Thursday, April 20, 2017

LSP Perspective: MT Post-Editing Means a Drastic Reduction in Translation Cost

This is a short guest post by @translationguy also known as Ken Clark.  

These initial preamble comments in italics are mine. 

Today, many LSPs and Enterprises are working with MT and there is enough evidence that MT works even when you don't really know what you are doing. Unfortunately, many agencies still try to do it themselves with Moses and most of these DIY experiments either completely fail or produce systems that are not as good as the public systems produced by Microsoft and Google, which defeats the whole point of doing it. MT as a technology only provides business leverage if you have a superior MT system and have aligned processes to take advantage of this. 

Ken differentiates between light and full post-editing in his view of post-editing, and I would like to add another dimension to this discussion. It is my experience that full post-editing is done with smaller (in MT terms) projects, or when the information translated is very critical to get right. Thus, in a knowledge base project context, content related to security, privacy, and legal terms may be sent for full post-editing, and other content may just get a lighter post-edit. Also, when one is involved with very large MT projects like the team at eBay is, where hundreds of millions of words are involved, it is not possible to do a full post-edit on all the data so a light post-edit is done, or maybe nothing beyond the very specific linguistic work on high-frequency n-grams and important patterns that Silvio Picinini describes in this post. Unfortunately, it’s hard for translators and clients to agree on when we’re done with “light” post-editing, so it’s a headache to manage as editors often cannot tell when to stop.

Thus, as agencies really get involved with "real MT " projects they will do corpus profiling work and focus their attention on critical patterns as Juan Rowda has described in this post.

To me, real competence with MT in an agency or enterprise is demonstrated when there is some expertise with as many of the following core functions as possible:

  • Understanding the Data - Corpus Analysis
  • Focusing Linguistic Work on High-Frequency Patterns
  • Working with Expert MT Systems Developers in a pro-active way
  • Understanding MT Output Quality
  • Driving MT quality higher with specific linguistic feedback
  •  Managing Post-Editing Processes and Compensation
TAUS provides an excellent overview of the larger perspective in this post on best practices in MT

As the MT technology evolves I think we will see that strategies that made great sense with phrase-based SMT may not always make sense with the new Neural MT technology. I am talking to SYSTRAN about the realities in the NMT paradigm and hope to produce a post on this soon.



Machine translation has improved by leaps and bounds. What was once considered machine-produced gibberish is increasingly giving human translators a run for their money, particularly for predictable texts like weather reports.

While machine translation (MT) is also more economical than human translation, it’s not a true alternative yet. In most cases, machine translation can’t be used as is. And that’s where the expertise of machine translation post-editors comes in. Machine translation post-editors are the human editors that work to improve the output of machine translation. They combine the MT output with their linguistic expertise to provide a better reading experience to human audiences.

Besides the cost savings, it is estimated that machine translation plus post-editing is 40% more efficient than human translation alone. But what exactly do machine translation post-editors do, and how do they do it?

Types of Machine Translation Post-editing

Machine translation post-editing comes in two flavors: light post-editing and full post-editing.
Light post-editing suggests a lighter touch, only asking the human editors to ensure that the MT output is accurate in meaning and understandable to the reading audience. However, this means that style is not taken into account, grammar and syntax may be awkward, and the text may sound as if it were produced by a computer. It’s the most economical option, but for reasons of quality, light post-editing is typically only used when a translation is needed urgently and/or for an organization’s internal purposes.

Full post-editing, on the other hand, calls for a higher level of involvement by the post-editor. (This makes it more expensive than light post-editing, but still less expensive than full human translation.) In addition to making sure that the MT output is accurate in meaning and understandable to the reading audience, full post-editing addresses the text’s grammar, syntax, and punctuation, ensuring they are correct and appropriate. The result is similar in quality to a human translation, although it may not yet match the style of a native-speaking translator. Full post-editing is typically used when a machine-translated text is intended to be published, or widely disseminated inside or outside an organization.

MT Post-editing Strategies

How do they do it? Let’s examine some of the things that post-editors watch out for.

Light post-editors use the machine translation output as much as possible. However, they take special care that information has not been inadvertently added in or left out. They also edit anything they have identified as offensive or culturally unacceptable.

In addition to the above, full post-editors correct any grammatical and syntactical errors. They pay particular attention to terminology, making sure that the terms have been translated in the appropriate way (or left untranslated per the client’s wishes). They also ensure that the spelling and punctuation, as well as formatting, are correct.


