Language structure may lead to software issues
Languages have been evolving as long as humans have been evolving, and now the differences in structures of languages can be truly fascinating. In today’s globalised world, with businesses continually expanding their reach and customer bases, understanding of these language differences is crucial in creating multilingual tools and content.
Some differences are very obvious; for instance, Chinese language uses special character set to convey the message, whereas, the Arabic language is read right to left. This can cause some issues whilst designing new software, but most experienced designers will be aware of these potential problems as these are very significant differences.
However, there are hundreds (if not thousands) subtle differences between languages that many people aren’t aware of. These subtle differences can cause serious issues and create delays in project delivery.
When writing copy that is going to be translated into several languages, the author should consider the intended multilingual audience and write the text appropriately. Using idiomatic expressions and proverbs should be kept to a minimum as these are often difficult to translate and due to the cultural differences and different language structures the intended meaning can be lost, or the translated text in order to keep to the original copy might require phrasing which wouldn’t sound natural.
In addition, the structural differences can be a cause of issues. One example of problems related to language structures is the word order in a sentence. Some languages, including German, have a verb at the end of the sentence. This might not seem like a big difference that should worry software designers, but, it turns out that it can cause serious issues. About a year ago we’ve been involved in translation of an IVR system where the prompts ended with a number. For example: For French pres 1, or To hear this message again pres 5.
The system was designed this way, so the numbers at the end can be changed depending on the required options. The problem arose when in German, and few other languages, the word ‘press’ was at the end of every sentence and the numbers were not at the very end anymore. As a result the system was creating incorrect sentence structure and a very confusing message because it was adding one more number to the sentence and the number before the word ‘press’ was not changed.
In order to resolve this issue, the system had to be redesigned for the languages with the verb at the end of the sentence and few more prompts had to be recorded to accommodate this change.
In this case the solution was relatively simple and was implemented within few days, so the overall project wasn’t hugely delayed, but the example illustrates how the differences in language structure can affect the entire project. This also shows that translation should be approached with due respect and translators should be involved in the early stages of the project…