Coding Approaches That Foil Russian Localization

pieces of a jiggsaw puzzle

Making the next ubiquitous app is the holy grail of many tech startups. Yet localization is often an afterthought for an initially English-only application. So when you are ready to take your app to other markets, certain assumptions that were made for English no longer work for the localized app. Here are three approaches that will make your app less functional and user-friendly in Russian.

The Lego Approach

Lego blocksConcatenation is a coding technique that strings different sequences of characters together to form a sentence. For example, a newsfeed update may be coded as “[username] posted [number] pictures,” where the username and number are pulled in from a database and the rest of the phrase is static. This sounds like an efficient approach that helps you recycle the building blocks of language instead of having multiple variations of the same string — in English.

However, in Russian as an example, “added” will be different depending on whether the subject (so, your user) is feminine, masculine, neuter, or plural. “Pictures” will be different depending on the number that precedes it, much like in English, except that the form for 2-4 is different from the form for 5-10. Why such complexity, you may ask? Some theories of language postulate that redundancy, or repeating parts of the message, helps the listener or language learner catch the message if they missed one part of it.

We may not like having to alter our perfectly functional English code to accommodate “less efficient” languages, but not doing so will result in a foreign equivalent of broken English. To illustrate this, let’s look at an analytic language without verb tenses or plural forms for nouns, like Mandarin. If a developer coming from the perspective of that language had coded something like “[username] like this post,” where “like” does not change in terms of person or tense, this could potentially result in ungrammatical sentences like “Joe like this post.” While this is still understandable, it does not have the same feel as the original copy.

The Unisex Approach

old letterA related pitfall to avoid is ignoring the concept of grammatical gender. Even basic boilerplate language like the greeting “Dear” in an email salutation will need to be different depending on whether the recipient is male or female. While this means more things to keep track of in your database, this will result in the same standard of writing as was applied to the communication in English.

As a side note, the lack of an established gender-neutral pronoun does present a challenge in Russian. In any case, you should be able to track and display the user’s preferred pronouns and adjective gender.

The Buddy Approach

dog with a ballA final difference to keep in mind is the US developers’ propensity for informal, approachable language. This is evidenced by humorous error messages along the lines of “Oops, something went wrong” or status messages saying “Sit tight.” This is unusual for Russian, where the audience expects a more straightforward and slightly drier style.

For example, an application is unlikely to add “please” or “thank you” to the message it displays. As a result, the Microsoft style guide for Russian recommends translating “No line, thank you” as “Без линии” (Bez linii, literally “No line”) to ensure proper register. While some of these stylistic quirks of English authoring may be neutralized in translation with the help of a style guide, it is best to internationalize your code from the outset to avoid linguistic — as well as technical — obstacles to successful localization.

Understandably, even with the best practices in mind, developers may miss an aspect that makes localization in a specific language difficult. That is why it is so important to consult your localization provider at various stages of software development. This way, you will be able to make your app a little more international — in the next version, if not the current one.

Does My Russian Text Look Right? A Guide For Non-Speakers

magnifying glass

Perhaps you have to deal with Russian text in your work. Project managers at translation companies, software developers, technical writers, engineers, designers, printers and countless other professionals may need to process or deliver content in Russian — but they may not be able to read it.

How can you tell if what you are looking at is, indeed, coherent Russian text if all you know is that it is not English text? Your best bet is to consult a Russian speaker or someone who can read Russian. However, if such a person is not immediately available, here are some quick and dirty ways of catching corrupted Russian text. Note that we are only talking about the typographic appearance of the text — your text may display correctly and still contain incorrect or nonsensical translation.

Automated Translation

The first and most obvious method is to drop the content into an automated translation environment like Google Translator. If you are getting a translation, your text is likely, indeed, in Russian. However, this method will not work if you are working with non-live text, for example, in a flat image or a printout.

Capitalization

Russian cameraWhile there are several differences in the use of capitalization between English and Russian, the overall idea behind capitalization is fairly consistent in these two languages. Just like English, Russian capitalizes the first letter of a new sentence and proper names. So, if your English content is in all caps and the Russian is in lowercase; or if your content is in normal sentence case and the Russian is in reverse letter case, something is not right.

