Do the beliefs we hold about literature add up to something consistent and coherent? Or are they little more than random pieties? Take two crucial notions I heard repeatedly last year. First, that in a fine work of literature, every word counts, perfection has been achieved, nothing can be moved—a claim I’ve seen made for writers as prolix (and diverse) as Victor Hugo and Jonathan Franzen. Second, that translators are creative artists in their own right, co-authoring the text they translate, a fine translation being as unique and important as the original work. Mark Polizzotti makes this claim in Sympathy for the Traitor (2018), but any number of scholars in the field of Translation Studies would agree.
Can these two positions be reconciled? Doesn’t translating a work of literature inevitably involve moving things around and altering many of the relations between the words in the original? In which case, either the original’s alleged perfection has been overstated, or the translation is indeed, as pessimists have often supposed, a fine but somewhat flawed copy. Unless, that is, we are going to think of a translation as a quite different work with its own inner logic and inspiration, only casually related to that foreign original. In which case, English readers will be obliged to wonder whether they have ever read Tolstoy, Proust, or Mann, and not, rather, Constance Garnett, C.K. Scott Moncrieff, or Helen Lowe-Porter. Or more recently, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, or Lydia Davis or Michael Henry Heim.
How perplexing. One of the problems in this debate is that most readers are only familiar with translated texts in their own languages. They cannot contemplate the supposed perfection of the foreign original, and when the translation delights them, they rightly thank the translator for it and are happy to suppose that the work “stands shoulder to shoulder with the source text,” as Polizzotti puts it. It makes these readers’ own experience seem more important. Alternatively, when they rejoice over the perfection of Jane Austen, Henry James, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, they do not see what foreign translations have done to the work as it travels around the world.
Let’s consider a couple of examples, one from English into Italian and one from Italian into English, and try to get a clearer idea of what actually happens between original and translation, untroubled by polemics or special pleading. Here is Henry James opening his fine story “The Altar of the Dead” (1895):
He had a mortal dislike, poor Stransom, to lean anniversaries, and loved them still less when they made a pretence of a figure. Celebrations and suppressions were equally painful to him, and but one of the former found a place in his life. He had kept each year in his own fashion the date of Mary Antrim’s death. It would be more to the point perhaps to say that this occasion kept him: it kept him at least effectually from doing anything else. It took hold of him again and again with a hand of which time had softened but never loosened the touch. He waked to his feast of memory as consciously as he would have waked to his marriage-morn.
We’re struck at once by the curiosity of “lean anniversaries” and the rather unexpected “pretence of a figure.” The story of the fiancée’s death allows us to realize that “lean” has the sense of unhappy (as in the lean and fat cows of Pharaoh’s dream), while the account of Stransom’s obsession adds to this leanness the idea of the girl’s softening hand holding him from beyond the grave. At this point, the choice of “mortal” right at the beginning and “pretence of a figure” also make sense: it’s as if the various parts of some gaunt, ghostly manifestation were calling to each other beneath the surface of the writing. The cleverness of the three uses of “keep” helps bring them together: Stransom keeps the anniversary, but no, it keeps him, it keeps him from doing anything else, because, in a way, Mary Antrim is not dead. Lean and softly decaying, she is still pretending to figure. And James is having fun. Stransom “wakes” to his “marriage morn,” which is, in fact, a wake and a mourning. And so on. Here is the Italian, by Giulia Arborio Mella, which, with patience, we shall try to understand:
Lui non le poteva soffrire, povero Stransom le celebrazioni scialbe, e ancor più detestava quelle pretenziose. Le commemorazioni lo affliggevano non meno dell’oblio, e una sola trovava spazio nella sua vita: a modo suo, aveva sempre osservato la ricorrenza della morte di Mary Antrim. Ma forse sarebbe più esatto dire che era quella ricorrenza a osservare lui, a tenerlo d’occhio, anzi, al punto da sottrarlo a ogni altra cura. Anno dopo anno lo ghermiva col suo piglio mitigato dal tempo, ma non per questo meno imperioso; e ogni volta, per quel festino di rimembranze, Stransom si destava pronto e consapevole come fosse stato il mattino delle sue nozze.
When I show these two texts to Italian students without saying which is the original, they often imagine it is the Italian. The writing is attractively literary, vaguely pompous, archaic, solemnly fluent. It feels like the kind of things Italians used to write. Paying a little attention, however, we see that there are parts that don’t make much sense. Here is a brutally literal translation of the Italian back into English:
He couldn’t stand them, poor Stransom, those banal/empty celebrations, and he detested pretentious celebrations even more.
The English posited one kind of anniversary/celebration that Stransom dislikes, the unhappy kind, which he dislikes even more when they put on a show; in the Italian, he hates two kinds, empty anniversaries and pretentious ones. This doesn’t really set us up for his obsession with Mary Antrim’s death. Here’s the next sentence, again in my literal translation:
Commemorations pained him no less than forgetfulness/oblivion, and only one found space in his life: in his way he had always observed the anniversary of Mary Antrim’s death.