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Problem with BLEU and Neural Machine Translation

There has been a great deal of public attention and publicity given to the subject of Neural Machine Translation in 2016. While experimentation with Neural Machine Translation (NMT) has been going on for the last several years, 2016 has proven to be the year that NMT broke through and became a big deal, and became more widely understood to be of great merit outside of the academic and research community, where it was already understood that NMT has great promise for some years now.

The reasons for the sometimes excessive exuberance around NMT are largely based on BLEU (not BLUE) score improvements on test systems which are sometimes validated by human quality assessments. However it has been understood by some that BLEU, which is still the most widely used measure of quality improvement, can be misleading in its indications when it is used to compare some kinds of MT systems.

The basis for the NMT optimism is related both to the very slow progress in recent years with improving phrase-based SMT quality, and also the striking BLEU score improvements that were seen coming from neural net based machine learning approaches. Much has been written about the flaws of BLEU but it still remains the most easily implementable measurement metric, and also really the only one where there are long-term longitudinal data available. While we all love to bash on BLEU, there is clear evidence that there is a strong correlation between BLEU scores and human judgments of the same MT output. The research community and the translation industry have not been able to come up with a better metric that can be widely implemented to enable ongoing test and evaluation of MT output so it remains as the primary metric.The alternatives are too cumbersome, expensive or impractical to use as widely and as frequently as BLEU is used.

However, there is also evidence that BLEU tends to score SMT systems more favorably than RBMT and NMT systems, both of which may produce very accurate and fluent translations to a human perspective, but differ greatly from the reference translations that are used in calculating the BLEU score. To a great extent the BLEU score is based on very simplistic "text string matches". Very roughly, the larger the cluster of words that you can match exactly, the higher the BLEU score.

To illustrate this, lets take a very simple example, say a reference translation is: "The guests walked into the living room and seated themselves on the couch." and an NMT system produces something like: "The visitors entered the lounge and sat down on the sofa." This would result in a very low BLEU score for the NMT segment, even though many human evaluators might say it is quite an acceptable and accurate translation, and as valid as the reference sentence.

If you want a quick refresher on BLEU you can check this out:

The Need for Automated Translation Quality Measurement in SMT: BLEU

Some of the optimism around NMT is related to its ability to produce a large number of sentences that look very natural, fluent and astonishingly human. Thus, much of the early results with NMT output show that it is considered to be clearly better to human evaluators, even though BLEU scores may show only 5% to 15% improvement (which is also significant). The improvements are most noticeable when considering fluency and word order issues with machine translation output. NMT is also working much more effectively in what were considered difficult languages for SMT and Rule Based MT, e.g. Japanese and Korean.

And here are some examples provided by SYSTRAN from their investigations where the NMT seems to make linguistically informed decisions and changes the sentence structure away from the source to produce a better translation. But again these would not necessarily score much better in terms of BLEU scores even though humans might rate them as significant improvements in MT output quality and naturalness.

But we have seen that in spite of this there are still many cases where NMT BLEU scores significantly outpace the phrase-based SMT systems. These are described in the following posts in this blog:

A Deep Dive into SYSTRANs Neural Machine Translation (NMT) Technology


An Examination of the Strengths and Weaknesses of Neural Machine Translation


Real and Honest Quality Evaluation Data on Neural Machine Translation 


and this is even true to some extent in the exaggerated over-the-top claims made by Google when they claimed that Google NMT was “Nearly Indistinguishable From Human Translation” and “GNMT reduces translation errors by more than 55%-85% on several major language pairs" which is described below.

The Google Neural Machine Translation Marketing Deception


The KantanMT NMT vs PB-SMT Evaluation Results

I had an interesting conversation with Tony O'Dowd at KantanMT about his experience with his own initial NMT experiments.While Kantan does plan to publish their results in full detail in the near future, here are some highlights Tony provided from their experiments, that certainly raises some fundamental questions. (Emphasis below is mine.)

  1. Scope of Test - We built identical systems for SMT and NMT in the following language combinations - en-es, en-de, en-zh-cn, en-ja, en-it. Identical training data sets and test reference materials were used throughout the development phase of these engines. This ensured that our subsequent testing would be of identical engines, only differing in the approach to build the models. The engines were trained with an average of 5 million parallel segments ranging from 44 - 110 million words of training data.
  2. BLEU Scores - In all cases, the BLEU scores of NMT output was lower than SMT. 
  3. Human Evaluation:  We deployed a minimum of 3 evaluators for each language group and used KantanLQR to run the evaluation. We used the A/B Testing feature of KantanLQR. Sample A was from SMT, Sample B was from NMT. We randomized the presentation of the translations to ensure evaluators did not know what was NMT and SMT - this was done to remove any bias for one approach or the other. We sampled 200 translations for each language set.
  4. In all cases NMT scored higher in our A/B Testing than SMT. On average NMT was chosen twice as often as SMT in our controlled A/B testing.
  5. For low scoring BLEU NMT segments, we found a high correlation to these segments being the preferred translation by our [human] evaluators - this pretty much proves that BLEU is not a useful and meaningful score for use with NMT systems.