For instance, the heading of a Colta article looks like this in Russian: В России поставят первый памятник Андрею Белому (“Russia to Erect Its First Andrey Bely Monument”). We can see that the first letter of the sentence and the initial letters of three more words, likely proper nouns, are capitalized. This is what the same sentence looks like when erroneously encoded in ISO-8859-5: “а’ а аОббаИаИ аПаОбб‚аАаВбб‚ аПаЕб€аВб‹аЙ аПаАаМбб‚аНаИаК ааНаДб€аЕбŽ а‘аЕаЛаОаМбƒ.” Capital letters in the middle of the word are a sign that our content likely got corrupted.

Vowels

Another way of assessing whether the Russian text in front of you is displayed correctly is to ascertain if any vowels are present in the words. This is a more involved technique, so you may want to run your decision by someone who is familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet.

Russian uses the following vowels (in upper and lower case): Аа, Ее, Ии, Оо, Уу, Яя, Ээ, ы, Ёё, Юю. At least a few of them look like the English letters A, E, O, and Y.

If a Russian word looks like this: сжЦфК═ — apart from the inconsistent capitalization and the presence of a special character, the consonant cluster is another red flag that the word should be checked. This is actually the word Moscow (Москва) displayed with an incorrect character encoding.

Latin Characters

Russian booksFinally, Latin characters in the middle of a Russian word also warrant a thorough check. The challenge here is that some Cyrillic letter looks the same as their Latin counterparts. You may want to refer to a Russian alphabet to see if the letter is really an outlier.

Take the same word Москва (Moscow). If we see something like јЮбЪТР, we notice that the letters j, T, and P could potentially be Latin letters. A quick comparison with the Russian alphabet reveals that T and P are legitimate Russian letters, while j is not.

In any case, if you do not read Russian, you should have a native or fluent speaker proofread your text, provide solutions for any issues, and confirm that it is good to go. However, the techniques above let you do a quick assessment and catch incorrectly displaying Russian text before it goes to publication.

Three Things Media Gets Wrong About Interpreting

retro TVThere is rarely a political drama, sci-fi story, or fantasy saga that does not involve communication across languages. It is, therefore, fair to say the general public is aware of interpreting as a profession. However, these fictional tales are often written by people not intimately familiar with language industry; nor is interpreting usually central to the story. Still, they are often the only sources of information for many people, giving the audience a woefully inadequate understanding of interpreting.

Calling Interpreters “Translators”

C3PO
C-3PO, image by Gordon Tarpley

Using interpreting and translation interchangeably is not unique to the media — in a way, this is an accurate representation of the confusion about these terms. You might remember that interpreters deal with the spoken word, and translators work with the written word. Often, even in situations where a fictional character is supposed to know the difference, they will inexplicably mix the two up.

One of the most salient examples is the C-3PO protocol droid from the Star Wars universe. He (it?) is fluent in virtually all forms of communication in the galaxy and interprets for the main characters traveling to distant worlds, yet he is routinely referred to — by himself and other — as a translator.

Of course, Star Wars is a fictional universe, and technicalities of language work are but a minor point. Still, this franchise has attained cult status in the US and abroad, and this minor inaccuracy shapes how thousands of people see interpreting and translation.

Ad-Hoc Interpreting

Pregnant woman with dughter
Image by Juan Galafa/SnapStock

Another insidious idea one can glean from popular media is that any bilingual person can act as an interpreter on an as-needed basis. The UK series Call the Midwife shows a scene where a teenage daughter is forced to interpret for her pregnant Spanish-speaking mother. When the nurse asks about the woman’s last menstrual period, the girl exclaims in disgust, “I’m not asking her that!” While all too common, using family to interpret in medical contexts is highly discouraged due to conflicts of interest and a lack of specialized knowledge.

In a more outlandish example, the TV show House of Cards features an episode where the fictional President of the US hosts the (barely fictionalized) President of Russia and the opposition punk band Pussy Riot. One of the band members makes a bitter toast at the dinner table — to be interpreted into English by another member of the band! This situation reflects neither best practices nor reality. A high-profile venue like the While House would certainly have professional interpreters, and communication would not be left in the hands of an interested, untrained party.

