Decoding Khmer: Addressing the Technical Challenges in Localizing for Cambodia

Cambodia’s Rise and Growing Importance

Cambodia has done a pretty long walking on its path to progress and prosperity – the path every citizen in every country wants to tread on. Torn apart by a civil war in the ’70s, occupation by Vietnam shortly afterward, and various aggressive outbursts in the ’90s, the new millennium saw Cambodia rising on its feet and growing to such an extent that it turned into one of the world’s top ten countries with the highest annual average GDP growth between 2001 and 2010. Cambodia has been trying to place itself among the global leaders in reducing poverty ever since. The country has a young population – the median age is below 27 years and offers great opportunities for tourism, as well as being part of important Asian trade agreements and staying actively engaged in regional integration initiatives.

If you are a business that considers entering or expanding in Cambodia, you should be aware that in recent years new localization rules have been adopted. As of November 4, 2022, all commercial advertising of products and services must use Khmer as a primary language. So, what follows is a brief summary of what you should know about Khmer language, script, font, and everything around.

The Khmer Language: A Unique Character

Khmer, the official language in Cambodia, has a special place in the motley Asian languages palette. It is an Austroasiatic language, spoken by more than 17 million people – the majority speaking the so-called Central Khmer – but many, many dialects exist as well. Unlike the neighboring languages, such as Burmese, Thai, Lao, and Vietnamese, Khmer is not a tonal language (which means its “melody” does not come from pitching), but the words are stressed on the final syllable.

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Unveiling the Khmer Script and Writing System

The oldest dated inscription in Khmer dates from 611 AD. Khmer script is written from left to right and there are generally no spaces between words – the spaces are positioned at the end of a clause or a sentence and serve as indicators. Modern Khmer uses 33 consonant characters. Vowels are most often represented as dependant vowels, by means of additional marks, attached to a certain consonant. Each consonant has an inherent vowel. What is important for the look of the script too, is the use of diacritics. On top of that, Khmer language has its own numerals and punctuation marks.

Khmer in the Digital Age: The Birth of KhmerOS

The first computer applications in Khmer were developed only in 2004 by Spanish engineer Javier Solá, who initiated the KhmerOS (Khmer Software Initiative). Several thousand government officials and teachers were trained to use the applications that gradually became part of their everyday work. As part of the project, Khmer script keyboards were manufactured. This initiative has basically reached its goal of allowing Cambodians to use computers in their own language, as Khmer OS is the base for the Open Schools Program, a joint venture with the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport that has taken the applications translated and localized by KhmerOS to all schools of Cambodia that have computers, as well as to all teacher training centers. Besides, Khmer OS also provides localization and training services to other projects.

Challenges of Khmer Digitalization: Fonts and Compatibility

But what are the specific challenges concerning, for example, digital font availability and compatibility? In the first place, this is the limited availability of Khmer fonts, especially high-quality ones. Actually, the quality and consistency of Khmer fonts are pretty much varying. Poorly designed or incomplete fonts may lack essential characters or proper spacing, resulting in less-than-ideal readability of Khmer text.

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Over the years, many attempts to resolve the issues in Khmer encoding have been made and various orthographic syllable structures have been proposed. The result is a series of different encoding structures. The main difficulty of this concept is that the “encoders” allow multiple ways to encode the same visual form. In addition, proposed syllable structures, actual font implementations, and shaping engines differ from each other in various ways. Thus, common encoding issues related to Khmer text can arise due to font compatibility, Unicode encoding, and software limitations. For example, Khmer text may look strange and not displayed correctly, with question marks and boxes (also called tofu) popping out here and there. In this case, one should make sure which is the right Khmer Unicode-compliant code that supports the whole range of Khmer characters and if the problem persists, to try using a different Khmer font.

Nevertheless, Unicode-encoded Khmer text can be accurately searched, indexed, and processed by search engines and databases. Proper Unicode support ensures that Khmer text is accessible to all users, regardless of their technology preferences or requirements.

Many software applications have been successfully localized into Khmer. For example, Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office (with Khmer language support), most of the Google products and services, Facebook, Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird, OpenOffice and LibreOffice, and Adobe Creative Cloud, amongst many others. Most of these “localizations” have been implemented namely by the Khmer OS.

Khmer OS is run mainly by Cambodians. But the software engineers cannot do their trade without the priceless help of native speakers and qualified translators. Native speakers understand deeply language nuances, idiomatic expressions, and cultural context and this understanding facilitates accurate, polished, and culturally appropriate translations.

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Navigating Khmer Language Regulations for Businesses

Let’s check a few Khmer language regulations and possibilities, concerning a potential business entry into the Cambodian market:
Decoding Khmer Addressing the Technical Challenges in Localizing for Cambodia

  • if foreign-language text is used in advertisements, it must ensure that the Khmer text is the primary one – the Khmer script must be twice the size of the foreign script and should always be placed above the foreign script;
  • all types of consumer products must have Khmer language on the labels;
  • foreign-language or different labeling is only permitted if authorized by the regulator;
  • as expected, official documents intended for use in Cambodia should be translated into Khmer language by authorized translators, in order to ensure legal validity.

Overall, most consumer protection-related laws and regulations that have been adopted in the last few years require a shift to the Khmer language which basically is a rather logical step to protecting Cambodian consumers.

In the end, let’s summarize the key challenges in localizing for Cambodia:

  • getting to know the “feeling”, tone, and look of Khmer language and Khmer font in particular;
  • acting by means of the not-so-perfectly-developed-yet Khmer Unicode block;
  • reaching the Cambodian market of goods and services through mandatory use of Khmer language – physically and digitally;
  • finding good translators to help with the implementation of the products/services;
  • complying with Cambodian law in terms of language representation.

Cambodia develops fast, its market is growing by the minute and Khmer language is its main symbol and “identifier” – and it should be treated as such.