The Hidden Revenue in Translation

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There are 50 million people who speak languages other than English legally living in the United States; almost half of them don’t speak English very well. About 28 million speak Spanish, 10 million speak European languages, and 7 million speak Asian languages. Yet the U.S. continues to produce speech products almost exclusively in English. Why are we ignoring 50 million potential customers here at home, and another 6 billion worldwide?

The average product from Israel is in eight languages; many are in 20. The European Union is opening the largest language database in the world to the public—for free—so that European products can be produced in eight to 16 languages at little or no cost. The EU is even paying for speech engine development. Canadian products are in three or four languages. China is building new speech products in at least three languages, with five more to come.

Outside the U.S., people are living through the localization experience, so why isn’t the U.S. on board? There are four reasons for this.
The first reason is helplessness. People who speak only one language feel helpless when working outside of their native tongues. Where else but in translation would a developer be expected to create a perfect product in a language he does not speak, cannot read, and cannot understand? The rest of the world has learned to accept the feeling of linguistic helplessness and deal with it.

The second is that there’s no ROI, an argument generally founded not on fact but on the supposition that "They speak English, so sales won’t cover the expense." People who speak only English assume that having the ability to understand is sufficient to make a product desirable, and language does not affect revenue.

The third is tunnel vision, the myopic and paralyzing impression that the world begins at the Atlantic and ends at the Pacific; that Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Australia are tourist destinations, not target markets. Wake up, America. Multilingual products will be the global norm, and the U.S. is trailing far behind.

The fourth is preparation time, the time required to present the words to the translator as an entire concept, in a manner natural to a non-technical person. Language (linguistic) words are often mixed in with code and business logic, and many translations occur with a programmer sitting next to a linguist adapting code on the fly. Mixing words and code obscures the language context and inhibits adding new words, missed words, new dialects, and personalization. Separate the words for translation and circulate the results to all participants before incorporating them into code. 

Language Has Many Flavors
Translation is an experience in conflict resolution. Customers pass responsibility to the developer and then proceed to compile input from everyone, including the cashier and janitor. The customer’s results often conflict with the translator you hired. Your translator will conflict with your internal staff. As Gary Wright of Applied Speech Resources said: "Translators and proofers/testers come from different countries, and some from different regions of the same country, yet they differ dramatically in what the formality of the language should be and on what words or phrases are appropriate to use. The other person’s work is even referred to as terrible, when it only reflects a regional variation."   

The only time there is peace and harmony in translation is when there is serious danger of doing it absolutely wrong. Peace and quiet are signs of looming disaster. If everyone is in agreement, it is highly probable that only one dialect or sector of the population is being considered, or that you are relying on people who do not understand speech products.

Thirty percent of customer complaints about translation reflect the customer’s desire to change the original English version. Another 30 percent are related to the reviewer being of a different dialect or seriously lacking in education. Your public is comprised of all flavors, but each camp is deeply convinced that it has the one true and correct version. Ten percent of issues are related to the quality of the translation itself, generally due to a failure to use a professional technology translator as the base translator. The final 30 percent are related to the fact that translators do not understand the special needs of speech technologies. Training, documentation, and explanations are required, language by language, translator by translator.

Translation is a balance of pain versus revenue. Retaining English as your sole product language is easier, but it is also a future-threatening decision.

Sue Ellen Reager is CEO and founder of @International Services, a global translation services company and developer of localization software. She can be reached at sueellen@internationalservices.com.

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