October 2019
Text by Jen Horner

Image: © rawpixel/123rf.com

Jen Horner manages the marketing program for MTM LinguaSoft, a language services provider delivering professional language translation, transcreation, foreign-language voiceovers and subtitling as well as website, mobile app, elearning and software localization. She holds a PhD in Communication from the University of Pennsylvania.




Bridging language and technology

To succeed on the global market, companies need to make their content available across a multitude of digital platforms. Localization solutions promise to do the job, but how do we choose the best solution?

Localization engineering bridges language and technology by making content available for translation and localization across digital platforms. Many localization solutions are available for fully or partly automating this process for mobile- and web-based applications and websites. If you understand the goals and processes of localization engineering, you can make a more informed choice for localizing your own digital product. Do you choose a subscription-based localization solution with the expectation of ongoing maintenance? Or do you make a one-time investment in hands-on engineering up front, then pay for updates on an ad hoc basis? This article explains what localization engineering is, what distinguishes the two approaches, and how to choose a method for localization engineering for software and websites.

Hands-on localization engineering solutions

The cost and efficiency of a hands-on solution depends on how difficult it is to distinguish the translatable content from the coding and/or formatting. Essentially, hands-on localization engineering isolates the source content for translation and provides it to linguists in a user-friendly format, while protecting the code from corruption. Processes such as "pseudo-translation" are used to ensure that all the content has been secured and all the code and formatting has been flagged and excluded. Once the translation is complete, the application or website is reassembled and delivered to the client.

Most document translation projects require hardly any preparation because their formatting is common, standardized, and easily recognized. For example, translation management tools are fully compatible with Word documents, so no "localization engineering" is required to "find" the text. On the other hand, if you are looking to translate custom-built software in an unusual file format, quite a bit of extra effort can be required to sort out the content.

Even commonly used file formats such as .json, .xml and .po can pose issues for industry standard translation tools. Translatable content can be missed, and tags can be corrupted in such a way that scripts and programs crash or do not run correctly after the application or website is re-assembled and delivered to the client.

Localization management solutions

If you have researched translation for multilingual websites and mobile apps, you’ve seen a wide range of solutions for translating and updating multilingual digital media. These are packaged as translation "platforms" or "proxies" or, more recently, "localization management solutions." Some are developed by startups focusing specifically on websites and mobile apps, while others are proprietary tools that have been developed by language service providers. In this article, we will refer to these as "automated solutions."

In general, automated solutions establish a cloud-based framework to translate a website or app and, in some cases, for continuing translation updates on an ongoing basis. After the initial translation project, the client can use the interface to make updates, which trigger micro-translation projects for translators to fulfill almost in real time. Translators log in directly to the tool to translate the client’s changes. The leading platforms can handle an impressive array of file formats, even converting them on the fly. Many also provide the translators with an interface that "mirrors" the look of the source application or website. This helps the translators see the content in context and compensate for text expansion or contraction during translation (some languages use more characters than others, which impacts the "look" of the project).

When an automated solution claims that it provides a seamless alternative to what they characterize as tedious "manual" processes, be skeptical. Translation project managers are already skilled in managing digital content, and industry-standard localization project management is NOT limited to cutting and pasting content to and from Excel worksheets. The translation industry has embraced content management technologies on pace with the field of technical communication in general. In fact, automated platforms offer many of the functionalities of translation tools that have been in use since the 1990s. Although we use the term "hands-on" processes to distinguish them from automated solutions, they are still a far cry from "manual."

What tools are already in use?

Like professional technical writers, professional translators use tools for structuring content, ensuring consistency of style and terminology, and performing quality assurance. Market leaders like MemoQ and SDL Studio (and a host of competitors) have been developing and refining their products for decades. Increasingly sophisticated CAT (computer aided translation) tools are available as both desktop applications and cloud-based collaborative platforms. Competition between brands is intense, but a certain amount of compatibility has developed between them. The industry standard XLIFF file (XML Localization Interchange File Format) allows for translation files to be shared between different tools, with only occasional issues caused by variations in implementation. Nowadays, being able to use these tools has become necessary for a successful translation career. Practically every reputable freelance technical translator and every professional language service partner or agency has expertise with one or more CAT tools.

