Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Understanding the Translation Buyer

In my last post I talked about various viewpoints on the emerging trends in the industry and I noticed that the post very quickly established itself amongst the most popular of the year. In fact second only to a March posting on post-editing compensation, a subject which continues to draw ongoing attention. In many ways this post is an expansion on some of the points that were raised in the last post.

When one considers the general focus of translation work done by the professional translation industry, I think we see that a large part of the work is related to translating content that facilitates and enables international commerce. The world of localization, to a great extent focuses on the content that is closely related to the final packaging of products that are sold in international markets. This focus is the software and documentation localization mindset that is at the heart of the largest translation agencies work in the business translation industry. So much so that one company chose to name themselves SDL, though most of the other agencies in the industry have exactly the same focus.

Much of the content (which is just a word to summarize a particular collection of words) that gets translated is mandatory and necessary to be able to participate in target international markets. So most global market focused enterprises translate what they absolutely must, to legally participate in key target markets, some do more,  but for the most part only what is absolutely necessary gets done because it is slow and expensive. An example of doing the least amount possible: Microsoft Office products have a Thai user interface but if you hit the F1 online help button you will only see help in English! But everybody understands some amount of translation MUST be done to be viable in international markets e.g. Honda could not sell cars in Europe without creating some amount of final customer (aka end-user) and distribution channel material about their products in “key” languages.

To my observation this traditional content is 1) marketing content (brochures and high-level product descriptive web content, legal liability, some advertising) and 2) product packaging related material since most customers and some governments require that imported products have user documentation and other basic service information be contained in the package that international customers buy, preferably in their language. The SDL mindset is a result of the increasing importance of software products and services in the world in the last 20 years. In fact, we see few translation agencies (LSPs) older than 20 years old in this industry. This has resulted in a world where “translation projects” are often outsourced to agencies (LSPs) today as it does not make economic sense for companies to build internal translation task focused teams unless they have ongoing and continuous needs to translate material.  And as we know it is still quite messy to coordinate translators across many languages to release products at the same time across the globe.  While there is change afoot across many dimensions, most of this traditional localization will continue, though I suspect that much of the paper documentation will get thinner and much more content will move to the web. Today global enterprises have to seriously consider translating new and continuously flowing text and video related to their products offerings that is accessed via tablets, smartphones and PCs. It has become important to translate “external” content that customers peruse and use to make purchase decisions and also provide a much richer set of information to enable self-service with products after the purchase.  

We live in an age, where increasingly marketing and corporate-speak is challenged, undermined and sometimes even seen as disingenuous and false. (Raise your hand if you trust and respect corporate press releases about their amazing “ground-breaking” products).  Today we see customer voices rise above the din of corporate messaging, and taking control of branding and corporate reputations with their own “authentic” discussions of actual customer experiences, while marketing departments look on haplessly.  We are also seeing a shift away from corporate controlled top-down marketing messages, to more open uncontrolled customer initiated and driven conversations and some have been saying that the old view of corporate websites cannot succeed anymore. In 2012 global enterprises need to do different things to be successful in building a satisfied and loyal customer base. Corporate marketing messages have gained the same patina as political party propaganda and most customers look elsewhere to determine the real truth about anything they might consider buying. While a few companies are learning the new rules of engagement, many still continue the old way and risk irrelevance. There is growing awareness of these forces of change as we can see from the many discussions related to these trends and the popularity of discussions on disintermediation and change in the translation industry. GALA recently alerted their members of the need to cooperate, collaborate and develop meaningful standards and stated the following:
To respond to these challenges, LSPs, tools providers, content developers, and all players in the language industry need to be smarter than we were in bygone days. We need to cooperate and collaborate, not only because now we truly can, but also because it is the new way of the world. Those in our midst who don’t collaborate with others will soon find themselves losing out on opportunities and falling behind.
Collaboration means more than having a Facebook page, a profile on LinkedIn, some files on Google Drive, and tweeting. The new collaborative paradigm means participants are distributed, peers are connected, work is interactive, and ideas are shared. Innovation goes up, down, and across the supply chain. But real cooperation also requires a certain level of trust. Intuitively humans only collaborate to the extent they trust others. As the ice of the P.C. era melts away, we may see trust building mainly through discussions in social networks and networking at conferences right now, but this is only the beginning of the Social Collaboration era. Over time, more ways will appear to establish trust and form collaborative networks.
The changing dynamics at the broadest level are eloquently described by John Hagel as The Big Shift.  He describes various core assumptions and historic conditions that are being undermined today and I like his advice on how to deal with change. The following is good advice for an industry with 25,000 companies.
If we approach interactions with the zero sum mindset – that there is a fixed quantity of resources that must be distributed and your gain will inevitably be my loss – we virtually ensure that we will end up with short-term transactions and undermine any efforts to build longer-term relationships.  In contrast, if we adopt a positive sum mindset – that through our collaboration we can generate a growing pool of resources – we are likely to be much more successful in building long-term trust based relationships. In turn, this means we will be more effective in participating in the knowledge flows that have the potential to generate the most economic value, thereby creating a virtuous cycle that builds upon itself and generates powerful network effects.