Clearly, this shows that BLEU is of limited value when the human vs. automated metric results are so completely different and even diametrically opposed. The whole point of BLEU is that should provide a quick and simple way to get an estimate of what a human might think of sample machine translated output. So going forward it looks like we are going to need better metrics that can map more closely to human assessments. BLEU is not a linguistically informed measure and thus the problem. This is easy to say but not so easy to do.  A recent study pointed out the following key findings:

  • Translations produced by NMT are considerably different than those produced by phrase-based systems. In addition, there is higher inter-system variability in NMT, i.e. outputs by pairs of NMT systems are more different between them than outputs by pairs of phrase-based systems.
  • NMT outputs are more fluent. We corroborate the results of the manual evaluation of fluency at WMT16, which was conducted only for language directions into English, and we show evidence that this finding is true also for directions out of English.
  • NMT systems do more reordering than pure phrase-based ones but less than hierarchical systems. However, NMT re-orderings are better than those of both types of phrase-based systems.
  • NMT performs better in terms of inflection and reordering. We confirm that the findings of Bentivogli et al. (2016) apply to a wide range of language directions. Differences regarding lexical errors are negligible. A summary of these findings can be seen in the next figure, which shows the reduction of error percentages by NMT over PBMT. The percentages shown are the averages over the 9 language directions covered.

 Reduction of errors by NMT averaged over the 9 language directions covered

Given that there are currently no real practical alternatives to BLEU, there is perhaps an opportunity for an organization like TAUS to develop an easy to apply variant from their overall DQF framework, that can focus on these key elemental differences and can be done quickly and easily. NMT systems will gain in popularity and better measures will be sought. The need for an automated metric will also not go away as developers need some kind of measure to guide system tuning while they are in the development phase. Perhaps there is some research underway that I am not aware of that might address this, but I have seen that SYSTRAN uses several alternatives but everybody still comes back to BLEU.

Comparative BLEU score-based MT system evaluations are particularly problematic as I pointed out in my critique of the Lilt Labs evaluation, which I maintain is deeply flawed, and will result in erroneous conclusions if you take the reported results at face value. Common Sense Advisory also wrote recently about how BLEU scores can be manipulated to make outlandish claims by those with vested interests and also point out that BLEU scores naturally improve as you add multiple references.

"However, CSA Research and leading MT experts have pointed out for over a decade that these metrics are artificial and irrelevant for production environments. One of the biggest reasons is that the scores are relative to particular references. Changes that improve performance against one human translation might degrade it with respect to another. "
Common Sense Advisory, April, 2017

There is really a need for two kinds of measures, one for general developer research that can be used everyday like BLEU today, and one for business translation production use which indicate quality from that different perspective. So as we head into the next phase of MT, driven by machine learning and neural networks, it would be good for us all to think of ways to better measure what we are doing.  Hopefully some readers or some in the research community might have some ideas on new approaches to do this but this is an issue that is something worth keeping an eye on. And if you come up with better a way to do this, who knows, they might even name it after you. I noticed that Renato Beninatto has been talking about NMT recently, and who knows he could come up with something, I know we would all love to talk about our Renato scores instead of those old BLEU scores!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

LSP Perspective: A View on Translation Technology

This is an unsolicited guest post that provides a view of translation technology that is typical of what is believed by many in the translation industry.  

These initial preamble comments in italics are mine.  

It provides an interesting contrast to the previous post (Ending the Globalization Smoke Screen) on the need for LSPs to ask more fundamental questions and climb up higher in the value chain and contribute higher value advice on globalization initiatives. This is a view that sees the primary business of LSPs, and thus the role of technology, as being the management and performance of human translation work as efficiently as possible. 

I think we have already begun to see that the most sophisticated LSPs now solve more complex and comprehensive translation problems for their largest customers, which often extends much beyond human translation work. In December 2016, the new SDL management reported that they translate 100 million words a month using traditional TEP human translation strategies,  but they also translate 20 billion words a month with MT.  The VW use case also shows that for large enterprises, MT will be the primary means to translate the bulk of the customer-facing content, in addition to being the dominant way to handle internal communications related translations. Clearly, much of the translation budget is still spent on human translation but it is also much clearer that MT needs to part of the overall solution. MT competence is valuable and considered strategic when choosing an agency, and by this, I don't mean running sub-standard Moses engines.  Rather, it is about working with agencies who understand multiple MT options, understand corpus data preparation and analysis and can steer multiple types of MT systems competently.

