Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Falling Translation Prices and Implications for Translation Professionals

I recently saw an active discussion in the Localization Professionals group in LinkedIn. The key point raised initially was that lower prices cause lower quality and thus begins a discussion on who is to blame. (There has to be someone / something to blame, right?) Since people’s livelihoods and bonuses are at stake, the discussion can quickly become emotional. The culprits according to the discussion are bad localization managers, freelancers who accept lower rates, lack of standards, lack of differentiation, lack of process, the internet, marketplaces becoming more efficient etc.. In some way all these reasons are valid, but is there something else going on?

I would like to present another perspective on this issue that points to larger forces that are driving structural changes and are also driving prices down and putting pressure on the old order. These forces exist independently of what we may feel about them, they simply are an observable fact of the translation landscape today.


The Increasing Volume of Content

Most global enterprises today, are facing huge increases in content volumes that increasingly demands to be translated. However, they are usually not given increased translation budgets to match this increase in content volume. So they have a few options to deal with this situation:
1) Refuse to translate the content that is out of budget range
2) Reduce prices to current translation suppliers (but increase volume)
3) Look for ways to increase translator productivity (MT, CAT Tools, Crowdsourcing) which can enable them to get more done with the same money i.e. raise individual translator productivity from 2,500 words/day to something much higher (10,000+?). 

Thus, one of the driving forces behind lower prices is the need to make  more and more content available for the global end-customer. The web and the growth in demand for dynamic content affects all kinds of global businesses. We can expect this content growth to only increase in future and the demands for productivity will get louder.  This does not mean that rates will automatically go lower but we are seeing that it does have an impact and that this content growth is also possibly driving interest in MT. How else do you cope with 10X to 100X the content volume?


The Value of Localization Content

Another dimension that should also be examined is the value of what we translate. Most of the professional translation industry is focused on SDL = Software & Documentation Localization and a relatively small and static part of corporate websites. However, it is increasingly being understood that while this “traditional localization content” is necessary, and will continue to be so, it is not where the greatest value lies for a global enterprise trying to build global customer loyalty. Very few people read manuals, in fact, some say that translators are often the only people who actually read manuals, especially in IT and consumer electronics industries. If users do not value this documentation we will continue to see price and efficiency pressures for this kind of translation. Customer and community generated content is increasingly more important, especially for complex IT and Industrial Engineering products. So we have major IT companies like Microsoft, Dell and Symantec who find that the localization content they are translating and producing only services 2% of their real customer inquiries. The customer need and expectation for having a large amount of searchable content continues to grow, and given the velocity of information creation, translation automation and MT become necessary. This is another source of downward pressure on prices, though we also see higher volumes and new attitudes and definitions of translation quality. Global enterprises realize that new quality standards are required for this massive content and new production models and approaches are sought as standard TEP costs and process are not viable to meet these needs.


The Global Demand for Translation & Knowledge

The third dimension is the raw demand for knowledge, information and collaboration from the world beyond the professional translation world. The thirst for knowledge across the globe is driving new collaboration models like crowdsourcing and development of open source software/tools, Open Data initiatives like the Meedan, EC, Opus, World Bank continue to build momentum. It is not clear that costly, membership-only initiatives like TAUS,  will prosper unless they do in fact provide higher quality data and add some real value. We should expect to see the growing use of amateurs as we see at Yeeyan and TED. We also see the growth of fan translations that prove that fans can create viable long-term initiatives, and again this shows that it is possible to reduce translation costs when motivated communities can be built. Adobe recently decided to use the crowd and a technology platform to manage the crowd to further their core business mission of developing international market revenue. And guess what one of the outcomes of this is? Lower translation costs.

So the poor translator and most LSPs are caught in these major shifts which are clearly out of the control of any single player in the localization world. We all (Buyer, LSPs and Translators) have to learn how to deal with these forces as they affect us all. In future, we should expect that ongoing productivity improvements will matter, and skill and experience with translation automation will be increasingly valued. 