Ignorance Of Interpreting Ethics

A common offense against interpreting as portrayed by the media is the total ignorance of professional ethics and best practices. Time and again, interpreters in the media will summarize, speak in the third person, or add their comments.

Tokyo nightlife
Image by Kevin Poh/flickr

Think of Game of Thrones‘ character Missandei — a former slave who serves as an interpreter to Daenerys Targaryen, one of the protagonists. In her attempt to soften the message of a belligerent slave trader, Missandei omits slurs and insults uttered by him. It is later revealed that Daenerys understands the fictional language, High Valyrian, after all.

A different breach of interpreting ethics is satirized in Lost in Translation, a film about an American actor shooting a whiskey commercial in Japan. The director gives the actor, portrayed by Bill Murray, a long impassioned pep talk in Japanese, which the interpreter summarizes with one short phrase.

Both of these situations, and many others, do come up with untrained, ad-hoc interpreters. One can only hope people are careful not to accept what they see in the media as normal, adequate interpreting.

Is there anything else that comes to mind as the stereotypical portrayal of an interpreter in the media? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Three False Assumpions About Loanwords in Russian

hi-tech gadgets
Image by Marco Bonomo

We know that languages borrow words for new technology or occupations. We know that a lot of these words come from English. It is easy to assume, then, that all cutting-edge technology must have originated in the English-speaking world and was exported everywhere else, along with its nomenclature.

While it is partly true in the case of Russian, which has borrowed multiple words to describe new devices, workflows, and professions that flourished in Russia in the 90s, there are important exceptions to the general trend.

1. Modern Technology must Be Described in Loanwords

I noticed a curious thing in my interactions with Russian-speaking immigrants in Israel and the US — they would often use loanwords from English to describe technology everyone in Russia would use a native word for. For example, they would say си-ти” (si-ti) for a CT scan — a medical procedure widely known and available in Russia under the name of КТ or компьютерная томография (kompyuternaya tomografiya). Similarly, elderly immigrants would say “месседж” messedz when asking a called to leave a voice mail message (the conventional Russian word is “сообщение” soobscheniye).

This likely happened because these people left the USSR before the spread of the technologies they described, like answering machines or CT scans. Therefore, they never learned the Russian words for these things and have to resort to the words they have heard — English ones. The takeaway here is to check whether there is an established native term before you settle for the borrowing.

2. All Loanwords Come From English

tablet
Image by Marc Chouinard

Another example I’ve run into is expatriate Russians saying “таблетка” (tabletka) for “tablet.” While this is the appropriate equivalent for the medicine you take, the touchscreen device is normally called by the French word “планшет” (planshet). This word used to refer to a board for mounting maps and, later, a graphics tablet. When tablet computers appeared on the market, Russian just expanded the definition of that word rather than borrow a new one.

3. Every Loanword Has A Native Equivalent

What I wrote so far seems to suggest there is always a native word for any new gadget — you just need to look hard enough. However, many loanword have long been accepted as the only official names for certain devices, such as принтер (printer) or сканер (scanner). These words are used in official documents such as GOST certificates, needed to sell the device in Russia.

Moreover, some recent borrowings have taken on a specific narrower meaning that is not inherent in the native word. One example is менеджер (menedzher), roughly equivalent to the English “manager” but mostly reserved for management roles in new types of companies, introduced in the last 20 years. You could argue that the Russian word управляющий (upravlyayushiy) describes the same occupation. However, that word evokes Chekhov’s plays and a male housekeeper left to look after an estate while the owners are abroad.

As with anything else in language, careful research is needed to make sure you are neither happily accepting any trendy borrowings nor ignoring long-standing, standard ones in your authoring or translation.

Common US Tropes That Won’t Work For a Russian Audience

People having a meeting

Operative writing (think calls to action) is full of metaphors and imagery meant to spur the audience into action. Authors writing for a US audience will naturally use tropes familiar to people in the US. However, this may become problematic if the product ends up being translated and used somewhere else. I would like to list a few such concepts below and analyze why they may not work in Russian.

Privilege

The word privilege is used to say “something you should not take for granted, something that you may use provided you abide by the rules.” This is implicitly contrasted to a right, which is understood to be inalienable. This is used in multiple collocations such as “library privileges” or “parking privileges.”

