For centuries, translation was first and foremost a form of art. The translator Artists would labor not just for days, but often years, to breathe life into their work and make it as captivating (or more so!) as the original.

Then, in the 20th century new forces challenged this status quo:

  • Personal computing – The cupboard-sized abacuses of the 1950s first transformed into PCs fitting neatly on our desks, then got linked into a global network, and finally ended up in the palms of nearly every citizen of the developed world.
  • The explosion of content – Text (hereafter knows as “content”) breached its physical confines and encoded in 1’s and 0’s made its way onto hard drives. It became faster and easier than ever to produce new content; once created it would live forever.
  • Flattening of the world – Rapidly decreasing costs of transporting goods and travel, instant telecommunication and free-market forces made the world flatter than anyone had imagined. Products manufactured in faraway places are now packaged, shipped and sold to consumers around the world.

All this led to the birth of a new creature: localization. Software needed to be adapted to reach new locales, websites to win over non-English audiences, product manuals to comply with language requirements in new markets.

Slowly but surely the localization industry gained ground and has been growing at a rapid pace ever since. It put a harness on translation and demoted it to a cog in the process somewhere between the import and export of strings and alongside DTP adjustments and concatenation. This assembly line became the domain of the Mechanic.

The Artist

Translators are not the only Artists in this story. Marketing, branding, and creative departments are usually filled with them. They know the intangible power of words, and the importance of tailoring the message to each audience but are often lost when it comes to the technical details.

Only a monolingual person could say that translators simply reproduce work in a new language. In reality, it’s a demanding creative process, and the result is so much more than just letters rearranged. The further away geographically and culturally the new target audience is, the more effort and creativity is required to adapt the message. It is no coincidence that the biggest and most successful brands in the world have different approaches and communication strategies for each country.

Rearranging letters just doesn’t cut it.

The Mechanic

To a Mechanic, the focus is on controlling the stream of data from source to target, making sure it doesn’t overflow its banks and finishes its course in the right reservoir, within the time specified. The content of the stream is of little importance.

Often dwelling in IT departments, Mechanics like to focus on the nuts and bolts of workflow, but the beauty of language evades them. Let’s look at some of the tools they commonly use:

  • Translation Memory (TM) – The concept of TM is simple: to store previous translation and bring it up for reuse every time the same or similar phrase occurs in the source text. Some translators see it as a ploy to justify discounts on “TM matches” by translation agencies and restrict their creative freedom.
  • Computer-Aided Translation (CAT) tools – Ever since the first version of TRADOS was released in the early 1990s, CAT tools and Translation Memory have been inseparable. What has changed is the addition of new features to help translators work ever more efficiently.
  • Translation Management Systems (TMS) – They are an enhanced version of Content Management Systems (CMS) with extra functionality to manage translations and the flow of multilingual content.
  • Application Program Interface (API) – A set of rules and instructions used to connect one piece of software to another. The usefulness of APIs to localization depends on the TMSs and CMSs you want to link and the TMs stored. (Yes, I’ve just used all those acronyms in one sentence.)

How much of the above do you really need? The answer depends on several simple metrics:

  1. amount of content for translation
  2. number of languages
  3. frequency of updates
  4. turnaround times.

Any Mechanic worthy of the name will be happy to produce charts, tables, and forecasts to help you decide.

Marriage of Love and Reason

Many Artist translators only grudgingly accept having to deal with technology as the price for ongoing work. Many Mechanics can’t wait for the moment they’ll replace translators with Machine Translation and remove the last unpredictable factor from their assembly lines. Meanwhile, their collaboration stumbles and falls, but works thanks to sacrifices from both sides.

But there is a better way.

Instead of forcing Artists into square holes, and Mechanics into round ones, it’s best to let both parties do what they’re best at.

Mechanics can and should use all the technology at their disposal to improve the trinity of quality, speed, and price. After all, in a business setting, clients vote with their wallets if they don’t get what they need when they need it.

On top of that, Mechanics should do what they can to make the tech friendlier to the Artists out there. After all, they are still an indispensable part of the process; one that can’t be fully controlled but also the most important one. Language technology can be a boon to translators, but only if it makes their life easier, instead of adding more hoops to jump through before they can do their job.

And that just might make localization a bit more beautiful, and the life of all concerned a bit less stressful.