Monday, May 20, 2013

Highlights from ELIA Munich ND - Translation Pricing & PEMT Process Management

My view of a conference is usually determined by the quality of the sessions related to MT and translation automation, or sometimes other sessions  that may trigger new thoughts on innovation and business process evolution. The ELIA conferences I have attended, stand out for me because I think they have better content in general than most, and one actually learns new things. To me it is clear that business translation is evolving beyond a focus on software and documentation localization (“the SDL mindset”) and I look for content that recognizes and addresses these emerging issues and market imperatives.

One of the most interesting sessions and perhaps the only one by a translation buyer was entitled “How Cloud TMSs are Changing the Relationship Between a Translation Buyer and LSPs” by Elina Lagoudaki of Turner Broadcasting. She described how cloud-based technology is used to manage a growing stream of digital media localization projects. Turner is a good example of a translation customer who has many small jobs (micro translation), often involving social media content and usually also closely  linked to dynamic web content that needs to go out in 15 languages. Elina presented her very organized and structured process to identify, administer and supervise translation projects and also provide final quality feedback to translators on an ongoing basis. Some things that she pointed out about her process included:
  • A preference for a SaaS or Cloud-based TMS solution (WordBee in her case) over inflexible, costly, arcane and management-heavy onsite solutions
  • The need for a management dashboard that allowed high level and job-specific status monitoring
  • A translation management environment that allows and facilitates collaboration between translators
  • A translation management environment that allows and facilitates online review and content sign-off
  • A translation management environment that allows and facilitates ongoing feedback to translators
  • A translation management environment that allows and facilitates that enabled terminology and TM collection and centralization
  • A translation management environment that allows and facilitates that facilitates vendor comparison and selection
For those who still have doubts about how much sense cloud-based solutions make for many customers, Elina presented a very clear and articulate view on how her cloud solution was superior (to archaic client-server solutions) not just in terms of cost, but also in terms of scalability and ease and speed of customization, for her unique requirements and needs. 

Some of the things that stood out from her presentation in my mind included:
  • Half the translation work was done by agencies and half directly with individual freelance translators sourced via ProZ  - and it was interesting that she used the phrase “trusted translators” to describe how a subset of the freelancers had risen to this status because they had tuned in to the writing style of the company, were reliable, and thus favored on an ongoing basis.
  • Elina also showed a slide (shown below) that showed the large variance in rates for the same language pair. This variance will of course raise questions in a buyer’s mind about whether there is a trade-off in quality or reliability of some kind, or is it just what they think the market will bear. This slide shows why the buyer should be wary and do the due diligence to understand what trade-offs they make if any,  with higher and lower prices.  LSPs should also take great care to properly understand their costs, define prices and link them to well defined quality/service deliverables, as collaboration tools like WordBee will make these comparisons easier and easier to do.
The most striking point she made to my mind was when she showed a slide of how different LSPs responded to an RFQ request where every agency was given the exact same job specification and was also promised that they would get 20+ more projects of this kind over the coming year. The translation task involved translation of 3 flash banners, which means there was very little text (5 –10 words at most per string) to translate but the translated text had to be placed in a Flash banner. So we are talking about maybe 30 words to be translated into 14 languages and delivered in a multimedia format. It is kind of shocking that she received quotes that ranged from $310 to $10,430 for the exact same job description. The actual price quotes she received are listed below in the slide she showed to show the wide variance in price quotes.
This points to several problems in the translation industry that range from completely random pricing practices, lack of understanding of multimedia content and translation tasks, price gouging, business model mismatches to sheer unprofessional behavior. She characterized this as “a wild west approach” in the market where anything goes. There were clearly some in the room that were upset at being exposed and I heard that some complained that too much information was shared. I think we will increasingly see more work involving multimedia content, coming in steady dribbles but critical to building trust and credibility with a customer. It turned out that the agency with the lowest quote also had a track record of success and reliability  with Turner, and thus probably understood multimedia issues much better, and so did not impose huge price penalties for  simply putting text into Flash. The companies with the highest price quotes clearly did not understand the complexity of the job or perhaps simply lacked scruples.