Aaron raised what I think are many very interesting questions for the "localization" industry. How do we as an industry add more value in the process of globalization, and he suggests quite effectively I think, that it has more do with things other than using basic automation tools to do low-value things more efficiently. The globalization budget is likely to be much higher than the translation budget and involve answering many questions before you get to translation.

It is also my sense that there is a bright future for translation companies that solve comprehensive translation problems (i.e. MT, HT, and combinations), help address globalization strategies, or perform very specialized, high-value, finesse-driven human translation work (sometimes called transcreation,  an unfortunate word that nobody in the real-world understands). The future for those that do not do any of these things I think will be less bright, as the freely available and pervasive automation technology that is available for business translation tasks will get easier to use and more efficient. The days when building a TMS to get competitive advantage made sense are long gone. Many excellent tools are already available for a minimal cost and it is foolish to think that your processes and procedures are so unique as to warrant your own custom tools. The value is not in the tools you use but how, when, and how skillfully you use them. Commoditization happens when the industry players are unable to clearly demonstrate their value add to a customer. This is when price becomes the prime determinant of who gets the business, as you are easily replaceable. This also means that you are likely to find that the wind is no longer in your sails and it is much harder to keep forward momentum. In the post below, the emphasis is not mine.


What’s out there, and what’s to come?

Technology is improving all the time. Technological advances like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Reality (VR) and the advance of smartphones are rousing the public’s interest.

It’s the same for translation technology. The way we translate and interpret content is changing all the time. Reliable translation technology is making it easier, faster and more productive to do our jobs.
Take for instance machine translation (MT). We see this type of technology as more of an additional language service to enable more content to be translated – rather than as a substitute language service to replace human translation.

MT is often considered in circumstances where the volume of content requiring translation cannot realistically be approached as a human translation task, for reasons of cost or speed. In this setting automatic translation can be deployed as part of a wider workflow.

Technology like this, for example, may enable a company to translate millions of words of user-generated content which would otherwise be completely out of reach. MT would not, however, be advisable for public-facing content, such as press releases.

Machines that translate

The benefits of machine translation largely come down to two factors: it’s quicker and less expensive. The downside to this is the standard of translation can be anywhere from inaccurate, to perplexing – machines can’t translate context you see.

The disadvantages as noted above can be avoided if the machine translation is checked by a professional. The last thing you want is a call from a lawyer telling you you’ve mistranslated one of their clients’ quotes.

Machine translation consists of rules-based systems that generate a translation by combining a vocabulary of words with syntactical rules. Whereas with statistical MT, the engine is fed with large volumes of translations that are analyzed using pattern-matching and word-substitution to predict the translation which is statistically the most likely to be correct.

It can be argued that machine translations are more suited to internal use, if your documents are only being used within your company, complete accuracy may not be vital. Another example would be for very basic documents – the more simplistic your original documents are, the easier they will be for a machine to interpret.

You need to be certain there is ample precision in your machine translations to hurry up the process. Otherwise, it will only slow the progression down and you’ll attain very little by using it. Machine translation is a time-saving tool – if it doesn’t do that, then it’s not worth using, or at least no solely relying on. That’s not to say that machine translation isn’t vital in some cases. It certainly is, more on that later.

Human translation basically shifts the table in terms of pros and cons. A higher standard of accuracy comes at the price of longer turnaround times and higher costs. What you have to decide is whether that initial investment outweighs the potential cost of errors.

More creative or intricate content such as poems, slogans or taglines ask far too much of machine translation tools so it’ll always make sense to opt for a human translator. When accuracy is paramount, take, for example, legal translation, safety instructions, and healthcare, machines leave far too much room for error.

Another point to make when deciding if it’s appropriate to use human over machine translation is when there’s not sufficient accuracy for machines to work with. If the content is too chaotic then it may be easier for a human translator to work and edit the original text – machine-free.
The translation of content is attainable using machine translation don’t get me wrong, for example, when translating high-volume content that changes every hour of every day – humans just can’t keep us and it would cost far too much. But if you require full control of your communication then a human translator is the better option – granted that the task isn’t too large or would not be obtainable without using MT

In the machine versus human translation debate, the latter has the edge – for now anyway – because the translator can provide a more accurate translation of your message.

This aside, companies like TripAdvisor and Amazon rely on machine translation because their online content and the daily visitors to their websites are so vast. Machine translation gives them the chance to stay up-to-date and offers users multilingual content rapidly. Companies like these would find that solely relying on humans to translate their message a demanding if not impossible task.

