Software Internationalization Best Practices for Developers

Chidinma Egwuogu
20 Dec 2023

6 min. read


Software internationalization is a design approach meant to simplify future software localization. Put simply, software built with localization in mind is easy to localize.

In this article, we’ll detail how to internationalize software and discuss the tools and practices that can make this process easier.

Pro tip: Automate software internalization using a localization management platform, Centus. Sync the platform with your code repository and use API, CLI, and webhooks to streamline localization workflows. Learn more.

What is software internationalization?

Software internationalization is a design approach that enables the localization of software without significant code changes. Software internationalization usually involves separating content from code and ensuring it can easily accommodate different languages, characters, date formats, and cultural norms. For example, instead of hardcoding names for menu items, they are assigned IDs that can be replaced with translations later.

Internationalization vs localization vs globalization

Software internationalization (i18n), localization (l10n), and globalization are interdependent yet distinct:

  • Internationalization (i18n) is the design process of making software adaptable for different languages and regions without specific coding changes. It lays the groundwork for flexible software architecture.
  • Localization (l10n) is the subsequent step of tailoring the software to specific languages and cultural norms of a particular region.
  • Globalization is the broader process that includes both internationalization and localization. It's the overall strategy of designing software so it’s not only used worldwide but also feels locally relevant in each market it enters.

How to internationalize software

Follow these steps to adapt your software to multiple languages and cultures:

Planning and strategy

  • Identifying target audiences and market needs: Find out who will use your software and what their specific requirements are. This could include cultural preferences, legal requirements, or specific functionalities needed in different regions.
  • Selecting languages and regional settings: Decide what languages and regional settings your software will support based on your target market.

For this stage, you can use market analysis tools to make informed decisions. For example, Google Market Finder is a free tool that helps you identify potential markets, and SimilarWeb offers insights into your competitor’s market presence.

Technical implementation

  • Text extraction for translation: Use resource files to separate text from code. This way, your translators can start on the content early enough, with insights from the development and design team.
  • Unicode and multiple character sets: Ensure your software can handle various character sets, especially for languages with unique scripts. For example, instead of using ASCII which limits you to English-centric characters, you can use UTF-8 or UTF-16 encoding in your software
  • Handling date, time, and number formats: Adapt your software to local formats for dates, times, and numbers. For example, in Java, you can use DateFormat and NumberFormat classes along with the Locale object to format these elements according to the user's region. Learn more in our number localization guide.
  • Handling locales: Implement locale-specific functionalities. For instance, use Java's Locale class to format dates and numbers based on user location: DateFormat df = DateFormat.getDateInstance(DateFormat.LONG, new Locale.FRANCE); Learn more in our Java localization guide. Also, consider internationalization libraries and frameworks like ICU (International Components for Unicode) or Globalize.

Testing and quality assurance

  • Ensure your software works well in all targeted languages and regions. Check not just translations but also cultural nuances and functional elements specific to each locale.
  • Use Centus to quickly test how well your software performs in different languages, saving you time and money on resolving bugs later on.

Software internationalization best practices

Here are 11 best software to help you enter international markets successfully:

1. Start the development process early

Initiate internationalization early in your development cycle. This helps identify potential challenges and integrate solutions into the development lifecycle from the start. It's much easier and cost-effective to build a flexible framework from the beginning than to retrofit an existing system.

2. Use internationalization frameworks

Leverage frameworks and libraries designed for internationalization, like Angular i18n or React Intl. These tools provide functionalities for handling translations and localization aspects. They also help with consistency and save development time.

3. Maintain language resources regularly

Keep your language resources up-to-date and ensure that any software changes are reflected across all language versions. These language resources include style guides, glossaries, and contextual information to help your translators do better. Discover more about terminology management in our comprehensive guide.

4. Collaborate with cultural and linguistic experts

Work with linguistic and cultural experts to ensure your software is culturally appropriate and accurately translated. They can provide insights into nuances that automated translations might miss and help you avoid cultural missteps.

5. Handle right-to-left languages

Implement support for right-to-left (RTL) languages like Arabic and Hebrew from the start. This includes mirroring layouts and making sure text is properly aligned and displayed.

CSS libraries like Bootstrap RTL or dedicated RTL support in frameworks can help you in this process.

Pro tip: Make sure you test your software with RTL languages to ensure accurate rendering and functionality.

6. Address cultural sensitivities

Be mindful of cultural sensitivities. This includes everything from color meanings and degrees of politeness to content appropriateness. Understanding and respecting these differences is key to creating software that is well-received in different markets. Find more in our guide on software localization best practices.

7. Ensure inclusivity

Design your software to be inclusive and consider a broad spectrum of users. This includes those with disabilities, different age groups, genders, and cultural backgrounds.

Don’t forget about accessible design too. Some jurisdictions require following international accessibility standards like WCAG 2.

8. Streamline content updates

Establish a smooth process for updating content to ensure that modifications in the original version are quickly mirrored in all localized versions.

Automation and continuous localization practices can help you keep track of even these details, down to the smallest comma.

First, you’ll need to set up a reliable version control system (like Git) to effectively manage your source code. Then, you’ll need to adopt a translation management tool, like Centus, that syncs with your code repository to speed up translation.

9. Comply with legal requirements

Compliance is essential for avoiding legal issues and building user trust. Stay informed about legal requirements in each target market, such as data privacy laws and censorship rules.

10. Avoid using images with text

Instead of embedding text in images, use text overlays or separate UI elements for text. This approach makes it easier to translate text without having to edit the image for each language. If you must use images with text, consider creating a template image and layering text dynamically based on the user’s language settings.

11. Ensure cross-platform compatibility

Think about the operating systems your software will support. For internationalization, various platforms, including web, mobile, desktop, and embedded systems, may have specific needs.

Ensure your internationalization efforts are consistent across all platforms and that your software can easily adjust to each platform's technological limitations and user expectations. Consider factors like input methods, screen size, and platform-specific localization requirements.

Benefits of software internationalization

  • Streamlining the localization workflow: Internationalization allows for a smoother and faster localization workflow. Translation teams can work concurrently with ongoing development, instead of having to wait for devs to build the product all over again—phew!
  • Expanding market reach: Internationalizing software opens up opportunities to reach new markets and audiences. Adobe and Netflix have successfully expanded their user bases through multilingual and region-specific versions, demonstrating how internationalization can lead to market expansion and increased revenue.
  • Cost and time efficiency: Internationalization during the development phase reduces the need for extensive redesigns for new markets. International companies leverage this to streamline their development processes and enjoy faster deployments.
  • Competitive advantage: Applications like WhatsApp, which supports multiple languages and is available in 180 countries, illustrate how internationalization can differentiate a product in a competitive marketplace.

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