This is related to some extent, to an interesting UnSession discussion that I also attended where a group of LSPs (plus Elina and me), discussed how one could respond to a potential customer who said that they already had a translation agency they were working with. Much of the discussion focused on identifying “problems” with the current  vendor and thus displacing them, and to my mind only one of the LSPs had a compelling differentiation story. The session made three things clear to me:
  1. It is very easy to displace an LSP that is previously engaged with a customer if you can identify problems the customer is having with their current vendor.
  2. That quality and “service” are repeatedly used as differentiators but nobody can define either, in a way that is understandable or clear to a buyer.
  3. That very few LSPs understand the business of the customer and thus have great difficulty building trust.
The best strategy that I heard in the UnSession, was from Alinea, an LSP who had a clear domain expertise & focus and who ONLY focused on building customer relationships in that domain, with a long tenured in-house team that were expert in the subject domain and thus could add overall business value in the translation process. I would bet that that particular agency is very hard to displace, and can charge premium prices, and are often viewed as real trusted extensions of their customer's organization. 

Building trust is a critical foundation for long-term success in a service business, and this requires that there is real transparency, clear communication and a collaborative and cooperative business approach.

  Post-Editing from the LSP Perspective highlighted many issues around the LSP experience of PEMT in the market today. The session had a strong focus on the management of the PEMT process which included things like managing quality and cost/price expectations with the customer, selection and training of post-editors, and ensuring source material quality is good, as this is an area that LSPs understand and action here can have a large impact on MT quality. Some highlights from the presentation:
  • Post-editors need to have a positive attitude (to MT), be flexible and  be “system-oriented” to provide constructive feedback,
  • The technical issues that the session focused on included capitalization, punctuation and there was much talk about the issues in handling tagging with MT which is as messy with MT as it is with humans,
  • Several examples of MT output with various error types were shown so that others could understand the nature of the problems and the challenges,
  • The problematic issue of proper compensation was discussed and most felt it was easier to properly determine this after the project is done, though Edit Distance, BLEU, Average Words/Hour and other effort measurement approaches were also discussed. It is interesting to me that my own blog on this issue written in March last year is the most popular post on my blog even today. I find that using “trusted translators” to establish a priori rates, are a very reasonable and fair way to establish fair compensation rates. However, this does require some skill with proper sampling technique. For some very specific guidelines on how this could be done a priori check out this article from Asia Online.
  • A survey of ELIA members suggested that the average post-editor throughput was 5,189 words per day and that the range seen was from 1,500 to 10,000 words/day per post-editor. 
  • The presenters felt that there was an urgent need for a good PEMT tool that facilitates error detection and error correction, since it was felt that MT had very different error patterns than TM typically does.
  • The presenters also felt that dealing with low quality MT output was worse than TM 0% matches and should perhaps be penalized and charged at much higher rates, since the translator had to spend more time making this determination. Asia Online provides a solution for this problem by providing segment level confidence indicators and thus low quality segments could be pre-identified and processed differently to minimize the bad segment detection effort.
imageWhat was missing from this discussion was a focus on the HUGE impact that the MT system being used has on the post-editing experience.  While I admit that all the suggestions and findings presented at the session would be useful for almost any PEMT exercise, some MT systems are more adjustable and configurable and thus ensure a better and more productive PEMT experience.  I know that within the Asia Online experience, MT systems go through several rounds of tests on small representative data subsets AND corrective actions BEFORE being put into production. During this MT system refinement process, high frequency problematic error patterns are identified and addressed to both minimize post-editor frustration and maximize throughput and productivity. This molding of the MT system can only be done with some very selective MT systems  but I think this is a critical step if you wish to avoid tedious, repetitive errors like many shown in the sample slides and maximize your ROI. The slide to the side shows how a typical Asia Online system evolves and shows which error types are the easiest to correct. In general spelling, punctuation, capitalization and basic terminology errors are the easiest to permanently correct and the grammar and syntax errors are the hardest to completely fix.

I found the session by Diego and Guillem Vidal – NOVA  interesting, as here we have an LSP who has reached a level of competence with MT (with an expert partner) and are seeing that they can provide better productivity, better terminology control, faster turnaround and lower error rates even with medical domain content. Their actual experience resulted in a 6X increase in MT word volume over two years to 10 million MT processed words in 2012. It is refreshing to see this type of competence when we still see examples of half-truths based on very shallow assessments being presented as conclusive fact in articles published in Multiingual.

