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I'm localizing my iOS app. All of the screen text, though, is rendered in a handwriting font made by our designer... that contains no special characters. (Yeah, roll your eyes. Go for it.)

As I'm now realizing, this means our options for translation are:

  • Translate only the App Store description and text in dialogs/pop-ups, leaving the rest in English
  • Alter significantly the visual experience of the app by rendering everything in Helvetica
  • Get the designer to make additional accent characters (he is enmeshed in a new project and will probably take a while to get to this)
  • Just write the words accent-less (garcon, facade) and figure (incorrectly, surely) that if the French can ignore these for Scrabble they can ignore them in the game.

Anyone have a perspective on this? Is this super-annoying or not-really-that-annoying UX for French speakers? (Bonus: What about Chinese/Japanese? Don't think our designer is up for making those characters...)

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5 Answers

I think a user using an app like that (text rendered with no accents when accents are expected) would find it to be very unprofessional.

As the accents play an important role in the language, leaving them out could:

  • Cause users to just passed off as bad grammar.
  • Change the meaning of what you are trying to convey.
  • Look like gibberish.

As for languages like Chinese and Japanese, it becomes even more complicated. Each character is unique in it's own right. You might have characters that produces the same sound, but swap one for another and the text no longer makes sense and becomes gibberish.

Even then, you will find that most fonts that contain Chinese and Japanese characters are limited to the most commonly used characters (which is generally enough). I recall that in older versions of Windows, there's a tool that enables you to create characters that are not included with the font (often for rarely used characters).

In summary:

  • Do not provide translations with no accents, this is unprofessional and reduces the credibility of your app.

  • Choose a font that has, where possible all the glyphs and characters. This will save you a lot of trouble when you prepare to roll out more translations down the track. That is unless you have a group of people and unlimited resources who can add any characters you desire to your custom font.

  • It is worth updating the visual experience of your app to support this new font.

  • Try and find a font that almost visually matches the custom font you are currently using (provided it has all the glyphs and characters), to make switching to the new font easier.

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This depends on language, as well as your definition of “accent”. In English, accents are mostly used in words of French origin only, and many people would even find “role” and “fiance” preferable to “rôle” and “fiancé”. On the other hand, in Vietnamese, accents are used heavily, form part of the orthography, and can be essential for uniqueness and readability. In Swedish, few accents are used, but they are used frequently, and letters å, ä, ö are considered as independent letters by native speakers—and omitting the accents would turn “här” (= here), “hår” (= hair), and “har” (= has, have) to the same string.

Thus, for some languages, dropping accents might be acceptable, but as a general principle in localization, preserving accents is as essential.

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I'm French. Texts without accents are really annoying, and they slow me down when reading. Some accents make the letter sound completely different, so when removed, either we think there is something wrong with the person who wrote the text, or the person had a non-french keyboard. In case of an app, I think it would completely mislead the user.

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My native language is Romanian, and while some words have different meanings if accents are added, years of communicating via the Internet without accents have taught me that we can adapt just fine to the lack of accents, and should just go ahead and drop them.

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Just for the bonus question, and I can only speak for Japanese. The Japanese writing system is highly complicated, including a couple phonetic syllabaries next to the traditional (Chinese) ideogram system. Japanese has no direct parallel to diacritics or accents.

Digital media have a history of using either or both of those syllabaries (katakana and hiragana) to print on-screen text when limits in the hard- or software prevent use of the ideogram system (kanji).

Using just hiragana makes the text feel a bit more simplistic than when kanji are used, but still perfectly legible. Katakana is usually reserved for foreign loanwords and names, and rendering a text fully in katakana reads to Japanese readers like text in ALL CAPS would read to us.

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