The Russian cognate of privileges, привилегии (privilegii), is used to talk about exclusive, one-of-a-kind, behind the doors access. Think of eating caviar while others get food rations — that’s privilegii for you. Calling any right that is contingent on compliance with certain rules a “privilege” will make little sense to your Russian audience and make them think you are trying to charge them for the air they breathe. If you want to avoid that in your authoring or translation, you may want to say something like “the right to use X.”

Blessed

People in the US will often say, “I am blessed to have met my partner/to have this job” an so on. This does not even always convey a strictly religious sentiment and can be understood to mean “a gift of fate.” However, the Russian equivalent, благословение (blagoslovenie), is unambiguously religious. Moreover, this word is quite elevated in terms of register and could not be used in a casual sentence like “We were blessed to find this rental space.”

What do people say then? I’d wager the most common thing is “lucky” — мне повезло. While some may be uncomfortable admitting that they owe positive things in their life to a fortunate turn of events, Russians tend to accept that there are many things beyond their control. It could also be a form of modesty or even coyness.

Pride

We are often encouraged to show pride — in our school, in our heritage, in our work. This notion is so normal for the US that employees at fast food franchises are instructed to show pride when serving customers. What sounds so natural in English becomes extremely awkward when you try to convey it in Russian.

The Russian for pride, гордость (gordost’) is reserved for achievement of one’s team, children, workplace, or country. In other words, you need to have done something to be proud. Telling a fast food worker in Russia to work with pride almost sounds like an insult — “should I be proud I flipped that burger so well?”

What the US notion of pride conveys may be better captured by the Russian “достоинство” (dostoinstvo), dignity, or “командный дух” (komandny dukh), team spirit, although these notions won’t apply to all mundane situations. My tip would be to stay away from lofty rhetoric when talking about practical things as appeal to virtues may sound insincere or inappropriate.

This list could be expanded with several other high-frequency examples. In any event, we should be careful not to use local tropes in emotional or moral argumentation that will be employed elsewhere.

Unquestioned Assumptions About Translation

Image by Eric Andresen
Image by Eric Andresen

Encountering translation both professionally and casually, as a consumer, I can’t help noticing certain assumptions on which people operate when ordering, evaluating, and sometimes even performing translation. I will list some of them here in the order of apparent complexity. In other words, while each subsequent attitude may look like a solution to the previous challenge, in fact it only poses more questions. But let us delve into the specific assumptions. Please note that I am not arguing these assumptions are wrong; I am saying they shouldn’t go unchecked and should be applied on a case by case basis.

“Translation Must Reflect The Form of The Original”

This sounds like a naive statement, but this idea is still around, especially in government and personal documents . For example, the credential evaluation service WES asks that applicants send “documents in their original language, together with a literal word-for-word translation by an external translation service.” This notion may originate from the fear that the translator may embellish, omit, or corrupt the meaning of the source (that is, original) text by virtue of interpreting it in terms of the target (that is, translation) language.

However, what people do not realize is that it may not be desirable or even possible to use literal equivalents in a different language. For education credentials, Russians who graduate high school receive a certificate of (literally) “middle” (среднее) education. For someone not familiar with education in Russia, this may sound like “middle school,” which may seriously affect the candidate’s job or education prospects.

In the words of the linguist Roman Jakobson, “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.”  Grammar and vocabulary systems of different languages do not align perfectly, and we often need to add information or omit  information in order to produce a translation. For example, it is impossible to say “cook a meal” (готовить) in Russian so it would not also mean “prepare a meal.” If a restaurant wishes to distinguish between these two notions, they may need to say something like “get the ingredients for a meal ready” vs actually “cook a meal.”

The literal translation approach can make sense in a limited range of applications. In the case of WES, the company states that it “evaluators, who are multi-lingual, [will] verify the translation.” In other words, they will not be thrown off by unusual descriptions. However, in most cases, word for word translation is counterproductive and confusing. Continue reading “Unquestioned Assumptions About Translation”

Culture-relative priorities in healthcare

Pills
image by kaniths

It has become commonplace to point out that translators and interpreters not only re-code the message in a different language, but also negotiate cultures. However, concrete examples may demonstrate that this is far from a pretty turn of phrase, even in such seemingly objective and evidence-based disciplines as life sciences. Medical translators and interpreters have to bridge cultures in more than one way; however, in this post I would like to concentrate on the health attitudes differences between the Russian and the American (and perhaps the broader Western) culture.

