Ending the Globalization Smokescreen

The truth has caught up with us. The localization industry has come to the point where I believe we are misrepresenting the idea of “globalization.” Despite the bells and whistles, at the end of the day, the industry largely sells a commodity called “technologically-enabled translation.” We actively try to rebrand our work as “localization.” However, we mislead our clients by pretending that we are applying finesse to their global ventures, when really we are simply translating words for digital interfaces .

I admit it – I was wrong. More than 15 years in the localization industry only to find that I was fooling myself. Like many insiders, I was convinced that if we applied the right technology to the problem of translation, we would advance the cause of globalization, garner respect from senior execs in client organizations and win vital budget allocations along the way. After all, in business you succeed by giving the customer what they want, right? The customer has seen exponentially increasing volumes of content that need to be delivered in all the hot business languages of the worlds. So, logically, it was our duty to offer solutions that did just that – get words out to market faster and cheaper and in so doing demonstrate how we fastidiously stand by our customers.

And thus the investment in automation was born. We began with translation tools, eventually building out translation management systems to house suites of tools. Unicode, multi-script, RTL, and diacritic capabilities were built into virtually every application businesses use, from desktop publishing software to media engineering suites. We localizers are a clever bunch who had learned by observing other industries. To meet market demand while honoring expense constraints, we competed to see who could build the smartest assembly line. With integrated TMS-CMS conveyor belts fully functional we went even further, feeding the system with auto-generated linguistic output via MT and its various flavors. To staff our assembly lines we largely rid ourselves of the high-priced experienced translators, opting instead for “sufficiently qualified” on-demand labor pools, even resorting to crowd-sourced volunteers.

All of this was accomplished to great fanfare, I might add. How many presentations have you seen where, with flashing lights and hyperbole, a vendor impresses upon the bulk translation buyer how a particular suite of technology is the one that will solve the buyer’s globalization woes? How often do we pat ourselves on the back for the automation revolution at industry events, toasting the next round of venture capital funding won by the latest technology company masquerading as a globalization agency?

Now, don’t get me wrong. The development of keen business and technology models targeting the needs of the big-budget corporate buyers is to be lauded. There is a need that is being serviced effectively and a great deal of innovation has sprung from these investments. Indeed, I am as guilty as anyone. I too believed in this vision of the future. I built proprietary TMS technology, I integrated systems, I trained MT systems. Lacking the investment capital of the giants, my firm, like virtually every other small to mid-sized company in the industry, had to do its best to keep up by implementing an inadequate off-the-shelf technology. But we pressed ahead nonetheless and finally, armed with a decent conveyor belt, we too parroted the industry promise – that technology would solve globalization.

But as I said before, I was wrong. I was willing to believe that by making translation faster and cheaper I was meeting my clients’ needs. I, as most of us, was willing to ignore the bigger picture, to convince myself that this approach was what my clients needed to “go global.”

However, I believe the time of reckoning has come. The truth has caught up with us. We have come to the point where I believe we are misrepresenting the idea of “globalization.” Despite the bells and whistles, at the end of the day, the industry largely sells a commodity called “technologically-enabled translation”. We actively try to rebrand our work as “localization.” However, we mislead our clients by pretending that we are applying finesse to their global ventures, when really we are simply translating words for digital interfaces and then calling it “localization” because content flows from system to system, the characters are rendered on the screen, the address format is right, and we substituted “Mary” with “María” in the sample dataset.

We have reduced the idea of a “locale” down to a four-letter ISO code, unwilling to face the complexities of local culture and market conditions. To truly attempt to build globalization strategy is messy. It most certainly is not conducive to an investment focused too heavily on a language assembly line with replaceable parts. To add insult to injury, the replaceable parts are the cross-cultural communicators from whose ranks nearly all of us in the industry have spawned. While disheartening, it is understandable that we have chosen this route. Look at the world around us – the proliferation of content, the A-B-ization of human choices, the way we have turned people into algorithms.

Let’s be honest. Long gone are the days when rendering non-Latin scripts on a screen was indeed a massive barrier to conducting international business. The global integrated market is already here and we are still conducting business as if we were unaware of the broader complexities involved in supporting our clients.

All of this said I would propose we take a closer look at ourselves and attempt to redefine our role in the world in a way that honors our industry and the lives of the people who continue to build it. When you talk to people in localization what you find are individuals who are overwhelmingly open – open to learning, to listening, to experiencing, to connecting. It is we, and not our technologies, who have built the real bridges that connect people around the world. For many of us, this begins with our personal journeys. We travel and live abroad. We fall in love with people from different cultures. We bear children who embody our global citizenship. We nourish our curiosity and need to connect by delving into the idiosyncrasies, histories, and ways of living that constitute cultures. It is in these ways that the world becomes more connected and more understanding. And it will be through connection and understanding that the global marketplace will thrive, not through the bombardment of people with multilingual content. I find it ironic that we who are capable of seeing the beautiful complexity of culture are precisely the ones who are seeking to iron out the unique contours of the world to make it more amenable to commoditization. I’m sure that many will say, “Business is business! What do you want from us? It’s not our job to make the world a better place.” I for one cannot look at the current global landscape and accept this sort of minimalism.

