Localization strategy

Key vs File-Based Translation Management Systems: Balancing the Pros and Cons

A translation management system, whether file or key-based, is essential for implementing a global expansion strategy. Here's how both TMS types differ.
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Using a translation management system (TMS) is one of the most effective ways to manage multilingual content for international audiences at scale. A TMS speeds up the translation process, reduces costs, and enables brands to reach more customers overseas who may not be very keen on consuming content in other languages.

To maximize its service output, it's crucial to have a clear understanding of how a TMS works and choose your preferred type of system to localize your content, with 2 options at your disposal: a file or key-based translation management system. Let's try to compare both types and balance their pros and cons.

File-based translation management systems

In a file-based TMS, or file-based translation, we have our content "compressed" in files that come as a whole. As part of an automation process, the content gets translated by referencing the translations from those specific files. The translation process can be done either by professional translators or built-in machine translation capabilities. If there is translated content for a particular locale—which stands for a region that shares the same language and culture—it can be loaded as part of the request.

Some of the most traditional approaches to localization use exactly this method—one typical example is gettext tooling with PO and MO files. This kind of TMS software offers numerous advantages, but it also has some obvious drawbacks.

Advantages of a file-based TMS

  • Fast to execute: As the content is already bundled with the translation, we just load it; this happens because the content may be cached or pre-rendered as part of the deployment process.
  • Conventional: Using PO and MO files, for example, to manage the translation is widely and well-supported.
  • Easy to automate: You can set pipelines to bundle the translations together.

Disadvantages of a file-based TMS

  • Not very dynamic: At almost all times, it requires a new deployment if some of the content layout changes.
  • File-format specific: The file formats or protocols usually dictate the features available. Also, not all file formats are easy to use and supported.
  • Not very extensible: As we have a more coarse-grained control, we also have more difficulties getting into details and extending them to support multiple ways of handling translation keys.
  • Some inconveniences: You need convention rules for translating certain strings in order to be translatable.

In general, file-based TMS software is suitable for most everyday use or for developers wanting to have more complete control of the localization process.

Key-based translation management systems

In a key-based translation tool, or key-based translation, we have our content referenced as separate keys instead of files. These are saved in a database or storage that is later retrieved per request. For example, when a client has specific locale preferences and requests content that matches the current locale, then the content is fetched and displayed. The site administrator can update the content without needing to redeploy the site as the content is referenced from the same store.

Translators can also assign new tags and projects that make reference to existing translations, which makes the translation platform easy to navigate and more natural to work with. The customization does not end there as we can group them by feature or semantics to track them more efficiently. Let's take a look at the pros and cons of using this kind of TMS software:

Advantages of a key-based TMS

  • Dynamic: Updating the content and the translations is easier as the queries and the command share the same document or tables in the database.
  • Easy to use: No developer skills needed. Adding or tagging translations gives more semantic control of the translatable content.
  • Semantic and more natural to follow: Tagging and grouping offer a more natural way to work with translatable content.
  • Extensible by design: Handling keys instead of files gives a more fine-grained control of the localization process.

Disadvantages of a key-based TMS

  • Not easy to automate: There is little or no automation in the process.
  • Little or no ecosystem or standardization: There is no clear way how to implement this in practice and every framework has its own ways of providing that, leading to a lot of fragmentation.

Overall, key-based TMS software is suitable for content creators who want a simple localization platform and developers wanting a more efficient way to prepare their apps for localization, a process we refer to as internationalization.

What translation management system should I use?

Deciding on the right type of TMS for your needs depends on the kind of localization experience you want to offer to its end users. If you want to offer your teams a developer-centric and conventional approach to localization with tooling that already exists, you can use a file-based TMS. If you have content marketers or developers who want to do something more advanced and functional, or just want a quick and easy solution for the content they want to translate, you can use a key-based TMS. Whatever scenario you would opt for, it is key to have agile flexibility to update translations without any deployment and the easiness of customization.

Since using a TMS can make or break your localization experience, taking time to look for the right solution that will allow managing your global team more effectively and with reduced costs is crucial. This is exactly where the Phrase Localization Suite truly shines. A fully integrated suite of translation automation technology, Phrase combines a file-based translation management system, Phrase TMS, and a key-based software localization platform, Phrase Strings. The Phrase Localization Suite boasts a range of add-ons to cover all aspects of localization across an enterprise, and it includes all the must-have features for a localization solution to streamline translation workflows for a growing business end-to-end.