I think skill with SMT (I am biased) will especially matter, as it is a technology that brings together TM, crowdsourcing, project management expertise, linguistic competence and collaboration infrastructure in way that can demonstrate and deliver higher productivity, lower costs per word and yet maintain quality. Traditional localization work will likely be under increasing price pressure because of it’s low relative value, and we will begin to see global enterprises that seek to do 10X to 100X the volume of current translations to be done. The price drops perhaps also signal that we are seeing the collapse of the old business model of static repetitive content done in a TEP cycle. While this is painful for all concerned, it is also a time where some will learn how to bring the technology, people and processes together to be able to deliver on new market demands. Recent announcements from Lionbridge and others show that change is necessary but making it mandatory and punitive is to my mind clumsy and ill-advised. (This old command and control mentality is really hard to subdue).  I suspect that change initiatives that do not create clear win-win scenarios for all the parties concerned will struggle and face growing resistance.  

I think that initiatives that marginalize, exploit or strong arm translators, are doomed to fail.  Willing, motivated and competent translators have been the key to delivering quality in the past and will be even more so in future. Disruptive change is not all it is cracked up to be. Even Google and Microsoft found that revolution consisted of a continuing sequence of small changes as they built their empires, and I suspect that, that approach will also work best here. It would not surprise me to find new leadership emerge from outside the industry, for these are surely interesting times, and openness and real collaboration are hard to find in the professional translation world.


Innovation & Collaboration

So how do we respond to these forces? What is an intelligent response to these kinds of macro changes?

I don't have many answers but list some possibilities below, and I do understand that this is very easily said and not so easily done:
-- Find out how to increase productivity while maintaining or even raising quality (Better, more efficient automation processes and effective use of MT especially data-driven SMT that learns and improves.)
-- Work together with global enterprises and find out what the highest value content is. Then learn how to make it multilingual efficiently and effectively as a long-term partnership mission. ( I doubt that this content is software and document localization or a few select pages on the corporate website)
-- Develop better, collaborative relationships with customers (the translation buyer) and the translators who are the keys to quality to build long-term leverage and benefit or all the parties in the game.
-- Develop higher value add services like transcreation (is there really no better word) in addition to basic translation services
-- Develop new business models and new ways to get high-value content done where there is a much tighter and longer term commitment from buyers, vendors and a team of translators i.e. a common and shared mission orientation rather than single project management and orientation. 

This is a time of big structural change and it will require innovation and collaboration on a new scale. The question that I have been asking and I think the market is also asking is:
How do we reduce costs, maintain quality and increase productivity and speed up the translation  process?

I know this is somewhat vague, but I think it should start with a new way to look at the problem. If we look at this as an opportunity or challenge rather than as threats that we bash and attack, we might find some constructive and useful answers. Today, I see overwhelmingly negative feedback on MT, crowdsourcing, open source and even collaboration initiatives from many in the professional translation industry in social forums. Very few trying to understand these forces better. People often go through a sequential emotional cycle of attack, fear, despair before they learn to cope, and eventually even thrive when facing disruptive change. Those who get get stuck at fear and despair, often end up as victims.  It is said that those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. Maybe, we should be talking much more about the Luddites and the “luddite fallacy” at all the conferences we hold. If the Luddite fallacy were true we would all be out of work because productivity has been increasing for two centuries. Perhaps the biggest change we need to deal with these forces is to adopt a new, dispassionate and open view. A new view is Step 1 in developing new strategies and new approaches to managing these forces, and technology is only part of the solution. I predict we will only see real success, where technology, process and collaboration come together.


  1. Hi Kirti,

    Though right now I should still be doing some work (in the old-fashioned TEP style/model :-) ), or even working on my next blog entry, since I am actually multi-tasking (and while the pasta finishes warming in the oven), I thought of writing a reply to you, because I liked your article.

