The Problem with Localizing Software for Multiple Platforms

Adobe has a long history of developing products for multiple platforms, be it desktop applications like our flagship Creative Suite applications or newer touch applications like Photoshop Touch. Most of our desktop apps have been built for both Windows and Mac and newer applications continue on this trend with support for iOS and Android including Tablet and Phone form factors for both.

Of course this would not have been possible without the careful efforts of the engineering team to largely maintain a single code base for all platforms.

While having a single code base has obvious benefits, in the UI layer it is often important to have platform specific variations for better usability. Each platform usually has a specific convention for referring to system menus, short cut keys and UI elements. For example on a windows platform a UI String could be – “Select a media file via the Browse button or enter a valid pathname.” and the same string for the Mac Platform could be – “Select a media file via the Choose button or enter a valid pathname.”

This means that translatable UI strings may have many variations in the source language depending upon which platform they are intended for. This is what our globalization group usually refers to as ‘Platform Variance’. Localizable strings are essentially multivalued entities. Each localizable string has an identifier and multiple associated values each of which can be selected based on certain criteria. The most obvious and commonly used criteria is the UI locale of the application but it need not be the only one. Platform too can decide the value of a string.

Platform variance support is not just useful for handling terminology differences for referring to system UI elements, it also helps adapt strings for different screen sizes. Modern application are designed for supporting multiple device form factors like tablet and phone with the UI being tweaked for each platform for best user experience. Platform variance in this case can be used to support longer strings for the Tablet view and shorter strings for the Phone view.

Yet another area where platform variance support could potentially be useful is in having different localizable values for a Pro version versus a Consumer version of the application.

However, localizing strings with platform variant data is a problem. The problem is two fold, one is in managing the processes and project schedule to allow for agile localization and simultaneous release for all target platforms. The second aspect is technically supporting the platform variance in both programming libraries and translation tools. Many tools and libraries assume a single value for a source and a target string, but in case of platform variance not only can there be multiple source and target values for a string there need not be a one-to-one correspondence between source and target values. There may be multiple platform variants for a source string that map to the same translated/target value or a single source string may need to be translated differently based on platform for the target locale. For example:

  • en_US: “Please close the dialog and start over.”
  • default fr_FR: “Fermez la zone de dialogue et recommencez.”
  • Windows fr_FR: “Fermez la boîte de dialogue et recommencez.”

Since I am part of the globalization tools team here at Adobe, the remainder of this post I describe the problem more from a technical tools and libraries perspective, drawing from my experience. The process problem is also pretty complex and would probably take a much longer blog post to discuss. In fact there’s a related one already on this blog, see – link.

Platform Variance Support in Libraries

Ideally the globalization libraries/APIs used in the code to manage externalized strings and the corresponding storage formats for the externalized data should have a notion of a platform variant value for each string. There should be a way to request a string value for a specific locale and platform along with a provision to fall back to a default value in case a platform specific value is not specified.

As an example, the Java ResourceBundle API supports selecting a bundle by ‘Locale’, there is no explicit mention of a ‘Platform’, but the ‘Locale’ itself is extensible to support variants. The variant mechanism in the ‘Locale’ can be used for supporting different platforms and there is also a fall back mechanism. At Adobe we have a custom developed cross platform library called ZString for managing externalized strings with explicit support for platform variance.

Platform Variance Support in Translation Tools

Most translation management systems (TMSs) have a one-to-one model of source strings with matching translated strings for each locale. This assumption is behind the architecture of the TM matching algorithms as well as the design of the translation workbench. A typical translation workbench usually offers a side by side view of source and target strings, but only supporting a single source string corresponding to a single translated value.

Typical Translation Workbench

A typical side by side view of Source and Target content in a translation tool

We are still searching for the ideal solution to this problem. For managing the TMs a possible workaround using existing systems is to have duplicate entries in the Translation Memory (TM) or a separate TM for each platform.

However, translators are still constrained by the view presented by their translation workbench. A possible solution to allow translation vendors to provide platform specific translations is to duplicate all the source strings for each possible target platform. The source value for the default platform can be used as the source value for all other platform unless the application UI already specifies a value for a specific platform in which case that is used. Now the translator can provide different translations for each platform if required. This workaround however seems to be a significant amount of additional work for the translators. Some optimization is possible by translating a single platform first and leveraging translations for all the other platforms.

In an ideal scenario the translation workbench would provide a side by side view of all platform variants for the source string and the target strings. With the ability for the translator to remove variants from the translated string where they are not required and propose variants for the translated string even if the source string does not have any. This would allow translators to work through the source content in a single pass, editing leveraged translations, providing new translations where required and proposing platform specific translated values as appropriate.

An approximation to this ideal view is an Excel sheet with each source string being represented in a row and having a separate column for each platform for both source and target strings. With blank values in a platform column signifying that the default translation is to be used for that platform and non-blank platform entries being used for the platform specific translations.

Ideal Translation Workbench

A proposed translation workbench view allowing simultaneous translations for multiple platforms

We are still experimenting to find the optimal solution for our needs, that offers flexibility to translators and yet leverages our investment in existing translation tools and processes. The goal is to be able to support faster agile release cycles with all platform releases happening simultaneously.

I think this is a good forum to ask our blog readers if they have faced similar problems and the solutions they have developed to deal with it.

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