Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Translation Market – Is it Really Understood?

I saw some interesting comments to a blog post by Kevin Lossner that I thought would be good to share with the community that reads this blog, as it raised some cogent points I thought. The comments basically talk about a larger more complex translation market than many of us might believe exists based on market research available. I do not claim to have real insight or knowledge of this larger translation market, but I am definitely aware that the largest translation initiatives in the world are generally overlooked by traditional market research e.g the many branches of the US government (DoD, NSA, CIA, FBI, DIA, State and even Commerce), the EU and I expect many of the clandestine “intelligence” operations around the world, especially amongst the G20 governments.

I would also bet that the really big, almost nation-like, Fortune 100 corporates also have captive and hidden translation operations that are buried and invisible within PR, Marketing and Investor Relations somewhere to translate the stuff that really matters or is really secret. (I would not be surprised if the people in these departments did not even know if a localization team exists elsewhere in the corporation.)  If it really matters, why would you ask Lionbridge or SDL (or any other large LSP) to translate it? definitely is something to ponder upon.   Surely it would be more likely to go to internal subject matter experts, or to trusted and elite boutique services that actually understand the subject matter of the material, and can protect the information with the same zeal and protective assurances as those who create it.  Imagine you are an oil company called ABCP and want to make sure that you look less culpable for a major accident caused by management insistence on moving ahead with a risky drilling project. I think the odds are high that the translators chosen to translate critical memos and communications and "put the right spin on it" before it is shown to regulators are going to be different from the ones that work for Lionbridge since it might save a few billion in damages that will have to be paid.

I also generally expect that specialists, i.e. translators with demonstrated subject domain expertise, will have a much brighter future than those who will translate anything that is within arms reach. Specialization means building subject matter expertise, which I think will matter more and more, and I for one would stay away from LSPs who do not specialize or have long-term demonstrated competence in a few select domains.

