Choosing The Best Translation Technology For Your Company
By: Brian McConnell (XLATN - Translation Reports)
04 September 2013
If the time has come for your to company to invest in new translation systems, where should you begin? Brian McConnell discusses simple considerations to control your technology selection and implementation.
Most companies have little experience with the translation industry, especially when they first encounter the need to translate or localize their products or services. This article offers some tips on how to find the best available tools and vendors for your needs, as well as how to avoid getting burned.
Get The Lay Of The Land
The most valuable thing you can do when you begin your search is to educate yourself about the industry.
There are several good sources of information about the industry, including: GALA, Common Sense Advisory and Translation Reports. GALA's audience is primarily people within the translation industry, and is a good place to get a sense of which vendors cater to different segments of the industry. Common Sense Advisory makes its living by advising larger companies, both within the industry and companies seeking translation services. Translation Reports, which I author, is a buyer's guide that focuses on emerging technologies and services, and is written for non-industry readers.
Reading these sites won't make you an instant expert, but it will help you understand companies are out there, what they do, and what the broad categories of products and services are.
Salespeople Are Not Reliable Sources Of Information
A common mistake I see customers make is to rely on translation service providers, particularly their salespeople, as a source of information. This may end badly, as the salesperson's job is to say "Yes!", and to steer you away from competitive products and services. If you Google "translation services," most of what shows up will be tied to a service provider in one way or another.
Independent consultants can offer a lot of value, especially when you're in the early stages of this process, as they can recommend tools and services that are appropriate for your company's stage of development, and that you might not otherwise learn about. They can also help you negotiate deals with providers, as they're knowledgeable about common practices, market prices, etc. Look for firms that work on a time and materials basis that do not have a vested interest in specific vendors (avoid outside sales reps, as they have the same incentives as an in house sales person).
There has been a great deal of innovation around cloud-based translation services. These range in function from machine translation engines to translation management platforms that include business process tools. The good news about these services is that almost all of them have very low entry price points, and many offer a free tier of service (most are priced based on how much you use them, by word count or similar measures). This is a big step forward. Just a few years ago buying a translation management system meant writing a check for thousands of dollars or more to one of the big three vendors (e.g. SDL, Lionbridge, Transperfect). Companies like Smartling, Transifex and others have changed all of that. Because of the low entry price points, you don't have to decide on a solution in advance.
Test Drive Two Or Three Candidate Services
Thanks to the decrease in entry costs, the best way to find out if a particular solution is a good fit for your company is to field test two or three candidates on real projects. There typically isn't a "best" vendor in any one category, but rather a handful of good options that appeal to different types of users for different reasons. For example, Transifex, a localization management tool, is popular with software developers because it behaves similarly to source code repositories like Git.
When evaluating candidates, listen to your staff's critiques about them. For example, some of them might get hung up by user interface issues. Ask them to score each candidate in terms of usability, workload reduction, and output quality (this is as much a function of translator competence as it is the translation tools, as a good tool makes the translators more efficient and accurate). Once a winner becomes clear, shift resources into that solution.
Localize Your Product Into British English
This tip is specific to U.S. software development but it's a good one. Before you localize your web service or app into a foreign language, start by localizing it into British English. This will expose your team to all of the issues that arise in foreign language support, including: converting units of measure, date/time formats, character encodings (you are using Unicode aren't you?), and so on. Importantly, it spares you from the risk of major mistake in translation (the French launch of the Commodore Pet personal computer is a famous example... pet means "fart" in French). The "translation" in this case involves having one of your Anglophile friends or staff make the necessary vocabulary changes, but otherwise everyone on your team will be able to understand what's going on.
Shop For Translation Agencies After Your Technology and Process Is In Place
Another common mistake I see customers make is to purchase technology based on the needs of their translation agency. This often leads to poor outcomes, and more importantly, vendor lock-in (the agency really doesn't want you to easily replace them). Putting your technology and process in place first also makes it easier to shop for translation service providers, since that decision is decoupled from deciding who to hire to do the actual translation work.
A good translation agency will be interested in learning to use new tools, so this is also a good quality filter. If they're unwilling to learn your environment (the newer cloud-based services are quite easy to use), they're probably going to be inflexible in other areas. An open secret of the translation industry is that translation agencies, especially the larger ones, are really project management companies, as they all draw upon an overlapping pool of freelance translators. The other major plus of putting technology first is that newer tools, such as CloudWords, make it easy to manage multiple translation providers. This enables you to choose specialist firms, for certain languages for example, that may not otherwise be competitive.
Avoid The Big Three, Unless You're A Big Company
I generally recommend that customers avoid the big three companies unless they are going to generate six to seven figure annual budgets. The reason isn't that the big translation companies are bad, it's just that their incentive is to focus on large accounts or accounts that might grow quickly. You'll get more attention and better service from small and mid-sized companies, and as noted above, new tools make it straightforward to manage multiple providers, and to do much of the project management yourself.
Recruit and Hire Bilingual Staff
Lastly, whatever business you are in, it's smart to look for people who are bilingual. Make this part of your recruitment and selection process. You'll be glad you did as you step up your localization and translation efforts. You might hire these people for unrelated reasons, but they'll be able to step in to assist with translation and market expansion projects.
XLATN (Translation Reports) was created by Brian McConnell, a serial entrepreneur and ten year veteran of the translation software industry. He was also the creator of the Worldwide Lexicon, an early experiment in open source translation technology that pioneered the concept of crowdsourced translation.