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Vessels large may venture more, but little boats should keep near the shore

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"Vessels large may venture more,
but little boats should keep near the shore"

Benjamin Franklin

ClientSide News Magazine pictureYou know you’re in deep trouble when a top floor executive conceives a brilliant strategy to reduce the cost of localization. It’s bound to happen: the sight of so much money spent on “just a bunch of words” irresistibly calls for an ingenious cost-cutting scheme, one that leads to a fatter executive bonus.

If you’ve been in the business long enough, I’m sure you’ve heard your version of this question: “Why don’t you use Katja in accounting? She speaks German.” Or your version of this one: “My husband teaches at NYU, and he can line up all the foreign students you need.”

And perhaps you’ve heard a version of this deep thought: “Just offshore the whole thing!”

While I have my doubts that “offshore” really is an English verb, I am quite certain it belongs in the category of “magical words.” Edward Debono, the father of lateral thinking, used this term in the late sixties to designate words that instantly explain everything and forbid further questioning. Politicians are undoubtedly the experts in this field (think how the word “terrorist” has the power to generate blank checks), but corporate executives aren’t that far behind. Once “offshore” has been mentioned, there’s no room left for “but” or “if” or “how”; and performing the magic is your problem.


The good news is that you already know more about “offshoring” than most common mortals. Localization isn’t particularly known for its ground-breaking processes or leadingedge technologies, but managing tasks executed by a group of people on the other side of the planet is certainly one thing we have been doing long before it became fashionable.

Localization’s early impulse to push translation tasks into the target language countries was driven by quality. We quickly learned that the probability of obtaining quality translations was highest when they were produced by native speakers mastering the subject matter and living as closely as possible to the end users of the translated content. And this is mainly a matter of statistics, not a bias against translators living outside of their native countries. I am sure, for example, you can find excellent Italian translators in most countries, but it is so much easier and predictable to hunt for them in their natural habitat: Italy.

It is also a matter of perception. We’ve all learned the hard way that translation quality lies in the eye of the beholder; telling a client, subsidiary, or distributor that their content has been translated in some other country is an open invitation to criticize quality.

The executive’s impulse to push you into offshoring is driven by cost (and a craving for the latest Mercedes SL Class, 500hp convertible). Quality is rarely mentioned, but the belief that it loses its importance in favor of cost reduction would guarantee your downfall. Therefore, it is essential, for your own sake, to make it very clear to your managers and peers that when it comes to localization, offshoring, as a means to drive cost down, does not apply to purely linguistic tasks. If anyone intends to coerce or sell you into producing German in China or Japanese in Belarus, run like the wind!


Your first step towards offshoring will be to closely analyze the tasks involved in localizing your particular content. Eliminate the work that relies purely on language skills (translation, voice recording), and you’ll find the potential candidates for expatriation to a land of cheap labor.

Chances are your list will include pre- and postengineering, desktop publishing, product integration, and functional testing. You’ll also discover, the closer you look, the need for at least some linguistic skills is pervasive. Can you flawlessly format a Polish maintenance manual when you can’t read a single word of Polish? How effectively are you testing a Japanese user interface when all you see are squiggles?

Few localization tasks are totally devoid of linguistic components. As a result, you will have to take your analysis a step further and divide each offshore candidate task into linguistic and non-linguistic sub-tasks.

Take desktop publishing, for example. It is perfectly feasible to dissociate the “layout” from the “content” and entrust the formatting of a Spanish user guide to a desktop publishing specialist in Madras, one who will probably do a very good job at ensuring that headers and footers, chapters and sections, tables and illustrations, fonts and font sizes, etc. comply with your rules and guidelines. It would be foolishness, however, to let that user guide hit the market without a review from a Spanish speaker.

Functional testing of a translated application or website can be divided up in the same way. Systematically executing a 250-step test script and logging functional discrepancies doesn’t require linguistic capabilities, but verifying the proper text display in a dialog box and ensuring language consistency between screens does.

