At Rubric, we just helped make history by making the Firefox web browser the first major software in the Scots language.
Together with our skilled Scots language translators, we brought this lesser-served language into the technology domain.
What lessons can you learn from our experience translating software into this long-tail language?
Are there differences between translating software and other types of content?
And should you translate your software into long-tail languages?
Let’s pull back the curtain on how we delivered on this exciting new opportunity for Scots speakers and learners.
Scots: An underserved long-tail language
At Rubric, we are a truly international company. Our core team lives across various countries and we work with many translators and clients stretching all over the globe.
But, we are also based in Edinburgh, Scotland.
As a result, there is a special place in our hearts for Scottish culture and its languages. You might not be aware but there are 4 official languages in Scotland:
English, Gaelic, British Sign Language… and Scots.
Scots is a Germanic language
that shares a common root with English through the Early Middle English language.
Scots is a minority language, spoken by around 30% of the population. According to the 2011 Scottish census, 1.9 million reported being able to speak, read, write, or understand Scots. However, native speakers have had limited options for software in their own language.
This is a common situation for speakers of underserved languages.
In Scotland, there has been more of a push to revive the Gaelic language – a Celtic language very different from English — partly because Gaelic is closer to extinction with only 60,000 speakers
. However, even though there are more Scots speakers, the language could also easily die out if people stop using it. It’s common to hear it spoken. But, seeing written Scots is rare which makes it hard to learn and could jeopardize its future.
Thankfully, there has recently been a revival of Scots on social media. We felt that there was a need to help the preservation effort by bringing the Scots language firmly into the wider technological domain for the first time… by localizing the Firefox web browser.
What is a long-tail language? Should your company target them?
In the translation industry, we call languages like Scots and Gaelic “long-tail languages.”
This is a term used to mean languages that are not commonly translated by companies. As a result, the communities that speak these languages are often underserved by products.
There can be a huge amount of business potential in long-tail languages!
Although they have fewer speakers than, say Chinese, Arabic, or French, there can be much less competition in these markets because people have so few options in their native language.
If you are translating your products to achieve more international sales, it’s worth looking into whether supporting some long-tail languages would help you meet your goals.
The challenge of translating software into long-tail languages
Along with the benefits of translating into long-tail languages, there are some associated challenges. One of these is that there are fewer native translators of the languages. This makes it all the more important to work with a translation provider that is experienced in coordinating long-tail language translations.
Software also brings another interesting challenge — what if the language doesn’t have an existing word for a particular technological term?
Ashley Douglas, writer, researcher, and translator for the project explains the process we followed in translating the Scots version of Firefox:
“We started by developing a glossary of terms, a guiding principles document, and a style guide. Creating the glossary involved coining a lot of new words because Scots has not been used extensively in the technological sphere before.
“Currently, Scots speakers would just use the English word. Although they speak Scots, when they go onto a computer they use browsers in English.”
Our guiding principle when coining these new words was to use terms that would be immediately understandable to Scots speakers and learners. The Scots language translators had to find a balance between using an interesting, lively accessible version of the language and making sure that it wasn’t too antiquated or whimsical.
“Sometimes that was using existing words in new ways. For example, for ‘maximize’ and ‘minimize’ we opted for ‘mak muckle’ and ‘mak tottie’.”
In Scots, “mak” means “make,” “muckle” means “large,” and “tottie” means “small.” So, the translations mean “make large” or “make small.”
This type of creative linguistic translation is not usually required with more commonly translated languages. However, it can still be necessary in particular industries (e.g. the financial industry
) when new English terms are coined as a response to the introduction of new technologies or regulations.
What makes software products more difficult to translate?
Fellow translator and Scots writer Thomas Clark notes that translating software into long-tail languages brings some extra challenges compared to other types of translation:
“This translation was very different from the projects I’d done before, which tend to be books and marketing translations.
“With a book, you’re trying to translate an experience, a story. There can be a little bit of slippage in a book, as long as you can get the central meaning across. You can play around with the language a bit more.
“With Firefox, you can’t do that. You need to translate clear information. Something is going to happen when a user clicks on a page or button. That needs to be communicated properly. It can’t be communicated vaguely.”
With software, translations must be precise. Even just a small change in meaning could lead to users not understanding how to perform a particular function or misunderstanding a key piece of information.
Why Rubric took on the project
Mozilla Firefox is an open-source project. As a result, the usual approach to the translation of Mozilla products is for volunteers from the community to carry out the translations.
So, why did we choose to donate our resources to translating Firefox into Scots?
Françoise Henderson, Rubric’s CEO, explains:
“It’s unusual for a commercial company like us to do this kind of thing. For us, it’s very much a seeding exercise, it’s not a commercial exercise. The language has to live and the community has to take over now.”
Ian Henderson, Rubric’s CTO, adds that he hopes the new language option will help to promote the language by allowing learners and fluent speakers to browse the web in Scots.
“The potential impact of projects like this one is hugely exciting but it only happens if somebody actually does something about it. And that’s what we felt with this Firefox project. We wanted to help by pushing the boundaries in the use of Scots.”
When we can change the world, we do
Some companies like to give back by simply donating money to a good cause. While this is highly commendable, at Rubric we prefer to actively contribute to changing the world when we can.
When we see an opportunity to make real change to the world in a practical way, we are committed to taking action to make that change.
The goal of this Scots language project was to drive interest in an underserved language and help to ensure that it does not die out.
In the past, we have donated translation management and resources to other projects. For example, we previously translated Firefox into the South African language Xhosa. We also donated Wikipedia translations of key health information during the 2014 Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa.
Do you have a software product you need to translate?
Do you have a software product that you need to translate?
Are you wondering which languages you should choose and whether to support long-tail languages?
The best way to find out what approach could work for you is to talk over your needs with a content strategist.
You can book a free Global Content Strategy call with one of our strategists and find out more about our approach and how it applies to businesses like yours on our software localization page.