Software Internationalization for Dummies

I had discussion today in Twitter regarding software i18n (i18n is a short for internationalization, and it means there’s 18 characters between letter ‘i’ and letter ‘n’). I was trying to find some simple, straightforward link that explains what this word monster actually means but I wasn’t able to find it. So here it goes:

Software Internationalization is a process to separate content from code so that it can be localized. Almost all programming languages and environments provide some kind of framework to do this. There is some popular examples like JavaScript that doesn’t provide i18n support out of the box. However, most well known JavaScript libraries such as jQuery do have plugins that provide the support.

As an example, the iPhone i18n framework provide a way to use following “strings” files that are then accessed from the code:

"Hello World" = "Hello World";

When this is translated, file is copied and typically saved under the corresponding language folder, in this example it would be Finnish strings file:

"Hello World" = "Heippa maailma";

Here we can see that “Hello World” is now translated to Finnish. Based on the language you’re using in your iPhone, the correct file is automatically loaded. It means that when in actual application code we use string “Hello World”, it will get automatically replaced with Finnish translation from the Finnish strings file (if your iPhone is in Finnish, of course).

The benefit of this whole process is that we don’t have to change the code when application goes to localization phase. Also in some cases, e.g. in HTML or other declarative languages we don’t have to duplicate the design or behavior to each localization variant as the languages reside in different files.

However, managing these i18n files will get tricky as soon as you have to deal with multiple languages, hundreds of strings and different character sets, file formats and versions. That’s why there’s new breed of software localization platforms that provide version management, editor, collaborative tools and API’s to manage these files more easily. You can learn more from Get Localization and this blog how to simplify the localization process as well.

If you wan’t to learn more? Please read the following blog post, it will give you more insights about the topic: 10 Internationalization tips for developers – I18N checklist

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