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Article by Christof Schneider about XML

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What does XML mean to you?


XML means different things to different people. Some think it is "the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything", others describe it as generation X's childhood sandpit dreams coming true. And although it might have already reached mainstream, there is still a lot of urban myth floating about when it comes to the question of what XML actually is. So let us have a quick look why translators should love XML, why already more and more large corporations use XML to save a lot of money, and finally how XML is going to creep into the lives of everyday computer users - and to be honest, it'll be a relief when that happens!

XML has been a bit of a buzz word over the last few years - but today it seems that the buzz has settled and the community of blog writers has moved on (probably to something even more fascinating) - but have they?

Actually no, they have not. The opposite is the case. It seems that the initial buzz about XML brought us a great number of experimental users and uses - and heaps of abbreviations too. (One still wonders if it was XSLT, SAX, DOM or TMX that brought us RSS, CSS, and XLIFF?). So the truth is that besides being a Petri dish for abbreviations, XML also went from fringe to mainstream and the number of applications and XML based extensions continues to grow. This is anything but surprising, considering that XML stands for "Extensible Markup Language" - which is a bull's-eye name.

Without becoming too technical let's say what the language and the mark-up is about. The main reason for the hype is that XML makes a file truly "cross-platform". OK, you are right - that sounds like yet another quote from people who hardly get away from their computers. So let us come from a different angle: the data recorded, for example, when men landed on the moon, is stored in a format that today's computers simply cannot read. If you want to find out how much fuel was left after landing on the moon, you'd have to use the original hardware (probably some kind of tape recorder the size of an average 4-bedroom house). And even if you can find the hardware, you will still have to look through millions of cubic metres of unmarked data streams to find what you are looking for. If this example sounds too absurd, then try something yourself: go and find one of those floppy disks with all your personal documents in the bottom drawer (written in the early 90's) - and open those files with your current word processor. The effect is the same. And if you cannot find a prehistoric disc, then just try to remember back when was the last time that your word processor told you with a sardonic smile that the 20MB sized Word document you want to open is "corrupted" and asks if you are happy just to go on without it? Now here is the buzz: with XML this would not have happened (…well, of course it still happens, but the effect is far less scary)!

The reason that XML copes much better in such situations is twofold: on one hand, XML allows you to store all data as text. On the other hand, it incorporates an ingenious filing system in which each single piece of information or cluster of information is labelled in a more or less descriptive way to explain what it is. So for example young Jane Doe's name and birth date might be stored like this in XML:

<firstName>Jane</firstName>
<lastName>Doe</lastName>
<dateBirth>03-27-75</dateBirth>

With this kind of system, all you need is a tool with a fancy abbreviation and you are set to do all you want to do with it. So even if this example doesn't look like much, the principle is impressive enough for XML to turn from being the favourite file format of the "Open Source" community to becoming the favourite file format of Microsoft. To prove this point: with its next Office Suite, Microsoft will say "good bye" to their proprietary file formats (like MS Word's .doc and Excel's .xls) and "hello" to a tailor-made XML format (with its own set of new abbreviations). For translators, this means less worrying about formatting issues, and more focus on the real crux of translating the text appropriately.

It may sound like the craze got to us, but it is true: XML helps solve almost every issue related to language translation management. Through its capacity to allow the authoring of content, its storage in the source language, and its publication in different formats and in all languages, the translation process becomes more streamline and less costly overall. This should mean translation as a whole costs less in the years to come, and more projects will become economically viable. Great news for the translation industry as a whole!

By Christof Schneider. Copyright © 2005.
Published by lexicool.com, November 2005.

Christof Schneider is Head of Research & Development for Lingo24 Translation Services, one of the UK's leading translation agencies.

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