James’s Stransom found it painful to commemorate an unhappy anniversary and equally painful to suppress it, to pretend it wasn’t occurring. The Italian has Stransom equally pained by commemorating and forgetting. It’s not clear how this could be; once something is forgotten, it ceases to be painful. Stransom’s problem is precisely that he can’t forget. Let’s take the remaining two sentences in one chunk, noticing the problem the translator has in finding an equivalent for James’s game with “keep,” the disappearance of the suggestion of decay in the softening hand, and the inevitable loss of fun with “waked” and “morn.”
But perhaps it would be more exact to say it was the anniversary observed him, kept an eye on him rather, to the point of subtracting him from any other concern. Year after year, it clutched him with a grip mitigated by time, but no less imperious for that; and every time this feast of remembrance came round, Stransom woke up ready and conscious as if it had been the morning of his wedding day.
In many ways, the Italian version is an excellent translation. Certainly, many Italians will have enjoyed reading it. Better to have it than not. But it doesn’t reproduce the internal tension and apparently easy patterning of the English, that crucial meshing of a language’s possibilities with an author’s imagination that gives us literature. The Italian translator is playing catch up as best she can, tossing in melodrama (“clutch… imperious”) where James only has the quiet, but deadly effective “keep.” Perhaps another translator might have given the first lines more faithfully and just as fluently, but there would still have been moments when the writing wasn’t so intensely allusive and interconnected. This is simply because one is translating rather than writing.
Now the other way around. Here is the great Giovanni Verga opening the short story “I galantuomini” (1883).
Sanno scrivere—qui sta il guaio. La brinata dell’alba scura, e il sollione della messe, se li pigliano come tutti gli altri poveri diavoli, giacché son fatti di carne e d’ossa come il prossimo, per andare a sorvegliare che il prossimo non rubi loro il tempo e il denaro della giornata. Ma se avete a far con essi, vi uncinano nome e cognome, e chi vi ha fatto, col beccuccio di quella penna, e non ve ne districate più dai loro libracci, inchiodati nel debito.
This time, let’s look at the translation straight away. This version, by G.H. McWilliam, is entitled “Bigwigs”:
The trouble is, they know how to write. They’re made of flesh and blood like the rest, so like any other poor devil they put up with the hoar-frost on a dark morning and the dog-days at harvest time, so as to keep watch on their workers and make sure they’re not wasting their time and robbing them of a day’s wages. But once they get their claws into you, they jot down your name, surname and parentage with those pens of theirs, and you never get out of their grubby little books, you’re in debt up to your ears.
Like the Italian translation of James, this looks pretty fluent and readable. Of course, the word “Bigwigs” shifts our perception of these men quite a distance. The English term is always disparaging and has fallen into disuse; the Italian “galantuomini” is alive with antithetical energies; it means gallant men, honourable men, but also possibly and simultaneously, criminals, mafia, bosses—“gallant,” that is, within an abhorrent moral code. The Italian begins “Sanno scrivere—qui sta il guaio” (They can write, there’s the rub). Readers are not used to hearing this kind of thing; how on earth can knowing how to write be a problem? The English opening, “The trouble is…” is weaker. But that is an issue with this particular translation and surely not absolutely necessary.
There follows, in the Italian, a classic example of what linguists call “dislocation”: that is, the two objects of the verb “pigliarsi” (suffer, feel, take) are shifted to the beginning of the sentence, before the subject or verb. This is standard behavior in colloquial Italian and is often accompanied by a device called anaphora, in which the object is then repeated, as it were, in pronoun form. I’ll give a literal translation following the Italian syntax. Watch how this organization sets Verga up for the repeat of the word “prossimo,” meaning neighbor or fellow man in the Biblical sense of “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” In fact, “prossimo” is used in the sense of ‘neighbor’ only when recalling Christ’s commandment.
The frost on a dark dawn, the hot sun of harvest time, they feel them like every other poor devil as they’re made of flesh and blood like their neighbor, to go and check that their neighbor is not stealing their time and the day’s money.
This isn’t fluent English and our translator was right to move things around. But the Biblical reference seems crucial. The idea of loving one’s neighbor is evoked exactly as these men seek to control and exploit their neighbors. It’s worth noting that like the syntax, the words used—“pigliarsi,” “carne,” and “ossa”—all have a colloquial, low-register feel that makes the text intensely homogeneous and suggests that the speaking voice is close to the men being watched over, rather than the landowners who are watching. All this, however, is nothing to the problem of the metaphor Verga sets up in the next sentence, clinching his paragraph with an image that explains the claim of the opening few words. Again, I’ll give a literal version:
But if you have to do with them, they’ll hook you name and surname, and the person who made you, with the nib of that pen, and you’ll never extricate yourself from their horrible books, nailed in debt.