    I like that you admit being "biased" (by your interest in MT and probably also by your mainly corporate/management-related and not really linguistic perspective) and yet you present a rather well-reasoned personal view of the causes of the low price war that is taking place right now in the translation world.

    I also like that you have clearly acknowledged the crucial role of translators, because, without falling into emotional whinings, obviously translators are often, as recently commented in a newspaper article (, the "unsung [and underpaid] heroes" of the translation industry.

    I agree that we are undoubtedly facing rather fast-paced times of changes in all possible areas of life, from the economy to globalization to technology, all of which is affecting not only the translation industry, but also other industries closely related, such as the book industry.

    That means that some traditional ways of producing things are almost "abruptly" being changed from night to day and we are all trying to catch up with this "change tsunami" which no one is, in some cases, really sure where it will lead. So I also like that you have acknowledged as well that, when it comes to solutions, although you yourself make some interesting suggestions for "solutions", applying them is always easier said than done.

    In regard to your comment about the high volumes of information being produced as the main reason for lower translation prices, this does not really match your other comment questioning the usefulness or value of contents traditionally produced (like user manuals).

    That is, if we admit that some manuals are really useless, I am also not sure that all those tons of new massive contents you refer to are necessarily going to be useful in all cases, so I think you should at least consider that large volumes of contents are no guarantee of useful contents and, therefore, this is not necessarily a valid reason to lower rates.

    About the luddites (smile...), yes, I agree that we should consider more often this perspective as well, because although the luddist fallacy might be true in some cases, it is definitely not easy to digest such fallacy when you might suddenly be the one faced with a wave of labor downsizing or a radical rate/price reduction of your work.

    I guess we *all* (not only those in the translation world) need to learn to "reinvent" ourselves with the times (like Madonna), if we are to surf successfully on the waves of this "change tsunami".

    Good night,


  2. Ivette,

    Thank you for your detailed and thoughtful comment.

    I did not mean to suggest that the manuals are useless. Only that their value falls as people are able to get critical use information elsewhere. It would not be possible to sell a German car in the US without a manual even though the user may never use it. The EU requires multilingual documentation for all kinds of products as a core foundation.

    However, we are also seeing that the internet is changing our view of this. People today are more and more comfortable with the search and find paradigm. For many high technology and even consumer electronics products this is preferred.

    The Consortium for Service Innovation whose members include Dell, Symantec, Cisco, Microsoft and others, provides some very compelling data on how the customer support reality is changing for a typical IT company that produces a software or hardware product for the global market.Their research shows that customers in the IT industry get 40X the support from self service knowledge bases and communities than they do from the documentation and the direct customer support organization. This is why it makes more sense to translate this content. This data is detailed in my blog entry on Why MT matters for LSPs. I am only suggesting that we ask how valuable is it to the real end-customer BEFORE we translate it.

    But high volume does not necessarily mean better and the path to quality still involves human translators. We are still learning how to fit all the puzzle pieces together. High volumes just means automation + humans working productively. With huge content, translators and linguists who know how to work with automated tools become even more valuable and critical to success. Who really wants to mess with a huge mass of crap raw MT?


  3. Win-win scenarios?
    You write: "I suspect that change initiatives that do not create clear win-win scenarios for all the parties concerned will struggle and face growing resistance."

    Spot on!
    But I have yet to see an argument for automation that offers translators any sort of "win". Your analysis of the situation for translators is fundamentally based on your perception of market forces and that companies like Microsoft, Dell and Symantec can't afford to pay for the volume of translation that is needed.
    You will presumably point out that penniless Microsoft (sob, sob) has technological advance on its side and will dictate the methods and prices for its slice of the translation market. In the medium to long term that may be true (up to a point), but this argument is a whip, not a win-win scenario.

    So what gain do you actually offer for translators in your "win-win scenario"? As far as I can see, it is a "smaller pie in the sky when you die". You suggest that translators should embrace "automation" (whatever that means in this context). You quote a goal of quadrupling output (from 2,500 to 10,000 words per day). You point to the dilemma of companies needing to do ten times (or even a hundred times) the present volume of translations. And you use grand-sounding corporate phrases such as "a common and shared mission orientation", in which I see much feeling and atmosphere but little or no definable content.

