User-contributed localizations

Someone asked me about user-contributed localizations, where you ask your users to translate your software or other writing for you, as opposed to hiring a professional agency.

Here’s my response. Feel free to add or refresh my memory on the work we did with OpenACS.

My experience has been that user-contributed translations work exceedingly well.

In my experience, the issues are not so much around quality per se, as around differences of opinion on what’s the best way to translate something. In those cases, if you can invite people to draw attention to them, and then just resolve those. For resolution, you can look to how wikipedia resolves disputes, you can vote, or you can let someone specially trusted get the say.

Sometimes users can even be better translators than professionel translators, because they’re more intimately familiar with the domain.

The user-contributed localization project I’m most familiar with, because I was running it at one time, is It’s now not so active, but it was at one point, and we got a lot translated fast, and judged by the languages I do understand and feedback from others, it was of good quality.

One thing we did do was allow anyone to localize anything on their own install of the software, by turning on a “translation mode”, which would throw in a little dot next to each translatable text, which you could then translate on the spot, and see the new translation in place.

You could then exchange your local translations with others, including the central translation server, though that was not fully automated.

Another lesson was on reuse of strings. I remember there were issues where you’d translate a string in one place, and then the same string was used in another place, where you wanted a different translation. I can’t think of an example right now, but that’s something to watch out for. Too many identical strings is tedious to translate, but if you have too little granularity, you have a recipe for disputes. Again, it may be something that can be resolved on the fly as people point out that what’s the same in English is not the same in, say, Croatian.

Other examples are Shopify, which I believe also lets you make your own private translation if you’re unhappy with the one others did, and the translation of Joel Spolsky’s articles, and the 37signals “Getting Real” book.