Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Megatrends and Their Impact on Professional Translation

I have recently made public presentations to audiences of LSPs and localization professionals about broad trends affecting the world of professional translation. My perspective seemed to resonate and I thought it might be useful to put the core message in a blog entry and share it, to possibly get critical feedback or extend the discussion. In some ways I have touched upon these “megatrends” in earlier blog entries (Why MT Matters, The Data Deluge, Translation Technology, Innovation in Localization)  but it is useful to bring it all together in a single place.

I am aware that others are making similar points but I think this summary incorporates conversations I have heard around the web and is closer to the collective intelligence. The trends in brief are as follows:
  • There is an explosion in relevant content affecting global enterprises
  • Social Media and Social Networks are now increasingly in control of branding impressions
  • There is an increasing use of open innovation and community collaboration models in many businesses
  • Translation technology and automation are becoming increasingly important for speed and cost reasons
  • A rising Asia will change the priority of strategic languages away from the current FIGS dominance

The Content Explosion

Data Growth Trends
We are seeing exponential growth in the digital universe and much of it is very relevant to global enterprise concerns. It is important to understand that this is happening on a scale never before seen in the history of man. A lot of this content is related to facilitating global commerce so understanding this becomes highly relevant for the global enterprise.
Enterprise Content

The Impact of Social Networks and Customer Conversations

The carefully calculated marketing and corporate image control that global enterprises have been used to is also coming undone. Brand impressions are increasingly being formed by real customer conversations in social networks. We see that the world of marketing is undergoing a transformation and what used to be considered critical corporate messaging is increasingly viewed as “corporate-speak” and is often not trusted by the end-customers who matter the most. Jeremiah Owyang wrote a prescient blog entry three years ago where he predicted this shift and increasingly the corporate website is seen as a place where pro-corporate bullshit resides. More and more, the high value content is being created by customers and business partners and corporations have little editorial control of this content creation process.

UGC Impact

The Growing Importance of Open Innovation & Collaboration Models

We are also seeing that co-creation of products and services with customers can be a huge momentum builder. Facebook has shown that engaging users in translating interfaces can also help accelerate building the customer base in those languages. Their international growth has been closely linked to their crowdsourcing translation efforts even though crowdsourcing can be less predictable.  Dell actively solicits and nurtures active customer feedback in IdeaStorm to develop new products. Collaborating with customers and partners is emerging as a way to to engage customers, build loyalty and accelerate penetration in new markets. There are very few large companies that have figured out how to do this because open collaboration is a huge cultural change from the command and control mentality that most executives work with. In the B2B world this may also mean that customers prefer best-of-breed solutions to one-stop solutions. Diversification is generally considered a wise investment strategy and is increasingly understood to be a good way to build business infrastructure and avoid vendor lock-in even though it may also mean more integration work.

 The Rise of Asia

Western Europe and FIGS have dominated the professional translation world historically. While FIGS will remain important, in the future it looks like Brazilian Portuguese, Spanish will be the most important European languages and Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian and other Asian languages will become increasingly more important and strategic as global revenue generating translation investments. Many companies now are expanding their base of languages and the FIGS-CJK view is slowly receding.The graphic below is clear in it’s implications: Asia offers substantial commercial opportunity for those who make the localization investments. I have written previously about how Asia is a long-term opportunity for truly global companies. (I will update it shortly as the momentum keeps building.) There are many market potential studies that suggest Asia offers significant opportunity for IT infrastructure, mobile devices, luxury goods as well as new bottom of the pyramid (BOP) product opportunities.
Strategic LPs

What Does All This Mean?

So if we add all this up it shows that global enterprises are facing a content deluge with dynamic content coming from both internal and external sources and high volumes of this content is expected to be translated increasingly faster to have any value in competitive situations. Global enterprises that quickly identify high value content and make it multilingual will find that this can drive international revenues and that translation can be a strategic tool to building long-term competitive advantage.

Now, more than at any other time in history, speed and agility are decisive competitive advantages...David Meerman Scott

However this is a time of revolution, and the TEP (Translate-Edit-Proof) and SDL (Software and Documentation Localization) mindsets are not likely to be adequate to meet these new translation challenges. The old approach worked for static, low volume content but new thinking and new approaches are required to deal with the data deluge today. Automated translation is an absolute necessity in the new world but this is not the MT of yesteryear that many are still implementing and describing at localization conferences today.

