Translation 3.0: Commoditization, Context and Commerce
eBay has a plan. The global commerce giant wants to expand into the Russian, Brazilian and Chinese markets, but is having trouble connecting buyers from around the globe when they speak different languages. Right now, it's difficult for prospects to find what they want to buy, especially because so many posted products are labeled in English.
So, did eBay hire translators to help localize content? No, the company hired machine translation expert Hassan Sawaf, who holds a patent on hybrid machine translation. Sawaf's job is to build scalable infrastructure that can translate queries into a different language while analyzing context. For example, something labeled as a "purse" in the item description needs to match queries for purse, but also for "bag," "item" or "piece."
Translators and language service providers (LSPs) have been watching machine translation technology closely, but the reality is, tools like Google Translate have been around for years, offering consumers and companies a quick, free way to translate things in the blink of an eye.
The commoditization of translation services as we used to know them has already happened. However, as the demand for global-local collateral keeps rising, translation services have become much more than just changing copy into another language.
The evolution of translation
Twenty years ago, there was no question of how something was going to get translated. Companies would hire someone who was fluent in the language and have them translate marketing collateral and technical documentation accordingly. Often, translators would be independent professionals who had built up an expertise in an industry. The phrase "tech savvy" never even entered the conversation. Fluency and industry experience were the two most important skills a translator could have. And "breaking into a new market" meant little more than having documents available in different languages.
But then marketing collateral, technical documentation and other materials started migrating online. This was slow to happen at first, but things have rapidly picked up speed. Now it's surprising to buy a product that has anything more than a few pages of instructions with it. Just about everything else — from FAQs to video tutorials — can be found online.
Machine translation has inevitably followed the digitization of collateral, but there's something else that's contributed to the commoditization of translation: globalization. Our connected economy allows businesses to easily find thousands of different options when it comes to translating copy. That's naturally culminated in crowdsourcing platforms.
Duolingo, for example, has 25 million registered users interested in learning a new language. The language lessons are free, but the company is interested in having students put their skills to the test by translating websites like BuzzFeed into other languages, including Portuguese, Spanish and French.
Nothing has yet become a perfect solution. Independent translators, translation companies, crowdsourcing platforms, machine-assisted translations and other technologies all vie for attention in a crowded space.
During the race to find the next greatest thing in translation, many companies seem to be forgetting the most important part of entering a new market: creating a personalized experience for the customer. No matter what new technologies offer, there needs to be a distinct and authentic tone behind every brand.
Personalization and localization
The basis of e-commerce today is personalization. In a November 2013 study by Conversant, around three-quarters of marketers and agency decision makers agreed that "individualized messages and offers will be more effective than mass messages/offers." Likewise, a recent survey discovered that three-quarters of consumers prefer to conduct online purchases in their native language. Personalized marketing offers are going to be a prominent trend in 2014 and beyond, with big data analytics, marketing automation and similar solutions opening up new opportunities for companies to connect with customers, too.
The weakness of machine translation and crowdsourced platforms isn't in the act of translation, it's in the act of localization and personalization. A custom-tailored web experience, an email offer written for a specific industry or a landing page geared toward a particular market will have to be localized and personalized for the target audience, not just translated.
Industry buzzwords and popular phrases all differ from country to country. One recent blunder came from HSBC Bank. In 2009, the financial institution had to rebrand its entire global private banking operations after bringing a U.S. campaign overseas. The "Assume Nothing" branding campaign was translated in many countries as "Do Nothing." In the end, the bank spent $10 million to change its tagline to "the world's private bank."
Due to the nuances of localization, it's remarkably easy for businesses to slip up. That's why companies need to look for language service providers that can provide marketing and sales advice for local markets. The latest automated and crowdsourced tools won't be able to replace the expertise of an industry veteran who intimately understands the local market. And, as HSBC shows, a cavalier attitude can end up costing much more than machine translation is worth.
eBay can automatically translate search queries, and BuzzFeed can draw from crowdsourcing, but the most effective marketing messages still need to be carefully planned and executed according to the needs of the customer. With the noise of the markets reaching a fever pitch, the only way businesses can stand out is via personalized content that really speaks to the audience.
Innovative services and tools can help automate the more redundant processes of translation, but the real value is in the language service provider that works with a business to craft the right story for the right market, finding a message that connects with prospects on an individual level.
Ian Henderson is the chief technology officer of Rubric, a global language services provider.
Related story: Responsive vs. Adaptive: One Size Doesn't Fit All