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1.2 I18n, L10n, and Such

Two long words appear all the time when we discuss support of native language in programs, and these words have a precise meaning, worth being explained here, once and for all in this document. The words are internationalization and localization. Many people, tired of writing these long words over and over again, took the habit of writing i18n and l10n instead, quoting the first and last letter of each word, and replacing the run of intermediate letters by a number merely telling how many such letters there are. But in this manual, in the sake of clarity, we will patiently write the names in full, each time...

By internationalization, one refers to the operation by which a program, or a set of programs turned into a package, is made aware of and able to support multiple languages. This is a generalization process, by which the programs are untied from calling only English strings or other English specific habits, and connected to generic ways of doing the same, instead. Program developers may use various techniques to internationalize their programs. Some of these have been standardized. GNU gettext offers one of these standards. See Programmers.

By localization, one means the operation by which, in a set of programs already internationalized, one gives the program all needed information so that it can adapt itself to handle its input and output in a fashion which is correct for some native language and cultural habits. This is a particularisation process, by which generic methods already implemented in an internationalized program are used in specific ways. The programming environment puts several functions to the programmers disposal which allow this runtime configuration. The formal description of specific set of cultural habits for some country, together with all associated translations targeted to the same native language, is called the locale for this language or country. Users achieve localization of programs by setting proper values to special environment variables, prior to executing those programs, identifying which locale should be used.

In fact, locale message support is only one component of the cultural data that makes up a particular locale. There are a whole host of routines and functions provided to aid programmers in developing internationalized software and which allow them to access the data stored in a particular locale. When someone presently refers to a particular locale, they are obviously referring to the data stored within that particular locale. Similarly, if a programmer is referring to “accessing the locale routines”, they are referring to the complete suite of routines that access all of the locale's information.

One uses the expression Native Language Support, or merely NLS, for speaking of the overall activity or feature encompassing both internationalization and localization, allowing for multi-lingual interactions in a program. In a nutshell, one could say that internationalization is the operation by which further localizations are made possible.

Also, very roughly said, when it comes to multi-lingual messages, internationalization is usually taken care of by programmers, and localization is usually taken care of by translators.