Software Localization

Why is WYSIWYG important for software localization?

If you are new to software localization and visit the web sites of software tool vendors, they will tell you that What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get (WYSIWYG) is an extremely important feature. We all know it is important for desktop publishing. WYSIWYG editing eliminates the need to print a flyer again and again to see how changes look. But why is WYSIWYG important to software localization?

A real life story

In a real-life story, just few weeks ago, we decided to install a business application on my computer. The vendor was very happy that it was localized in my native language, German. Because I’m in the software localization business, I was curious about what tool the software company used for localization. To my surprise, the company did not use a tool. They simply put all strings into a database and the translator completed the localization without a WYSIWYG editor. The result made me chuckle—because the company also failed to make a quality check. The translators did as well as they could with the tools they had. However, after their strings were loaded into the application, the strings broke the layout in the user interface. Yes, words in German sentences are longer—and most translators are aware of that. But in this case, the translators could not use their knowledge and experience because they didn’t have the right tools.

Software localization without WYSIWYG

With WYSIWYG the translator easily could use the empty space better.

Context? What context?

The translators had to work blind with a list of sentences in a database—without any chance to see screen elements filled with their translations. The translators couldn’t give feedback to the developers that their strings were too long. They could only translate string by string without seeing the context. A WYSIWYG tool could have saved the translators and the software company a lot of time and effort.

Software localization without WYSIWYG

The text for the check box is cut and the usage of it is now unclear. At the same time, there is more than enough room on the right side.

A state-of-the-art localization tool can give the translator the chance to see everything in WYSIWYG. With this feature, he/she can also adapt the size of the dialog boxes, buttons, labels, and more to make them fit the user interface perfectly. In this example, the results of localization without the proper tools are buttons with truncated captions. One missing word can make a big difference: for example, “Delete” and “Delete All” are not the same.


In this example, you must guess what the buttons mean. Would you click the button without knowing what it does? In an up-to-date WYSIWYG localization environment, the translator can make the buttons wider in seconds.

Furthermore, the application has even more problems. The English caption “count” can have two meanings in German: “Anzahl” (number of) or “zählen” (counting). If you do not understand the context, you cannot decide which term to use. With a good WYSIWYG display, the translator can easily avoid the wrong word. When I first saw the dialog box, I thought I had to wait until some counting had completed. When the counter did not change; I recognized my mistake and had a good laugh.

Software localization without WYSIWYG

The correct translation here would be “Anzahl”. In a WYSIWYG environment, a ten-year-old child can sort this out. Without a WYSIWYG environment, even a degreed and experienced translator has a 50/50 chance to fail.

The complete application was full of truncated strings and incorrect translations. After my tests, we decided not to use the business application in future. The software basically failed our tests because of bad localization.

What would you think about the quality of an application you want to build your business processes on if the software looks difficult to use? What would you expect under the covers? You would probably remove the software and forget about it—especially if the vendor did not even made a quality check of the translated software. With a problem like this, software vendors lose many potential customers. The vendors save a little money with cheap localization tools that do not have WYSIWYG features, but lose many customers. My story is true—and, unfortunately, is very common. We frequently see problems in many programs out there. Time to spread the word that there is a solution for software localization called What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get.

— Markus Kreisel

4 replies on “Why is WYSIWYG important for software localization?”

Nice article! However, I have to say that, having a translation background myself, I am a bit sceptical of WYSIWIG as a panacea to all localization issues. Of course, WYSIWIG is better than nothing, but in the long run I think it would be even more useful to abstract out the information relevant to the linguist (length restrictions, context, etc.) and integrate it into future translation environments.
What’s important for translation purposes is the structure and the purpose of the content, not the actual layout. I think this is an important distinction.
As far as I know, XLIFF supports metadata regarding context, length restrictions etc. – hopefully, developers and CAT tool makers will leverage these features.
I’ve noticed that especially for web content – or content that will be published in different forms, WYSIWIG tools may induce subtle errors in that the translation will be optimized for one particular medium (e.g. hard hyphens, ad-hoc abbreviations, normal spaces rather than non-breaking spaces etc.) and violate the principle of separation between content and layout, thus preventing easy content re-use.
That being said, I believe that, considering the current state of translation technology, you’re still spot on.

The option to WYSIWYG the UI is really good, but if you are experienced you don’t always need it. But the option to see the context is of course invaluable when in doubt.

I recently received a screen dump from a wizard where the ‘Finish’ button had been translated as ‘Finnish’. And that mistake had probably not been made in a WYSIWYG editor. 🙂

Hi Johnny,

you are right. WYSIWYG is not everything. Most of the time you will translate in text mode. For an experienced translator it will not work out if he looks at the WYSIWYG display on every dialog for every detail. He will just not earn enough.
But these little issues, like a “Finnish” 🙂 button can mean some lost of reputation to a software. Especially while evaluating a software this can mean the difference between a sale or none. The competition for software is hard in the Internet and your competition might have done a better job with localization. The story in the post really happened. We lost trust in the software because if the translation is done lazy why should the business logic be more accurate?

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