The “problem” with knowing how to write, it turns out, is that it allows the rich to nail the poor by recording their names, and the names of “who made you” (your parents) in their debtors’ books. It’s all rapidly and effortlessly delivered in the Italian, with the harsh vocabulary (“uncinano,” “libracci,” “inchiodati”) again at one with the impression of a local speaking voice. The English is idiomatic enough with its “get their claws into you” and “up to your ears in debt,” but it has lost the strong metaphor of the pen as an instrument for capturing and torturing the neighbor you were supposed to love.
These are just two translations of a couple of paragraphs of fine literature. No doubt, both could be bettered. But they are fairly ordinary examples of what happens in the translation process. It is not that the original has achieved some mystical perfection, but it is marshalling syntax, lexical choices, rhetorical devices, and cultural context—everything, in short—to conjure up that density of possible meaning combined with felicity of expression that gets us so excited when we read good literature.
The translation does its best, and if the content and plot are strong, the reader will be drawn in and not feel the loss, since he or she can’t know what is being missed. On its side, the translation has the advantage of exoticism: we may be fascinated by Verga’s Sicily precisely because we don’t know much about it. For its part, the original can call on the more potent resource of recognition; this is our world described in our tongue, we can’t deny it.
To return to our original questions: an original we might now say is not so much a perfect text as one that is truly embedded in the culture that produced it. A translation can indeed be creative and “important,” but it is the creativity of astute accommodation and damage limitation, the “importance” of allowing as much as possible of that original to happen in the translator’s culture. To imagine, however, that Henry James could ever be to the Italians what he is to us, or Giovanni Verga to us what he is to Italians, is nonsense.
An earlier version of this essay misidentified the translator Constance Garnett. It also misstated Pharaoh’s dream as Nebuchadnezzar’s. The piece has been updated.
The SlatorCon tour took in four global cities across three continents in 2018 and featured a grand total of 35 speakers representing the full breadth of the language industry from startups, language technology and language service providers to the buy side, finance and academia.
We also added a bonus event with SlatorMeet, a new format where language industry leaders gather in a more intimate setting. The inaugural SlatorMeet was held in Hong Kong in October 2018 and more are planned for 2019. Here, we revisit the key takeaways from our events calendar in 2018:
Founder and CEO of Tokyo-based remote interpretation app Oyraa, Oya Koc, described the language industry startup scene in Japan. At the time, she said that only 1% of all Japanese startups focus on language services and technology, compared to the more active fields of fintech (9%), IoT/AR/VR/Robot (21%), for example, which command a much bigger share of the startup pie. Nonetheless, against a backdrop of a buoyant startup environment and a fast-growing industry the future is bright for language industry startups in Japan, she shared.
Startups face two main challenges in Japan, however. Firstly, Japanese culture tends to be generally risk-averse meaning that the high-risk startup scene is in danger of being shunned in place of stable, safe, big companies. Secondly, there is less hype surrounding language services than the other fields of fintech, AI generally or AR / VR. Related to this is the fact that there is also insufficient analysis of industry needs and too much dependency on MT, Koc said, which leads to there being less traction for language sector startups, she added.
Koc also explained her observation that translation startups like Gengo and Conyac are focused on crowdsourcing translation despite the worldwide focus on MT. On the interpretation side, despite the value of human translation, startups are focusing more on automated, instant interpretation gadgets that she says don’t work.
The CTO of language startup Interprefy, joined the panel session and shared his views on tech-driven market disruption. Interprefy also provided remote interpretation via its app for SlatorCon Tokyo, which worked flawlessly and enabled a fluent discussion in both Japanese and English.
The Global CTO of machine translation provider Systran took participants on a whistle-top tour of machine translation history, from rules-based MT (RBMT) production in the late 1960s through to present-day neural MT (NMT). He spoke about the rapid rise and merits of OpenNMT in fostering collaboration even among competitors.
Launched in early 2017, OpenNMT, to which SYSTRAN, Ubiqus and Harvard University all contribute, is a jointly developed NMT toolkit. At the time of the presentation, the project had gathered strong momentum with 18 major releases, 3300 stars and 1020 forks on Github, and 6 complete code refactorings, Senellart said. It is now the second largest open-source NMT project.
The CEO of memoQ, a translation software provider, does not see automation as killing off jobs, but credits it with doing something different, something that puts translators at the center of tools and will create time for linguists, project managers and company owners.
The Cadence Translate CEO joined the startup panel at SlatorCon San Francisco. Cadence Translate works provides interpreters for the highly specialist and confidential work of facilitating investor calls for their clients who are active in the investment space. It’s a unique challenge for a premium niche market, Conger said.
When conducting research on the size of the opportunity, “every day we found that there are around five thousand investor due diligence calls that happen around the world, and they’re paying anywhere from a thousand to USD 1,500 per phone call,” he added. And so Cadence Translate became a multilingual research partner for firms that perform overseas investments or M&A due diligence.
