The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is proposing, as part of the government’s Digital India push, to make regional language interface capability mandatory on feature phones. These standards are expected to go into effect in six months.
One of the world’s leading localization companies, Moravia, has weighed in with a blog post entitled “India Gets Serious about Mobile Phone Localization“. Unfortunately, this post reveals a fundamental confusion about almost every aspect of this situation: the difference between feature phones vs. smart phones, between language support on phones themselves vs. applications, and between localization of interface vs. content. The post says that India is:
already one of the fastest-growing smartphone markets in the world, and the second largest overall. India’s vast hinterland is smartphone-equipped and hungry for local language content. The communities are cash-rich, and India’s e-commerce companies will have to reach out to them in earnest if they want to stay in the game.
this single paragraph neatly encapsulating all the confusion.
First, the TRAI proposal is targeting feature phones, not smart phones. Technically it applies to smartphones, but that is largely moot, since smartphones already provide excellent language support, especially at the level of text handling (input and display). Many also provide localized interfaces. This problem is essentially already solved.
Second, what the “hinterlands” may be hungry for is not “local language content”, but primarily rather the ability to read and write (text and mail) in the local languages. They also would be most surprised to hear themselves described as “cash-rich”.
Third, the e-commerce companies are already making economically-informed decisions about what kinds of localization to provide, and in any case the TRAI proposal does not apply to them–a government agency cannot mandate that third-parties provide localized interfaces or content. The point about e-commerce companies needing to “reach out” if they want to “stay in the game” is a little bizarre. It seems to assert that the e-commerce companies are too stupid to understand the linguistic profiles of their own markets, or too incompetent to do anything about it. Neither is the case. The e-commerce companies are acting in economically rational fashion in balancing the cost/benefit trade-offs of localization. At the heart of the trade-off is that fact that the layers of the pyramid with enough money to spend on e-commerce purchases are not just comfortable using English, or to a lesser extent Hindi, but may actually prefer doing so. The e-commerce companies can be counted on to provide localized interfaces and/or content at exactly the point in time when their teams of MBAs determine that doing so makes business sense. Nor do the e-commerce companies need a TRAI directive on feature phone language interface support to alert them to the fact that India has many languages.
The Moravia post goes on to inveigh against the use of machine translation. I assume it is referring to translation of product descriptions and/or user reviews. However, the volumes of both, especially user reviews, are so great as to make human translation, or even post-edited MT, completely unfeasible. Even Western companies such as TripAdvisor use unadorned MT on translated reviews. There would seem to be no viable option here, unless Moravia is proposing that Flipkart spend millions or tens of millions of dollars translating reviews into a half-dozen or a dozen local languages for negligible benefit.
The simplistic view that hey, India has 22 languages, so gosh, we better localize everything into all of them, ignores the nature of the linguistic map in India, the role of Hindi as a lingua franca in northern India and English as a lingua franca in southern India, and the relationship between language proficiency and economic strata.