Friday, December 7, 2012

Emerging Language Industry & Language Technology Trends

As the year comes to a close, it is sometimes useful to review and look ahead on where things may be going, and even though many of these type of ruminations can be self-indulgent and self-serving, I have decided to throw in my two cents anyway. These are personal opinions on other opinions, and like much of what I do in this blog, this is also a collection of information that I consider most worthwhile to share on this subject of trends.

The translation industry remains a highly fragmented industry with relatively inefficient production and business models. In 2012 we still have over 25,000 language service providers (agencies) of varying quality and professionalism doing the work of business translation across the globe. Efforts to define the final product or service produced by these firms are unsuccessful despite valiant efforts from industry associations.   However, many have been talking about change and disintermediation and many of us are aware that something is afoot. My intent here is to collect and organize different opinions rather than only promote my own and hopefully I succeed in creating a broader clarity on these emerging trends and possibly starting some discussion on this.

A trigger for this post was a conversation with Bob Donaldson who presented on this theme at Translation Forum Russia. I have also added some material gathered at other conferences I attended this year that extends these initial opinions. Bob has simplified my task by gathering and sharing the opinions on key trends of several different viewpoints as summarized below. (I have kept the text exactly as presented in his slides at TFR but you could get clarifications and detail beyond this slide verbiage by directly contacting him). 

Multi-Language LSP Vendor (MLV) Perspective by Renato Beninatto
  • Renato 
  • Rise of Micro translations (interesting response to this point by Luigi Muzii)
  • Outsourcing to translator teams
  • Demand for “long tail” languages

CAT Tools Training Perspective by Angelika Zerfass
  • 654698_r4605693a3f2f3 
  • Terminology Management gaining traction (finally)
  • New content types (twitter) don’t fit old processes
  • File management becoming more complex

Translator Perspective by Jost Zetsche
  • Deep integration of MT into translation workflows
  • Limited lifespan of LSP as (mere) middleman
End Buyer Perspective by Anonymous
  • Demand for continuous translation with very little context (Micro translation)
  • Declining Quality Expectations
  • MT will fill the gaps created by the first two at an ever-increasing price
Single & Regional Language Vendor (SLV/RLV) Perspectives in aggregate
  • Greater usage of MT
  • Multi-faceted approach to quality
  • “Price compression” will drive small/inefficient players out of business
  • “Disintermediation” will show up in various forms
  • Greater demand for self-service portals
Bob Donaldson Top 4 Trends Summary
  • RTEmagicC_Donaldson_Bob_02.jpg 
  • Transition from “Project Orientation” to “Content Stream” orientation
  • Increasing integration of MT at all levels
  • Increasing emphasis on velocity rather than price or quality
  • Increasing reliance on global SLV partners rather than freelancers
All resulting in changing and needed innovation in business models

As I consider all these views, my own sense is that the following trends are increasingly understood to be clear and continue to gain momentum:
  • Business translation is shifting focus from intermittent project work of relatively static content to continuously flowing streams of information that might enhance international business. The old “software and documentation localization” (SDL?) view of the world is becoming a smaller part of the core translation challenges that global enterprises face to be successful in international markets.  There is also a growing awareness that translation should be able to flow from document/video to PC/web to mobile/tablet easily, quickly and efficiently.
  • An expanded view of critical and translation-worthy content that includes more informal corporate content as well as customer generated content and social media conversations about products. Social media has dramatically changed the traditional top-down views of marketing, and this impacts the decisions on what is important to translate as enterprises realize that purchase decisions are being made in social online conversations and information sharing.
  • The importance of automation and collaboration increases. This is more than just MT, it includes greater integration of content flows from the information creation process all the way to information consumption. Successful use of comprehensive automation and collaborative processes will help create meaningful differentiation and competitive advantage amongst LSPs and help identify superior players.
  • The increasing importance of cloud based services and infrastructure to facilitate collaboration and standardization of translation-related informational flows. This will also mean that desktop tools (TM, MT) will become less important over time as usage shifts to the cloud.

