Latvian localization and software terminology: quality first

Latvian translator Valters Feists is interviewed
by Gatis Svoks, a student of English philology.

May 2004

I know you are a member of IT&T Terminology Subcommittee of Latvian Academy of Sciences, but could you also tell about how you grew toward your current capacity?

VF: My interest in professional translating was fuelled when I studied at the Foreign Languages Faculty of the University of Latvia. Then I became established in the translator's job and gradually I started receiving tasks of localization and reviewing localized products.

What were the new things that localization brought about? CAT tools, translation memory?

VF: Sure, I encountered them every now and again! By the way, the use of computer-aided translation tools is not an imperative; one can still translate in plain text. But, it certainly takes a lot of intelligence and perceptivity for a translator to constantly remain in touch with the whole picture. Notably, localized texts and software interface items are implemented dynamically. [During translation,] certain CAT tools chop up the text or software interface in such a way that the real picture is hidden from the translator; in the finished product, the translated text strings may be concatenated in a number of ways thus creating new "contexts". Translators and editors absolutely need to tread with care in order to avoid blunders.

What are the specifics of localization? Are there lots of repeating phrases?

VF: Software localizing differs from a basic translation process in that it usually imposes stricter rules and requirements for terminological consistency; the translators' freedoms are rather limited. Possibly, there are some customers who might allow you to localize more freely, but to me this seems a kind of fancy setting.

Can you mention some of the PC-related projects that you have been part of?

VF: For example, I was proofreader and editor in the Microsoft Word XP Latvian localization project, which included supervising translation style, wording, etc.

Latvians often appear sceptical - though strange it may sound - specifically about localized versions of computer software. But, at a closer look, the new technical terminology used in these softwares isn't any more difficult to pronounce or to comprehend than some of the "old-time favourite" vocabulary. What is it that makes people shun neologisms?

VF: First of all, "critique" is often spread by people who just like to vociferate, e.g., in forums online, while those who do like localisations remain silent and need to be sought out and interviewed. From people with a less profound knowledge of English I have heard that they have actually enjoyed localized products.

We just concurred that in the countries for which the localization was introduced at an earlier stage, there are less problems: the people tend to simply accept the localized products. Could we say that Microsoft's software localisation took place a tad too late?

VF: The timing of localizations is clearly the business of the respective software manufacturers. What they at Microsoft saw on the map first was Slovakia or Slovenia, namely, those countries that are closer to Western Europe. Thus, the tardy localization for Latvia is in a way to blame for the current trends. The reality is, new tech phenomena first get described by English words, then by "high-tech" argot words in Latvian and, only thirdly and finally, there arrives the officially approved term. People are unwilling to exert themselves because it seems to them that one word per one thing is enough.

At the end of the day, there aren't any difficulties or barriers that would render localization impossible. And Latvian is not particularly difficult, or particularly easy, to localize into?

VF: Well. The resources of our terminology committee aren't exactly abundant, therefore some delays in creation of new terms do occur while argot terms are taking root instead. Linguistically, I must agree, there are no particular obstacles. It must be noted though that English and Latvian belong to somewhat different language groups, therefore the result of plain word-for-word translation from English into Latvian is aesthetically poor, especially if compared to a language norm that is 15 years "old".

Localization is more than just translating. When localizing a computer operating system, it is necessary to customise its formats of currency, date and time in compliance with the target culture, otherwise the product will not fit in with the local realities. It looks like nobody would want to argue against this aspect of localization?

VF: A simple example is the issue of the decimal sign. We use commas, while the English-speaking countries use full stop. However Dienas Bizness newspaper has been smuggling in the full stop; possibly it is the convenient, quick and dirty way of doing things, but, it is still a mistake because the use of decimal comma in Latvian has not been revoked. So, what are we arriving at - are full stop and comma both legitimate? Someone just wants to spare their effort by blindly copying numerical data, for example, charts with currency exchange rates. Here, the leading newspapers should adhere to better practices.

Do you think there is currently a linguistic anarchy in Latvia? Would you say the Latvian language lacks leading-light personalities who could guide its development? Contrarily, the average Latvian feels self-sufficiently smart enough to adopt only those things he or she finds practical.

VF: In my view, most of the office people - although they do work with text documents on daily basis - still regard language just as a "side thing" but not a cornerstone activity of theirs. At the same time, there is big buzz about the rise of information society in which everyone processes or at least consumes text.

How is it going to change in the nearest future? The director of localization at Tilde described me his rather realistic perspective: some people will favour localised products, while certain "fundamentalists" will categorically refuse to accept them; but, when the localizations will become more wide-spread then the objections will weaken.

VF: Digital devices and environments will increasingly become Latvian-enabled, which will help to shrink the numbers of those resisting [Latvian terminology]. Though with some reluctance, the resistance will be falling.

Besides, there are few people who are truly bilingual. 
Another key task will be to eliminate the chaos in encoding methods for Latvian diacritic characters in various messaging applications. This is a mind-boggling impediment when people still cannot use their normal alphabet in full, instead having to resort to a kind of "stutter spelling". As a result, the Latvian language becomes artificially discredited: the 11 diacritical letters on top of Latin alphabet - is this too much? I wonder if anyone is legally in charge of ensuring the use of correct alphabet of the country's official language? A government agency should come up with a decree clearly favouring only one of the hitherto contradicting character code tables and orienting toward a phase-out of the other code tables. In the meantime, the software makers could be enforced to implement features for conversion of Latvian text into the approved encoding system. This is simply a national right. Until now, the electronic bedlam has been detrimental to the Latvian language's good name. Though I do hope there will be a change for the better.

Tel. +371 - 29-666-322


<- - - - -  Order / inquire