Friday, February 17, 2023

The Problem With LangOps

This is a letter I wrote to the editor of Multilingual after reading several articles focused on LangOps in the December 2022 issue.  This discussion started on LinkedIn and Cameron invited the active contributors to formalize our comments and write a letter to the editor with alternate viewpoints.

TLDR: LangOps is a term that refers to the vague use of "A.I."  in/around localization or is nothing more than a way to describe the centralization of enterprise translation production processes.

I carefully read all of the following before writing my letter to ensure that I had not somehow missed the boat.  The basic question I am still left with after looking carefully through the LangOps material is "Where's the real substance of this concept/idea/word?"

Jump to 2' 50" to get to the relevant part

Here is a slightly ornamented version of the text of my letter to the editor which was published in the Multilingual February 2023 issue. I include a version with emphasis (mine) so that others may also comment on this, and perhaps correct my misperception. 

Special Thanks to Marjolein Groot Nibbelink for taking the trouble to convert the letter to a really well-read audio track that can be played back faster.

Dear Multilingual Editor (Cameron),

After reading the various articles on LangOps in the Multilingual December 2022 issue, I had hoped that I would get a better sense of what LangOps is, and why it matters. But I cannot say that this happened for me, and I am not sure if I (or any other reader) have any more clarity on what LangOps is, beyond it being a vendor buzzword, that remains fuzzy and amorphous because there is not enough supporting evidence to document it properly. While there was much discussion about why a new definition that went further than localization is needed, there was not much that defined LangOps in more concrete terms. I suspect the fuzziness and lack of clarity that I felt are true for many other readers as well.

One is left asking. “Where’s the beef?” on this thing they call LangOps.

I reviewed the articles in the magazine on the LangOps subject again before writing this letter, to better identify the defining elements, and to make sure I was fair and had not missed some obvious facts. My intention with my comments here is to hopefully provide a coherent critique of the subject matter, which started in discussion with comments made by several readers about LangOps on LinkedIn. 

From my reading, the articles in Multilingual were clearer on Why new definitions are needed, but less clear on the What [it is] or explaining the How.

It appears to me that the LangOps concept is another attempt by some stakeholders in the industry to raise the profile of the translation business, to make it more visible at the executive level, or to increase the perceived value of the translation production process by imbuing it with more complexity and mysterious undefined AI elements. However, in the absence of specifics, it becomes just another empty buzzword that creates more confusion than clarity for most of us, especially so for new buyers. 

It is difficult to see how any sponsor could take the descriptions provided in this issue of Multilingual to a senior executive to ask for funding, or even to explain what it is.

It is clear that as the translation of some product and marketing content became recognized as a valuable international business-driving activity, the need to scale, organize and systematize it became more urgent and led to what most call localization today. 

Thus, localization I think refers to the many processes, activities, and tools, used in making language translation processes more automated, structured, and systematic. Most often this work is related to relatively static content that is mandatory in international markets, but recently it has expanded to include more customer service and support content. It also sometimes includes cultural adaptations that are made in addition to the basic translation. 

TMS systems have been central to the localization worldview over the past decade, as these TMS systems facilitate the development and management of different workflows, monitor translation work, and ease project management of distributed translation-related tasks (TEP). It is also true that MT has been minimally used in hard-core localization settings as MT systems were not deemed to be accurate, flexible, and simple enough to configure to be used in this work.

By carefully reviewing the published Multilingual articles again, I gathered that the following elements that are being used to define what LangOps is:

  • There are AI-driven capabilities applied to certain localization processes which are not defined,
  • Centralization of all translation production activities across the enterprise,
  • Introduction of “more” technology into existing localization workflows, but what this is specifically, is unclear,
  • LangOps is said to be made up of cross-functional and inter-disciplinary teams, but who and why is not clear,
  • Possibly adding other value-added language tasks (sentiment analysis, summarization, chatbots) in addition to the translation. [This at least is clear].

To my view, the only element here that is clear in the many descriptions [of LangOps] is that of the centralization of translation production. 

