Our VOA News App Sets a Record
Hi, we are Borana Kostro and Danish Ahmed and we work for mobile team at ODDI. The Office of Digital and Design Innovation (ODDI) took on the task of creating a news application for Voice of America for both the Apple iOS and Android operating system. No big deal you say? How about having this application support over 40 different languages. Yes, that’s right, a single mobile application that can deliver up-to-date news to people around the world.
This has never been done before, and the closest thing to our 40+ language application only supports 9 languages at the most.
This application does more than just give a user a few articles to read. The VOA app offers photos, videos and audio, along with the capability of being able to submit your own stories to VOA journalists in the newsroom—stories which could potentially be featured on the VOA website and application. Creating an app that had those features translated into 43 different languages was not easy!
Over 40 Languages!?! How Did We Do It?
Just in English, you can imagine how many terms are needed to be able to navigate through any application. It was overwhelming to discover that the app would require about 500 or so key words for each of the 43 languages.
The estimation was well over 20,000 items that needed translation in a matter of months.
There really was no reliable, easy shortcut on getting all the terms translated for the application. If Google Translate was a little more accurate, it would have made the daunting task of translating those items much easier. But Google Translate is notoriously unreliable. The only plausible option that would accurately get the job done was to get 40 or so individuals who are proficiently fluent in those languages to translate 20,000 terms for us.
Luckily, the ODDI office is located in a building that houses more than 40 language services. A language service is an office for specific language and is comprised of journalists, editors, producers and broadcasters who are fluent in those languages (i.e. Albanian language service, Urdu language service). Unfortunately, they are not hired translators, but they were the only resources available to us. Basically, this meant that those editors, journalists and broadcasters we thought we could have at our disposal, in reality, had their own work to worry about.
So How Did We Really Do It?
You have got to give something to get something…and for the most part we learned that chocolates were the key to getting our peers to do us a great service. We probably went through 10 large bags of chocolate candy in the four months it took our team to get these translations from our peers. I’m not saying they wouldn’t have helped if we didn’t bribe them with sweets, but it did make it easier to go to them week after week asking them to translate “just a few more” things.
Finding and scheduling a point of contact with each language service was the first, laborious step. And then meeting with language services and explaining what needed to be done for Mobile apps was also time-consuming. There were 500 plus words and phrases we needed translated, so it wasn’t like they could take a few minutes out of their day and quickly give us what we needed.
This was hours and hours of work navigating through our language localization database and filling in words and phrases.
Take a look for yourself at the sample of mobile app localizations and multiply that by about 500 lines for 43 languages. It looks intimidating doesn’t it?
After collecting all the translations for 43 languages, and receiving new version of the app, all of these translations had to be checked against the app. Many of the keywords had to be changed due to their length, inaccuracy and other issues. Rinse and repeat, again and again. Working with 43 language services and typing translations directly, sending e-mails and copies of documents with translation terms, were the means of acquiring massive amounts of localizations.
We developed the bulk of this app during vacation season, which we now know not to do in the future; our designated translators who originally agreed to help us out when we asked near winter’s end were not around for spring and summer. This forced us to scramble to look for other credible translators and basically start from square one. After countless hours of begging and chasing via Skype, Google Hangout and after-hour emails, we were eventually able to get the translations we needed.
Another obstacle we came across was that some technical terms just did not exist in certain languages. There were a few language services that decided that some terms (i.e. multimedia, which did not exist in their language), would just appear in the app in English. But some language services weren’t content with just popping in an English word in the midst of a completely different language.
It was pretty neat to see the creative minds of those language services get together and create a new word for certain journalistic and technical jargon that did not exist yet.
Application users for some languages will notice new terms in the VOA mobile app that are appearing for the very first time in the history of those languages.
Working with Different Devices and Operating Systems
For those that are thinking about creating a multilingual application: TEST YOUR APPLICATION ON AS MANY DEVICES AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE!!!!
For those developing for the Apple iOS, you probably won’t come across any major problems with trying to do something with many different languages and font types. I will give credit to Apple for being multilingual friendly. The fonts render beautifully and all languages that we created this app for were supported without any hiccup.
Android was a completely different animal—man was it a headache. Not sure how many of you know this, but there are over 11,868 different types of Android versions and devices out there in the world today. They come in all shapes and sizes and all different resolutions. As much as we would have liked to be able to test on all 11,868 versions, we were able to get our hands on just a fraction of that to test our app on. Near the completion of the application we discovered that Samsung, which happens to be the largest retailer of Android devices, did not support many of the major languages, including Urdu, Pashto, and Kurdish.
At first we thought there was a problem with the fonts we provided our developers, for all the languages with font issues on android. We provided our developers with multiple TTF files for right to left languages (Urdu, Kurdish, and Pashto). Eventually we discovered it was just on Samsung devices that we had an issue with the right to left languages, and that Samsung devices did not render the fonts as they should.
Android devices as a whole had a problem with Amharic, Azerbaijani, Burmese, Khmer, Lao and Tibetan fonts. The TTF files provided, which were the best TTF files known for those languages, the fonts still appeared broken or failed to appear. We are still working on a fix for these and, unfortunately for the time being, had to hold off on releases for these languages for our Android version: Amharic, Azerbaijani, Burmese, Khmer, Lao, Tibetan, Urdu, Pashto, Kurdish and Deewa language service (Pashto to Pakistan).
Triple-checking the Translations
The ODDI Mobile Team worked round the clock training and handing out different devices to different language services to have them try out the product. VOA was excited and enthusiastic about having a robust news application. Some stated this would be the very first application in their respective language. Everyone was eager to make sure that their language worked without any flaws. I truly believe that without them we would have not been able to find as many defects and font errors as we did. The translators were hands down the greatest asset we had to making sure we had a quality product.
What’s Next in Terms of Localization?
The Office of Digital and Design Innovation is currently working on creating an application to make the whole process of getting translations a little bit easier. The current project of ‘Localization Database’ will be an open source tool for anyone that will allow users from all over the world to provide translations to this application, kind of like a Wikipedia but for translation purposes.
Thank you to VOA language services who have provided us with translations for VOA mobile apps. It has been a lot of work on your part and finally we have a great product we are proud of. Special thanks to all and especially IME’s and web editors who participated in this video: Will Sullivan, Martha Townes, Hakki Ocal, Steven Ferri, Alen Mlatisuma, Rohit Kulkarni, Hasib Danish Alikozai, Abdulaziz H. Osman, Al Neustadter, and Abdushakur Aboud.
Authors: Danish Ahmed | Borana Kostro