However, Conger said they were doing more than just interpreting—they were facilitating. “Interpreters are taking this Hippocratic oath not to insert themselves into a dialogue,” he said. “But in reality, investors…want someone who’s going to get on these calls and get to the bottom of the truth, almost like a journalist or an investigator.” In essence, “we’re focused on training both clients and more importantly interpreters to help bridge that gap,” he concluded.
The Co-Founder of Wovn Technologies also joined the startup panel and explained how his company is focused on resolving two main challenges. On the one hand, Wovn allows developers “to go completely outside of the localization process and not worry about how their code will affect [it],” and, on the other hand, the company enables content managers “to not worry about the details and hiccups along the way and just focus on the content.”
As a website localization service, Wovn’s solution aims to separate the tasks of development and content management, Sandford said. He was enthusiastic about inter-market opportunities between Japan and China, and said that Southeast Asia, India, and Africa are all emerging digital economies and potential markets.
Boostlingo provides what Forrester called an IMS: an interpretation management service. Forrester commented that despite headwinds such as compliance and immigration, “we actually think it’s a huge growth market, a greenfield market and there’s a lot of businesses out there that actually need interpreting but they don’t even know these services exist.”
Forrester said that interpreting is “about a quarter of [the entire language industry’s] addressable market, so about a USD 13bn market worldwide.” During the September presentation, he added that they estimate remote interpreting and video services to be growing at about a 30% compound annual growth rate (CAGR).
Boostlingo had a defining pivot moment that probably saved the business, Forrester said: “Early on when we didn’t know better, [we wanted to be] Uber for interpreting.” But then the company learned about the complexities of what they wanted to achieve. “It took us about four days [to realize] that we wanted to not be a service provider and qualify and vet interpreters,” he said. “We’d probably already be out of business if we had gone down that route,” Forrester admitted. “We decided that we wanted to be the technology layer…[and tell partners]: ‘you do what you do best—vet and qualify your interpreters and provide services to clients. Let us do the technology piece’.”
Mark Shriner, Wordbee, Director North America (San Francisco)
The Director North America at Wordbee shed some light on customer expectations for technology during the tech panel: “there are a million different features and everybody wants a subset of them,” he shared. “They want an integrated platform,” Shriner said, “and they want that platform to be easily integrated into some form of CMS or document management system.”
Aside from integration, clients also look for agile development, according to Shriner, “because all organizations have their own proprietary platforms and processes and if I come to you with a big bundle of software and say take it or leave it, it’s not gonna fit all your needs.” Those making good headway with technological innovation include customers in software and ecommerce, such as Expedia,” he said. “They just developed their own proprietary processes for localizing UGC on the fly.”
The Senior Technical Program Manager at Google spoke about the latest advances in Google’s machine learning capabilities and its recently-launched custom NMT offering, Auto ML Translation. Bombassei said that with the new system it’s quick and easy for users to build their own custom NMT models by simply uploading their specific bilingual data and waiting about three hours for the engine to be ready.
The time frame in which users can now get access to a custom NMT model has been significantly reduced, Bombassei said, thanks to Google’s third generation TPUs, which are around 10x more efficient than regular GPUs. The upshot of all this, Bombassei explained, is that users can get domain-specific NMT engines even if they don’t have people with machine learning expertise inhouse to write the code, “making [NMT] more accessible to a wider audience.”
Tamchyna joined the panel at SlatorCon Zurich to give his take on current state machine translation. He.said that the advancement in machine translation should be taken with “a big grain of salt” and that we should not be misled into thinking that machine translation is a solved problem. For some specific domains and on a sentence level only, Tamchyna said, there have been recorded instances of machine translation output being indistinguishable from human output. However, quoting Memsource data, he said that in reality MT output is only used raw (without human post editing) in around 5-15% of real-world cases. The real test comes, therefore, when you begin to look at translation in context. For this reason, he said, there is a strong trend towards researchers investigating document level translation.
Another research trend he highlighted was the area of low resource languages, language pairs for which there is little language data available. Within this field, researchers are looking at how to use “big language pairs to help the small ones,” he said. And, in the next few years, Tamchyna predicted, machine translation will be able to cover a much broader range of language pairs.
Higashi is President of Japan’s largest language service provider Honyaku Center Inc. A company with USD 96.5m in 2017 revenues, Higashi said at the time of the presentation that Honyaku is forecasting sales of USD 100.4m for 2018. There is room for growth, given that Japan’s language industry has a total market size of JPY 290bn (USD 2.7bn), he said.
According to Higashi, the language services market in Japan will continue to grow in the future due to a couple of high-growth verticals (local infrastructure and automobiles), ongoing globalization, and an emphasis on events and conferences. Then there is also tourism, with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on the horizon.