On the MT front I expect the following trends, much of this is already in place and also gaining momentum:
  • Increasing awareness amongst translation professionals that domain focused MT produces the best results in terms of production efficiency and productivity gains. We will hear of many more successes of these kinds of focused systems.
  • Increasing understanding of post-editing based translation production and processes. While there will be some or many “premium” translators who refuse to work on PEMT projects, more and more translators and LSPs will learn to work effectively with MT.
  • Continued momentum in the understanding of MT system quality which will result in better PEMT experiences and trusted, fair and equitable compensation practices. This is essential for broader long-term adoption.
  • A shift away from free and instant MT solutions to expert collaboration and expert-built MT systems(Some will say this is self serving and to some extent it is.) It has become increasingly easy to get some sort of MT system into place by throwing some data into a hopper, but very few of these systems provide long-term productivity gains and strategic advantage out-of-the-box. MT in 2012 is still very complex and getting some kind of basic system together quickly should not be equated to building long-term production efficiency. Experience and knowledge about MT system development matter, and the best, i.e. the highest productivity and best overall ROI systems will still come from experts. As Malcolm Gladwell says, “Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good.” Experts are people who have built hundreds or thousands of MT systems. Many who experiment with Moses and other instant MT solutions will learn that deep expertise is required to move the system quality beyond the initial engine capabilities and that long-term business advantage only come from continuously improving MT systems. In 2013 MT system development is still an evolutionary process and a skill based technology, not the instant iPhone-like gadget that some want it to be. There is a difference between using MT well and just blindly using MT because it  is in vogue. If you don’t know what you are doing and what you will do after your initial system is in place, being able to do it quickly initially is not going to really add much to your business leverage. 
  • Better understanding of what MT can and cannot do, and more pro-active use of MT to build long-term competitive advantage rather than just be a means to react to cost pressure or client demands. This means that some LSPs will build MT systems BEFORE they actually have a customer to ensure that they have an advantage in particular domains that they feel have strategic promise and potential.

I have discussed the importance of automation (process integration which includes MT and much more than traditional project management) and collaboration (which also means that you respect your workers and customers) as important elements of new business models that can effectively respond to and take advantage of these trends. I would like to add agility as a critical third element. What is agility or agile? I think this is increasingly becoming more important as a critical element for success in the future. 
: Characterized by quickness, lightness, and ease of movement; nimble.
: Mentally quick or alert
: marked by ready ability to move with quick easy grace
: having a quick resourceful and adaptable character
So are there any examples of where all these elements come together? Not really, and definitely not at large LSPs like Lionbridge, SDL et al.  Largeness (over $50M for the translation industry) generally tends to undermine agility and often collaboration (in the sense I use the word) too. I think there are smaller companies where all these elements are more visible and look like they have the potential and promise to bloom. A nice and succinct description of “agile” is presented by Jack Welde, CEO Smartling in the first 8 minutes of this video.
An 8 minute overview of Agile Business Translation
I suspect that many new business translation customers will opt for this type of lean, quick and more cost-effective approach over the traditional LSP sales and TEP process hype, where the customer is often treated like an idiot that needs to be slapped into shape. Lingotek is another company with an approach that has many key elements in place and I think is well positioned to challenge the old model. In both cases outsiders are creating tools to change a cumbersome old business model and facilitate rapid collaborative production. DotSUB and Amara are two that are focusing on facilitating translation of the huge volumes of video content that are increasingly useful to help sell products and services, and are increasingly recognized as more important than a lot of traditional localization content. In all cases these new approaches can steer easily to professional, MT or community based production or any combination of the above at significantly lower prices with “quality” intact. Try and have this discussion about flexibility, speed and various production modes with a large traditional LSP and you will likely see that it may be possible at a significantly higher price, and I suspect the conversation will also be labored and difficult.

All of this for points to examination of changing business models and innovation and the most interesting discussions I have seen on this subject for this industry are at the The Big Wave. Listing all these trends has some value but it is useful also to understand how all these trends mix together and what implications it might have. I can’t say I have the answers but I think these are good things to ponder.  I have seen several interesting posts about this at the Big Wave site. For example here are some selections from this post:
TEP is the unique answer of most translation vendors, an old-fashioned and somewhat obsolete answer too, but it is the only model they know.
At a closer look, none of the big players in the industry, however, has produced substantial product, technological, or process innovations.
When customers don’t get any new value from traditional vendors to meet new or implicit needs, they abandon these vendors and do something different themselves to better accomplish their goals.
This is why innovation in translation has always come from outsiders.
There are also interesting posts On Information Asymmetry and The Disintermediation Myth: Bogy or Opportunity? which are provocative and worth reading even though some might feel they are slightly opaque.

