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Jun 30

Mobile localization: Why you should care, and how to deal with it.

Infographic: Mobile Phones Account for 17% of Global Web Usage | Statista

Everywhere you turn, people are talking about mobile. And for good reason! As of May 2013, mobile use reportedly accounted for 15% of all internet traffic, a number which will only continue to increase.1 Given this information, most businesses are already optimizing their web content for mobile. But what about international content?

Do I need to localize my mobile content?

Depending on your target market, having your mobile site or application translated and localized may be even more important than a mobile version of your US content. Here are some facts to keep in mind:

  • More than half of the world’s mobile subscribers are located in Asia-Pacific. The ITU says that Asia-Pacific makes up 52.1% of the global number and estimates that by 2016 that number will be closer to 54.3%.2
  • In developing countries where few have access to desktop computers, mobile is virtually the only way to access the Internet. According to an article on internetretailer.com, “Smartphones and other mobile devices are the only means of accessing the Internet for 40% of Indonesians and for 34% of respondents in both India and South Africa.”3
  • According to ITU, “mobile broadband penetration levels are highest in Europe (64%), the Americas (59%), the Commonwealth of Independent States (49%), the Arab States (25%), and Africa (19%).”4
  • As of 2012, more than 90% of the world’s internet users lived in countries with a native language other than English.5

Mobile localization challenges and how to handle them

Many of the challenges present in mobile translation and localization are the same challenges that come with localization of software and websites. However, some of these challenges tend to be exacerbated when dealing with mobile. By thinking ahead and following some basic internationalization best practices, most of these challenges can be mitigated.

Challenge: Lack of context

Many segments of text for software or websites which need translation tend to be very short. As such, there may not be a lot of context. If the string to navigate to the homepage of your website simply says “home” and your Spanish translator doesn’t know what it’s referring to, they might translate this term as “casa” or “hogar.” This won’t make a lot of sense, as those terms literally refer to a house or home where you live. In fact, the correct Spanish translation is “inicio.”


The only way for your translator to get it right is to have support from your development team and as much information as possible. In this case, developing a glossary may also prove useful.

Challenge: Space limitations

String length limitations are a common challenge in software localization. If a particular software string can have only 10 characters, that may be fine for English. However if you translate that string into German, you might run into some serious problems (disk drive, for example, translates to “das Diskettenlaufwerk”). While sometimes a shorter word can be chosen, many times the only solution is to try to come up with an abbreviation, which may not always make sense. This challenge becomes more difficult in a mobile environment, as you’ve now got a lot less real estate to work with. If your User Interface (UI) is designed in such a way that the English is already quite tight, European languages are probably not going to fit.


The simplest and most common answer is “leave room for expansion.” To be more specific, UI design and development is key. For example, instead of saying that the button on this screen will say “OK,” you may say that “we need a button that saves data and moves to the next screen.” Said button can have text on it that can range in length from “OK” to “Acceptar.” If, despite your best UI design efforts, you do have string length limitations, let your translation team know what they are upfront. This will save a lot of headaches on the back end. A quick way to get an idea of how each language will expand is to try pseudo-localization before beginning the actual translation process.

However, the unfortunate truth is that when working with mobile, there may not even be enough space to leave sufficient room for expansion and it may not be possible to adhere to string length limitations. For those languages where expansion will pose a significant challenge, it may be worthwhile to budget for a separate UI design for each language. Additionally, just as in web design, it’s always best practice to use a liquid layout, rather than a layout with fixed widths.

Challenge: Displaying text

Different languages present unique challenges. While European languages expand, Asian languages like Chinese actually have a lower character count but require a larger size to be readable. Using special fonts or rendering text in bold or italic may render these complex characters completely unreadable. Arabic reads from right-to-left, which is completely different from what most of us are used to. Additionally, users may need to enter text into the interface in the target language. An English keyboard may not do the trick!


The most important consideration is to do sufficient research during the project planning stage. You’ll want to be sure that any platforms and devices used will have all the support necessary for the target language, such as localized keyboards, needed fonts, and proper display of special characters.

By planning ahead for the sites that you’ll want to localize for, you can make sure that your code will be able to support the needed languages as well. For example, you’ll want to be sure to use Unicode and (if necessary) ensure that your UI will support bi-directional display. Your localization provider can advise you of best practices for internationalization while writing your code and you can even find some advice online.

The key to the best possible localization of your mobile content is to plan ahead. If you’re beginning to think about going mobile, now is the time to talk to your localization provider about best practices. If you’d like help from Language Intelligence, please contact me at rwhite@languageintelligence.com.


1. http://blog.katapult.co.uk/inbound/mobile-marketing-statistic-for-b2b
2. http://mobithinking.com/mobile-marketing-tools/latest-mobile-stats/a#topmobilemarkets
3. http://www.internetretailer.com/2014/02/20/m-commerce-saturating-globe
4. http://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Documents/facts/ICTFactsFigures2014-e.pdf
5. http://mashable.com/2012/03/07/multilingual-internet/
Infographic: http://www.statista.com/chart/1380/mobile-web-usage/

Rick White

Rick’s sixteen year tenure with Language Intelligence has allowed him to participate in many different aspects of the localization process. Rick’s time spent in the DTP team, as a Localization Project Manager, and as a Key Account Manager, have created an excellent base of experience for his current role directing the Client Services function. By combining this experience with his creative ability and strong communication skills, along with the insight he has gained into our clients industries, Rick is able to produce solutions that are a perfect fit for each of our client’s specific needs. Rick has a BA from SUNY Fredonia and has studied German.


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