February 2013
By Jack Welde

Image 1: The confusion of tongues/ Image 2: © Jirsak/ istockphoto.com

Jack Welde, CEO of Smartling is the pilot of this team’s voyage. Literally. He’s a true renaissance man: a technology early-adopter, serial entrepreneur, software patent-holder, product evangelist and combat-decorated Air Force pilot.



From Babylon to the age of agile translation

Ever since the Tower of Babel, people have sought to overcome language barriers. In those days, news was shared via word-of-mouth at the pace of the swiftest runner. Fast-forward a few thousand years, and information travels around the world at the speed of light via the cloud, consumed by users on the Web and on mobile devices.

We live in the age of the dynamic Web, where content is created and updated on a continuous basis. Publishing organizations have become very good at content creation and distribution, just as software engineers have become very good at iterative development and rapid deployment. Unfortunately, the translation industry has not evolved as quickly. The age-old problem has intensified: how does translation keep up with the lightning-fast pace of content change?

Take Apple for instance. The company tops Forbes’ list of the world’s most powerful brands and has an international presence across 126 regional sites. When Apple releases a new product, or updates its website, content must be available immediately, customized for each region. Beyond just translation, each new release involves a slew of localization challenges including currencies, cultural nuances, date and numeric formats, and regional availability of specific products and features.

Most companies do not face the Herculean task Apple does, but as companies expand into new markets – and an international presence becomes de rigueur for businesses of all sizes - the demands of an agile world will deem traditional translation methodologies obsolete.

Modern business is characterized by more versions, with smaller sets of content updated more frequently, and at a faster rate. Global companies have content distributed across an ecosystem of Web, mobile, video, and documents - often available in 20 or more languages. Operating in an agile world means managing multiple internal and external resources, including translation agencies, freelance translators, crowd-sourced translators, internal stakeholders, as well as local partners.

How will translation keep pace in this agile world? Given the demands of today’s agile environment, how will organizations achieve the triumvirate of high-quality translation, affordability, and rapid turnaround?

Agile translation in practice: a 5-step process

In the software realm, “agile development” is the status quo. It’s an iterative, incremental method for building software that allows for rapid and flexible response to change. The agile development method is fast and efficient, thanks to a framework that shortens the development cycle and promotes foreseen interactions, adaptive planning and collaboration of cross-functional teams. This agile model can be replicated for translation in five simple steps.

  1. Process content via Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). This means automating the process of capturing and extracting content and preparing it for translation. Organizations have translatable content in business documents (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, InDesign, etc), localization files (GetText, Java Properties, YAML, Android XML, etc), and structured content (HTML, XML, JSON, XLIFF). The days of emailing documents back and forth between project managers, agencies, and translators are over – it’s just too slow for the modern, agile, translation buyer. Content must be parsed via APIs into individual translatable strings, ready for translation using an appropriate translation workflow.
  2. Use structured, customizable translation workflows. Any task is done better when there is a disciplined approach in place, especially when multiple parties are involved. A shared workflow that can engage multiple resources – translators, editors, internal reviewers (legal, marketing, bilinguals), local partners and power users – allows for everyone to work in sync, simultaneously, with proper tracking. Specific workflows can be automatically assigned based on the translation quality and turnaround requirements appropriate for the content.
  3. Contextualize your content using modern Web-based tools. Translating out of context is the number one reason for poor results. At a minimum, potentially ambiguous strings require translator instructions or guidance; further, dynamic strings can contain programmatic variables or placeholders that require some description of how those variables will be used in an actual software application. Working directly with dynamic Web content, as it would be seen by the target audience, allows the linguist to better understand the specific context of individual strings, and to ensure translated content properly fits within the limited screen real estate of a Web or mobile browser. Translating digital content holistically, with visual context, means fewer mistakes and development cycles.
  4. Translate using best practices. While agile translation encourages fast translation turnaround, it does not mean ignoring the basic tenets of high-quality translation. Using a glossary of approved terminology and a proper style guide is as important as ever. An approved glossary ensures correct use of important organizational or industry-related vocabulary, and a style guide helps to maintain corporate standards for a consistent voice. Validation tools check spelling, punctuation, html tags and special characters to make sure they are accurate the first time. And leveraging existing translation memories allows you to tap into an organization’s existing translations, which offers faster turnarounds with better consistency (and maybe even lower costs).
  5. Automatically deploy completed translations. Once the translation workflow is complete, the deployment process needs to be automated. Why wait? If your content has already been translated, edited, and reviewed via your translation workflow, then put it to use immediately, and automatically. Use an API to insert your translations into your Content Management System (CMS). Automatically deploy your multilingual content to the Web. Or use an API callback to programmatically push your newly translated localization files into your software source code repository. And, of course, your translation memory should be updated as part of the deployment process, so your translated content is available for re-use later.