We collectively undervalue our contribution to the world by simply competing to see who can develop the best assembly line. And we do our clients a disservice by focusing on a single globalization tactic rather than enabling a holistic global to business planning and execution. Furthermore, we dishonor the people of the world by treating them like a language with a particular amount of web traffic or an attractive level of disposable income. The conversation around global business success too rarely rises beyond the mechanics of automation. We pay lip service to broader globalization ideals but at the end of the day, most companies simply try to feed their machine to make the biggest margins they can.

I am calling for a revolution, a shift in thinking toward a focus on real people and on the real business concerns of our clients. To truly support globalization with integrity, we cannot simply focus our energy on driving customers toward translation spending. And let me be very clear in stating that this is not simply an industry vendor problem. Some corporate buyers are complicit in this fantasy, seeking often to simply make their supply chains less expensive while retaining sufficient translation quality. Corporate buyers often shy away from advocating for a robust and multi-faceted approach to globalization. People are afraid to ruffle feathers, to lose budget, to misuse political capital. All of this comes at the expense of their own company’s interests. It is incumbent on those of us who know the truth to speak up and ensure that everyone, from senior executives to translation project managers, begins shifting their understanding of globalization away from tactics and toward global readiness and global engagement. This will mean that money will move away from translation and toward other more valuable endeavors, but providers with integrity will not shy away from this evolution and growth. And smart buyers will welcome truth and real global strategies.

But how do we do this? Where do we go from here? First off, we take translation off the table during an initial conversation. We ought to be working with our clients to identify and engage with the key stakeholders across the various disciplines that drive corporate development. This includes, critically, the thought leadership and executive strategists at the highest levels. In speaking with these stakeholders we should perform a holistic analysis of the company’s global readiness, including but not limited to the following:

Brand: It is foolhardy to imagine that one can build a global brand simply by translating copy and working out distribution relationships. And, please, let’s not make the naïve assumption that a local reseller or distributor is somehow going to deliver brand street cred. That’s not their job. It is the responsibility of headquarters to create a thoughtful plan that will ensure the integrity of the core brand while allowing local partners sufficient flexibility to adapt it to their needs. Successful cross-market branding takes a nuanced understanding of the many dimensions of culture that affect perception. By setting aside our native cultural bias, we open ourselves to seeing the brand with different eyes, reimagining it in a new context. This ability to shift perspective positions us to ensure that we are both maximizing opportunity while also mitigating the risk of alienating or offending people in a new market.

Identity: To truly find long-term success in the global market, an organization itself must be ready to walk the global walk. This means identifying, celebrating, and leveraging the skills of those in your organization who understand language and culture. It means encouraging all divisions and teams to explore the ways they have a stake in globalization. Every global organization should have a clear directive and buy-in from senior executives regarding the need for global readiness to imbue all work performed in the organization. Missions and organizational pillar should reflect a global focus and all employees should be trained on an ongoing basis on these ideals.

Human Resources: A great global organization needs to understand that the way employees interact with their employer is not the same in each culture. Expectations relating to management, accountability, work environment and communication are not universal. How people learn varies based on the educational philosophies that happen to be predominant in a place and time. Yes, people may speak some English, but we have begun to make blanket assumptions about language skills based on level of seniority or industry sector (e.g. everyone who works in tech, anywhere in the world, speaks English; all senior executives speak English – we require it at OUR company).

Customer Support: It is not enough to localize your software or create multilingual packaging. Real people expect real support that is accessible based on their local language, cultural norms, and technology infrastructure. Often organizations will exert great effort and apply meticulous controls to the localization of a product, but then assign customer support to a green (inexperienced) community manager who has not been trained on the organization’s global corporate culture and has not been provided with basic tools to ensure a consistent voice in each market. Something as simple as a bilingual glossary is not regularly shared across global organizations.

Quality: In the world of language and cultural adaptation, everyone is a critic. Industry professionals and corporate stakeholders need to do more to build an awareness that language and communication is not an objective science. Too often any dialogue or disagreement around the right word or the right tone devolves into defensive posturing and questioning the integrity of those producing translations. Such foolhardy and combative stances must stop. If we cannot engage in a productive conversation about language and culture among those of us to apply such knowledge to the business of globalization, how likely will the end result of our work resonate with the recipients around the world?

Marketing: More times than not businesses focus on globalizing their product but ignore the need for a nuanced approach to marketing and advertising. There is a prevailing notion that “if you translate it, they will come.” This is especially true when the budget is scarce and when just getting the budget to localize the product itself is an uphill battle. But this is often where the rubber meets the road. Localization vendors are too often willing to simply remain silent, taking the client’s money to localize the product, knowing all along that ultimately the client may not achieve its goals because it has ignored culturally-infused marketing.

It is not my objective here to provide a prescriptive set of guidelines for holistic globalization analysis. Others will know more than I. However, I do seek to open a more honest dialogue regarding the role our industry should and could be playing, not only in enhancing corporate global success but also in promoting a more deliberate sort of integrity in the way we value our skills and the people who have built and continue to drive this industry.

I have great respect and admiration for our industry, including the numerous brilliant minds who have built shiny, smart conveyor belts and for the sharp business buyers who manage complex content and localization workflows. But I would posit that there is more at stake here, namely the shared responsibility to call things what they are and to recognize the greater complexity that is required for successful globalization. We might be tempted to point at client success stories to justify our current silence, but who is to say that despite global results being acceptable, they could not be extraordinary if a broader and more culturally oriented approach were employed.

This post was originally published by Kirti Vashee on his amazing blog. Check him out for great thinking on localization and machine translation.


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