The other elements used to describe what it is are kind of fuzzy and hard to pin down. They can mean anything or could mean nothing since vagueness is not easily pinned down. LangOps is another term, that is possibly even worse than localization (which confuses many regular people and many new customers) because it creates a communication problem. 

How do you answer the question, “What do you do?” in an elevator, a cab, at a party, on an airplane, with family and friends? As you can see both Localization and LangOps present opaque, obfuscating images to the regular human mind.

Would it not be so much easier to just say “Language Translation to Drive International Business”? And then maybe add, “We use technology, tools, and people to do it at a large scale efficiently.”

I would like to suggest a different way to view the continuing evolution of business translation. It is my feeling that the LangOps movement is linking the growing number of MT use cases, which have more dynamic IT connectivity, and cross-organization collaboration implications, with a need for a new definition.

We have now reached that perfect storm moment where most B2C and B2B businesses recognize that they need a substantial digital presence, that it is important to provide large volumes of relevant content to serve and please their customers, and that they need to listen to customers in social media, understand trends faster, and communicate across the globe much faster. 

This means that successful businesses have to share, communicate, listen, and produce translations at a much larger scale than they have had to in the past. The core competency from traditional localization work is less likely to be useful with these new challenges. These new market requirements need a shift away from TM and TMS-managed work to a more MT-centric view of the world. The volume of translation increases from thousands of translated words, a month, to millions or even billions of words a month to drive successful international business outcomes in the modern era. 

As Generative AI improves and begins to be deployed in production customer settings, we will only see the translation volumes grow another 10X or 100X. Thus, deep MT competence increasingly becomes a core requirement to be in the enterprise translation business.

MT has been improving dramatically over the last five years in particular, and it is not ridiculous to say that it is getting close to human output in some special cases when systems are properly designed and deployed by competent experts. 

Competence means that experts can quickly adapt and modify MT systems to produce useful output in the 20-30 different use cases where an enterprise faces an avalanche of text and/or audiovisual content. The new use cases go beyond the traditional focus of localization in terms of content and process. We now need to translate much more dynamic content related to customer services and support, translate more active communications (chat, email, forums), share more structured and unstructured content, pay more attention to social media feedback, and are just more real-time and dynamic in general.

The successful modern global enterprise listens, understands, communicates, and actively shares content across the globe to improve customer experience. Thus, I think it is fair to say that we (the translation business) are moving to a more MT-centric world from a previously TMS-centric world, and a critical skill needed today is deep competence with MT. 

Useful MT output means it helps grow and drive international business, even though it may not be linguistically “perfect”. The requirement for MT competence requires moving far beyond choosing an MT system with the best BLEU or COMET score. 

MT Competence means you can find egregious errors (MT & AI make these errors all the time) and instantly correct these problems to minimize damage. 

MT Competence means the skill and agility to respond to changing business needs and new content types and the ability to rapidly modify MT systems as needed. 

Competence in managing rapid, responsive, deep adaptation of MT systems will be a key requirement to actively participate as an enterprise partner (not vendor) on a global stage very shortly. 

When language translation is mission-critical and pervasive, the service provider will likely evolve from being a vendor to being a partner. It can also often mean that the scope of localization teams is greatly expanded and become more mission-critical.

While I can see a business reality where there is Machine-First & Human Optimized translation approach to content across the global enterprise, which requires responsive, continuously improving MT, it also means moving beyond traditional MTPE where clean-up crews come to reluctantly fix badly formed MT output produced by inexperienced and incompetent MT practitioners. 

However, the lights start to dim for me when I think of "LangOps" being part of this reality in any form whatsoever.

This continuing evolution of business translation also probably means that there is a much more limited role for the TMS or using it only for some localization (software and key documentation) workflows. The more common case as translation volumes grows is to connect all (Customer Experience) CX-related text directly into highly tuned, carefully adapted NMT systems in high-performance low-latency IT infrastructure that is directly customer-facing, or customer accessible. 