The future is likely to see multiple production models co-exist e.g. TEP, PEMT, Customized MT, Free MT, Crowdsourcing or Community Collaboration as well increasing examples of social translation, as these will all be necessary to solve different types of translation challenges we face. I have often thought that it is too complicated to buy translation from traditional LSPs and I hope that we as an industry make this much more clear and simple for the customer who has never heard the word localization used in relation to translation. There are a lot more of these customers out there than there are customers in localization departments. People usually find it easier to buy, when they know exactly what they will get for a given price. People like predictable outcomes (really hard to do with MT) and would like to be able to easily compare alternatives.

I would welcome any readers who would be interested to share their own perceptions and views on these trends as a guest post. I assure you that I will print it without modification (hopefully no personal attacks or rants).


  1. Waiting for contributions to issue #4 of The Big Wave, I would like to spur some thoughts on business model innovation for the translation industry. In a recent report, Common Sense Advisory seems to reinvent the wheel when saying that “most LSP production models are freelancer-centric”.
    In my very humble opinion, this is the core of the problem, and yet, according to CSA, it be would possible for the industry to exist without freelancers “only if we assume that all translation work could be performed by full-time employees instead of freelancers. Such models are not flexible, scalable, or cost-effective enough to respond to market demands. In other words, they are not practical”. In reality, it is not practical to share the same freelancing resources all over the world, despite the notorious and annoying scarcity of good translators.
    The practicality of the typical age-old freelancer-centric business model of the entire translation industry lies in the possibility to dump one’s operational inefficiencies on freelancers.
    On the other hand, CSA provides for an indirect counterargument when saying that “A large number of agencies in the industry act as single-language vendors (SLVs) or regional language vendors (RLVs). These companies largely derive their revenue from multi-language vendors (MLVs)”. This could be solved with consolidation, as the recent story of the industry tells us. As you correctly wrote, in 2012 we still have over 25,000 LSPs of varying quality and professionalism.
    In my very humble opinion, it is quite doubtful, though, that “buyers understand the importance of freelancers”: I hope evidence could be found in my post on information asymmetry. Where freelancers receive great importance (manufacturing, financial services, and life sciences), industry players operate mostly on the models above dismissed as “impractical” and the use of freelancers is exceptional and direct.
    In “Deuterium Drips”, I argued that the shift “from drops to drips” is mostly due to the inability of MLVs first and LSPs in general to devise new, more efficient, competitive and recognizable business models making translation industry a real industry, the same as “manufacturing, financial services, and life sciences.”
    Thank you for space and tolerance.

  2. The Foreign Exchange translation blog has covered the issue of declining quality over some time and this might be interesting to readers who could also participate in their poll at

    Are quality expectations declining among translation buyers?

    My sense is that for some kinds of content the quality expectations do not change, but there is now much more variation in content types that need translation and further international initiatives. Some or much of this does not need TEP and some of it can even be raw MT and still provide business benefit.

    Check out the poll they have there -- when I last checked the majority seemed to think this was not true.

  3. There is a fun yet gently critical response to this post from the wonderful blog of Ken Clark at

    1. Ken

      I should clarify – you are clearly not the kind of LSP I was talking about when I said what I said (maybe too carelessly). You should not lose your buzz since I mostly had the biggest LSPs in mind when I spoke. But I have often heard comments about how customers do not “understand what they want” and how they underestimate what quality entails which is probably all true, but we live in a world where it is very easy for customers to switch (especially with 25,000 LSPs to choose from) so getting a more customer-centric view I think is important. So part of the sales process that you probably follow is to make sure that customers understand the alternatives and trade-offs in a way that makes sense to them rather than you the LSP. Surely that is not an unreasonable point to make.

      Anyway thanks for taking my comments seriously – I did since I was seeing so many trends and forecasts articles on the future.

      I especially like the parts where we hallucinate together in your post ;-)

      And like any forecaster I understand that I present the world many opportunities to show how and why I am wrong — to me that is what learning is all about.

  4. Would somebody be so kind as to tell us what "TEP" stands for?

    1. TEP refers to the Translate > Edit > Proofreading sequence that is quite common and typical of the business translation production process

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