Wednesday, December 14, 2016

What is a Truly Collaborative Translation Platform?

Many observers new to the business of translation are often surprised how little "work process automation" exists in the professional translation business. Many may have noticed the email deluge that many in the translation industry are guilty of in ALL their general business communication -- they use it almost like chat or mobile phone text messaging, and thus it is easy for details to get lost and fall through the cracks.  I noticed this lack of email communication discipline when I first entered the industry many years ago. 

Apart from the problems introduced by this communication style we also see that since no real work process automation tools exist, there is an urgent need for a project management role.  There still appears to be a critical need for a project manager (whose role is described here in some detail) to ensure that client projects are properly broken into and assigned in pieces (work packages) to the right personnel and then re-assembled by project management to hand back to a client when finished. While Translation Mangement Systems (TMS) like MemoQ, Memsource and others help to some extent the translation work management process is still a process that needs lots of detailed non-automated project management to ensure a smooth workflow and a semblance of efficiency.

I recently spoke to several customers recently, both individual freelancers, and some translation agencies (LSPs). The sample I spoke too were mostly scattered across the EU and Russia. They were all quite consistent in their positivity about their work experience with the software and rated the following 3 factors (in sometimes different order) as the reason for their satisfaction and generally positive outlook toward the SmartCAT based work experience. These factors are,
  1. Simplicity and ease of startup which resulted in quick productivity
  2. Relative lower cost (free for all users)  
  3. Collaboration capabilities that ease project management burden 
More than one of the customers I spoke to had experience with traditional TMS tools and contrasted the SmartCAT experience as improved in several ways but mostly in ease of startup and the inbuilt collaboration integrity and power. 

This is another guest post by "Vova" from SmartCAT where he defines his view of what collaboration means in the professional translation context. It is my opinion that the SmartCAT paradigm is a step forward from the rather heavy but perhaps much more flexible footprint that traditional TMS systems have grown accustomed to. 

P.S.  This is some analysis from CSA on the SmartCAT offering.

These days, content volumes are growing faster than ever, and “going global” is a major trend in many industries. But some localization customers feel that traditional LSPs are unable to easily tackle large and urgent projects. In need of a better solution, they turn their eyes to “crowd” translation platforms. Popping up like mushrooms, these claim to provide the “good new way” to localize.
Despite the obvious effects of hiring “crowds” for translation, such services provide something traditional LSPs cannot boast: They are quick, cheap, and easy to use. You click a button, and hundreds of hands start working on your job and get it done in no time. Alas, for many clients this is a fair tradeoff for the appalling quality they get as a result. Surely, this approach will backfire, but it might be too late to fix it.

So can “real” LSPs fight crowdsourcing platforms in their own territory? Can we provide a smooth and quick collaborative translation experience while keeping the quality plank high?

In response to this challenge, almost any CAT platform today claims to be “collaborative.” But “collaboration” is a word that one can inflect in many ways and one that does. For instance, one can simply allow users to share translation memories and call that “collaboration.” One can make project managers spend hours splitting large files into “digestible” chunks and call that “collaboration.” Finally, one that can have you pay a hundred dollars per each “collaborator,” and — you got it.

Is this really what we expect when we hear the word “collaboration”? Hardly. What we expect is something like Google Docs. We expect contributors to see each other’s work in real time. We expect them to be able to communicate easily and in context. And we don’t expect them to go broke (paying license fees just for being able to be there together.

And thus here are five important features to look for.

1 — Interactive collaboration between translators

Many “collaborative” CAT tools require cutting large files into smaller parts to be distributed among translators. The project manager will have to make sure that each translator gets a relatively equal volume to work on.

In essence, each translator will be just working on their own part as if it were a separate project, without seeing each other’s work. Those who finish early will have to sit there idle, wasting the precious time you need for the project. Once finished, the project manager needs to “glue” the files back together, wasting more time and bringing in human errors in the process.

In many cases, this makes the game not worth the candle. A truly collaborative translation platform rids you of the need to split or glue anything. You will just assign certain document parts to individual translators, and if someone finishes early, you will reassign more segments to them. Every translator will be able to see what others do and, if needed, bring attention to their mistakes or omissions (more on this later).

Recently, such an approach allowed one of SmartCAT users — a middle-sized LSP actually — to translate nearly 500k words every day for several weeks straight. In “peak hours,” there were up to 100 translators working at the same time. And there was only one project manager handling the whole project!

2 — Collaborative translation and editing

Reducing work in progress a key principle in today’s project management paradigm. But in terms of translation, unedited work is such a work in progress! Let’s say, you are doing a 100,000-word project with the standard TEP (translate-edit-proofread) approach. If “T” costs you $0.10 per word, you have $10,000 worth of inventory before “E” and “P” are done. $10,000 of unfinished words lying there as some warehouse stock — not a small amount, is it?

If the editor has to wait for “their turn,” a whole range of issues may arise:

  • The translator is busy with another assignment by the time the editor asks a question and cannot recall the subject in detail.
  • The editor finds an error after it has been replicated tens or hundreds of times in the document and has to correct them all.
  • An experienced editor may not have the flexibility to move from project to project as urgencies might require so.

