After I returned from Localization World Conference in Santa Clara, CA, I was slightly bewildered and frustrated. It was my first such experience meeting the titans of translation industry, the companies I admired. Back in 2002, when I was a freshman at college, I dreamt about taking on the biggest of the biggest translation companies, imagining my agency servicing largest fortune 500 companies, making millions of dollars per project, having booked up years in advance and so on. Now, 9 years later, and having spent countless hours fighting up with competitors online and offline, I’ve arrived to a place where these competitors were hanging out and perceived first hand what they’ve got. To my utter disappointment, not much. My adolescent illusions were all crushed.
If the general tech industry powered by Facebook.com, Google.com and Amazon.com is growing like a weed; the translation industry is notoriously conservative and ferociously low tech. I thought my company was still an underdog that was trying to figure things out, but after I’ve spent a day listening to presentations from some companies who position themselves as experts, I was disillusioned big time. To make it straight, I haven’t leant anything valuable at that conference. It seems that large companies that presented there are large because of different reasons, not because they are in translation/localization business. Isn’t it weird? Translation is still an after thought, and, perhaps, would never be treated accordingly.
When I met localization team from LinkedIn during a lunch break and asked them what was the biggest obstacle of working with translation agencies like mine, they replied that is was reliability. The thing is that translation agencies are employing the same pool of freelance translators that work from home. If you look at resumes of translators, they all worked for many of your competitors already. Large outsources such as LinkedIn, don’t trust translation quality of the agencies. Ever. I know that I wouldn’t too. That’s why large companies are no longer outsource anything substantial. They hire linguists internally and always proofread what they get from freelancers. Agencies seem like redundant middlemen, unable to compete neither on price, nor on quality. You can say whatever you want at your website, but when it comes to the actual quality, you can’t offer anything of value to the large clients. Thus, the amount of work is evaporating, leaving translation agencies at a brink of extinction.
Another thing that frustrated me is the lack of devotion to machine translations and the new paradigm of post-editing. Well, post-editing is not quite that new. It’s been around since 1995 or so. But since the quality of statistical machine translators is increasing fast, the gap of proofreading is shrinking. What was right 15 years ago is not so right today. Most translation agencies are 20+ years old. They probably are missing out on that. The boiling frog can’t feel the difference in the water temperature until it is too late, isn’t it? Here is an interesting comment is found on the web on that topic:
I was with a company back in 1995 that sold consumer translation software for PCs, and they marketed it as something magical: input an English business letter or marketing brochure’s text, and out comes a French or Spanish version. So simple, so inexpensive. No more expensive human translators. But linguists laughed at the French and Spanish output which was often not only inaccurate, but offensive. Then they thought up the idea to combine machine translation (MT), as it is commonly-called, of business text, often marketing materials, with a low-paid, non-trained cadre of foreign language speakers, not translators, for a service offering to produce faster, accurate translation, but it turned out that this was not a faster process since even those linguists could not quickly “post-edit” poor quality machine translation of marketing content. It takes longer and is much more difficult to do that than just translating manually. Here we are years later facing the same issues. Most marketing material is not written with translation in mind, and contains abbreviated, “jargony” English language that is nearly impossible to translate accurately by machine. “Robo translators” can only work if the source language is carefully controlled, written in a simple grammatical style, and key term dictionaries are developed in advance that can be used to handle a company’s specific terminology. The “crowdsourcing” model for translation for business purposes is a disaster waiting to happen in my opinion. For a global business, a careful, well thought out, culturally appropriate, quality localization project cannot happen magically with “robo translators” and volunteers.
Last major trend that is happening right now is crowdsourcing. Many agencies begin to figure what it is about and build online interfaces to handle it. However, what they don’t do quite well is training translators to work through them. Translators are so used to work over email: send/receive email attachments, agree on the purchase order and deadline, that they are reluctant to try anything new. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, right? Probably you are right. Hence, you need to groom new translators.
So, why the most translation agencies suck? Because it is not about human translation any more. Just learn from the example of Fortune 500 companies and try to understand why they don’t trust your “human” translation offerings. It is almost 2012, the year when CPUs in mobile phones are faster than mainframes 20 years ago. Being a Luddite and refusing reality is a false proposition that would ultimately lead to failure. It’s a boiling soup, ladies and gentlemen. It’s time for a wake up call, or you’d be part of statistics.
We, at Translation Services USA, aim to think and act differently. I don’t care what you say about us. We build modern translation tools and we embrace on some really cool ideas such as Global Translation Memory, Labor as a Service and so on. We are light years apart from each other.