Recent data I have seen on MT use across a broad swathe of enterprise users shows that as much as 95% of MT use completely bypasses the TMS. Properly tuned expert-built MT engines do not need the unnecessary overhead of a TMS system. The enterprise objective is to enable translation at scale for everything that might require instant, and mostly but not necessarily a perfectly accurate translation, as long as it furthers and enhances any and every global business initiative and communication. 

Speed and scale are more important and have a more positive impact on international business success in many CX-related use cases than perfect linguistic quality does. The enterprise executives understand this even though we as an industry might not.

I am not aware of a single LangOps configuration or group on this earth or know any enterprise that claims to have such an initiative, but I can point to several massive-scale MT-driven translation engines around the world e.g. Airbnb, Amazon, Alibaba, and eBay where billions of words are translated regularly to drive international business and customer delight and serve a growing international customer base. I am confident we will see this pool of enterprise users grow beyond the eCommerce markets.

Thus, I see little value in promoting the concept of LangOps as what actually seems to be happening is that more expert-tuned enterprise MT is being used and we see the share of MT used to total translation volumes continue to grow. 

As this kind of responsive, highly adaptive MT capability becomes more pervasive across an enterprise, it also becomes a critical requirement for international business success. The activities related to organizing and managing significantly more dynamic content and translation volumes should not be mistaken to be something as vague as LangOps, as no organization I am aware of has the building blocks or template to create such a vaguely defined function. I think that it is more likely that Localization teams will evolve and the scope of their activities will increase, perhaps as dramatically as we have seen at Airbnb.

Airbnb just booked its first annual profit in its near-15-year history, a whopping $1.9bn in 2022. It now appears to be in rarefied air, with its place as the de facto online marketplace for homestays and experiences, giving it a network effect that’s hard to compete with.

Airbnb just booked its first annual profit in its near-15-year history, a whopping $1.9bn in 2022. It now appears to be in rarefied air, with its place as the de facto online marketplace for homestays and experiences, giving it a network effect that’s hard to compete with.


I did find all the articles on LangOps useful in furthering my understanding, especially the ones by Riteba McCallum, and Miguel Cerna, and my comments should not be mistaken as a wholesale dismissal of the viewpoints presented. On the contrary, I think we have much more agreement on many of the core issues discussed. Though I do admit that I find the general concept of LangOps as it has been painted, to be a likely hindrance to our mutual future rather than a beneficial concept to drive our success with globalization and international business initiatives with our common customers.

Respectfully Yours,

Kirti Vashee

Here is the LinkedIn article where the discussion began:

P.S.  Maybe all I am saying is that LangOps just needs more cowbell 😄😄😄 to get the sound and the concept right?


  1. Marketing stuff addressing people who know little or nothing of the topic.

  2. Kirti, I think yours is a useful take. While I admire the idea of creating some sort of bigger vision for the industry, when I put my Marketing hat on, sadly LangOps sounds pretty weak. The reason DevOps is powerful is because of the Dev part, not the Ops part. Power your development? Sure. Power your “lang”? Umm. When you take Ops and attach it to something as limiting and already weak and misunderstood (in a business setting) as Lang, it makes it sound even weaker than language or localization alone. I would prefer a term that empowers people in the industry, and resonates strongly with people on the revenue side. That’s why I like linking localization to revenue and GTM enablement instead. Relegating it just to the language piece removes the country piece — and “ops” is generally viewed as overhead that isn’t necessary and can be easily slashed away. I don’t think the term has any chance of truly taking off on the buyer side of the industry. And if it takes off in the vendor side I worry we will continue to further obfuscate the true value of localization to the real decision makers on the revenue side who determine the fate of localization budgets and teams. So I’m basically just keeping a skeptical eye on how it evolves.

    1. Nataly Kelly I of course agree with everything you say. Thank you for articulating it so clearly. I believe using such vague terms is particularly a problem on the buyer side as I have never heard it used in any enterprise and I can only imagine a sponsor asking for LangOps money!

    2. Kirti Vashee agreed. I just want folks to be realistic about what’s possible to do in terms of creating a category. To do that, it’s important to really understand how buyers view things. From the buyer side it doesn’t really sound that appealing. And in fact it could end up minimizing the true revenue impact — and sounds much more limiting due to losing the focus on country. Going global / local takes way more than just language, and certainly way more than just “ops.”