Thus, the CAT tool must provide both horizontal (between peers)  and vertical (between T <> E <> P) collaboration. In other words, the editor must be able to start working on the document well before its translation is completed. The same goes for proofreading and any other stages you need. From SmartCAT experience, such vertical collaboration alone can cut the delivery time almost by twice.

 3 — Context-specific communication

One thing that sets collaborative translation apart from mere crowdsourcing is the degree of communication between collaborators. In the latter, each “head in the crowd” doesn’t really care what the others are doing or thinking. In the former case, all translators make their contributions to the discussion, turning them into a synergistic whole.

Allowing many people to work together on a project is of no use if you can’t provide the right means for them to communicate. Otherwise, you have to either turn the manager into a “relay device” between various contributors or let them interact on an external platform. The former is a waste of resources, the latter a loss of control, and both are a hindrance to quality.

Thus, communication has to be built into your collaborative translation environment. Translators, editors, and other participants must be able to discuss both the project in general and its specific parts in context. SmartCAT users say that such context-specific commenting ability is one of the main quality drivers in the projects they do on the platform.

4 — On-demand scalability

You don’t always know in advance if a project will need scaling. Sometimes, a customer wants you to translate just a page on their website, but then realize that they need it in whole. Or request to translate to 10 other languages. Or their business grows unexpectedly and demands more localized content and a stronger localization partner.

Often, such demands have a “deadline yesterday” and give you no time to set up the whole “collaborative translation machine” from scratch. That’s why it’s important that your CAT tool allows you to scale when it is needed, as much as you need it, and with as little additional effort as possible. If you need a separate installation just to enable collaboration, you are wasting time you can’t afford wasting.

Ideally, there shouldn’t be such thing as “scaling” at all. If you need to translate more content, you just add files to the project. If you want more languages, you add languages. If you need more people, you just assign more of them. Ideally, the CAT tool should come with an easy access to freelancers who can readily work in it. The SmartCAT marketplace (a pool of available translators), for instance, has provided many of our users with the capacity they needed when their own resources were insufficient.

5 — Affordable growth

One last (but not least!) thing to keep in mind is that collaborative translation can be costly. You might not notice this when you just start working, but the more you grow, the pricier it can get. This can be especially painful if you are a relatively small agency and cannot afford major investments. Then you are often left with no choice but to forfeit the job to a bigger vendor. And if you are big enough to afford such spendings, they will often be unproductive because you will not need the purchased licenses a lot of the time.

Therefore, pay close attention to the pricing tables. Most of them will have some sort of user-based licensing, but some won’t. In the latter category, many will be open-source, in which case it also makes sense to study the quality and support terms, which are pain points for this kind of software.

For the record, SmartCAT is free and proprietary, with 24×7 support is provided to all users at no cost. (Though agencies are expected to pay for their use and access to the translator pool via a means that is different from the industry standard approaches and is somewhat opaque. However, if they do not use the SmartCAT translator pool, agency use is also free.

From CSA: SmartCAT has an optional payment facility. Users are under no obligation to use it. However, if they do choose to process payments through it, the company takes a cut on the financial transaction. Smolnikov told us that many companies start out using their own financial methods but end up moving to SmartCAT because it takes the hassle out of managing them and that it is cheaper to pay this cut than to manage it themselves.)

The SmartCat team clearly believes in this vision and they published a vision statement recently  that states the following:
Our vision of the future of the translation industry is based on three principles:
  1. Advanced collaboration is the key to effectively manage large-scale and urgent projects,
  2. Technology should help translators and project managers simplify time-consuming routines and increase productivity, with artificial intelligence playing a large part in setting up teams and managing their performance,
  3. High-value and SLA-compliant linguists are the strongest success drivers in translation projects, and technology must facilitate identifying and reinforcing the choice of such professionals.
It all starts with our key belief that selling licenses for CAT software is an atavism of our industry. We believe that no one should have to continuously count licenses in a business where almost all key value producers are freelancers and teams are highly dynamic and dependent on the projects you will have tomorrow.

Relying on the number of licenses limits the efficiency of translation processes in a company and restricts its growth potential and scalability. Finally, the low technology penetration and the need to sew together multiple tools to have a more or less seamless and efficient workflow are the major factors slowing down the evolution of individual companies and the industry as a whole.

 You can find the rest of the elaboration of this at the link above, where they also talk about increasing use of chatbots to improve communications between PMs and vendors, and automate an increasing number of common PM tasks and project situation responses using AI technology.

About the author

Vladimir “Vova” Zakharov is the Head of Community at SmartCAT.

"Translation is my profession and my passion, and I’m excited to be able to share it with the amazing SmartCAT community!"


  1. Yes, I think too, that SmartCAT is the best and only collaborative translation platform. A good pub might be also a nice scenario for collaboration and networking, but in a quite different context ��

  2. Anne-Marie GerritsenJanuary 3, 2017 at 12:10 PM

    Thought SmartCAT was only a tool but apparently I'm wrong so please dill me in and tell me how to get jobs through SmartCAT. Btw, Happy New Year to all!

  3. Have a look at Wordbee Translator; We're trying hard to make it a truly collaborative translation platform and so far its the sole CAT & TMS of the market. Much obliged for any feedback :)

    Bill Tziakos.
    Marketing Manager, Wordbee SA.