lead to a smooth and break-free localization process that saves both time and money.

Not sure what some of these terms mean?

Check out our comprehensive Localization Glossary to get caught up on the lingo.

Step 4: Assign Internal Roles

While developers are hard at work on internationalization, turn your attention to staffing your ongoing localization efforts. Consider who will perform the role of in-country reviewer for each of your markets, and make sure they’re adequately prepared to devote time to this process. Localization will consume a fair amount of their energy, especially in the beginning, and will likely require some significant adjustments in bandwidth. It’s crucial that you get these individuals on board now, so they can make preparations and get involved in the foundational processes of localization.

For example, let’s say a consumer tech company expands into Germany and begins the process of localization. When it comes time for in-market reviewing, they decide the local marketing manager in Berlin will fulfill that role. But when that person examines the translated strings built out in the app, they don’t like what they see. This is a common problem that emerges when in-market reviewers aren’t involved in the process of building terminology assets (see Step 5).

The moral of the story is: don’t wait until the very end to get the whole team involved in localization. Everyone who has their hands on the content, at any stage of its life, should be integral members of your localization team from the very beginning. They should be properly trained and equipped to perform their duties efficiently. And they should be weighing in on your localization framework from the beginning for the best results. By assigning internal roles now, you’ll maximize the available talent, and you’ll prevent hours of retranslation work down the road.

Step 5: Manage Your Terminology

Before localization can begin, it’s incredibly important for your company to develop terminology assets that will inform translation decisions moving forward. These assets consist of previous translations that your company has approved (called a translation memory or TM) and a glossary of key branded and industry terms (often referred to as a term base). TMs and TBs can save you immeasurable time and resources when properly maintained. Of course, each of these assets comes with its own set of challenges, so you need to assign collaborators to be responsible for that maintenance.

Translation Memories (TM)

TMs often need to change during personnel or branding shifts within a company. You might have past translations that you’d like to incorporate into an upcoming localization project, but they might have been approved by a marketing manager who is no longer with the company. The new manager is looking for a totally different tone. If your translation memories aren’t being properly maintained, this manager won’t be pleased to see translators continuing to produce work in the old style. If you have an existing TM, make sure to get signoff from current staff before incorporating it into your localization process.

Term Bases (TB)

Glossaries and term bases are absolutely crucial for successful software localization. These are made up of core terms that characterize your product and your brand that need to appear consistently throughout your content. In localized versions of your product, certain terms might ensure that the product actually works for those consumers. These terms need to be very specific, well chosen, flawlessly translated, and wholeheartedly approved. Take the time now to identify those key terms in all of your content, including within your product, marketing materials, SEO, and elsewhere. Set those phrases aside in a glossary, and get them translated and approved. This way, you’ll set your translators up for success when it comes time to translate your content.

If you don’t set up a glossary before localization begins, you’re in for a whole host of problems. Most of the key terms you identify could be translated in a handful of different ways, without a clear 1:1 equivalence in each of the languages you target. Your slogan and the command terms within your app could be translated differently by each translator who works on the app or software. Those phrases could get approved at each stage in the process until they reach the final build, when an in-market reviewer will (hopefully) notice that you’ve used three different terms for the same command and send everything back to be re-done.

Most companies do their glossary work in a spreadsheet, but you can imagine how easy it would be for a time-pressed reviewer to gloss over a set of 200 terms and say everything looks “great.” As a safeguard, some localization providers offer term base technology built into a comprehensive platform for streamlined approval and automated implementation. If you’re looking for the most efficient and foolproof method for terminology management, this is it. After all, not only do you need an accessible way for stakeholders to access these terms; you also need an extremely easy way for them to update these databases to keep them relevant as your product and your brand evolve.

Step 6: Establish Workflows

Now, after all of that preparation, it’s finally time to establish integrations and localization workflows for as little management as is absolutely necessary. As always, this step comes with a healthy dose of strategy. Beginners don’t often realize that every type of content could require a different workflow. These differences will have a big impact on how your localization process looks—and on how quickly you’re able to get it done.

