Automated Speech Translation: Think Global, Speak Local

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Global business expansion lags at the bottom of the revenue generation list, even though top companies receive 80 percent of their revenue from abroad. Going global increases a company’s revenue by 25 percent within two years and often several hundred percent within a decade. Yet a big impediment to global expansion persists for all but the most well financed—the language barrier.

Language issues can quickly overwhelm budgets, first with mountains of translation requirements for Web sites and marketing materials—plus the need to hire and train native-speaking staff—then with similar requirements for governmental applications, contracts, and legal papers. Automation is beginning to provide solutions.

The Changing Face of Advertising

To suit smaller screens, images and video are elbowing text out of the advertising message. The image-heavy approach opens the door for intelligent use of automatic translation, enabling repeat brand exposure for a fraction of the original cost. Marketing digitally to other cultures costs pennies on the dollar next to print advertising. Mobile blasts generally have a 40 percent open rate and a 19 percent click-through rate. Social media and search engine optimization can be DIY.

There are non-English versions of blogs and professional groups where audiences congregate. English language marketers often ignore these groups en masse, leaving the field wide open for those who have respect for and interest in international organizations. A blog relationship can begin for the price of translating short paragraphs and postings either using a professional translator or submitting bilingual posts (original language plus automated translation).

These low-cost marketing initiatives attract more attention when they include speech technologies in the form of text-to-speech (TTS) and voice translation. International languages as TTS audio are charming for marketing purposes; TTS audio is more attractive in most other languages, with their softer vowels, than it is in American English. A wide swath of amazingly lifelike international TTS voices is available from Nuance and Readspeaker, accessible via API for insertion into marketing messages. These applications allow for Web and digital marketing to "speak" to international consumers in surprisingly non-robotic tones, especially when the speech is short and laid over music or sound effects.

Contact Mechanisms and Language

The goal of marketing is, of course, to entice targets to contact sellers. While we all hope a prospect will contact us in a language we understand, once we launch into the global marketplace, contact with other languages is inevitable. Easy access to amazingly high-quality non-English speech recognition engines such as Nuance's and Google's combined with greatly improved automatic translation, accessible via API, and high-quality TTS voices form the foundation for voice translation technology. Using text and voice translation technologies, companies are empowered to begin serving international customers.

Customer contact solutions are emerging that use speech technology: "Click to talk to an agent." These may be embedded in the form of hyperlinks inserted in emails, mobile blasts, blog posts, Web sites, or LinkedIn and Facebook posts; the hyperlinks instantly connect the target with an agent of the company for a text chat or spoken conversation, each in his or her own language.

Globalized Options for Customer Support

Success in global marketing bumps up against the next barrier: what to do when international targets begin to ask questions or request support, and no one in the company speaks their language. It is ideal to be staffed with native speakers of customer languages, but if there are 30 different languages among viable buyers, the prospect of recruiting, hiring, and training becomes daunting.

Across-language texting and speech technology are beginning to turn the "Live Chat" box into an experience in which the words are spoken as well as typed, allowing customers to type or talk to agents in their native tongue while agents reply in the form of text chat or speech in theirs. Across-language communication of this type is only the first step to a future where speech technology and automatic translation unite to remove language barriers.

The newer applications using these combined technologies will improve as the three separate components—speech recognition, automatic translation, and text-to-speech—improve; these three are the powerhouses that will change the way we conduct global business. But for now, the increased affordability of automated approaches to international marketing and customer service also translates into less fear of failure due to low investment risk, and make global sales a goal for companies of all sizes. 

Sue Ellen Reager is CEO of @International Services, a company specializing in translation and localization for technology and marketing, and president of Translate Your World, developers of software for across-language speech communication. She can be reached at sreager@internationalservices.com.

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