Honyaku is putting its money where its mouth is with a couple of strategic investments in MT companies. In 2017, Honyaku Center acquired Media Research Inc. and took a 13% stake in MT company Mirai Translate. “It is now growing into a “comprehensive supplier of foreign language business” as the domestic translation industry’s largest enterprise,” according to Higashi’s presentation.
The CEO of cloud-based media localizer ZOO Digital explained that media localization is one of the fastest growing industry verticals (and one that is still relatively untouched by NMT). Green also confirmed in his presentation that “demand is outstripping supply”.
ZOO’s cloud-based model is challenging the traditional ways of providing services such as subtitling, dubbing, and voiceover. Dubbing, for example, would traditionally involve bricks-and-mortar operations and require the voice artist to physically be present at a studio. ZOO’s platform does away with that, allowing talent to work from home.
ZOO has struck big over the past two years as Netflix and other over-the-top content (OTT) providers expanded so aggressively across many international markets that the existing media localization infrastructure could barely cope. The result has been exceptional revenue growth and a skyrocketing share price.
Unchallenged for the most number of acquisitions in 2018, CEO of Paris-based Technicis du Fraysseix explained his approach to M&A and divulged during his May 2018 presentation that he has had discussions with dozens of potential targets since the company began to embark on a buy-and-build strategy backed by its private equity investors.
du Fraysseix admitted that M&A can at times be a painful and difficult journey but stressed that in the end it is exciting and that he believes it creates value. Aside from the benefits of M&A in delivering top-line growth, du Fraysseix also spoke of the need for companies to drive organic growth and stay focused on sales.
Since the company’s founding in 2008, WPP-owned Hogarth has grown far beyond its original transcreation business and has expanded into a number of areas around the “production, adaptation and supply of advertising materials”. Language service, however, continues to play a major part in Hogarth’s business, and Glasson shared that in Hogarth’s operating model services related to language are provided at a regional level. “Language for us, primarily as an advertising business, is based around transcreation, and transcreation needs real expertise, real specialization, and very high quality talent”, Glasson said.
Glasson told participants that a real tension exists between ever more complex client requirements as global content continues and shrinking budgets. He highlighted that while what’s needed is a consultative approach, procurement often just wants to “manage vendors.”
Hogarth’s Global Head of Language Services stood in for Glasson on the SlatorCon London panel and explained why some of her clients prefer to have linguists and project managers onsite. “They are very passionate about meeting the people that will carry their brand in their language”, Franceschina said.
Hernandez spoke of the complementary nature of people, customers and locations in the Donnelley acquisition; only 3% of Donnelley Language Solutions’ revenue came from common clients. He also said that he expects consolidation to continue in the language industry, though it will not be a winner takes all market.
The CEO of media localizer SDI Media, a company operating within one of the industry’s fastest growing verticals, explained in his September presentation that there has “never been a content producer that’s come in and grown as fast as Netflix.”
Howorth described how Netflix, among others, disrupted the media industry to the extent that they “reset the bar on quality”. So much so, he said, that SDI Media had to “put ourselves in the shoes of our customer and say ‘if we were starting from scratch and gave the customer a wishlist, what would they want?’” In doing so, SDI saw a crucial need to provide customers with speed, simplicity and transparency.
The Chairman and CEO of Cyracom, a US-based remote interpreting provider, said that the vertical is driven by regulation, immigration and replacement of modalities. The choice of modality, e.g. whether interpreting is done onsite, over the telephone or via video, is context dependent, the Cyracom CEO said.
Overall, he sees more of a shift from onsite to telephonic and thinks video is more complex. Asked about the startups operating in the interpretation space, Woan said that building a platform is not the tough part, but managing vendors is the real hard task, especially for newcomers.
The CEO of EVS Translations, who since 1991 has built his company into a force in the financial, legal, and other premium verticals, explained how the rise of AI is leading his clients to become ever more security conscious, with many asking “what’s happening to my data?” To win some of the top law firms as clients, EVS has been through two-year onboarding processes to verify the right security arrangements were in place.
For Vick, an important part of the solution is employing in-house linguists, who accounted for roughly half of EVS Translations’ more than 200 employees at the time of the presentation. “If you’re only able to use specific translators” said Vick, and “if you’re not allowed to use freelancers outside of a dedicated network, you may be able to increase the price, increase the quality, but for sure you increase the security.”
While Vick believes that the legal industry is “absolutely ready” for AI, EVS still offers clients their choice of solutions, human translation without AI and AI solutions with post-editing. For clients choosing the latter, EVS can tailor the solution down to the law firm’s client, practice area, and language pair.
The Founder of Hong Kong-based startup LSP into23 detailed several areas where Asia offers huge potential for providers of language services and tech. He sees demand for translation changing quickly with the rise and globalization of Chinese companies, saying “I see Chinese as important today as a source language as English and I think that’s something that’s going to continue to be important in the future.”