Machine translations have their place in the world – it’s an important place for sure – and can deliver the basic meaning of a text when your company is in a bind. However, cannot live up to the quality of a human-powered translation, which is the service you should choose when you want an official communication of your company to be fully understood by its readers.

I want translation now

Moving swiftly on, advanced translation software which allows its users to centralize all their translation requirements, making it simple to tailor translation workflows is translation management systems (TMS). Though nothing new anymore, software like this is not only saving people time but the automated processes mean it saves money too.

Larger companies are opting for one easy-to-use TMS platform in order to have complete control over their translation workflows. The software gives users a 360-degree overview of every current and completed translation job submitted. A TMS platform also gives users real-time project status information.

Moreover, creative translation tools allow teams of graphic designers and creative agencies to use web browsers rather than costly Adobe packages to review INDD or IDML content. Translation technology like this means no extra license fees to pay when localising and reviewing content.
Reviewers who do not have InDesign installed on their systems can see a live preview, edit text so it is exactly how they want it, and save their changes so that the InDesign file is updated. Tools like this give users peace of mind in the knowledge that the InDesign document cannot be “broken”, and that no time is spent copying and pasting text, or trying to decipher reviewers’ comments, or having to repeatedly transfer files backward and forwards.

As technology improves so does the expectations of its consumers. People want their information fast. When it comes to translation, in an online sense specifically the content needs to remain up-to-date and be easy to find. TMS platforms can be integrated with websites, CMS, DMS and database applications – this makes them an essential part of translation services.

Big technology brands like Apple and Google offer translation services of their own. iTunes and Google Play allow you to download transcription apps, giving you your own personal translator in the palm of your hand.

They’re handy devices but useless if you need accurate voice recognition and more than a few sentences transcribed. Your main concern with any transcription app will always be accuracy. You want the device to understand every word you say and accurately type it out in text form. Well, unfortunately, this is where the technology continues to fall way short of the demand.

Technology has evolved. But we’ve been evolving too and we still have a few tricks up our sleeves. A mother-tongue translator is still the only sure-fire way to ensure the most natural reading target text. It’s arguably the best way to get the most relevant translation possible. Language services companies still receive far more human translation inquiries. More than 90% of job requests are for human translation.

What’s next?

In the realm of AI for instance, a lot. Take for instance AI web-design software and an increasing list of automated marketing tools hitting the scene. All hoping to make translation services a more streamlined process – one that’s faster, cheaper and demands less manpower to make things happen.
Personal assistant apps such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are driving online business in a way never seen before. These AI-powered apps are also changing web localisation in a huge way. More than ever businesses need to be aware of third party sites like Google Maps, Wikipedia, and Yelp because apps such as Microsoft’s Cortana are pulling snippets of content from all around the web.

According to Google Translate’s FAQ section, “Even today’s most efficient software cannot master a language as well as a native speaker and have by no means the skill of a professional translator.”

If the technology available helps. If it saves us time, money and precious resources then surely it’s vital and something we should be taking advantage of. But at the same time, most of the translation technology available to us should be used wisely. Often than not it should be used as a tool to aid us, not necessarily something to be relied upon.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not for a second lessening the importance of machines when it comes to translation services. All I will say is that human translators are more familiar with expressions, slang, and grammar of a modern language. Often human translators are native speakers of the target language which gives greater depth and more of an understanding of the tone of the required translation.

Human translators also boast translation degrees, some specialise in a specific area of expertise and their understanding in the field of the project expedites the translation. Although it’s safe to say, one type of language translation that still baffles the most educated of linguists is emojis.
The multifaceted landscape of interpreting symbols makes translating these icons tough for both machines and humans – fact.

These ideograms are actually making it to court cases where text messages are regularly being surrendered as evidence. So it’s paramount that context and the interpretation of each emoji is understood.

The meanings of each smartphone smiley are often unclear and sometimes puzzling. This leaves far too much for misunderstanding, in fact in 2016 professional translators from around the world attempting to decipher emojis and the results were miserable.

Technological advances in the translation industry are going to change the way businesses operate for the better. Even though some of it threatens to compete against us, we fully expect this to continue and start happening in a much wider range of industries.

Machine translation services will play a vital part in producing multilingual content on a large scale. Big brands that need content fast, in large quantities will opt for MT. In fact, more and more professional translators will need to adapt to working more closely with this technology as it advances over time.

For things like AI, VR and apps the future is prosperous. We’re entering a world in which we take technology for granted. What’s capable nowadays and what will be in the future will aid us, maybe even guide us one day. But for the time being – though essential – the translation technology at our disposal still fails to deliver what humans are fully capable of.