Agile translation: a quantum leap forward

How does Agile Translation compare to the traditional translation process? Unfortunately, despite the incredible changes that have occurred in the world of information technology in recent years, the translation industry lags behind.

Let’s look at a typical process used by thousands of language service providers and translators every day. A client needs a five-page document translated, and sends it to the agency for translation, perhaps in Microsoft Word format. At the agency, a project manager receives the file and lines up translation resources for the target languages.

The Word file is sent to the translators, who do their work using a desktop translation application, or in many cases just translating directly within Microsoft Word. Even if the translator uses a translation tool, considerable work is often required to ensure that the document format is correct, the translation memory files are accessible and ready for import, and a style guide and glossary are available for use. And it’s almost impossible for multiple translators to work collaboratively on the same content or document in real-time.

When the first pass of translation for each language is complete, the translated document might be sent to another translator - an editor - for proofreading. Alternatively, the file might be sent back to the agency before the editing pass, where it is then relayed to an editor. When editing is complete, the document is sent back to the agency. The project manager collects all the documents, for all the target languages, and sends these translated files back to the client.

This process is slow and tedious. Because the smallest “unit” in the process is the Word document, rather than individual text strings, it slows everything down. Picture a tennis ball flowing through a pipe, and compare that to a lot of ball bearings flowing through a pipe.

The same amount of overall content - a document (represented by the tennis ball) or individual strings (the ball bearings) - can move through the pipe. But the ball bearings move faster, more fluidly, and are much less susceptible to becoming a clog!

Now let’s examine the localization process for a Web or mobile application. Typically, a developer has extracted every string of text in the entire application, and placed those strings into one or more localization files, for translation. Again, the usual translation process is to shuffle files by email between the client, the agency, and the translators, which is slow and cumbersome. But worse, in this case the translator lacks the context of the overall Web or mobile app. A list of strings may not provide enough informational context about whether the string “Home” is the first page of my site or where I live. Or if “Cancel” means to cancel my membership or to close a form. Context is everything.

If the client has access to internal bilinguals who can review the translations and provide feedback, this generally leads to additional back-and-forth between the client, the agency, and the translators, adding more time to the process. Add in time zones, the expected miscommunications found in emails, and the challenge of document version control, and people are bound to be pulling their hair out.

Finally, let’s assume this client is a lean, agile development company pushing out small updates with translatable content on a steady basis. New content is added to the document (or the website or mobile app) before the original translation work is complete. Plus, agencies and translators aren’t set up to handle small batches of content - there’s simply too much setup to make it cost effective.

In short, the traditional process doesn’t scale in an agile world.

Enter the age of agile translation

Manual management of projects via a spreadsheet will be replaced with modern, Web-based tools, using the latest HTML5 standards. File-based editing will be replaced by full-context editing, for smarter, more informed translation - reducing and eliminating simple mistakes and obviating redos. Online collaboration and real-time translation memory will allow multiple translators, editors, and reviewers to interact with content efficiently while reducing translation costs.

With an agile method companies can pick and choose the translation resources that best fit any given project. Professional translators, the company’s crowd of power users, or even machine translation may be used, as appropriate. While the organization’s home page and legal terms of service might require a scrupulous workflow of translators, editors, and internal legal reviewers, the organization’s extreme long-tail catalog content might call for a less rigorous approach using less costly translation resources.

All of this adds up to a collaborative, transparent process that is powered by technology. This is the future of translation, and it is available now - those that do not embrace it will be cast aside.


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#2 Alex B wrote at Mon, Dec 02 answer

Thanks for the article, enlightening indeed. I would like to suggest an online tool for all those who work in the domain of localization. It's https://poeditor.com/, a software which eases the translation work by offering different helping tools, such as translation memory or automatic translation.

#1 Alyssa D wrote at Wed, Mar 06 answer

Excellent article. I work for a translation vendor and wish I had written this myself.