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Just Translate Please: a Message to the Industry

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Jaap van der MeerAh, life in the localization industry ain’t easy. For twenty years now we have been preaching and proclaiming how important and precious our profession is. And still our customers won’t listen. They keep driving the prices down and now they also want everything to be done quicker and quicker. Where does this end?

For twenty years the translation industry has fought hard to prove its value. First by inventing new names for its activities, like localization, globalization and multilingual communications. Then by adding features of all sorts and means, to impress the customer. And it seemed to work, customers kept coming and sending the projects…

Now, it’s not so easy to impress customers anymore. “Specialized in software localization”… yeah, yeah, everybody is. “Certified project managements” … well, I have heard that before, but I was terribly let down anyway. “One stop shopping”… yes, but I want to be free to select my own translators…. “Technology, technology”… well, does it really work, besides we do not want be locked into one system.

The first lesson in marketing is: the customer is always right. It does not matter how valuable the supplier thinks his work is. If the customers don’t buy, there is no value and no market.

This simple truth marks a turning point in the evolution of the translation industry. Translation vendors realize that customers are much harder to impress. The roles are changing, and more than ever before vendors hear the words: “Just translate please.” Customers take all the features of specialization, translation tools, project control, etceteras… for granted, and focus on the bottom line. They need their documents translated as fast as possible and at lower cost. No more stories.

Call this “commoditization” and the end of the localization industry, or be less dramatic and look for the new opportunities. After all, we could have seen this coming a long time ago, perhaps as long ago as twenty years. Rates for translation services have always varied widely. A translator of a novel receives between three and six Eurocents per word, while a free lancer working on a software manual is charging at least double that rate. All things being equal, it is only natural that the software translator sees her earnings going down. Agencies and MLV companies are forced to buy the work at much sharper prices from freelance translators, but at the same time they will have to analyze the cost and value of their management process. Customers will be less willing to accept the doubling or tripling of base translation rates as compensation for the management services. If the added cost outweighs the added value, customers will be inclined to set up an efficient, internally managed process and ‘insource’ the translation activities. We should be grateful for the luxurious years we have had - and now prepare ourselves for the new challenges.

“Just translate please…” The customer is always right. Listen to the customer. Lower cost, faster turnaround. Not superb quality and beautiful style, but just consistent and adequate quality and accurate terminology. Does this spell the end of the localization industry or new opportunities? I would say “new opportunities” that lead to a shifting of roles and the emergence of new leaders. It is finally time for technology to be used, not just TM Workbenches, but also workflow, Machine Translation, source control, terminology management. If you think about it, the translation industry has not progressed very much in terms of efficiency improvement. The vendors who realize this most effectively will be the winners.

Jaap van der Meer is director of CrossLanguage, a translation automation services company.


This article was originally published by GALA: The Globalization and Localization Association (http://www.gala-global.org).

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