I find this discussion interesting also because I think that repetitive, low-value, short shelf-life, bulk (high volume) content is eventually going the way of PEMT or even raw MT, but there is a huge world of high value content that is unlikely ever to head that way until we reach the Star Trek Universal Translator levels of quality, which are not expected to be available till the 24th century. I actually think that IPO and many SEC filing documents (10K, Registration documents) and user manuals of any kind including nuclear machinery and medical equipment are fair game for competent and very specialized PEMT initiatives, but I would not use MT for anything that requires linguistic finesse or reading between the lines e.g. wedding vows, great literature, letters to the board/stockholders or poetry. Even in those areas where you have high volume and lots of repetitive and highly similar content, MT can work well only when real expertise is applied, and there is a real and active collaboration with translators and linguists who all want to produce an engine that will reduce future efforts.
These are some of the excerpted and unedited (by me) comments made by Kevin Hendzel at the blog post referenced above written in a more visceral style than the more careful elaboration in much greater detail on his own blog. I don’t agree with everything Kevin says about MT, but I think his views are generally based on deeper observations than “MT is crap” and I can appreciate that we have different views on this issue. (Excerpts printed here with his and Kevin Lossner’s permission.)
From my own viewpoint, it does seem that the localization industry/bulk translation market has long suffered from a “we’re the only game in town” problem. There’s an amusing story about SeaWorld (an aquatic theme park in the US) that goes a long way toward illustrating this exact echo-chamber problem that the localization industry and pure bulk-market providers seem to be perpetually trapped in. Occasionally you’ll see protesters outside SeaWorld holding up signs that declare: “It’s not SeaWorld, it’s PoolWorld.” The corporate entity SeaWorld telling tourists that these tiny, familiar pools constitute “the sea” does not make them the sea. The sea is immensely, incalculably larger and more complex.
The same is true of the translation market. Referring to the tiny pool you are familiar with (low-end bulk localization and translation) as “the sea” (the whole rest of the market) tends to distort one’s sense of the enormity of the sea, the complexity of sea life, not to mention how damaging it can be to trap sea life in unfamiliar and hostile surroundings. There may also be value in dispensing with a couple of misconceptions.
Myth #1: There are two market segments (premium and bulk) that are easily delineated and the premium market is dramatically smaller than the bulk market.
Reality: There’s a very long continuum that encompasses all market segments, with raw bulk free MT at one end and $25,000 tag line translations of 3 words at the other.
It’s far more accurate to characterize the continuum in terms of gradual and consistent gradations of shade rather than in terms of clear differentiating boundary lines. The “premium vs. bulk” dichotomy is a form of shorthand only. That also applies to price and quality, since the correlation between the two is not always linear. The premium sector includes commercial segments that are fiercely guarded and (often) shrouded in secrecy to prevent additional competition. Many of these are boutique translator-owned companies that deliberately fly under the radar of “research” companies like Nonsense Advisory (itself shamelessly in bed with the large companies it purports to “cover,” and stubbornly resistant to acknowledging its own 50-kilometer-wide blind spots) to avoid alerting other companies to their profitable businesses. There is an astonishing amount of money in these premium sectors. Pure translation alone in the high-end expert pharmaceutical, medical device and IP litigation as well as the premium legal, financial and marketing sectors across all languages and in all countries dwarfs the entire global IT localization industry by about two to three orders of magnitude. There are some years where one single IP pharmaceutical litigation case in Japanese-English alone will run into the $10 - $20 million range – about 10 times the “savings” that TAUS preaches are available to localization companies and their end clients that embrace their “translation as a utility” model in localization. That’s one single translation project in one single language pair. And the net profit margins are considerably higher.
Myth 2: Price is the key differentiator between the premium and bulk market.
Reality: While it’s true that the premium market tends to operate at higher prices, the market really operates on a completely different value proposition than does the bulk market. That proposition is that the cost of failure is dramatically higher than the cost of performance.
So in the premium market, the cost of translation errors – liability, regulatory failure, loss of life, damaging publicity or significant loss of prestige – far outweighs the cost of “getting it right.” Paying whatever cost premium for translation that is necessary to PREVENT the cost of failure is viewed as a wise investment.
In the bulk market, those two are reversed. The cost of failure is low, so there is no corresponding push to invest in getting it right. This can be tested by comparison to the dynamics of other industries, too. The cost of failure for a Walmart product is very low – the consumer almost expects the damn thing to break. It’s the same with cheap online localization and “just good enough to understand it” bulk translation. But a fractured fuel pump on a Boeing aircraft in flight has an enormous cost of failure, so several layers of review, ongoing maintenance and testing as well as regulatory enforcement are built around it in an effort to ensure that does not happen, a process which drives up fuel pump manufacturing costs dramatically.  When the failure of an IPO or the collapse of a deal due to a translation-related regulatory failure or when nuclear weapons are improperly dismantled or lost to unknown people – yeah, that’s a very, very high cost of failure. Wallets open up to pay a premium for translation in these cases. Of course, translators who want to play in this market must be Boeing quality, though, not Walmart. (If any serious person considers this view “elitist,” I will contemplate the validity of that charge when that person agrees to fly on Walmart-manufactured jet aircraft that fly without regulatory approval or oversight.) :)
Myth 3: The largest translation company in the world is Lionbridge, crowned once again by Nonsense Advisory.
Reality: It isn’t. It may be the largest localization company that openly shares public financial data in an easy-to-read format and hence is trivially “researched,” but it omits huge operations that just don’t advertise their existence in quite the same way. For example, there are Global Linguist Solutions and L-3 Inc. just in the US alone. Never heard of either, right? GLS won the original US Army contract to support Iraq ops worth about $4.64 billion over five years after L-3 had the original one pre-Iraq. Perhaps more to the point in terms of current size, the U.S. Army recently awarded a huge US Army contract referred to as DLITE valued at $9.7 billion to 5 companies including those two. Those are JUST the U.S. Army contracts. The open, unclassified ones. This does not include all the other U.S. federal open spending on language services for all the other agencies that these same companies along with DynCorp and McNeil and Booz Allen and a dozen others that have never been to an ATA or any other translation conference compete for and win. It also omits all U.S. classified and confidential contracts. It omits all other governments’ outsourced classified and unclassified language spending. It’s like omitting the Indian Ocean and half the Pacific from your "research."
It’s a vast, complex, cloudy and immensely varied translation sea out there.
I know that those who have dealings with the US government around translation technology at least have an inkling that this is true. It is sort of like the discussions on the Deep Web which contains much of the highest value information available in the world that is not indexed or accessible by the search engines that we all use. This is the part that is private, gated and contains the really important high value content that can only be seen by people who are properly authenticated and authorized. I can’t say for certain that the proportions in the graphic below are true for the translation market but based on what I directly know about the data volumes processed in the clandestine communities it certainly would not be impossible.
Deep Web icebergdeepweb
Anyway I thought this subject was interesting and worth more exposure. Also, it was easy to do as Kevin Hendzel wrote the bulk of this post.Smile   

P.S.  I thought it was worth adding this post-script here since Luigi Muzii has also made extended comments on his blog on this subject and so I add his Twitter comment to the main body of this post.

From @ilbarbaro
My comments to @kvashee latest debated post can be found in, and