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Next generation of translators: Industry experts, digital natives

Posted by Chad O'Connor  January 28, 2014 06:00 AM

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A defining trend of translation services today is the increasing demand for not only language localization expertise, but technological expertise. For decades, translators only had one primary job: to translate. That makes sense when the project stays on paper. Technical documentation, marketing collateral and other materials can be handed over to a translator, and once translated, the job is complete.

However, the digitization of most industries is responsible for a growing need for translators who can easily navigate the world of technology, from online content management systems like WordPress or Drupal to lines of code from HTML, Java or .NET. Many translators are trying to keep up with the latest changes, as businesses figure out what they really need during a website localization project, for instance.

As we look ahead to the future of translation services, it’s clear that translators will both have to be industry experts and digital natives. But why? And what do companies need to know when it’s time for them to undertake a translation project?

The Era of Intuition
There was a time when software came in boxes. When that was the case, those boxes usually hosted hefty manuals and instructions. Users would often need to spend hours at a time sifting through the table of contents to learn how to use a product. This wasn’t just limited to software, either. From radios to remote-controlled cars, you could reliably find a rather thick packet of instructions to go along with the purchase.

Anyone who’s bought an Apple product knows that the heyday of bulky print documentation is over. Since Apple’s revolutionary clean, simple and intuitive product line of iPods, iPhones and iPads, tech companies, in particular, are starting to see a need for manuals as a design flaw. At the same time, complex software products don’t even come in boxes anymore. Users are instead told to visit the website or watch a library of instructional videos for technical help.

Tech products have rapidly been entering the era of intuition, rather than documentation. Consumers expect other industries to follow suit. They want to be able to use and understand something as soon as they get it.

The steady decline of printed documents has important implications for translation services. The translators who have counted on their industry expertise now have to follow technology trends, too. Take the industrial market, for one; there has been a rapid migration of product manuals online. Suddenly, expertise in the industry isn’t enough. Now, translators need to know how to navigate technology platforms as well, so they can access, edit and deploy translation projects.

Most companies aren’t paying attention to how this affects the translation process. It’s assumed that this evolution can be met through a combination of cut-and-paste and automation. But that’s where the problems start.

Copy-And-Waste
When businesses need a translation project completed, most consider the same tried-and-true method that worked in the past. They hand the copy to a translator, the translator translates them, and that copy is pasted by the web team or marketing team into the right places. When the translator’s job was just going through technical documentation, this method was effective enough. But now, documents often need to go through another step, because they need to be loaded onto technology platforms or websites.

In this case, copy-and-paste will only take the project so far. Assigning a translator to translate and an employee to bring all those documents to life on the web or in a product can add dozens of hours to the project.

That’s why it’s critical to match technological expertise with industry expertise before embarking on translation projects. On a website, for example, finding a translator who is familiar with WordPress eliminates the copy-and-paste step entirely. It also makes the language localization process much more fluid and dynamic, as the translator can become familiar with the layout and structure of the website, taking that into account during the project.

Automating Your Mistakes
Another path some companies are following is the automated translation of vast volumes of content. Now, if you’ve used Google Translate, you know that this method can create serious gaps. Grammar and word order is often rearranged, and sentences become convoluted. In fact, one such automatic translation story recently made national headlines when critics maintained that the Spanish version of the Affordable Healthcare Act website was, to some extent, translated automatically.

The negative impact that automatic translation can have on a brand means that most companies should avoid it. While translating hundreds of pages of a website – manually – might seem daunting at first, confusing customers and showing a casual disregard for local markets is worse.

The best balance is a mix of tightly regulated automation with a team of translators that have a plan in place for each project, from the bottom up.

The Building Blocks
A “digital native” is traditionally understood as someone who grew up alongside the Internet and hasn’t known an era before connected technology. I’d like to propose an alternative: digital natives are also people who are experienced with the latest technology, experienced within specific industries and have a native fluency in different languages.

That’s the future of translation services. When companies can reliably find a team of translators who are digital natives – as good at technology and industry as they are at a language – then they have found the most effective way to make sure their translation projects aren’t dragging with the last decade’s best practices.

Ian Henderson is Chairman and CTO of Waltham-based global language services provider Rubric.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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