CAT tools break content down into segments and present them in a two-column source-target interface. The tools provide termbase management, controlled authoring, style guidance, and QA functionality. Translation memories (TMs) make pre-translated segments available for re-use across media platforms and over a lifetime of updates. Automated solutions have adopted these capabilities as well, albeit with varying levels of quality and degrees of success.

From the translator’s point of view, years of subject matter expertise is codified in their own personal termbases and CAT tool customizations, in addition to investments in training time and licensing fees. Translators prefer to use their own tools (or combination of tools), and in-demand translators can be choosy in declining projects that require them to learn new tools. When quality is paramount (and it usually is), businesses should avoid automated solutions that very few translators are willing or able to use.

Why is localization engineering necessary?

In a sense, the purpose of CAT tools has always been "automated localization engineering" for digital content. Most file formats have become so commonplace that we hardly even consider them "digital" anymore. Twenty years ago, translation looked very different than it does today. Today, a translator can import a Word document or an InDesign file into a CAT tool, view the text without the distraction of markup/tags, translate it, and export a target document with the formatting intact. SDL Studio, for example, currently supports 70 different file types.

For mobile apps, websites, technical drawings, and elearning modules, separating content from code is rarely as simple. Putting the application or module back together again after translation can also pose challenges, especially when multiple languages are involved. When code is mistaken for content and vice versa, problems occur. Recoding can be required to create a usable deliverable.

As digital technologies multiply, technical translators face these problems:


  1. CAT tools are compatible with many file formats. However, they are not compatible with ALL file formats.
  2. Even if the file formats are compatible, the export and import functions for the client’s authoring platforms will vary in quality.
  3. Authoring standards for the source content itself can also vary in quality. Custom coding, shortcuts, and workarounds can all interfere with the CAT tool’s ability to read and manage the content.

When choosing a localization strategy, a client should not assume that "automating" the process is going to be more cost-effective. Instead, they should ask these questions:


  1. How localization-friendly is the website or app?
  2. What is the expected frequency of changes and updates?
  3. What in-house resources can I devote to localization engineering?

Regardless of whether you will use automated or hands-on solutions, the best way to reduce the costs of localization engineering is to follow best practices for internationalization from the start.

Internationalization best practices

What is the first step toward localization-friendly content for apps and websites? Protect the code. Keeping the content separate from the code makes it easier to isolate the content for translation.


  • Don’t hard-code dates, times, measurements, or currencies.
  • Don’t concatenate strings to form sentences. Remember that grammar and word order vary across languages.
  • Don’t embed text in graphics.
  • Support different character sets by using Unicode.
  • If certain features won’t be used internationally, make them easily disabled options.
  • Store strings in resource files.

If an app or website is not already internationalized, recoding will be necessary to accommodate the needs of a global audience. Some automated solutions promise to take the internationalization step out of the equation by creating a proxy site or replica to serve as the source for the localized sites.

Automated solutions: upsides and downsides

When an app or website is being localized, automated and hands-on solutions are two different methods for doing the same type of work: isolating content to facilitate translation while protecting the code.

As we discussed above, there are lots of variables that impact how much time needs to be spent making sure all the content can be "found" and translated. On one hand, a client may prefer to involve his developer(s) in the process, taking on some of the tasks in partnership with a translation provider. For other clients, the value of the developers’ time may be greater than the savings from hands-on localization engineering. Automating the process may engage the development team to a lesser extent than a hands-on solution will.


The costs of automated solutions can be an important factor. Different localization platforms offer different fee structures. Some website translation platforms require a monthly or yearly fee. This will vary, depending on the number of languages hosted, the site traffic, the word count, additional services such as SEO, and the frequency of changes and updates. In exchange, the burden on your development team will be reduced, particularly if you expect a lot of updates.

If you leverage a language service partner’s hands-on engineering, you pay once for the initial internationalization and localization engineering. Certain tasks can be assigned to your development resources to balance the workload and decrease the fee. Future updates occur on an ad hoc basis.

It is not at all unusual for a client to use an automated solution in conjunction with their regular language service partner or translation team. For example, a client may decide to use an automated platform to manage the localization engineering, while drawing on their usual team of subject matter experts to do the translations.

Either way, the translation of the content itself is generally billed separately. The price will be determined by:


  • The word count or volume.
  • The linguistic skill and subject matter expertise of the translators, if human translation is used.
  • The source-target language pairs, if machine translation is used. Machine translation generally works better for translating English into European languages than into Asian languages.



