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ClientSide News Magazine picture“BACKSHORING”

After years of outsourcing, offshoring, even “nearshoring,” leading companies are reversing course, bringing their R&D processes, including localization project management and engineering, back in house. They’re doing it for the following reasons:

• Organizations have become top heavy with resource managers (too many generals, and no troops).

• Organizations are losing cohesion, feeling their internal corporate cultures vanish.

• Organizations are feeling discomfort with so much intellectual property (IP) being developed “out of house.”

• Growing issues in the traditional regions for outsourcing, including spiraling costs, accelerating HR turnover, time zones, language barriers (those accents!), etc.

It’s neither a Republican Minuteman nor a French Union Official who is responsible for stopping and turning the tide of offshoring. Instead, it’s more like the serial pioneering types — IBM, no less, and Kana (run by the former president of Oracle) or SAP and HP, to name some of the most prolific proponents.

The trend is raging like a brushfire through the localization industry. Some folks have been heralding this as a new generation of localization.

If that’s the case, let’s put this “new generation” into context, by first agreeing on the previous generations.


The world suddenly seems to open up. Many applications start thinking about migrating to Windows. Some pioneers manage a few localized releases through a tedious process:

a. Locate translatable files.
b. Decompile them to text-based files.
c. Translate the strings in a text editor.
d. Recompile the files into the original resource or executable files.
e. Test for frequently-occurring errors.
f. Start all over, each time an update is introduced.

Note: not for the faint hearted.


Hungry international marketers such as Symantec, Microsoft, PASS, and others see that there has to be a better way. They set about developing in-house tools to deal with velocity and quality issues through some common objectives:

a. Enable developers to simulate translation effects, even before the software gets near a translator.

b. Enable translators to translate directly in the binary file environment.

c. Help translators avoid simple mistakes by enabling them to see the full context of the strings they are translating. (What we now call a WYSIWYG environment.)

d. Accommodate string-length changes by enabling anyone in the process to resize boxes and windows on the fly.

e. Automate testing for standard errors.

f. Enable easier and faster updates for new releases.


Ambitious people within the Generation 2 pioneer organizations take ownership for these tools (via buyouts and small spin-offs) and release them to retail markets. And a desktop tools industry is born. Rapid development proceeds like a Cold-War-style arms race. The industry sees an aggressive aggregation of extremely intuitive features and file dexterity, enabling anyone anywhere to localize multiple software resources into multiple languages.

Seamless integration with established documentation translation environments just seals the demise of traditional gulfs between user interface (UI) and user assistance (UA). A combination of tree-conservation issues, excessive regulation, and user preference for online help formats relegate documentation to a “necessary evil” status. Shorter product life cycles and aggressive competition lead to a situation whereby UA must follow whatever UI does. Until, finally, convergence of previously separate departments, UI, UA, Web, and Marketing documentation, becomes an enterprise priority.


As the marketplace value for services alone reaches US$9.5 billion (Common Sense Advisory, 2006), many of the earlier players decide to cash in. Service vendors consolidate; tools vendors chew up one another; offshoring venues triple their labor costs, multiply their HR turnover, and costs in general soar.

Enterprise steps back and asks why is this happening? Consider the environment:

• Tools are cheap and easily deployable anytime, anywhere.

• Translators are available anytime, anywhere, with transparent, verifiable credentials, and experience.

• The explosion of players in the industry and the hectic parallel activity of academia has flooded the world with capable project managers, tools gurus, and all that anyone would want to create their own localization department quickly and at relatively low set-up cost.

The days of “one size fits all” localization service providers are numbered. Clients now wear the smart shoes. They have the tools and the know-how to outsource only the new content. And when they do outsource, they want to outsource to a specialist provider — a boutique provider that can add value through direct regional and language experience or through special technical skills or niche expertise (such as XML or DITA).

Also, we must note, the corporate makeup of the industry has changed. Tools providers — as sensitive industry anemometers — will be the first to tell you this. In the past, a typical tools provider ran three channels to market: the enterprise, the localization service provider (LSP), and the freelancer. Today, the feature sets and channels marketed by these guys show, in effect, only two: the enterprise and the freelancer.

Does all this endorse Jaap Van der Meer’s “demise of the LSP” forecast of many years past?

Not at all! It simply shows a metamorphosis of the LSP. We are experiencing what economists refer to as a Pareto situation, whereby a “Major League” has formed from the top 20 agencies, all with eight-figure turnover (according to Common Sense Advisory), with the remaining 80 percent of the production space comprised of regional language vendors or niche-sector operators.

For any LSP thinking of throwing down the shutters, the best consolation is to study the dynamics of the travel industry since the onslaught of the Internet. Rather than having died a (predicted) sudden offline death, those innovative ones have prospered. They found that knowledge truly is power.

Consider myself, for example. A fan of anything online, I always use a travel agent, albeit one that has adapted with the times and that offers a user-friendly portal, multicurrency billing, automatic-air-miles-accreditation, SMS reminders, etc. This lesson should be studied particularly by the hysterics who rally against Machine Translation (MT) and other facts of life.


Once mindsets and vested interests have bought into Generation 4, the logical evolution to Generation 5 doesn’t take huge vision. Bearing in mind that “logic” is the keyword here, we see a change in process decision makers. The evolved skill set requires a localization manager with the brain of a programmer and the vision of a CTO. Gone are the free lunches and the vendor junkets, as these new guys don’t do that circuit. Vendors are kept busy with lots of extra content that can now be localized. Besides, they’ve learned that nothing except the logic of the workflow system will get the clients to localize more.

Luckily, the new localization manager can now fulfill his or her logic without requiring the budget of a CTO. For the Holy Grails of process are now available out of the box, with all common wish lists checked off, including easily customizable format, and with little or no sticker shock. And they require minimum human staffing.

Take XML, for example. It’s simply the science of working in small pieces. Consider the logic of reusable chunks, separation of content from formatting, automated formatting, etc. Take DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture), simply the best of XML made available through standards — and open ones at that — allowing the true mission of “write once, publish anywhere” to be realizable without early-stage and company-specific development.

Take CMS or DMS (Content or Document Management Systems)—the “glue” to hold it all together, as one vendor recently put it. Just like CRM in the old days, which evolved from an expensive, risky-to-implement gamble (the model is now available). Companies like and Idiom now promise to get you up and running with automated production of all your multilingual content in just a few weeks, for a low monthly fee, without any capital expenditure and with a choice of front-end TM solutions, so one needn’t feel tied to any supplier.

Take PASSOLO — a front-end option for those who (rightly) consider software a vital and prominent part of their content mix. It comes with a simple-to-use command-line interface and macro templates that enable integration with just about any CMS, DMS, or build environment — right out of the box. It also has a range of collaborative features, reflecting the fact that today’s “backshorers” will still be dealing with a world-wide web of individual translators who need to work together on apparently larger projects in reduced timeframes, and do so as product life cycles shorten and more products are brought to locale.


Of course, for the last 15 years or so, there has been no shortage of messianic predictions of new best practices. What makes the “backshoring” milestone different is that the financial savings are clearer than ever. Organizations can now localize more for less — and that’s without even having to offshore the capital expenditure. Consider, for example, a relative newbie to the world of localization: Dade Behring. With $1.7 billion annual turnover, they are the world’s largest company dedicated solely to clinical diagnostics, which is, perhaps, the world’s most regulated sector when it comes to mandatory localizations. In a resounding case study presented recently at a conference in New York, Dade Behring summarized their accelerated journey through the generations, and they showed exactly how a sudden “backshoring” strategy saved them a massive 72.5 percent year-over-year (not to mention the time). Money talks!

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