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The Masked Localization Industry Insider

Back by popular demand, the masked one returns after 18 months of silence to shine a light on how much conditions have changed (or remained unchanged) in the localization/translation industry. His/her last opus focused on “dirty little secrets” of the localization industry. This time, he/she turns his/her gaze to some very basic problems — and challenges — that have haunted this industry for years. Many of the have been compounded by our long-term economic downturn.

What’s different this time?

In my last column (Dirty Little Secrets of the Translation and Localization Industry That You Won’t Learn at a Webinar), back in May of 2010, I focused on how some localization vendors may slightly exaggerate the benefits of their essentially proprietary solutions, and shy away from discussing “hidden price tags.” Some “world’s fair / world of tomorrow” solutions work great, but require 6-figure investments in a database, consulting and other add-ons. Other issues covered were “me too” portals, and the fact that an unfortunately high proportion of free-lance linguists are often 2 or 3 release levels behind on critical translation software tools.

So, what are the major changes over the last 18 months?

  • There are fewer mid-sized translation companies to choose from do to a tough economy and a flurry of acquisitions by several “big box” vendors on a growth spree
  • A significant portion of customers have finally migrated to DITA and usually at least a rudimentary CMS system, to “slice and dice” doc components for quick comparison and the ability to submit only changed data to a translation vendor
  • Some smaller translation vendors are resisting DITA, XML and/or structured FrameMaker (e.g. not wanting to move out of their comfort zone)
  • Tools that will “cleanse” content, or make words/sentences more consistent, more concise have finally gained their due attention. An unfortunately small proportion of customers are embracing these tools that are essential for cost containment and survival in our swiftly changing content landscape

What is the weakest link in the “supply chain” that feeds translation projects?

Human nature. 
Let me repeat that. 
Human nature.

And believe it or not, this “problem” is more pronounced on the customer or client-side rather than on the vendor side.

Sadly, a majority of content creators and corporate budget stakeholders are loathe to “let go” of methods and habits that they’ve become accustomed to. Moving into a solution (like Acrolinx or Congree) that will prompt and guide an author to stay within a constrained vocabulary in order to leverage maximum translation memory is perceived as more daunting than it really is. Many clients approach these life-enhancing tools as if they’re facing a buffet of lima beans and Lutefisk.

Migrate content and ditch what you don’t need

Although more clients are migrating into some semblance of intelligently planned DITA or XML structured documents, there is a critical missing step. In most cases, clients simply port over ancient, (sometimes “smelly”) content into this new format. It’s a bit like taking week-old meatloaf out of the fridge and remolding it into muffin tins. Sure, you’ve “chunked” your content, and you can assemble food on your plate in “topic-level” pieces. But the content is still stale.

When venturing into either DITA or content management system (CMS) to leverage your content better for translation, this is the optimum time to examine all levels of content to determine what can be eliminated, rewritten or improved.

Hey, I only did what they told me to do!

Another disturbing trend has markedly increased with the downward spiraling economy: novice VP-level managers are quick to invest 6-figure budgets into often unnecessary forays in consulting and pilot-tests before settling on a final DITA or CMS solution.

Ironically, some very basic questions are often overlooked at the beginning of this process. For instance, “is there a compelling need for you to share either your content or any style sheets that control formatting with anyone outside of your company?” Sometimes the answer is a resounding “No!” There are some companies and government agencies that due to trade secrets or whatever, by definition are a permanent “silo.” In cases like this, the agony of child birth in creating a totally “open standards” and “portable” solution can be completely avoided.

A management trait that probably goes back to Babylon is: “blame it on someone else.” Although the high water mark for teams of consultants who camped out on-site for months on end may have been the day of mainframes, this phenomenon is still with us. Find a “big name” consulting firm or company that’s been around forever, give the firm minimal information about your needs and vague goals, and inadvertently let it slip what your annual budget is. Voila! You have a new pack of buddies who won’t leave until the well runs dry.
Don’t count on the psychic network for a solution

There is nothing wrong with consulting or consultants. Most people do need them. But consultants cannot do your job for you in all levels of “discovery.” If you are to make any progress at all in a new publishing, content management or localization management venture via consulting, you have to do a lot of research and homework up-front, by yourself.