How can localization engineering methods impact quality?

One of the upsides of an automated solution is reduced demand on your own development team. One of the downsides of an automated solution is a potential narrowing of the field with respect to translation talent. As we mentioned earlier, professional translators prefer to use their own tools rather than invest time in learning a new one. Some leading automated solutions have cultivated networks of translators who are expert users of the tool. More recently developed options can’t always make that guarantee. Others rely on crowd-sourcing, which can be fine for certain things, but completely inappropriate for any translation that requires specialized knowledge of the subject matter.

A second downside to automated solutions is that their embedded termbase, translation memories, and QA tools generally cannot match the quality and reliability of the standard CAT tools used by professional translators. As we mentioned earlier, the purpose of a translation memory is to ensure consistency across all media (mobile app, website, documentation, sales materials). If an automated solution can give you access to the translation memory in an XLIFF format, this can help. But if the solution specializes in only apps or only websites, you will still need to translate your other materials. Language service partners who provide translation for all types of media may be in a better position to make sure the content of the website and app are consistent with the rest of your publications.

How do I decide?

Whether or not we recommend an automated solution depends on the estimated frequency of your updates and the complexity of the authoring process. These, in turn, correlate with your plans for using your multilingual website and mobile app.

Is your website relatively static?

If you distribute your products exclusively through a network of foreign distributors or maintain sales offices overseas, you may not need frequent updates. In this case, you might use your localized website primarily as a means for


  • Reputation management. A translated website demonstrates that a brand is committed to serving a region. It also builds authority with the search engines used by customers in that region.
  • Access to local sales channels. Many multinationals use translated websites to provide contact information for local offices or distributors.
  • Meeting legal requirements. Regulators may require you to make certain information available to the public on your corporate website (for example, the European Union Regulation on Medical Devices specifically refers to websites as resources for public information).

If you expect relatively few updates, hands-on localization engineering could be performed without the use of an automated solution. The scope of work will depend on the site architecture and content management system (WordPress, Drupal, or a custom solution) that you are using, and whether you want your development team to take on some of the tasks.

Do you use your website for advertising and content marketing? In this case, your localized site primarily serves as a gateway for:


  • Lead generation. A translated landing page attracts interested prospects and provides opportunities to engage them in your sales funnel.
  • Establishing search authority. Even though your flagship website is available around the world to anyone specifically seeking it out, if it’s not optimized for search engines outside of the U.S. (including google.fr and so forth), it won’t be served to searchers.
  • Content marketing. Your blog and thought leadership content are important assets for your flagship site and can serve the same purpose internationally.
  • Light customer support. Depending on the subject domain and the language, FAQs or machine translation of chat interactions can suffice for answering questions from your customers.

For this type of localized website, updates may be frequent, but they are also predictable. If you’ve chosen a hands-on solution, the same localization engineering workflow and team from the initial translation project can remain available. However, if you expect the size and scope of your digital property to grow significantly within the next few years, an ongoing contract with a localization platform or proxy solution may be more efficient in the long run.

Do you provide e-commerce and SaaS?

If you anticipate frequent changes to your website and applications, we would recommend a platform or proxy service. The platform communicates content changes directly from your source to the translation team.


  • Dynamic e-commerce. If you are selling products through your site, and you expect a lot of content changes over time, the platform allows translators to be "on call" to translate small "chunks" as needed.
  • Lots of user-generated content. If your customer support strategy includes maintaining an online knowledge base (as for business software), or you invite reviews and other commentary that you want translated, a platform will be better able to accommodate an unpredictable, time-sensitive workload. As with customer support, machine translation might be a suitable option for this type of user-generated content.

If localization will be included as part of an Agile software development process, the tools and workflows of automated solutions will help tremendously.

If you expect frequent changes, an automated solution would make the ongoing maintenance of the website more cost-effective. However, an important question you’ll need to consider when selecting one is how much the content will vary across regional sites (e.g., will you highlight certain products in certain markets?) and whether the platform is flexible enough to handle differences across localized websites.

As global markets mature, options will continue to multiply. Your localization management tactics should be viewed in the context of your global business strategy. Choosing the best fit for your team requires research, inquiry, and flexibility.