The translation business isn't exactly known for adhering to established norms. From quality definitions to translation memory discounting to service-delivery processes, every translation company pretty much does their own thing.
The same is true when it comes to language and country codes. Say, for instance, you want to identify German. Do you use DE, D, GE, DEU, or something else? Translation companies routinely use all of these and many more abbreviations.
Most of the time, it is easy enough to figure out what someone means but it's easy for translators or clients to get confused. One company's "PO" abbreviation could refer to Polish and another one's to Portuguese.
Fortunately, there exists an easy solution: ISO 639.
As of 2009, four international standards for identifying languages have been approved by the International Organisation for Standardization:
- ISO 639-1 two-letter codes
- ISO 639-2 three-letter codes
- ISO 639-3, also three-letter codes, for all language categories identified by Ethnologue
- ISO 639-5 for language clusters and groups
Identifying languages is a good first step. But what if you want to distinguish, say, a Spanish translation for Peru from one intended for Mexico? Or what if a client requests a translation for "IN" - does that refer to Indonesia or India?
Luckily, there is a solution for this as well: ISO 3166 is the International Standard for country codes. It lists 246 official short names and code elements as shown on this list of English country names and code elements. By combining language and country codes, anybody can now distinguish the French spoken in Switzerland (fr_ch) from that of France (fr_fr) and Canada (fr_ca).
So, let's do a favor to ourselves and our clients and use ISO 639 and ISO 3166 to identify languages and countries.
Thanks, Megan, for the idea!
For further reading, take a look at the following articles:
- International standards for date and time
- Wikipedia's entries for IS 639 and ISO 3166
- LangID helps you identify unknown languages
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