And this comes back to, how do you accomplish all of this with reduced staff, a tech pubs manager with one foot in the psych ward and cubicles occasionally filled with contractors who don’t feel a commitment to your enterprise?

The answer may be the use of some highly advanced, “expert-level” data-mining via social media. Balance your pre-project research with feedback from “ordinary people” who have “been there,” not just famous-name consultants and vendor-branded evangelists. Do extensive searching on The Content Wrangler for previous articles about data-mining social media intelligence with free tools.

Tapping assets in the cloud

Many larger (or well funded) localization vendors have crafted some type of solution for shared translation memory (TM) that is readily available from the “cloud,” rather than from a copy of TM on every linguists’ desktop. In theory, this is a terrific solution; the client’s ever growing TM assets are available 24/7 to any vendor or internal linguist working on a translation project.

There are a couple of problems holding this solution back from wider usage:

  • Small to mid-sized translation vendors are sometimes suspicious of TM assets that are in a cloud with a competitor’s logo on it, even if the competitor’s sales team has no possible access to names/address etc. of client stake holders. Whatever the reason, many small to mid-sized translation houses are keeping an “arms length” distance from good, workable solutions.
  • Human nature and aversion to change prevents many linguists around the world from embracing this solution and using it for better results. Many linguists are simply used to the “old” Trados model, and admittedly, do not want to change. This is also compounded by the fact that some linguists, who specialize in “exotic”, infrequently used languages or dialects, are limited to amazingly out-of-date computer hardware with very limited connectivity.
  • Some clients have upper levels of management (whomever signs the check to buy a “TM Cloud” subscription) who demand a 90-day return-on-investment to justify purchasing or subscribing to a cloud-based solution. Needless to say, this is idiotically short-sighted. It is also pretty much the norm. Ask any vendor who is trying to sell cloud-based solutions.

Portals of the past

A short shopping list for selecting a translation vendor

If you are just starting out with a translation project, or you need to expand your growing content to more than one vendor, here is a list of questions to ask your prospective translation vendor:

  1. If your vendor’s production team is off-shore, can the vendor identify and name the project manager and guarantee that he/she will handle all of your projects?
  2. Use Google maps to locate the vendor’s USA based “offices” and see how many of them are in residential neighborhoods. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; some smaller companies capture more qualified staff by letting them work remotely. The key is the company headquarters. Is it an office or a postal address?
  3. Beware of Quote price “low-balling.” If you put out a project quote and only one vendor comes in 24-33% cheaper than everyone else, be suspicious. This vendor may be (a) ignoring project management costs (b) leaving out steps (like Quality Assurance) that will come back to haunt you as “change orders.” In a nutshell, you usually get what you pay for.
  4. If the vendor has in-country-review resources (you should have your own), are those resources qualified in your profession or area of discipline?
  5. Does the vendor ask you intelligent, “qualifying” questions? Example: “have you done research to see if there is demand for your type of product in this locale?” Some naïve clients think they have to translate into Baltic languages just because “everyone else” is. Your vendor should be willing to help provide some stats from other clients on success or failure in certain locales, if you are in a mainstream industry.
  6. Does your prospective vendor work with rich media (e.g. audio/video embedded in PDF files or HTML) and does your vendor have the ability to publish multilingual files to ePubs format as well as more traditional delivery formats?
  7. Does your vendor have a decent set of blogs on their company website? This is an opportunity for you to see the “face” of some of the vendor talent, if more than one person is permitted to write a blog. If there are a lot of blogs, scan every 3rd one. What you are looking for is whether the vendor is freely sharing useful information, and not just thinly veiled “infomercials” about their own services.

In conclusion

It was more fun writing the last article, 18 months ago. Who wouldn’t get off on exposing the “dirty little secrets” of any industry? In this case, we are trying to be pragmatic and deal with simple steps that can lead to change. There are problems on both sides of the aisle; with the clients and with the vendors. So, if you want to see part of the problem (me included), just look in the mirror.