Take your website, for example. It will likely be translated, reviewed, and published directly. It’s easy to change post-facto if need be, and it can be quickly and easily updated. In that case, the workflow is rather succinct. Your core product, on the other hand—let’s say it’s an app—needs to be translated and reviewed, then go through in-market review. It must then be shipped back to your product team that will rebuild and QA the app in iOs and Android, fix the bugs, and ship the product to the Google Play and Apple stores. An elearning suite could require even more steps, especially if you’re localizing multimedia content. Each content type requires a different workflow structure, and that diversity is key to your ultimate success.

When choosing (or building) a localization engine, consider whether or not your platform of choice can accommodate the diverse needs of your content. Ask vendors about how they’ve integrated processes for content signoff and QA. Make sure you can successfully automate integrations between all of the necessary systems so each workflow runs smoothly and efficiently. Once you secure a localization tool that checks all of the boxes, you’ll be well equipped to establish diverse workflows that work for you.

Are all of these localization tools new to you?

Find out more about the latest translation technology so you’ll know the right option when you see it.

Step 7: Enter the Maintenance Phase

Successful, strategic localization is all about the initial push. It takes a lot to lay the groundwork for an efficient localization engine. But once that work is done and you’ve got all of your team members and technologies on board, you’ll be much better off than the companies that go blindly into localization without a plan in place. We always recommend that our clients invest their time in planning ahead. In the end, that’s the best way to ensure you’ve built a scalable and sustainable localization process that can keep up with agile development timelines.

After that initial push is over and you begin localizing content, the maintenance phase begins. This stage looks different in terms of roles and responsibilities because you won’t need to invest so much time in internationalization or terminology management. At this point, your localization ecosystem should function smoothly without too much additional effort. Here’s where you can finally start to branch out.

As you monitor the success of your localized content, you’ll be able to determine additional avenues where localization could be valuable. You might choose to expand into additional markets or target new language variants. You could localize new content types. Through A/B testing, you might discover additional marketing channels to flood with localized content. Or, like some companies, you might realize that the English version of your content works just as well in certain markets, and you should divert your localization efforts elsewhere. The maintenance phase allows you the freedom to tailor your localization strategy to achieve the highest possible ROI.

Identifying Your Best Option for Software Localization

The good news is, you don’t have to perform software localization all by yourself. Most localization providers offer a high-tech platform that will integrate seamlessly with your content streams for much faster and smoother localization. At Bureau Works, we take things one step further by offering industry-leading technology along with expert guidance and top-notch translators. Our 100% automated localization platform comes with a suite of back-end services that make localization look easy. And our expert team will walk with you every step of the way to strategize, pivot, and optimize. We hold ourselves co-responsible for your international success. With a partner like Bureau Works, you’ll be able to avoid all of the potential pitfalls of software localization and enter global markets with confidence.

Most companies really have no idea what they’re getting into with software localization. This is an extensive undertaking that could consume much of your team’s time and energy for a good while. As you can imagine, it can also be expensive to do localization well. But the alternative is worse. Crossing your fingers that things will work out even as you cut corners and continue to stick things back together with glue—it’s not the way. The stakes are too high, and problems can cost an incredible amount of money (and time) to fix. By investing from the start in strategic planning, cutting-edge technology, and expert partners, you can ensure that the surprises end here.

Bureau Works is a localization agency that helps companies strategize for effective and efficient localization. Our fully automated platform comes with translation services, terminology asset integration, built-in review protocols, and more—all the tools you could ever need to make localization faster and easier. Contact our team to learn more about our industry-leading services and to get started on expert-level software localization.

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Rodrigo Demetrio
Steering the marketing ship at Bureau Works with 17+ years of MarTech under my belt, I transform mere ideas into tangible realities. Passionate about languages and their power to build bridges, let's build a new one?
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