I will present this as my subjective breakdown of some of the culture-specific health concerns that, while recongized in the one country, are not paid as much heed as in the other.

US health priorities

Dental care

The “Hollywood smile” has almost become an American stereotype. Regular checkups and cleanings are considered obligatory in most families, and people who don’t get them may be disapproved of or even ridiculed. While the newer, more modern, private dental clinics also provide and encourage these preventative services, this practice is relatively new in Russia and is not followed quite so religiously by the general public.

Staying hydrated

Drinking plenty of water is a staple health practice in the US, and is often mentioned in connection with alleviating headaches, hangovers, heat strokes, and the such. Surprising as it may be, older people in Russia may be heard saying “You’re drinking to much!” (referring to water). Once again, we are now talking about the general population’s attitudes and not the medical consensus.

Spreading germs

While Russians realize that germs cause diseases, they do not follow such stringent germ-spread-avoidance measures as people in the US do. For example, Americans no longer sneeze into the palm of their hand and try not to wipe their nose with their hands. These practices, while deemed undesirable, are still common in Russia.

Russian health priorities

Bedrest for fevers and flu

Russians pay attention when told by the doctor to stay in bed for a few days. The general consensus is that a nasty cold/flu will last longer if you try to work/go to school with it. And I don’t mean just the couple days when you have the high fever. I mean as long as you have the disease — granted, that doesn’t apply for a mere runny nose. As a result, Russians may be shocked when children in the US are sent to school with a fever and a DayQuil (this may not be universal, but it did happen to me when I was an exchange student in the US).

Flat feet, scoliosis, and posture

Any bone irregularities are taken very seriously in Russia. For instance, flat feet aren’t shrugged off as a little cosmetic defect that may bring back pain down the road — people with flat feet are encouraged to wear orthopedic insoles and shoes and dissuaded from wearing flats.

Avoiding cold surfaces and drinks

Ironically enough, although Russia is widely associated with cold climates, contact with cold substances/surfaces is considered dangerous in Russia. It is, therefore, not suprising that parents may let a drink from the fridge sit out to reach room temperature before they let their children have it. Similarly, sitting on any cold surfaces like metal or granite is discouraged and avoided as it is thought to cause colds and inner organ inflammations.
My point here is not to ridicule the oddities or “prejudices” of either nation. Even though some may go further than people outside that culture are comfortable with, there is a grain of truth to most of them. Amusing as these differences may be, they pose real challenges to the healthcare interpreter/translator due to the conflicting expectations of the patient and the healthcare professional. Imagine a patient holding any of the notions above try to see a doctor who does not.
Do you have any additions/corrections to the list?

Origins of the Native-Speaker Translator Preference

man writing on paper

An idea you hear repeated by translator training programs, translation companies and clients alike is that a translator should only work into their native language; that is, that any translation should be produced by a native speaker of the language into which it is done. I would like to examine the reasons behind this notion, its actual intentions, and possible more accurate metrics to supplement–or supplant–the native speaker requirement.

The usual reasons given to justify this preference are that, try as they may, no learner can ever achieve the verbal agility and feel for nuance and connotation a native speaker can boast. Examples of funny and downright unintelligible translations made by non-native speakers are usually brought up to corroborate the point.

This reluctance to use non-native translators is understandable, but let us analyze its roots and try to elicit what it is that translation users are looking for as they set forth the native translator requirement. First of all, as I previously wrote on this blog, people in the US — as in many other countries — often don’t start learning a foreign language until their mid-teens or early twenties. At that point, naturally, greater emphasis is placed on comprehension, communication, and conversational fluency than on eloquence, rhetoric, and elaborate penmanship. It is, therefore, concluded that while a language learner may become fluent, they will never reach the heights occupied by a native speaker, unless they have been immersed in their second language for decades.