                                                          = = = = = = = = 


Tom Robinson, Digital Marketing and Communications Executive at translate plus, a Global Top 50 language services provider by revenue, offering a full range of services, including translation, website localisation, multilingual SEO, interpreting, desktop publishing, transcription and voiceover, in over 200 languages. All this is complemented by our cutting-edge language technology, such as i plus®, our secure cloud-based TMS (translation management system).

Monday, March 6, 2017

Ending the Globalization Smoke Screen: A New Direction for the Localization Industry

We often hear translation industry players, both on the vendor and buyer side, complain about inadequate budgets, increasing work volume, and commoditization in general. Technology, that damned MT, and the content explosion are often blamed, and many in the industry resign themselves to this inevitability of automation and generic product delivery. Commoditization happens when you deliver very low value, especially with a service offering. However, could it be that most of us in the industry approach the core industry mission of raising organization globalization readiness, with a tunnel vision that can only lead to commoditization? 

This guest post by Aaron Schliem raises fundamental questions about our larger mission and while it does not offer complete answers, I hope that it will trigger new kinds of dialogue, focusing on how we as an industry can increase our value-add and up our game. To go beyond being high volume translation word-mongers and be part of enabling true globalization services to be offered.

Interestingly, I just saw what I felt was a related post in terms of its core theme, that I thought was worth linking to. I include the following excerpt:

When we find a new way of solving a problem, we make a conceptual shift to clarity. In To Sell is Human Dan Pink says clarity is an important quality to help move others. He defines it as:
“The capacity to help others see their situations in fresh and more revealing ways and to identify problems they didn't know they had.”
Solving problems is still an important ability, with the added twist that the value is in identifying the true problem, asking better questions. Studies conducted by social scientists Jacob Getzels and Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi in the 1960s found that people who achieve breakthroughs in any field tend to be good at finding problems:
“It is in fact the discovery or creation of problems rather than any superior knowledge, technical skill, or craftsmanship that often sets the creative person apart from others in his field.”
Excerpt From:  The Value of Finding the Right Problem to Solve

Please join the discussion and contribute via the comments, or if you are so moved I would welcome additional posts that provide differing or extended discussion on the provocative points that Aaron makes. The emphasis below is all mine.


I admit it – I was wrong. More than 15 years in the localization industry only to find that I was fooling myself. Like many insiders, I was convinced that if we applied the right technology to the problem of translation, we would advance the cause of globalization, garner respect from senior execs in client organizations and win vital budget allocations along the way. After all, in business you succeed by giving the customer what they want, right? The customer has seen exponentially increasing volumes of content that need to be delivered in all the hot business languages of the worlds. So, logically, it was our duty to offer solutions that did just that – get words out to market faster and cheaper and in so doing demonstrate how we fastidiously stand by our customers.

And thus the investment in automation was born. We began with translation tools, eventually building out translation management systems to house suites of tools. Unicode, multi-script, RTL, and diacritic capabilities were built into virtually every application businesses use, from desktop publishing software to media engineering suites. We localizers are a clever bunch who had learned by observing other industries. To meet market demand while honoring expense constraints, we competed to see who could build the smartest assembly line. With integrated TMS-CMS conveyor belts fully functional we went even further, feeding the system with auto-generated linguistic output via MT and its various flavors. To staff our assembly lines we largely rid ourselves of the high-priced experienced translators, opting instead for “sufficiently qualified” on-demand labor pools, even resorting to crowd-sourced volunteers.

All of this was accomplished to great fanfare, I might add. How many presentations have you seen where, with flashing lights and hyperbole, a vendor impresses upon the bulk translation buyer how a particular suite of technology is the one that will solve the buyer’s globalization woes? How often do we pat ourselves on the back for the automation revolution at industry events, toasting the next round of venture capital funding won by the latest technology company masquerading as a globalization agency?

Now, don’t get me wrong. The development of keen business and technology models targeting the needs of the big-budget corporate buyers is to be lauded. There is a need that is being serviced effectively and a great deal of innovation has sprung from these investments. Indeed, I am as guilty as anyone. I too believed in this vision of the future. I built proprietary TMS technology, I integrated systems, I trained MT systems. Lacking the investment capital of the giants, my firm, like virtually every other small to mid-sized company in the industry, had to do its best to keep up by implementing an inadequate off-the-shelf technology. But we pressed ahead nonetheless and finally, armed with a decent conveyor belt, we too parroted the industry promise – that technology would solve globalization.

