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Improving Ubuntu Localization

Christopher Tozzi

April 26, 2009

3 Min Read
Improving Ubuntu Localization

Unlike proprietary platforms–and some Linux distributions–Ubuntu doesn’t identify primarily with any single country or language.  The operating system’s developers are spread around the world, and aim to make their product equally accessible to all users, regardless of their locales.  But how well have the challenges of localization been met?

As an American and a native speaker of English, I may not be best qualified for answering that question.  Although Ubuntu, in principle, does not privilege English over other languages, it’s clear that understanding English is an advantage for Ubuntu users–the community documentation is written in English, for example, and English is the only language accepted on most parts of the Ubuntu forums.

While I may not know from personal experience what it’s like to speak a minority language and use Ubuntu, however, I was intrigued by Jef Spaleta’s comments regarding Ubuntu language support on a recent blog post, where Jef points out that Fedora gives greater priority to translations.  Here are my thoughts on Ubuntu localization, and how it could be done better.

Ubuntu LoCo teams

There are currently about seventy LoCo teams registered on Launchpad (significantly, about twice as many are in the process of becoming organized, highlighting the need for more volunteers to handle localization tasks).  These teams are responsible for marketing Ubuntu in their local regions and supporting local users, and play a vital role in making Ubuntu available to people outside the anglophone world.

The LoCos do a lot of important work, but in order to be most effective, they need to be more centrally organized and have their tasks more clearly delegated by Canonical.  Currently, the productivity of the LoCo groups is inconsistent, with many teams failing to meet the level of commitment expected of them.

Rather than relying solely on the community to localize Ubuntu, Canonical should take a more direct role in ensuring that the unique needs of diverse regions are taken into account.  This might mean paying a few people to work with the LoCos and ensure they have the resources to achieve their goals, but it would go a long way towards making Ubuntu more attractive to international users.


In principle, Ubuntu is available in more than 200 languages–which is quite impressive given that Windows is translated into fewer than fifty versions.  However, Ubuntu’s achievments on the language front become less noteworthy when we consider that more than half of the translation projects exist in name only, with only negligible progress made.

Again, Canonical should invest greater resources into coordinating the translation of Ubuntu.  Great software is of little use to people who don’t understand the language in which its interfaces are written, and currently, Ubuntu remains largely untranslated into numerous widely spoken languages, like Persian and Hindi.

At the same time, resources are being squandered translating Ubuntu into languages that no one speaks natively, like Esperanto and Latin.  I’m sure there are some linguists and classicists out there who would enjoy using Linux in these languages, but aren’t there better ways to use the free-software community’s resources right now?

Ubuntu could do a better job of making itself usable by people who don’t speak English.  Greater efforts by Canonical and Ubuntu developers to supplement the work of LoCo teams and translators are greatly needed if Ubuntu wants to become Linux for all human beings, no matter where they live or which language they speak.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Contributing Editor

Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.

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