I also had a fireside chat session with Renato where we discussed industry trends and much of the material we covered is summarized in a previous post where we talked about how volume is growing, continuing flows of micro translation tasks are increasing and how MT and automation are gaining by the day. One point we disagreed on was about the impact of  “new” translation focused ventures like Smartling,  Cloudwords and Lingotek. I feel these initiaves are all very interesting and relatively innovative, and make the whole translation services purchase and management  process much easier and simpler. Renato felt that while they had succeeded in raising money and had a “technology story”, they had yet to prove that they could provide the same level of “service”. Given that nobody can really define “service” with anything resembling clarity, I think it is quite possible that some these new ventures could displace some LSPs (Multi-Language Vendors – MLV) and become the new aggregators of translation purchasing activity  because they do the following things well:
  1. Simplify the translation purchasing process (without the slow and laborious and often customer hostile TEP mindset where the customer is always wrong),
  2. Eliminate the need for buyers and agencies and translators to keep multiple suites of incompatible translation CAT tools on hand, by simply ingesting translation related content into their technology infrastructure straight from the content creation systems (CMS) and return the translated content straight back to the customer CMS via straightforward web-based interfaces,
  3. Handle small projects as well as large projects with equal ease and efficiency,
  4. Provide collaboration focused software infrastructure for translators, buyers and project managers in the cloud, so real work related conversations can happen without hundreds of emails with receipt notifications being used,
  5. Enable translators to spend most of their time focusing on linguistic work rather than dealing with file format conversions, tag management and data transformations before they actually get to the translate step,
  6. Easily handle multimedia, video and mobile content which will continue to grow in importance,
  7. Greater facility to handle, and mix and match different customer content types to different production methodologies which include TEP, customized MT, crowdsourcing and productive and efficient PEMT.
Elina’s slide on what she would like to see in the future are clear indications of what lies beyond the SDL (software and documentation localization) world for a modern buyer: more competence with multimedia, new business models for microtranslation,  more innovation from tools vendors and better standards (so that data can flow more quickly and easily in and out of translation processes).
We live in a world where faster and cheaper production at “reasonable quality” is beginning to be linked to business survival. Companies that don’t get it done in time or don’t get enough done in time lose market share.   As the volume of smaller (SME) companies going global increases, they will likely find these new portals much easier to work with, rather than have to go to the arcane and archaic client-server software world of SDL et al.  Innovation matters more and more and while I cannot say with any real assurance that these new portals are THE winners of the future, I would bet on them over those with the SDL mindset. Innovation usually means making it simpler and more efficient. You can see this lack of enthusiasm from investors reflected  in the stock market performance of  both LIOX and SDL as they trade at market capitalizations way below their annual sales. Even Google is working as an aggregator for video subtitling projects in addition to their widely used MT which I assure you many translators use on a regular basis. In Stefan’s session it was mentioned that the greatest trigger for organizational change is reaction to competitive action, but in this industry it seems that change is sneaking up in a way that many don’t even realize it is happening.

I learnt that the people of M√ľnchen like their beers and potato balls large, in fact very large, as you can see from this photo of Irina Voronova’s hand versus the potato ball which was about the size of an American softball.
I asked Stefan Gentz, who is second to none in terms of conference attendance what he thought the best conferences were from all those that he had attended , and his almost instant reply was that GALA Miami was the best in terms of balancing both quality content with great networking opportunities.

I also got to walk around a bit and wandered into the English Gardens which inspired Hans Cousto to develop his theories about The Cosmic Octave which later led to the creation of the planetary series of gongs made by Paiste. For those in the know, Germany is a leader in the science of sound healing, something which is gaining acceptance as a way to deal with a variety of illnesses.  As somebody who is interested in really good sound and an amateur musician who plays the sitar I find this quite interesting, and even fascinating, and I really appreciate a culture and the people who would place a well tuned piano in a public park so that anybody could walk up and play it. In the brief time I was there I saw some very accomplished pianists walk up and play Bach and Beethoven, and also some who played that old favorite “ Chopsticks”.
For a completely different view of the conference from the lovely ladies of WTH (who some lucky attendees got to meet au naturel in the sauna) check out their blog post on the event.