Delanty broke down how the expansion in Asia of Chinese smartphone makers and fintech companies in particular was helping drive the growth of regional commerce. He saw ecommerce and travel growth in the key markets of India, Pakistan, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Malaysia creating unique challenges for LSPs given the lack of qualified linguists in fast emerging, intra-Asian language combinations.
Delanty highlighted that Asia also had low technology adoption and remained fragmented as no major language service provider has captured significant market share. His recommendation for LSPs hoping to succeed in Asia is to innovate an MT-first supply chain, collaborate with partners to fill human-talent gaps, educate customers on workflow automation, and compete to win.
The President of Ubiqus described the challenges of deploying machine translation in a production environment, an exercise that Ubiqus has spent the past 18 months focusing on, Nguyen shared at the end of November. The company now considers NMT to be “just another CAT [productivity] tool in the workflow,” he said.
To be able to get to the point of deploying NMT operationally, Nguyen said that it’s essential to secure buy-in from the people who actually interact with the technology: the translators and project managers. According to Nguyen, this journey is made easier if management is engaged and owns the roll out. Ultimately, though, while it is not (yet) perfect, “NMT output itself is the best advocate for NMT,” Nguyen concluded.
As well as the company’s focus on NMT, Ubiqus is also no stranger to another hot topic in 2018, M&A. Nguyen said during the speaker panel that over the past 18 months M&A in the language industry has “been heating up, especially among the top 50, top 100 [ranked providers]”.
Rasmus Lokvig, Language Wire and CataCap, Deputy Chairman and Partner (Zurich)
Lokvig has a dual role as Deputy Chairman of LanguageWire and Partner of CataCap, the private equity firm that took a majority stake in LanguageWire in 2017. Lokvig shared the rationale behind CataCap’s initial investment and explained why they backed LanguageWire, a (ca.) USD 30m LSP in buying Xplanation, a company roughly equal in size.
Buying up a company with the same ballpark revenue can be “more tricky and [involve] more risks” Lokvig said, but it’s worth it if it’s a good fit. And in Belgium-based Xplanation, LanguageWire saw a potential acquisition target that ticked all the right boxes, Lokvig emphasized, because it was complementary to LanguageWire in terms of size, geography, customer base, technology and people.
The Managing Director of investment bank Raymond James walked SlatorCon attendees through the blow-by-blow of executing an acquisition or sale. Emery highlighted the fact that “preparation is absolutely critical” and can determine “not just the [success of the] deal but all the value you will create after the deal.”
Raymond James specializes in facilitating M&A for tech-focused companies, including in the language industry, and has observed that “more and more of it is happening in this industry,” and commenting in his November presentation that “market conditions are very hot,” which is influencing valuations.
Kayoko Takeda, Rikkyo University, Professor of Translation and Interpreting Studies (Tokyo)
The Professor of Translation and Interpreting Studies at Rikkyo University and former head of the Japanese translation and interpreting program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey spoke about the role of academia in preparing the next generation of linguists for a competitive market.
Takeda illustrated some of the specific challenges and opportunities facing academia in Japan. Firstly, she said that previous generations of linguists lack the academic credentials necessary to become instructors. There is also a relationship gap between academia and industry due to the short history of these programs. Not only that but Academia is missing great opportunities in working with partner universities overseas, Takeda highlighted. There is also a lack of specialism since potential linguists go through generic courses rather than specific training. And, lastly, language provision is limited since most courses focus on only English and Japanese.
Takeda concluded by calling on all stakeholders in the language industry to adopt a more “holistic approach” to linguist training.
Buyers, Users, Enterprise
Chizu Tanaka, Booking.com, Team Leader Translations & Content Agency (Tokyo)
The Team Leader of Booking.com’s Translations & Content Agency in Japan outlined how this fast-growing company manages millions of words of multilingual content daily. Booking Holdings, previously Priceline, is the third largest ecommerce company after only Amazon and Alibaba. Booking.com’s scale is a huge challenge. At the time of the presentation, Booking.com had some 15,500 employees, over 1.5 million registered properties, and more than 190 offices in more than 220 countries and regions all over the globe. And the company was registering 1.5 million room nights daily.
The company’s Content Agency is comprised of 200 in-house Language Specialists who deal with high-value or high-impact localization. A pool of around 2,500 freelance translators handle high-volume content, such as property descriptions. Localization and translation work is done for customer-facing and partner-facing content, with the former taking up most of the work, even extending to social media depending on language.
Booking.com extensively A/B tests their content, with hundreds of of A/B tests conducted daily. Tanaka said that the website is localized into 43 languages, but the characteristics of specific markets and users will require additional functions and features displayed only for those markets.