But as I said before, I was wrong. I was willing to believe that by making translation faster and cheaper I was meeting my clients’ needs. I, as most of us, was willing to ignore the bigger picture, to convince myself that this approach was what my clients needed to “go global.”

However, I believe the time of reckoning has come. The truth has caught up with us. We have come to the point where I believe we are misrepresenting the idea of “globalization.” Despite the bells and whistles, at the end of the day, the industry largely sells a commodity called “technologically-enabled translation”. We actively try to rebrand our work as “localization.” However, we mislead our clients by pretending that we are applying finesse to their global ventures, when really we are simply translating words for digital interfaces and then calling it “localization” because content flows from system to system, the characters are rendered on the screen, the address format is right, and we substituted “Mary” with “María” in the sample dataset.

We have reduced the idea of a “locale” down to a four-letter ISO code, unwilling to face the complexities of local culture and market conditions. To truly attempt to build globalization strategy is messy. It most certainly is not conducive to an investment focused too heavily on a language assembly line with replaceable parts. To add insult to injury, the replaceable parts are the cross-cultural communicators from whose ranks nearly all of us in the industry have spawned. While disheartening, it is understandable that we have chosen this route. Look at the world around us – the proliferation of content, the A-B-ization of human choices, the way we have turned people into algorithms.

Let’s be honest. Long gone are the days when rendering non-Latin scripts on a screen was indeed a massive barrier to conducting international business. The global integrated market is already here and we are still conducting business as if we were unaware of the broader complexities involved in supporting our clients.

All of this said I would propose we take a closer look at ourselves and attempt to redefine our role in the world in a way that honors our industry and the lives of the people who continue to build it. When you talk to people in localization what you find are individuals who are overwhelmingly open – open to learning, to listening, to experiencing, to connecting. It is we, and not our technologies, who have built the real bridges that connect people around the world. For many of us, this begins with our personal journeys. We travel and live abroad. We fall in love with people from different cultures. We bear children who embody our global citizenship. We nourish our curiosity and need to connect by delving into the idiosyncrasies, histories, and ways of living that constitute cultures. It is in these ways that the world becomes more connected and more understanding. And it will be through connection and understanding that the global marketplace will thrive, not through the bombardment of people with multilingual content. I find it ironic that we who are capable of seeing the beautiful complexity of culture are precisely the ones who are seeking to iron out the unique contours of the world to make it more amenable to commoditization. I’m sure that many will say, “Business is business! What do you want from us? It’s not our job to make the world a better place.” I for one cannot look at the current global landscape and accept this sort of minimalism.

We collectively undervalue our contribution to the world by simply competing to see who can develop the best assembly line. And we do our clients a disservice by focusing on a single globalization tactic rather than enabling a holistic global to business planning and execution. Furthermore, we dishonor the people of the world by treating them like a language with a particular amount of web traffic or an attractive level of disposable income. The conversation around global business success too rarely rises beyond the mechanics of automation. We pay lip service to broader globalization ideals but at the end of the day, most companies simply try to feed their machine to make the biggest margins they can.

I am calling for a revolution, a shift in thinking toward a focus on real people and on the real business concerns of our clients. To truly support globalization with integrity, we cannot simply focus our energy on driving customers toward translation spending. And let me be very clear in stating that this is not simply an industry vendor problem. Some corporate buyers are complicit in this fantasy, seeking often to simply make their supply chains less expensive while retaining sufficient translation quality. Corporate buyers often shy away from advocating for a robust and multi-faceted approach to globalization. People are afraid to ruffle feathers, to lose budget, to misuse political capital. All of this comes at the expense of their own company’s interests. It is incumbent on those of us who know the truth to speak up and ensure that everyone, from senior executives to translation project managers, begins shifting their understanding of globalization away from tactics and toward global readiness and global engagement. This will mean that money will move away from translation and toward other more valuable endeavors, but providers with integrity will not shy away from this evolution and growth. And smart buyers will welcome truth and real global strategies.

But how do we do this? Where do we go from here? First off, we take translation off the table during an initial conversation. We ought to be working with our clients to identify and engage with the key stakeholders across the various disciplines that drive corporate development. This includes, critically, the thought leadership and executive strategists at the highest levels. In speaking with these stakeholders we should perform a holistic analysis of the company’s global readiness, including but not limited to the following:

Brand: It is foolhardy to imagine that one can build a global brand simply by translating copy and working out distribution relationships. And, please, let’s not make the naïve assumption that a local reseller or distributor is somehow going to deliver brand street cred. That’s not their job. It is the responsibility of headquarters to create a thoughtful plan that will ensure the integrity of the core brand while allowing local partners sufficient flexibility to adapt it to their needs. Successful cross-market branding takes a nuanced understanding of the many dimensions of culture that affect perception. By setting aside our native cultural bias, we open ourselves to seeing the brand with different eyes, reimagining it in a new context. This ability to shift perspective positions us to ensure that we are both maximizing opportunity while also mitigating the risk of alienating or offending people in a new market. Below is a tool that I’ve developed to help guide global brand development conversations.