    So allow me to offer a couple of comments to put a slightly different perspective on the matter:
    1. Your article only deals with a particular segment of the translation business (product documentation for large global manufacturing enterprises, especially in the IT sector). I don't see how it could apply to the legal sector, theoretical academic papers, much of the financial sector - not to mention literary texts and texts for general publication.
    2. The logical consequence of your proposition for the "translation industry" would actually be to eliminate the translator in most task scenarios. To implement your vision you primarily need two types of person: a) programming engineers with language skills to set up the system (or perhaps a handful of translators who have moved over to language programming as a career choice), and b) reviewers for the end text, trained to be language minimalists (i.e. not to waste time by making stylistic changes or unnecessarily doing a proper translation for too much of the text). In many cases, these reviewers would need some knowledge of the source language, but basically their task is just proofreading and correcting the worst errors.

    So as far as I can see, your vision does not need linguistically skilled translators with an excellent knowledge of the source language and an outstanding written style in the target language - basically, it needs language technicians with automation skills.

    So I do not see what sort of win-win arrangement you envisage for translators.

  4. Victor

    I believe that in a future where translators are engaged with SMT in particular there will be many new tasks where translators and linguists can add value for economic benefit including:

    - Development of Test and Tuning Data Sets
    - MT Translation Quality Assessment & Evaluation
    - Linguistic Analysis focusing on Error Analysis & Correction
    - Dictionary & Glossary Development
    - Amplifying Post-Editor Corrections to improve SMT engines
    - Ongoing Management of Data Resources & Linguistic Assets
    - Managing Optimization of Domain SMT Engines for a Specific Customer
    - Identification and Preparation of High Quality Target Language (Monolingual) data
    - Development of Linguistic Rules Structures to improve Quality with Languages like Chinese, Japanese and Arabic e.g. SVO = SOV.
    - Creation of Specialized Linguistic Data to Correct Specific Linguistic Error Patterns

    I describe this with more context in my entry on how to get started with SMT.

    I know of at least one scenario where win-win is possible:I have been involved with several automotive OEMs who produce 2,000 and 3,000 page manuals for the dealer and service networks. Customized and tuned SMT makes great sense here, as there is a lot of data to train with, the content is repetitive and MT can deliver *measured* productivity benefits. The net gain from using MT: manuals done significantly faster and at a much lower ongoing cost after post-editing costs are factored in, at the SAME QUALITY levels of the old TM-based process. While editors/translators are usually paid lower rates they have much higher throughput and thus most actually make more money under this scenario.

    I think there will be many more situations like this as publishers realize that this man-machine collaboration can make valuable knowledge and literature multilingual at high quality levels.

    But I understand in the current climate of change that it really does seem remote. Hopefully, we will start to hear of more win-win scenarios. I will certainly be willing to share this information.

  5. Quite insightful posting. After working as an in-house translator in the IT industry, I am thrown back into the freelance world and wondering if the pay-per-word model is now dead or agonizing. Probably the latter. Having worked in the software localization industry, I know of a lot of content that is left untranslated but not because it is of low value. There's the issue of high-value content that is created that way before it is localized or translated. Unfortunately, what user will go through a 200-page manual to find a specific answer?

    This is a different, yet related, problem though. Translators will have to learn to adapt to new technologies as mentioned in this blog posting and be less possessive about the concept of quality. I know, because being too zealous about the quality of translation isolates the translator in the end.

  6. Hi Kirti,
    Thanks for the first ever (?) attempt to offer anecdotal evidence of a win-win situation in which there is some sort of gain for the translators. Perhaps you will manage to find more win-win scenarios, and I will certainly be interested to hear of them.

    For the time being, however, the anecdotes and suggestions which you describe do not give me any reason to abandon my prejudices.

