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Is Machine Translation the Way to Improve Time-to-Market, Decrease Translation Costs, and Increase Quality?

By: Gabriela Contreras (Continental Airlines)

26 May 2011

Much has already been said about machine translation. Some argue that it is the only sensible way to accomplish large translation projects and that it requires little to no compromise in terms of translation quality. Others contend that machine translations are necessarily inferior to human translation.

MT is certainly a way to accelerate time-to-market and to decrease translation costs, but can it also increase translation quality? As in many situations, this depends on the type of content that needs to be translated, as well as on what you expect from MT. As my work with Continental Airlines has made clear to me, there can be significant benefits of using this technology. In this article, I will share insight on how Continental Airlines benefited from implementing an MT solution.

Before 2005, Continental Airlines, already a global company, had only translated a few sections of its website, continental.com, into Spanish. In order to be a strong competitor in the global market and to better serve our customers, we needed to expand the language options offered on our website. Meeting this need was very difficult since our translation process at the time was completely manual and took several weeks. The translation process involved copying English web content to a text file and sending it out for translation via email to a third-party vendor. Once received, the translated content went through cursory review and was quickly passed on to the technology group for upload on the site. This was a very slow and costly process, primarily due to the lack of internal resources and the lack of technology available for managing our translated content. Furthermore, because the translated content was not carefully reviewed prior to publication, the quality was poor. There were also many inconsistencies in the content throughout the website.

There were three things regarding the translation of web content that clearly needed improvement in order for us to successfully market our products and services offshore:

  • Cost of translations
  • Quality of content
  • Turnaround time

To make these improvements, we implemented WorldServer as our TMS. Immediately we saw improvement in the quality of the translations, as well as cost savings. Because we now had the ability to save translations into the translation memory, existing translations were being leveraged for future translation projects. Consistency throughout the site was also maintained through use of the terminology database and style guides.

We were now clearly realizing cost savings. We still, however, needed to improve the quality of the translations. For quality assurance, we turned to our in-country managers, who could assist us with reviewing translated content. Not only could they ensure accuracy; they could also guarantee that the translations reflected the tone and voice of Continental Airlines.

This process worked fine in the beginning, but as the volume of the translated content grew, the in-country managers were unable to continue helping with the review process. They had been performing this task in addition to their own daily activities—the marketing of Continental’s products and services—and they did not have adequate time for both tasks. We needed to find help in the review process.

Our solution was to contract a second translation company to perform the review. By using a different set of eyes to review the translations, we improved the quality of the translated content. This also proved a significant cost saving measure:  we could now leverage the reviewed translations, and no longer had to spend time correcting translations that were previously saved in the TMS. Thus, by improving the quality of the translations we were also saving money.

There was nonetheless one more item that needed improvement: the time it took to receive the content back from translation, to review that content, and finally to publish it on the website. With the process we had in place, content was taking approximately one week to be translated and an additional week to go through the review process. For a website such as continental.com, a two-week turnaround time is too long, since web content is updated daily. By the time the content had come back from translation and review, it was already outdated. Newly updated content would already need to be sent out for translation. This process made it nearly impossible to maintain an up-to-date website in other languages.

Turnaround time was the main reason we chose to research the option of machine translation. Unfortunately, the more we learned about machine translation, the more complicated it appeared. Furthermore, none of the solutions met our needs, since machine translation alone is not sufficient for making marketing content ready for publication.

Machine translation is particularly prone to serious errors when processing idiomatic language. Though our website contains a great deal of very straightforward information related to policies, schedules, and flight information, it also has a significant amount of marketing and merchandising information that makes use of unique idioms which may be difficult or impossible to translate. Therefore, machine translation alone would not work for us. We still needed a human review to ensure accurate translation of the marketing and merchandising content.

We then learned about the KbTS (Knowledge-based Translation System) services offered by SDL. KbTS allowed for a much faster process. This, combined with human review, made the perfect mix for our site. For us, this solution was “the best of both worlds.” The use of MT met our need for a faster turnaround time, and the human review process ensured that the content was appropriate before it was moved to production.

Implementing this solution, which includes translation, post editing, and review, enabled us to automate the process even more. We were able not only to reduce the average turnaround time to less than a week, but also to reduce costs by an average of 30%. At the same time we maintained quality by ensuring translation consistency.

Though there are still many challenges ahead, especially given the current merger process with United Airlines, the steps we’ve taken have certainly helped us to offer a clean, safe, and reliable product to all our customers.

Gabriela Contreras is Manager of Localization Marketing and Marketing Communications at Continental Airlines. Gabriela brings 12+ years of experience to her current role. In addition to filling a number of other roles at Continental Airlines, she has also worked for a variety of companies, including IBM/Spain, Virtual Intelligence Providers LLC, Quaxar, and Grupo Elektra. Gabriela has effectively managed the implementation of different languages on the website continental.com. She manages the delivery of customer communications in foreign languages for all channels. Her responsibilities include overseeing the translation of continental.com and determining the appropriate content for offshore sites.