Old Approach Cant Work
In the new world, data has to flow from content creation to consumption as seamlessly as possible, delivered to where it is needed at desired quality levels. This means that humans need to be part of the production process and are the key to producing the best quality. The future is about much better man-machine collaboration. The automated translation tools need to be learning and getting better all the time. They need to be responsive to skilled human linguistic steering and corrective feedback. They need to be focused on dynamic streams of content not just static, packaged translation projects like user documentation. They need to understand that with flowing content, upstream cleanup efforts will flow through the production line and make every downstream process easier and more efficient. They see the information cycle as a system, as organic and thus build the collaboration infrastructure to address the whole problem. They need to see MT systems improve with human steering, in weeks, not months or years. They need to be MT systems that can be trained and managed by skilled professionals to get you to “good enough” production quality “fast enough” to have a positive impact on your business, not the black box MT of yesteryear. If you look closely there are very few choices in reality. (Think Asia Online!)
Localization Trends

Have you noticed that Google and Bing Translate improve regularly since they shifted to statistical MT (SMT)? Does that tell you something? Why did we not see these improvements when these same companies were RbMT based?  On domain focused systems the progress and quality improvements are even more compelling. I have recently seen Asia Online systems compared to heavily customized RbMT “hybrid” systems, and it is clear that the yield to effort ratios with hybrid SMT approaches are clearly superior, (I am of course biased) but the evidence continues to mount. (BTW Moses is perhaps 5% of what is needed to accomplish this). In the future professionals will undertake to translate content streams that contain tens of millions of words that encapsulate important customer conversations. If translation is strategic make sure that you align with technology that can go the distance and that has demonstrated the ability to evolve.
New Requirements for MT
As more senior corporate executives realize that translation is strategic, and that translation technology properly used can generate substantial revenue in global markets, they will start to look at solving these new kinds of translation problems. Executive managers are unlikely to be excited by the possibility of getting user documentation done faster and cheaper. However, as they start to get their hands around the fact that customer conversations are important (many are struggling with this), and that they need to respond with speed and agility to build global customer relationships, we can expect to see a new kind of executive who will seek to make flowing content multilingual. They will care that real standards exist (not SDL versions) and will likely remove products that do not comply. Handling the flow efficiently will become the focus, and the most visionary localization managers may even have senior roles in making this happen. Speed and agility are key and customer engagement across the globe will require a real understanding of how to make these dynamic content focused translation systems work. There is a video of an extended presentation version of this blog available from the Localization Technology Roundtable seminar (starts at about 4’30” after introduction). (Yes, I need to lose weight or at least wear shirts that are not so tight).

We are living in a time of great change. In times of change there is often an opportunity for new paradigms and new leaders to launch, remember MSFT grabbing the desktop market away from IBM and Google grabbing away the web search market from MSFT?  New leaders with new visions are the change agents that make this happen, and they are often dismissed by the established status quo and “leaders” of the time. I do not see that new MT initiatives by Lionbridge and SDL really address these new needs. I think there is too much of the old view in their approach,  but I may be proven wrong. I am skeptical that the current “market leaders” have the vision and/or culture to drive this change and I think we will see somebody from outside the industry or smaller, more agile LSPs be the driving force of this coming change. For current leaders to be change agents often means cannibalizing current revenue streams and very few have succeeded in crossing that chasm. We shall see as this unfolds.

In revolution, the best of the new is incompatible with the best of the old. It’s about doing things a whole new way...Clay Shirky

Anyway these are truly interesting times, and it looks like things will get even more interesting. 


  1. very interesting Kirti!

    so a carrier of a nerdy language couple as me (EN-to-IT) what can do to avoid the incoming tsunami?


  2. For senior corporate executives to realize that translation is strategic, translators must first start learning how to be relevant.
    For executive managers to actually get user documentation done faster and cheaper, they have to acknowledge its importance.
    For real standards to come, players must realize that common effort and hard work are necessary, while most often, market standards are simply convenient.
    So two questions arise:
    1. how can translators learn to be relevant and who is responsible for this?
    2. are open standards worth the effort?

  3. Very interesting, and eye-opening information. Thanks for sharing this, Kirti!

    Posted by John Vanormelingen

  4. @Claudio

    Here is some sound advice for anybody dealing with disruptive change:

    There are many new kinds of linguistic skills that will be very valuable in this world. But now instead of carrying water from a well(project translation) you may be involved in setting up irrigation systems and making sure that water goes from A to B in a timely fashion even if it gets a little muddy along the way.

    I have written about this in other blog entries to some extent and actually did a 3 hour presentation on this at ELIA last week.

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