Translating .com: It’s Not So Easy

John Klensin is one the original architects of the Internet. He first tackled the challenges of mulitilingual (internationalized) domain names many years ago. I interviewed him for an article in Multilingual Computing magazine more than five years ago about this issue; back then I assumed that we would see multilingual domain names becomes commonplace within months. Needless to say, I was overly optimistic.

The domain name system (DNS) supports only a subset of the ASCII character set, which basically means it supports only English and does a so-so job of supporting European languages. Upgrading the DNS to support the 200+ languages of the world requires upgrading the DSN to support Unicode, which sounds easy but in reality is anything but. Security is just one of the many obstacles that must be overcome. And some experts believe it cannot be overcome. Some suggest that Unicode be used on the front end – the client browser – while ASCII remain within the DNS. The Web browser takes a language and maps it to ASCII characters which are then transmitted across the Internet. For one such solution, check out the Punycode spec.

The Challenge of Multilingual Top Level Domains (TLDs)

In this article by John Klensin, he focuses on TLDs, such as .com, .edu and .org. Here’s the issue: it only makes sense that if a company in, say, China wants to register their company domain name in Chinese that the .com suffix (known as the top level domain name) also be translated into Chinese.

But as John Klensin points out, you only have to do a little math to realize how many top level domain names we would be faced with if every domain was translated into every language. There’s also the issue of translating each TLD – who decides how it is translated?

Anyway, Klensin’s solution is to leave the DNS alone and let the client browser map the TLD to the .com, .org or .edu. This way, the DNS does not have to be unnessarily overhauled.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of other challenges to be overcome. I had no idea in 1999 just how much of a challenge multilingual domain names would present; I fully appreciate it now. But I still remain optimistic that Unicode will become the dominant character set of Web browsers around the world.

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