Figure 1: Multi-dimensional cultural analysis is key to developing a powerful global brand

Identity: To truly find long-term success in the global market, an organization itself must be ready to walk the global walk. This means identifying, celebrating, and leveraging the skills of those in your organization who understand language and culture. It means encouraging all divisions and teams to explore the ways they have a stake in globalization. Every global organization should have a clear directive and buy-in from senior executives regarding the need for global readiness to imbue all work performed in the organization. Missions and organizational pillar should reflect a global focus and all employees should be trained on an ongoing basis on these ideals.

Human Resources: A great global organization needs to understand that the way employees interact with their employer is not the same in each culture. Expectations relating to management, accountability, work environment and communication are not universal. How people learn varies based on the educational philosophies that happen to be predominant in a place and time. Yes, people may speak some English, but we have begun to make blanket assumptions about language skills based on level of seniority or industry sector (e.g. everyone who works in tech, anywhere in the world, speaks English; all senior executives speak English – we require it at OUR company).

 Figure 2: ESL skills are not ubiquitous, even among senior executives.
EF English Proficiency Index. Source: EF

Customer Support: It is not enough to localize your software or create multilingual packaging. Real people expect real support that is accessible based on their local language, cultural norms, and technology infrastructure. Often organizations will exert great effort and apply meticulous controls to the localization of a product, but then assign customer support to a green (inexperienced) community manager who has not been trained on the organization's global corporate culture and has not been provided with basic tools to ensure a consistent voice in each market. Something as simple as a bilingual glossary is not regularly shared across global organizations.

Quality: In the world of language and cultural adaptation, everyone is a critic. Industry professionals and corporate stakeholders need to do more to build an awareness that language and communication is not an objective science. Too often any dialogue or disagreement around the right word or the right tone devolves into defensive posturing and questioning the integrity of those producing translations. Such foolhardy and combative stances must stop. If we cannot engage in a productive conversation about language and culture among those of us to apply such knowledge to the business of globalization, how likely will the end result of our work resonate with the recipients around the world?

Marketing: More times than not businesses focus on globalizing their product but ignore the need for a nuanced approach to marketing and advertising. There is a prevailing notion that “if you translate it, they will come.” This is especially true when the budget is scarce and when just getting the budget to localize the product itself is an uphill battle. But this is often where the rubber meets the road. Localization vendors are too often willing to simply remain silent, taking the client’s money to localize the product, knowing all along that ultimately the client may not achieve its goals because it has ignored culturally-infused marketing.

It is not my objective here to provide a prescriptive set of guidelines for holistic globalization analysis. Others will know more than I. However, I do seek to open a more honest dialogue regarding the role our industry should and could be playing, not only in enhancing corporate global success but also in promoting a more deliberate sort of integrity in the way we value our skills and the people who have built and continue to drive this industry.

I have great respect and admiration for our industry, including the numerous brilliant minds who have built shiny, smart conveyor belts and for the sharp business buyers who manage complex content and localization workflows. But I would posit that there is more at stake here, namely the shared responsibility to call things what they are and to recognize the greater complexity that is required for successful globalization. We might be tempted to point at client success stories to justify our current silence, but who is to say that despite global results being acceptable, they could not be extraordinary if a broader and more culturally oriented approach were employed.


Aaron Schliem: CEO, Glyph Language Services

As founder and CEO, Aaron has guided the strategic development of Glyph Language Services for nearly 15 years, positioning the firm as a visionary leader in global communications, cross-cultural learning strategy, and adaptation of creative media. A regular speaker at international conferences and workshops Aaron has delivered innovative training in fields that range from executive compensation to mobile apps and games. Aaron has also published articles and interviews for Multilingual Magazine, The Content Wrangler and The Savvy Client's Guide to Translation Agencies. Senior executives in a wide range of industries rely on Aaron’s creative consulting to develop holistic approaches to globalization, focusing on global HR management, product design & adaptation, brand globalization, content pipelines and culturally-infused marketing. Aaron also has more than a decade of experience helping Fortune 50 companies build smart geopolitical and cultural sensitivity policies and programs. Outside of Glyph, Aaron is active in his local Madison community, serving on the board of a local queer theater company and on the school district’s special education parent advisory committee.