It logically follows from this attitude that a native speaker is the ultimate yardstick against which any text production is to be measured — often regardless of their training, occupation, and writing abilities. Yet we see that there is at times confusion and errors in native speakers’ speech and writing. While fluency, cultural savvy, and idiomaticity are all traits that native speakers are more likely to display than the most dedicated learners, there are other components of successful writing which cannot be picked up from simply knowing what sounds “natural.” Things like “should have went” are becoming more and more widespread, yet a person with no knowledge of the mechanics of English may have a hard time knowing that, while widespread, these phrases have not yet become accepted English usage. Naturally, there are native speakers who are specifically trained as writers, editors, etc. in their language, but not every native speaker is.

Finally, the fusion of language and literature in US academia may have indirectly lead to this preference. The subject called “English” in US high school and college curricula is, in fact, a combination of English spelling, grammar, and composition with the study and critique of “Anglophone” literature, which may or may not have been originally written in English. Collegiate language professors are expected to teach the literature written in the language they teach, as well. Therefore, learners inevitably internalize that masterpieces of literature are the summit of language arts to which all speakers and learners should aspire but which is, ultimately, unattainable except for a select few. Good writing, therefore, is to be savored, revered, but not attempted by the admirers of these masterpieces.

While it is true that literature, fiction in particular, contains some of the most creative and brilliant examples of language use, language has many areas of application beyond creative writing. Some of these non-literary language applications, such as technical writing, may be more relevant for certain types of translation. What is important is that the translator — native or non-native — have enough background and experience in their genre, attained through extensive study, reading, and, yes, writing, in that genre — writing that non-native speakers are often never expected, encouraged or taught to do. This state of affairs helps perpetuate the native-speaker deification by disenfranchising the learners from active language production, which, in turn hurts their language abilities and ultimately helps corroborate itself by pointing to the examples of poor writing produced by the ill-trained translators.

As I mentioned above, translation clients aren’t consciously trying to discriminate against non-native translators; they are only trying to insure themselves against the poor writing the likes of which had been produced by non-native translators before. Instead of abolishing the native-speaker requirement altogether, I would suggest refining it to add more measurable criteria to that metric. So, instead of asking “Did you grow up speaking this language?” (From what age? To what age? With whom? About what? Where? — you see the problems there), we should be asking the translator for a proven, preferably peer- and audience-reviewed, track record of writing in the particular genre of our text. The list of criteria can certainly be refined and expanded, but I think this direction will help users of translation in their search for the fluent, context-sensitive, and eloquent translator.

Vague Job Titles — Wider Reach or Lack of Substance?

One thing I noticed in US business communication is the frequent use of superordinate terms in job titles. For example, instead of saying “translator” or “interpreter,” people may say “linguist.” Similarly, “educator” is used to mean “teacher” and so on and so forth.

I see several problems with this usage. First of all, some of the uses are inaccurate and erode certain concepts. A linguist is a person who studies or researches language, and a translator is someone who conveys the sense/intention of written communication in one language in a written text in a different language; so not every translator is a linguist and not every linguist is a translator. The second problem is that superordinate terms are often very vague and almost completely devoid of meaning out of context. For example, the word “provider” meant to refer to a “physician” may be cryptic to a person outside the healthcare setting.

So why use superordinates? There may be a few reasons for that. First of all, they are useful for referring to groups of (somewhat) related occupations. In the language industry, translators, interpreters, editors, proofreaders, desktop publishing specialists, and localization specialists may all be referred to as “vendors” — an all-encompassing, if somewhat inaccurate, usage. Furthermore, superordinate terms may be used to cover a vague job description or the speaker’s lack of understanding of the job. Don’t know what your uncle does as an EMT? Make him a healthcare provider. Finally, the use of the vaguer, higher-register term may make the job sound more “official” and, therefore, important. A “teacher,” it would seem, merely passes on knowledge, while an “educator” sounds like someone who sets policy and whose mission is generally nobler and more commendable.

Attempts to resist popular usage are usually futile, so I do not believe we can reverse this trend in US business communication. However, I do believe it is important to be aware of superordinates and why they may be used in a particular context. Then maybe we can talk specifics next time we are looking for a “provider” of sorts.