E.g., 06/07/2020
E.g., 06/07/2020

Equalizer or Differentiator? Why Technology Belongs in Every Company’s Narrative

By: Jost Zetzsche (International Writer's Group)

24 February 2014

Language service providers are striving to keep up with the many translation technology offerings on the market. In today's varied marketplace, our companies need to show how their expert use of technology is truly a differentiator. 

We are all familiar with the more obvious developments in language technology. Uppermost in many language professionals’ minds is the much-written-about impact of machine translation. Then there is an increase in process automation, as well as relatively new processes such as large-scale crowdsourcing, which also rely heavily on technology. The increasing availability of bi- and multi-lingual data can (only) be harnessed with technology, and at the same time there are new ways to drill down to a much more granular level into these or any other data resources.

A superficial observer could easily conclude that these and similar developments would lead to a more monolithic landscape of larger companies equipped with ever-evolving state-of-the art technologies that rely increasingly less on human contributions, whether on the project management side or indeed on the translation side.

But here is what I think: in the 1990s, technology made us into the industry that we are today; in the 2010s, technology will pulverize into fragments the very industry it created.

Let me first digress a little before picking up this thread again.

An interesting blurb about Amazon removing Google Translate's public domain titles from its website appeared the week before I wrote this article. Though most GALA members are not involved in translating literature, the report still seems emblematic to me. As members of the "translation industry," we have known for a long time that translation does not equal translation, and apparently this has finally and truly penetrated the consciousness of the general public. Sure, "they" always knew about and delighted in Google Translate blunders, but the sheer volume of stories in the media — and their popularity — has continued to reveal a certain infatuation with the presumed up-and-coming Babel Fish devices that will essentially put an end to the translation industry.

This new (or perhaps just dawning) revelation in the public awareness of different kinds of translation is fantastic news for everyone who provides translation services.

For a long time in the late eighties and early nineties, we were able to use translation technology, in particular translation memory technology, before clients realized it and insisted on reaping some of its financial and administrative benefits. Nowadays, however, it's different. Now we're using technology as a selling point.

Today we must learn to communicate with more nuance and sophistication what kind of product the technologies that we use are producing. In the past we made the mistake of proclaiming that we were not only selling "translation" but also "localization" services (whose meaning neither we nor our clients really understood). This time around we need to be wiser in communicating what we do. We must craft compelling and well-informed stories that describe what we provide.

In fact, these stories are so important that I think the very survival of each language provider is at stake here.

You see, the product sold by the large multi-national technology/language provider to its clients is by definition different than the product of a small LSP run by (former) translators and catering to a specific market, which in turn is different than the product of a mid-sized LSP focused on maintaining and refining industry-specific machine translation engines (I could go on). Naturally, the differences between the products are not just determined by the size of the vendor, but this certainly heralds the demise of the TEP model with everyone selling at more or less the same prices based on word count.

In theory, technology can be a great equalizer. In practice, however, access and expert use of technology is not equal, so in many cases technology differentiates rather than equalizes. With that in mind, it's now up to every single vendor who sells translation to embrace that reality, crafting it into a narrative that explains what is being sold, how the product is unique due to the vendor’s particular choice of technologies and processes, and how that justifies the price tag.

Granted, the Amazon story won't help you much in this process of communicating to clients. No serious competitor is going to use un-vetted Google Translate to compete for your business. But a profound and well-reasoned understanding of the implications of technology choice for the quality and success of your product – and that of your competitors – will help you flesh out what it is you're selling.

Here are some parameters you might want to use in crafting your story:

  • What are your ongoing efforts in maintaining machine translation engines (if you use that technology)? If you have decided not to use MT, why?
  • What guided your decision to choose your workflow/project management system, and what are the fail-safes to deal with automation?
  • How are the relationships with your vendors? Do you rely on a faceless mass or a select few? What is your qualification process? And what role does technology play in all of this? (These criteria may sound a bit old-fashioned, but they can still be woven into powerful stories.)
  • If you use crowdsourcing, what are your models, your technology, and your fail-safes?
  • How do you use and vet external data from non-MT sources?
  • How do you extend the use of your clients' data beyond the typical perfect/fuzzy match paradigm?
  • Who and what technologies are involved in your QA/testing services?

TAUS predicts that the demand for "boutique-style, specialist translation could grow tremendously." I agree that the growth will be tremendous, though I'm not sure that "boutique-style" is the correct term. "Boutique-style" seems to imply little niche businesses. Instead, I believe that just like today, the companies that provide translation will range from very small to relatively large businesses, with the largest load of work carried by the small and mid-sized companies. The primary difference will be that the use of technology will be more creative and the narratives will be more compelling.

Jost Zetsche is the co-founder of  International Writers' Group, and is an ATA-accredited English-to-German translator, a consultant in the field of localization and translation, and a writer on technical solutions for the translation and localization industry. A native of Hamburg, Germany, Jost earned a Ph.D. in the field of Chinese history and linguistics from the University of Hamburg in 1996. He joined the translation industry in 1997 as a translator and project manager for a localization and technical documentation provider. He has led or participated in localization projects in many major software, web, and documentation environments.