Eiji Sano, SAP, Director of Language Services (Tokyo)
The Director of SAP’s Language Services unit in Japan spoke in February 2018 about the company’s sourcing strategy for language service providers. With over 88,500 employees serving over 378,000 customers spread across 180 countries, SAP requires translation of all products, product services, and corporate content and translated approximately a billion words in 2017.
The SLS team of over 200 people works with a large network of over 2,800 freelancers from more than 120 language service providers (LSPs) spread across 41 countries. The SLS team manages the supplier pool through a Central Information System called the SAP Translation Support Portal. The SLS team also supports this network through events such as the Language Services Forum and regular roundtables. Sano explained these suppliers are are mostly single language vendors, with some multi-language ones.
As for machine translation, in Sano-san’s presentation, he emphasized that “SLS views the integration of MT into its standard processes as a key strategic driver for the coming years.”
From the heart of the game localization industry, Michaela Bartelt-Krantz from Electronic Arts (EA) spoke about the company’s outsourcing strategy (direct to freelancers with some single language vendors) and of her hopes for future-state workflows where real-time, automated localization is a reality. The Senior Localization Director described EA’s internal language service as operating a supply circle, rather than a supply chain, whereby activities such as language planning, development, game design and live content are interlinked, and real-world events play a role in the localization strategy.
Ferose V R, SAP, Senior Vice President and Head of Globalization (San Francisco)
The Senior Vice President and Head of Globalization at SAP painted a bright future for human and AI interaction. Machines will never have the ability to introspect, meditate or be mindful, he said, and there will always be a place for humans in the translation workflow since “the heart of technology is human” and the role of technology is to “elevate rather than deflate humans.”
Ferose believes that the future is the “convergence of three things: translation, transcription and voice,” and while voice in particular will come with a significant security challenge, there is a big opportunity for companies in the integration of voice-based APIs.
Ferose V R also gave his take on another hot topic, that of disruption and growth markets. SAP’s Head of Globalization foresees massive expansion in previously untapped markets, such as Asia and Africa. Localizing for these multilingual geographies brings its own challenges but there is great opportunity to be found in these longtail languages, he said.
The Head of Globalization at cloud storage company NetApp spoke of NetApp’s journey to becoming a globalized company, and underlined the importance of dealing effectively with C-suite executives to secure buy-in, gain direction, and deliver programs that help products gain number one position.
When Schlegel joined NetApp over ten years ago as the first person hired onto the localization team, she “couldn’t see much localized content,” Schlegel said in September 2018. There was a clear business case, Schlegel felt, for globalizing NetApp’s products into additional languages to reach more potential users and to make sure that the company was not “leaving money on the table.” She asked for a team and a budget.
At first, Schlegel said, NetApp was “localized in a few areas. Now we have the whole company globalized.” Schlegel is now leading nearly 200 people across the Globalization, Information Engineering and Product Portfolio teams and her team also now runs a “Globalization Forum where we have the Heads of all Departments telling us what the important countries, products, practices and goals are.” This all feeds into a content strategy for the company, with globalization at the heart.
Lupe Gervas, Quora, Localization Manager (San Francisco)
The Localization Manager for intelligent question and answer community Quora was new to the role when she spoke at SlatorCon San Francisco in September 2018. Gervas gave her take on the current hiring practices within the industry, discussing the challenges, pitfalls, and successes of hiring language professionals.
Getting hiring right is extremely important, said Gervas, and all the more so because of the fast changing nature of work. For example, social products, platforms that serve as a vehicle for user generated content, are rapidly expanding and “are shaping the way we are working every day,” Gervas added. Therefore, it is important to consider the future and specifically, according to Gervas, “what are the products and the content that we are going to be working on?”
The crux of the matter from Gervas’ perspective is “are we really hiring for these new products that are coming? For the next 1 billion users?” Her response: “I question that.” Ultimately, she said, taking hiring risks, and screening candidates for adaptability rather than just experience is a good way to safeguard localization workforces.
Sonia Oliveira, GoPro, Senior Director of Globalization (San Francisco)
Joining the tech panel, the Senior Director of Globalization at GoPro said that being a video-based and edgy brand does not lend itself to using MT, but that there can be some application in the customer support and chat segments. “If you’ve seen any of our videos, we’re all about adventure; we’re a sexy brand and we want to push the envelope and our marketing reflects that,” she said. “Machines don’t do too well on that front.” Oliveira admitted that whereas “15 to 20 years ago, machine translation was laughable,” today, she thinks that “we’re gonna get even better than we have gotten up to now.”
Asked by an audience member whether the future is leaning more towards open standards or proprietary solutions, Oliviera conceded that while proprietary solutions won’t be going away, she thinks the two are not mutually exclusive. “I think it’s both, because there will be companies that are not going to be using open source,” she said. “Sometimes open source develops in a way that proprietary tools will then copy and make better for everybody.”
