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The evolution of localization tools

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ClientSide News Magazine pictureSome time ago, only few people knew about software localization tools, but now such tools have become an essential part of software development process. This article tells about transformation of localization software from simple tools developed in-house to powerful software suites that support multiple platforms and languages, provide advanced functionality and make software localization affordable to any company.

First steps

Localization revolves around combining language and technology to produce a product that can cross language and cultural barriers. Initially, software companies considered localization as an afterthought. When the original application was released in English and developers went on vacation, translators were put to work to produce a German, French, Chinese, etc. version. Initially, translators just changed text strings directly in source code, which was time-consuming and an error-prone process. It required translators to understand programming language and review huge amount of source code to translate few lines of text.

Locating translatable text embedded in software source code was very difficult and source code localization made code updates and version management a nightmare. As a result, localization at that time used to be very expensive in both time and money. It often produced unsatisfactory results and introduced new bugs in software.

First localization tools that appeared on the market were no more than simple utilities to simplify some parts of this process by locating text strings and managing code updates. They were limited in functionality and were mostly developed for in-house use and, in most cases, for some particular product. However, for all these difficulties, even those first localization tools allowed developers to reduce localization costs significantly.

The shift of computer software use away from centralized corporate and academic environments to usersT desks called for a shift in products features and functionality. Desktop computer users needed software that would enable them to do their work more efficiently and software also had to be in their local language. Releasing software in multiple languages became necessary not only for big software developers such as Microsoft or IBM, but also for smaller software companies. This triggered development of the first commercial localization tools.

First commercial localization tools used binary localization of executable files, rather than localization of the source code because this approach separated localization from software development. Translators were no longer required to know programming languages and many technical complexities were hidden from translators. Binary localization led to a considerable reduction in number of errors caused by localization and it made possible to easily sync translations when the software updates were released.

Localization vs. CAT tools

Companies that developed Computer Aided Translation (CAT) tools also tried to enter software localization market but most of them failed because they are designed for a different purpose. In CAT systems, output is a translated text, whereas in case of localization tools it is only an intermediary stage. The objective of localization is to adapt the product for local markets. This means not only translation of text, but also resizing dialogs, changing images and multiple other things. To do so, localization engineers get a copy of the software, extract translatable text from multiple files, do the translation, merge the translated files with the software build and produce localized copies of the application.

One of the major strengths of CAT systems is a translation memory but it is only partially useful in software localization for several reasons. Translation Memory database from one product cannot be reused in other products and, what is more, even in the same application same text in is often translated differently.

Riding the dot-com wave, localization tools evolved and by the end of the 1990s took over and implemented CAT tool functionality. Currently, traditional CAT tools no longer play a significant role in the localization industry.

Product-centric localization

Products developed today utilize multiple technologies and combine managed and unmanaged code, web components and even code targeting different operating systems. In large projects, there are hundreds of files that require localization and old tools that use by-file localization and target specific platforms are no longer up to a job. New crop of software localization products add support for folder-based localization, multiple development platforms and unify all localization efforts by supporting translation of help files and online documentation.

Folder-based localization tool

When a project has hundreds of localizable files in different directories, it becomes very difficult to manage without using folder-based localization. Tools that support folder-based localization automatically track new, removed and changed files, synchronize translation between files and keep project structure intact.

When multiple people work on the development of a large application, itTs difficult for localization engineers to track what files with localizable text are added and removed from the project. It used to be time-consuming and error-prone work but tools with support for folder-based localization automate this process by detecting new files, determining whether they contain text for translation and then adding them to the project.

Support for multiple formats

One of the specialties that characterize the localization industry today is support for multiple development platforms. In the past, most applications were developed using only one platform, but over time, products became more complex. Many products today contain both legacy code and new code in different programming languages. WhatTs more, as more products move into the Web, with its multitude of languages support for different platforms, this becomes even more important.

Localization on mobile devices

There are more mobile devices than computers in the world and many products have mobile version. While most people who work on computer have at least basic knowledge of English, majority of mobile phone users do not speak English at all. Support for .NET Compact Edition, Windows CE and Java Mobile Edition is standard in modern localization tools.

Help and documentation

Some software localization products added support for localization of documentation, websites and help. While CAT tools are better suited for translation of large amount of text, localization tools are better at translating text in structured form. WhatTs more, using localization tools for help and documentation allows companies to standardize on one product and lower support cost.


Over a short period, localization tools have gone a long way from simple utilities for in-house localization teams to complex product-centric systems, providing tools for the entire localization process. Technologies such as binary localization and translation memory dramatically increased localization efficiency. WhatTs more, modern localization tools compete in documentation and web content translation space with CAT systems, offering the developer a unified environment for entire software product localization.

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