The key is that the interaction between the linguistic and non-linguistic resources must be tightly integrated. Consider these alternatives around software testing, for example:

  • The tester and the linguist can sit next to each other.
  • The tester can take screenshots while executing the script, and then send them to the linguist.
  • The tester can run a “functional” test script until all the functional issues are fixed. And then the linguist can run a “linguistic” test script until all the linguistic issues are fixed.

How you end up integrating the sub-tasks depends on your specific circumstances. But whatever choice you make must imperatively deliver the prize: the cost reductions (so forcefully mandated by your aspiring-to-be-driving-a-Mercedesconvertible executive).

Does this mean that offshoring complicates things and actually requires more work? You bet!


The real magic behind offshoring — when properly implemented — is that it ends up costing less, even though it complicates the process and generates more work. The trick consists in increasing the total number of hours spent, while simultaneously transferring a large enough portion of these hours to a locale where the hourly rates are very low. You end up with more overhead, more intricate processes, more coordination, longer days, and more headaches, but your company is spending less money. Sounds like heaven, doesn’t it?

It should be clear by now that, while offshoring is a magical word, it certainly isn’t a silver bullet. What works for others doesn’t necessarily work for you.

After ensuring that your particular localization efforts are actually “offshoreable,” the first step mentioned above, considering the following rules:

  • The total number of non-linguistic hours you would spend “onshore” must be substantial. Remember, you will obtain the savings by transferring hours into a lower rate bracket, so don’t complicate your life for peanuts.
  • The content you are localizing must be very stable. You will be adding steps and handovers to the process, so if the content is constantly changing, your chances for a major meltdown will skyrocket.
  • The processes you are implementing must be rock-solid and well documented. Remember that you are increasing the number of resources, time zones, and not-so-fluent-in-English contacts; don’t put yourself in a position where you constantly have to explain your company’s latest great idea for getting things done.

If all this resembles too much of a nightmare to do it yourself, how about shifting the burden and misery onto a localization vendor?


Every localization vendor in the market can offer you an offshore solution. Similarly, if you are planning on outsourcing localization projects worth a million dollars, and you insist on having all the work done by native Eskimos, every localization vendor in the market will explain to you how they have always had a passion for our Inuit friends. The real question, of course, is not whether they say they can offshore, but whether you believe they can do it. You won’t get the answer, unless you take the time to analyze the offer.

The ultimate goal of offshoring is to reduce cost without compromising quality. However, the offshore models proposed by most localization vendors typically fail to produce either one or the other. Your project is thrown into the hands of a subsidiary vendor or a partner located in a low-wage country, and from there, one of the following tends to happen:

  • Very little oversight and project management is provided by the main vendor. Your cost is low, but the project outcome is unpredictable, and the quality non-existent.
  • The project is managed more closely by the main vendor, but the two entities have so little in common, operationally, that the cost of added overhead outweighs the gains.

The simple presence of an offshore office or partner is far from sufficient to secure a solution with true added value. As we’ve seen earlier, successful offshoring isn’t just a matter of access to cheap labor; it lies in the capacity to seamlessly integrate and coordinate a variety of geographically scattered resources with a minimal amount of overhead. The secret lies in the ability to use the right resource for the right task in the right location at the right time.

Only localization vendors maintaining a global platform of resources that share the same tools and operational guidelines are capable of delivering on the offshore promise. Success requires a hybrid delivery model that combines onshore and offshore advantages:

  • personalized service and attention
  • high-end skills and expertise,
  • local program and project management
  • high capacity at low cost,
  • on-demand scalability and fast turn-around times


In a world where offshoring is threatening even localization, your survival depends on your ability to follow a few simple rules:

  • Beware of top floor executives.
  • Offshore only those tasks that don’t require linguistic skills.
  • Never offshore projects that are too small or that have unstable content or loosely defined processes.
  • If you offshore through a vendor, find one with a true hybrid delivery model.

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