    1. You yourself call the translators in your anecdote "editors/translators" and point out that their gain is dependent on achieving "higher throughput". So if some of them take a pride in a high linguistic standard of the output and take the time to do a deep edit, a localised re-writing or a stylistic critique of the automated raw translation, they are missing the point of the automated process and will actually lose out, because the system is focussed on speed, and merely needs a quality that is "good enough". The guy who asks critical questions and has an individual style of writing in the target language does not fit into this system.

    2. Your list of potential tasks for "translators and linguists" confirms that you are primarily looking for linguistic programmers and language analysts, and that the role of translation itself merely plays a marginal role.

    So effectively, it still seems to me that you are largely aiming to eliminate the translator AS A TRANSLATOR from the translation process in your selected market segment (i.e. technical manuals for global technology manufacturers). You seem to envisage a role for translators who are willing and able to use their skills as a secondary asset in a completely different role, but not for translators as translators.

    So while I look forward to any additional win-win scenarios which you may be able to present, I am grateful that my own specialist fields of translation require real translation done with culturally aware and critical human intelligence.

  7. Kirti, I very much agree with your perspective, and observing the human, emotional part of the industry change is almost more interesting than watching technologies themselves develop. Also, a smart discussion in the comments - a pleasure to read.

    P.S. Where is your "retweet" button? :)

  8. @Jenia The Share button is right above the Search Bar. I agree that the human response to changing forces is the most interesting thing about all of this.

    @Victor I am sure there are many more cases of win-win situations that I am not privy to. I think that a lot of professional translation focuses on content that does not have great value in the larger scheme of things: product manuals and corporate content whose primary objective is to drive corporate revenue. How many are really working on literature or other things that might endure and is truly artful? Thus it make complete sense that corporate content production becomes more efficient. Translators will still have a role as no MT is perfect but I suspect the production process will change. You and others, can of course refuse to participate in the new production models as perhaps it is completely unappealing to you.

    I am reminded of two quotes from Buckminister Fuller:

    "We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims. "

    "Don't fight forces, use them."

    Thank you for your comments, I am sure there are many who sympathize with your view. This is all still evolving and I think it is quite possible that it will evolve very differently from what we think and and know today.

  9. Your view of the forces is interesting.

    Most translators will agree using technology (be it MT or TM or others) to lower translation costs, and welcome improvements that allow them to do more work for the same price.

    However, most of us would probably feel that it is not a win-win situation if we earn less money for working more AND learning how to work with new technologies.

    The real win-win scenario would be that translators using new technologies actually earn more than before.

    I know some LSPs that do.

    But I also know large IT corporations pretending they cannot afford to pay for translation while each new language actually pays many times the localization costs.

    If a cell phone company has the choice of translating in Chinese or not selling in China, maybe the cost of translation is a very good investment, with or without technology to reduce the costs.

    André, translator and language technology specialist.

  10. "I believe that in a future where translators are engaged with SMT in particular there will be many new tasks where translators and linguists can add value for economic benefit including:"

    very interesting too (I note down that)

    but what do you think if it's the translator (me) that uses a SMT?

    i.e. do make sense training and using my SMT, translating with a CAT that uses SMT natively, and transferring my experience in MT output post-editing?

    and if it makes sense, what would be a reasonable rate for such kind of job?

    clearly I mean a figure showed as a % of a standars PRO rate, e.g. 50% less of the standard rate and so

  11. Look at it as a challenge, completely agree. In a world where everything is changing, why should translation stay the same?

  12. "Look at it as a challenge, completely agree. In a world where everything is changing, why should translation stay the same?"

    What a profound thought ! I am impressed.

  13. PRoduce more. Get paid less. That is what it comes down to. Other message : "adapt or die".

    The result is already here : shit pay for individual translators (even if they work with Cat tools) super-shit work and more money for companies.

    The good part of it is that many companies will go bankrupt ... THEN they will understand that trying to run after big companies and technology is simply ... stupid.