"That is totally me sausage": What's holding back multilingual business?

Enterprises are slow to adopt translation technologies. What's the hang up?

It’s hard to avoid the tired old metaphors of “explosion” and “flood” when speaking of the exponential expansion of internet and other digital content. Consider this startling factoid: According to Google’s recent Think Quarterly on innovation, “In 2003, five exabytes of information existed. Now we generate that every two days.”

Three key factors drive the spike in inquiries Forrester has seen this year about translation technologies, practices, and service providers. The first is this inundation of content. Even if only a tiny percentage of it could be valuable in other languages, it overwhelms the capacity of human translators.

Second, the strongest growth in consumerism and purchasing power is happening in countries with young populations and expanding economies, such as the so-called BRICs and CIVETs. (That’s Brazil, Russia, India, and China plus the more obscure Columbia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, and Turkey.) Maintaining a consumer-oriented web presence in a single language today is akin to selling only to left-handed customers.

(And it’s futile anyway. Site visitors can use services like Google Translate to render your site in dozens of available languages, without your knowledge or any control over the quality of the translations.)

Finally, even if you ignore the consumer opportunities – and many companies still do – there’s the challenge of multilingual employee collaboration. Due to an overemphasis on the technology, many global enterprises seem surprised to learn that their slick new collaboration platform doesn’t do much to help the French collaborate with the Koreans or the Saudis if there is no common language.

Translation service providers have responded with new or expanded offerings, innovative business models, and user-friendly plug-ins. Last year, for example, SDL bought statistical machine translation vendor Language Weaver in order to extend and complement its human-based services. (Here's my blog on that buy.) Smartling, in contrast, positions itself as a software platform that facilitates and manages the creation of multilingual content, and provides no translation services of its own.

And yet, despite the titanic need and the ample solutions, both vendors and Forrester clients agree that enterprises are not rushing to embrace expanded use of translation. (“We’re calling to see what other companies are doing,” begins a typical inquiry about translation. And my answer typically begins, “Other companies are . . . calling to see what other companies are doing.”)

Conversations with vendors and end users reveal three main FUD-factors for this hesitancy:

·         It’s not secure enough. Whether machine- or human-based, the majority of translation processes require sending corporate content outside of the firewall. The growing use of cloud services exacerbates this anxiety.

·         It’s not good enough. “Es ist mir völlig Wurst” is an idiomatic German expression meaning “It’s all the same to me.” The free web-based Google Translator renders this as “That is totally me sausage,” which is rigorously literal and very funny, but useless as a unit of communication.

·         It’s not affordable enough. Fully human-based translation, at up to 30 cents per word, is a big ticket item and restricts translation to very high value content.  Despite sometime dramatic decreases in costs due to machine translation technologies, the stigma of “too expensive” clings to content translation like grease to a sausage.

There are good (if not simple) responses to fear, uncertainty. I’ll discuss these and related challenges around content management in a multichannel, multilingual business environment with my colleague Stephen Powers at the Content and Collaboration Forum on September 23rd in Boston. In the meantime, I’d like to hear from you: What are your main drivers for increased translation of external or internal content? What questions and hesitations do you have about it? I would be very happy to use some of your business cases and experiences in our Forum presentation.