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The Future of Translation at the TAUS Conference


Last week some of the Unbabel team went to the TAUS annual conference in San Jose, California. It was a great time, and not just because we were voted the most innovative company. We got to hear from some of the leaders of the industry, from both companies who provide translation and localization services, and companies who use those services (like Microsoft and LinkedIn).

Translation is about access

Perhaps the most important thing we came away with was something Don LePalma from Common Sense Advisory said. He was moderating the panel Managing Different Levels of Quality, and at one point said:

“What the industry does not understand is that we are in the communication business, not in the translating words business.”

This is key to innovating in the industry. When we think of our industry as just offering translation services, we limit our visions and ultimately our innovations. But what really matters is the customer—and the end user, our customers’ customers. The market doesn’t care about the tools or process or quality metrics we use, they care about unlocking the content.

Even though we’ve made huge strides, especially in the past few years, 90% of content and 90% of languages remain untouched. James Douglas from Microsoft explained it perfectly in the panel Wanted: Innovators for the Translation Industry:

“We don’t want to live in a world where people are culturally excluded and do not have access to information.”

Localization is about understanding

What follows, then, is that we need to be empathetic to cultural differences. Translating content is a fantastic first step, and obviously something that can continue to be improved and streamlined with the help of technology, which is something we are especially passionate about.

It’s also important to think about how these people in other countries are using our products and reading our content. Michele Kassis, localization manager at SurveyMonkey put it well:

“Our job is to make our products available to the world. The benchmark should be: Does this product look translated or does it look like it was created for you?”

This comes down to both localization of content and product design. The user experience people are used to can change drastically from culture to culture—in fact, we recently wrote a primer on the differences between Chinese and Western user experience, something that is essential to know when looking to do business in China. It’s also important to remember that localizing content is a matter of trust.

When we don’t take these things into consideration, it can make our users in other cultures feel like we don’t care about them. But we do! So we need to show it. We need to look at how localization of a product changes the usage of the product, and adjust accordingly.

In the future, the job of localization managers will be less about the content and much more about improving the experience of international users, tweaking the UX, the product, and overall adjusting how they think about communication. Translation is coming to a point where a lot of the problems have visible solutions. The future is in transcreation.

One interesting tidbit relating to “real life” user experience that came up was that Japan, the host of the 2020 Olympics, is reinventing a new “version” of Japan for foreign visitors. Japan has started using translation software to offer translation at popular tourist sites and places like transportation hubs. So far, the software can interpret and translate audio 14 languages and text for 27 languages. They are even reforming laws to open up home sharing so that foreign tourists can use services they are used to, like Airbnb, when coming to town for the Olympics.

So what’s next?

As an industry we are just starting to create real innovations. To really disrupt and change the industry, we need to think big. Mario Trombetti from Translated said, “If you’re not putting someone out of business, it’s not big enough.

And how do we do that? Something that came up—well, there was an entire panel on it—is the datafication of the industry. Traditionally, the industry has not collected much data. After all, we are just starting to apply technology (and many people are still wary of incorporating technology), so there isn’t much to work with. Overwhelmingly, the opinion of the conference attendees is that data is how we will innovate. And the first step is to create better data. So we’d better get collecting.

The future is in transcreation

What will be key for innovation in the industry is localization of the entire product in addition to the language. Incremental innovation is still innovation, yes, especially since technology will overhaul the translation industry.

In the end it will be the people who think outside of language and take risks and make bold moves that others are afraid to do who will win—and part of that win is unlocking the world for everyone, regardless of culture or language.

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