Does your app work in Portuguese or Chinese? Some tips for localizing apps

As the mobile app industry increases its reach into more and more global markets, developers are realizing the need to translate their apps into additional languages if they want to serve customers in multiple geographies. The use of a country's native language is culturally appropriate and it can improve overall sales.

"When you localize, you open the door for more people to use your app," said Robert Lo Bue, founder of Applingua, a mobile app translation house. "It can definitely increase your sales if done correctly and for the right market."

Local apps will drive future growth in the mobile app industry

Apps tailored to local languages not only make good business sense, they are expected to play a significant role in the growth of the app industry. VisionMobile, for example, recently reported that regional demand for localized apps "will drive the production of the next 10 million apps" used around the world.

The firm noted that the U.S. and many European countries are already becoming mature app markets and that the next wave of opportunities for developers will be found in countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and Poland.

Robert Lo Bue

Developers worldwide "must close the language deficit by accelerating production of local language apps," the firm said.

App store analytics firm Distimo is also tracking these trends. In a recent study of Apple App Store revenues, Distimo found that the top 10 growth markets in May 2012, based on app revenues, were in Japan, Russia, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Brazil, Mexico, Korea, Turkey and Canada. The U.S. was rated thirteenth.

Distimo pointed out that customers adopt localized apps in substantially higher numbers than apps written in non-native languages. It said that in Russia, for example, only 4 percent of all iPhone apps in the Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) App Store are available in Russian, however, apps that are translated into Russian generate 70 percent of the App Store revenues tracked in that country.

Developers usually target two languages

VisionMobile further characterized the "language deficit." It found, for example, that 85 percent of developers publish their apps in English, even though just 8 percent of the world's population speaks English. And 16 percent of developers publish apps in Chinese, yet Chinese is spoken by 22 percent of the world's population. The firm noted that developers on average publish their apps in two languages.

Some developers have more experience with multi-language apps than others and development firms that serve international clients are finding that they must offer these capabilities.

Martin Gandar

"A large number of our clients demand it," said Martin Gandar, strategic marketing director at the Netherlands-based Service2Media. "The first demand is for multiple operating systems. The next demand is for multiple languages."

Some challenges for localizing mobile apps

The Android and iOS operating systems each support dozens of languages that cover the majority of the geographic markets for mobile apps, and each OS frequently releases support for more languages. For those developers wanting to further customize their apps with additional languages or dialects, Android offers more flexibility than iOS, according to those in the industry, however developers can use workarounds with each system to employ any desired language.

For languages that OSes support, localization tools available with the SDKs can handle basic text translations, but developers will usually need to fine tune the way the translated text is used and presented. Numerous translation firms and other vendors are available to help developers with translation and other localization processes.

Geoff Chatterton, founder of the app development house Duff Research, noted some challenges associated with translating apps in iOS. He said that the iOS localization utility, for example, can't cover all the details that a developer needs to deal with to make sure the translated text is presented effectively on the screen. This issue can be particularly problematic when translating an app from English, for example, to a language that reads from right to left on the screen.

He noted a few other common challenges. He said that the use of plural words can be complicated in some languages and the order of words used in a sentence can change from one language to another. Many of these issues need to be addressed manually in the app.

Gandar, at Service2Media, noted that sometimes the length of words can become problematic after translation. For example, German words can be much longer than their English equivalents and take up more real estate on the screen. Another issue, he said, is that sometimes hardware-based navigation features built into a device might cause prompts to come up in English. "You might have to create a soft navigation solution" in these cases, he said.

A check list for developers

Lo Bue, of Applingua, offered a list of tips for developers.

  1. Test the target market's response to your app before actually translating it. Even though an app might be written in English, the developer can translate the app's marketing description and key words used for search-engine optimization. If customers respond to the app and sales increase in that particular market, it will make sense to invest in translating the full app.
  2. Don't translate an app into too many languages at once. Developers need to continually update their apps, and if an app is available in 10 to 15 languages, every update will need to be translated too, which can add time and costs to the updating process. Focus on translating an app into one or two languages initially, and gradually add more after the app is refined.
  3. A developer may not think they have a need to localize their app, but they should set it up so it can be localized later by following the guidelines available in iOS or Android SDKs. It's simple to do and will save work later if there is an opportunity or need to support additional languages. 
  4. Small, independent developers who are short on funding can ask their customers to help translate their app. Some customers are willing to do this and the developer can compensate them with additional apps or other product benefits. 
  5. Don't work with anonymous translators. If using a translation house, make sure the translators are native speakers in the target language, have appropriate credentials and certifications, and are familiar with mobile apps.

Chatterton emphasized the need for good quality assurance performed by native speakers.

"At the end of the day, in order to have a good quality application that will look nice in the store, you really need someone who is a native speaker in that language to Q/A the app and look through the different screens to make sure it is all right," he said.

He also noted that translation firms can often provide an unexpected benefit to developers: helping them gaining media exposure in a targeted country. 

 "Translation houses often have connections with overseas bloggers and the press," Chatterton said. "They can help you get media exposure in countries you might not have contacts in."