  3. Kirti, I loved the article -- you nailed my own perception of "LangOps" so very well!

    Vague & fuzzy is exactly my biggest problem with it as a former Localization Director of a Unicorn tech company - that [marketing] term and its associated body of knowledge (in its current form) would have NOT helped me drive more change back in the day when I had that job.

    My other beef is that it's not strategic enough to properly elevate global content professionals inside organizations (which is another perspective I deeply care about as a former Localization leader) - instead, it pushes us into low-level operations trenches even deeper (and makes us easier to let go when budgets are tight)

    If you dare say to a corporate Head of Content Marketing they are a "MarcomOps" person now, I bet they'll probably crucify you on the spot! Why are we then purposefully trying to do the same with our own kin through this new term?

    The part that I do like, though, was the added focus on "reading" or "listening"! Localization was traditionally a write-only team, but this HAS to change in the modern globalized world. I think this is a glimmer of the right type of change we are actually trying to drive under the (arguably misgiven) label of "LangOps".

    1. I agree. I think there are two angles that will have much better appeal 1) International Revenue Expansion 2) Global CX Improvement which means we Listen, Communicate and make more effort to understand global customers rather than just talk AT them

  4. Actually, I kind of like it. In my little world of working with development teams I am suspecting the term will be useful, but it’s too early to tell. The thing is that LangOps will mean different things to various roles in our industry. I immediately think of it as automation systems that work in sync with other creation activities (for me, that’s teams working on source code). Obviously, translation or marketing teams will think of the term differently. Also, it sure beats GILT as a term.

    1. Adam Asnes The heart of the problem is that it is UNCLEAR what it means to a customer.

      You zeroed in on the problem with this statement: " The thing is that LangOps will mean different things to various roles in our industry. "

      Now add the customer and see what happens.

      Language and terminology are useful when it provides clarity and enables understanding. But not so much if creates confusion and semantic mystery.

      Try selling your products at State of the Art LangOps tools and see how many customers understand that.

    2. I don't disagree with you, and I don't see using it in a marketing sense unless it sticks. I just wonder if we can use the term in discussion with a development team and get some heads nodding. Of course the intent of the term was also to relate to the human translation side of automation. Do a quick search using LangOps and you'll see the term is well on the way to wherever it's going. I'm open for anything that broadens the appeal and people outside the industry still clearly struggle with our industry concepts. I don't think LangOps does harm, but if I could go back in time and eliminate other distinctions/terminology like i18n, I would.

    3. When you search on "localization" you get an extensive range of content sources from academics, to TMS vendors to Big Enterprise guidelines on how to interface with their global market needs to LSPs touting their services. However, when I search on LangOps on 3 different engines I see that 90% of the stuff is from Unbabel and maybe 2 more sources. It needs to have broader support and at least intellectual investment by independent parties to be considered seriously IMO

    4. Kirti Vashee well, I like it enough that I just bought the domain. :-)

    5. Not to step into the fray here, but DevOps (which I'm guessing is what LangOps is a play off of) is not clearly defined either. From Wikipedia: "Other than it being a cross-functional combination (and a portmanteau) of the terms and concepts for "development" and "operations", academics and practitioners have not developed a universal definition for the term "DevOps".

      I also have to say I am partial to the idea of using it to better explain to non-industry folks the role of i18n, l10n and NLP operations teams working within a tech company. We're all generally in the position of leveraging language as a business driver from a technical perspective.

      I guess we'll watch over the decade if the term thrives or dies off 🤷‍♂️

    6. Jon, This link does a decent job of defining DevOps and this industry would need something similar, with overviews that are as substantial for the LangOps term to build momentum I would think.

      But part of why I wrote my letter was to see if there were people who could articulate this in a way that could build buy-in or develop the definition to a greater level of clarity.

      Or to find better stories and descriptions that would clarify the value-add we are referring to and impact of a "better" new term and also resonate at the customer level. This might essentially replace the LangOps term.