So, if we see that the way the customer gathers information and assesses purchase decisions is changing, we should also understand that the content that will have the most value in helping to build customer relationships and thus international market success is also changing.  Aligning your business processes and strategies with this new reality is likely to be a wise thing to do.  We can see today that while there will still be an ongoing need for the traditional SDL-type of content, there is also high-value content being created in much less controlled ways that could significantly benefit international business initiatives. The graphic below illustrates this. There is great value in identifying content that customers are creating about user experience and product feedback and translating that in addition to traditional localization content. Better yet, global enterprises could encourage this in sponsored forums. We see today that more informal corporate content (e.g. blogs and product discussion forums) and also “external” content created by customers in user forums can be invaluable in helping to build market momentum. A lot of this new high-value content is much more unstructured and fleeting but can still influence customer purchase behavior, so it should be taken seriously and considered worthy of translation through new production approaches like community crowdsourcing or automated translation with carefully tuned MT systems that easily outperform free MT solutions. 
For many global enterprises even internal communications about new products and services are increasingly becoming multilingual so the role of translation can be significantly greater than the limited scope defined by the SDL mindset.  Thus “internal” emails and product design discussions that are embedded in Microsoft Office documents also become very valuable to producing products that are truly localized for different markets, especially if these discussions are global and multilingual. There is probably a role for language translation specialists who can solve these new kinds of problems for global enterprises. Many corporations are attempting to solve these problems on their own since the translation industry is for the most part still only focused on the historical SDL-type solutions. How many LSPs do you know who are involved in translation projects related to customer conversations in social media?
However, the decisions to translate knowledge bases, customer discussion forums or high-value customer created content is probably happening in executive suites rather than in the localization department. Thus it makes sense to learn to understand and speak to the needs and view at this level. The conversation is likely to be quite different from the TM value and word rate discussions that happen with localization departments. (Which I know are also important.) I expect that new translation production models to build success in international markets will involve MT (and other translation automation), crowd sourcing as well as traditional project management. It is very likely that old production models like TEP (Translate-Edit-Proof) will become less important, or just one of several approaches to translation challenges as new collaboration and translation production models gain momentum.I think that the most successful approaches to solving these "new" translation problems will involve a close and constructive collaboration between traditional localization professionals, linguists, MT developers, end-customers and probably others in global enterprise organizations who have never worked in "localization" but are more directly concerned about the quality of the relationship with the final customer across the world. At the end of the day our value as an industry is determined by how useful our input is to the process of building international markets and the requirements for success are changing as we speak.
I will take a stab at describing what qualities might be most appealing to the target buyer who may not even know that the word localization is related to translation. The vendors that would have the most attractive profile with an executive suite buyer (VP Sales, VP Marketing, VP Customer Support, VP Customer Experience, COO, CMO, CFO etc..) would probably have the following characteristics:
  • Be an expert on solving language translation related business problems rather than be just a language service provider (LSP) who manages translation projects of defined bags of words
  • Ability to identify, recruit and retain a superior human translator workforce
  • Ability to understand and participate in the larger customer satisfaction and customer loyalty building dialogue that matters at the C-level and explain how translation contributes to this beneficially
  • Ability to interface with and process and translate critical content in a highly automated workflow as seamlessly as possible
  • Ability to adjust production to business needs i.e. combine and mix TEP, MT, PEMT and Community-based production as required to meet customer needs
  • Ability to articulate and adjust time, quality and cost parameters as necessary to meet different customer requirements rather than force all projects through the same millstone
  • Ability to have a productive and objective discussion on deliverable translation quality across different production methods
  • A commitment to open standards to facilitate data transfer and exchange on a long-term basis so that efforts transfer and scale across information delivery mechanisms (web, tablet, smartphone, documentation)
  • Demonstrated competence and an understanding of developing superior automated translation technology (i.e. beyond building dictionaries and operating Moses in rudimentary way). Preferably better than is possible with free MT on the web or your basic DIY effort.
  • Ability to manage and handle small (single sentence) projects as well as large bulk projects with equal ease and efficiency
  • Ability to respond rapidly to changing customer requirements

It is said that the Winter Solstice of 2012 is a very special time, (actually so special that the planetary alignment we see now apparently only happens once in 26,000 years.The Earth, The Sun and The Center of Galaxy are on the same line at the moment of this Winter Solstice.) and depending on your viewpoint either a time for great new beginnings or a time of final reckoning. Hopefully for most of us this is a time of wonderful and energizing new beginnings and evolution. I wish you all a wonderful holiday season and a happy new year.

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