As for the unique challenges faced by different verticals, Oliveira said video localization has fundamental problems that are not necessarily resolved by current developments in language technology. “Let’s talk about a very basic one,” she started. “Video files are huge. It’s very difficult to send them for quality check to an outside partner, for example.”
Mike Kim, Tencent America, Localization Director (San Francisco)
The Localization Director at Tencent America described the company’s localization strategy: “in terms of what our priority language is, it’s actually where the money’s at.” He explained that the localization strategy relies on knowing which countries have a lot of spending potential for games.
For him, it not even a matter of replacing or augmenting human translation work with MT. “For marketing content, copywriters don’t even speak the source language, they just look at what’s been translated, receive the context, and rewrite,” he said. “Copywriters will write new style guides, new characteristics for heroes, so it’s like creating a new world apart from what was originally created. That’s really hard to do with MT.”
Jie Li, Alibaba Translate, Senior Product Operations Advisor (Hong Kong)
The Senior Product Operations Advisor at Alibaba Translate explained to participants why language is a critical component in the ecommerce giant’s growth strategy. “My first task [at Alibaba],” said Li, “is how to make language into a product. And also what I focus [on is to] mainly use AI, mainly machine translation to combine with other AI technology like speech recognition.”
Ultimately, Li’s mission is to shorten and improve the connection between Alibaba’s suppliers and end-users within Alibaba’s end-to-end ecommerce ecosystem. As an example, she demoed their recently launched neural machine translation powered live chat function, where buyers and sellers interact in real time. The underlying MT engine was trained on two decades worth of e-commerce content.
Alibaba’s language requirements go far beyond this, with Li sharing a slide of their technology platform and product matrix. It featured more than two dozen areas in language services and tech where they are looking for partners. “We’re looking for vendors [to] not only provide language solution,” said Li “but user experience testing, user feedback, user surveys, and more.”
Claudine Nick, Roche, Head of Project Management Language Services (Zurich)
The Head of Project Management for the internal language services department of multinational healthcare company Roche shared about the role of her team in supporting the healthcare giant’s language needs. The super sensitive nature of the content within this highly regulated industry means that there are extremely stringent data privacy and compliance considerations that have to be adhered to throughout the translation process, Nick said. Consequently, the capacity that Nick’s team has to manage and perform human translation securely within Roche’s “center of excellence” for language is of “big value” to the company, she added.
The Slator Co-Founder is a permanent fixture on the SlatorCon line up, taking the stage in Tokyo, London, San Francisco, Zurich and at SlatorMeet Hong Kong, to talk the audiences through the main trends impacting on the language industry.
The language industry has remained a strong market throughout 2018, Faes said at the final SlatorCon of the year, and some specific pockets of the industry such as media localization, life sciences, e-commerce, remote interpreting and gaming have been experiencing above average growth, boosted by their own vertical-specific growth factors.
Faes described how new services, including language data creation and curation, have sprung up to fuel the growth of the data-hungry neural machine translation (NMT) technology. It’s “probably going to be a long-term trend for this industry,” Faes predicted. The industry’s thirst for language data is here to stay, therefore, as NMT tech has stepped up a gear to enter a what Faes identified as a “new phase, which is customizable machine translation.” A potential game-changer for the industry, big tech frontrunners Microsoft and Google have both begun to sell custom NMT direct to customers in the last six months, Faes said.
M&A has also ramped up throughout 2018. While it was hot but not sizzling in the summer, deal-making in the industry has accelerated into Q3 and Q4. The landscape among the top players in language services looks markedly different from the start of the year, as Donnelley Language Solutions, Telelingua and Xplanation were absorbed into SDL, Technicis and LanguageWire, respectively. Technicis and LanguageWire, both backed by private equity, have now become two of the most major players in Europe, while SDL has closed in on frontrunners Transperfect and Lionbridge, as the largest LSPs begin to widen the gap between them and the midfield of LSPs. External buyers, including UK-based e-commerce company The Hut Group who acquired Language Connect in 2018, have also begun to explore M&A opportunities in language services company, Faes said.
The likely result of this increased M&A activity Faes summed up in his 2019 outlook given at the final SlatorCon of the year, SlatorCon Zurich. “Big LSPs will get bigger,” he predicted, pointing to more consolidation among already sizable players in the language service space. His other forecasts? Custom NMT will continue to gain traction, which will lead to specialized solutions and niche expertise in this area, Faes said.
The Slator Co-Founder also left a question mark over the impact that the language industry’s growing band of startups will have in the near term. To date, Faes said, none have succeeded in disrupting the competitive landscape in any meaningful way. But 2018 has seen more cash pumped into language industry startups meaning many will be under increased scrutiny to deliver results and making 2019 a likely crunch time for the now well-funded startups.
Save the Date
We are pleased to announce the dates and locations for 2019 SlatorCon:
London, May 16, 2019
San Francisco, September 12, 2019
Amsterdam, November 28, 2019
Stay tuned for more information on SlatorMeet 2019.
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