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Contemporary Translation Technologies: from Home-Spun Industry to Mass Production

Mike Zhomin, Logrus International
May 17, 2005

This article will lay out the reasons why, in the near future, translators as "members of one of the oldest professions" will no longer be able to work as they have in the past. At the same time, we will try to figure out which translators will be valued and respected by clients, and which are headed for jobs at the drive-through window.

If we don’t hang together we’ll hang separately!

The enormous advances in the science and technology of communications and information have led to an explosive intermingling of civilizations and cultures. The modern world is continuing its fast and furious realignment as part of the so-called globalization process—in other words, toward global integration in all sorts of fields: economic, political, scientific, ecological and cultural. Some of the specific manifestations of this process include:

  • a growing volume of international trade in goods and services;
  • large-scale movements of capital and labor;
  • the convergence and interdependence of markets, organizations and production chains;
  • increasing transparency of national economic borders;
  • a broadening of international scientific cooperation;
  • the emergence of new markets for services (especially in banking, insurance, finance, and transportation);
  • the emergence of new participants in international cooperation: International corporations, international non-governmental organizations and unions (WTO);
  • The rapid development of information technologies, information exchange and global communications.


The intermingling of cultures and material goods produces both rapt acceptance and an opposite, defensive reaction. Along with this growing global integration of the economy, there is evidence all over the world of people, public interest groups, and governments striving to maintain national cultural integrity and state sovereignty. Nations and governments in many countries, including Russia, are worried about preserving their cultures, ways, and linguistic traditions.

Be they positive or negative, all interactions between economies and cultures require inter-linguistic and intercultural service and support, which may be seen in the still growing demand for translation and cultural adaptation. Translation is needed everywhere—in cases where the processes are seen in a positive light by both sides, as well as in those cases where the changes are viewed as hostile by one or more participants in the process. It is the management of these problems that become the link that connects the thorny processes of globalization and localization, which often make it possible to neutralize the negative and emphasize the positive side of these phenomena.

According to statistical and economic research, world wide, the translation industry has grown by several times over the past decade, and in recent years the annual rate of increase in that field has amounted to 15-25%. Wild growth can be seen in the Russian translation market, where the annual rate of growth in certain specialties reaches 30%.

The sharp rise in demand for translation services is generating new pressures for timeliness and quality in the work performed. The old technologies and process management methods no longer meet the new demands. What is it that we mean by “modern translation technology"?

From a one-man band to a professional orchestra

People who are far removed from the world of professional translation can be divided into three groups. Some believe that to get quality translation the most important thing is excellent knowledge of language. Of these, some are thinking primarily of the original language, while others mean the language into which the information is being translated. Another group is convinced that the most important aspect of translation is mastery of the subject matter being translated. In other words, business contracts should be translated by lawyers, and a users guide for laparoscopic surgical equipment, should be translated by a laparoscopist. A third group believes that a translator’s main qualification is literary and journalistic talent; the ability to coherently and compellingly infuse the authors thoughts into the translation.

As is commonly the case where there are so many opinions, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Of course, it would be great if a catalog on agitators could be translated by a professional plumber who knows two languages perfectly, holds a degree in journalism from an Ivy League school, and spends his time writing books and translations whenever he is not repairing sinks and toilets. Unfortunately the “one-man band" is a rare phenomenon, and you do not find them as often as you would like in the real world. And it is even harder to find this kind of translation genius to take on sporadic jobs. But the good news is that modern translation technologies offer us a simpler solution. The only way out is to assemble a professional team that will include specialists with all of the qualifications we are looking for. A carefully and professionally picked team can take the place of any number of uniquely qualified specialists, and can do a highly reliable job on all kinds of specialized translations whatever the volume. In addition to experienced translators who know a number of languages, specialists in the appropriate subject areas, and literary editors, a translation team needs to include:

  • terminological specialists;
  • project managers (they need to understand all of the client’s needs and wishes, assign tasks, and monitor deadlines—more on project management follows below);
  • quality control specialists (more on quality control follows);
  • engineers and programmers (for automating the translation process, changing file formats—preparing materials or translation and converting finished materials into the required formats);
  • prepress specialists (designers and layout specialists);
  • audio engineers (when dealing with the translation of multimedia materials) and others.


All of these specialists need to be not just specially selected (in light of the required knowledge and skills in the related fields), but also mentored in the practical wisdom of how to work productively within a unified team. They need extensive experience working in their specialties and must be good at working with others, with an intuitive understanding of clients and peers.

Then you have got the orchestra and all you need to do is find a talented director.

A good plan today beats a perfect plan tomorrow (professional management of translation projects)

Theater begins at the cloakroom. A well organized translation project begins with authoring materials in the source language. In other words, long before the translators get involved. Therefore, the planning stage of a future translation is the best place to prevent potential problems with document formatting (for instance, by selecting a format that allows translation with minimal overhead costs), to synchronize authoring such that all of the materials needed for a given stage in the translation will be finished at one time, and to ensure consistent use of terminology throughout. In the preparatory stage authors prepare terminological glossaries and assemble supporting documentation. These will subsequently help the translators get the best possible understanding of the text’s nuances, so that they can accurately relate the meaning, implications and ideas of the original. Unfortunately, these simple rules are often neglected, which leads to the old “fly in the ointment" problem—when the excellent work of a large group of people turns out to be hopelessly ruined due to poor follow-through in the final stage.

For example, say a company is preparing an important press release for a new product that represents months of hard work by specialists and developers. The whole organization works for several weeks on composing, editing and polishing the draft of this important document. Finally the document is ready and can be sent out for translation. However, when looking for translators, the person responsible for that stage was guided by only two principles—the lowest price and the shortest translation turn-around time.

The product will end up just like a marvelously conceived and constructed building that has been painted by a haphazard painter—covered in splotches, runs and patches of nondescript motley color. The scale of the disaster is directly proportional to the importance of the product for the foreign market, in whose language the “translation" was performed. The importance of proper preparation for translation is enormous, but management of the translation process itself exerts and equally significant influence on the final outcome. The tasks that make up that stage are massive—bringing together a complex set of factors and parameters that are measured in terms of volume, expenditure, resources, and time. In a modern technological process, management of these issues rests on the project managers who are responsible for the accomplishment of all these tasks:

  • thoroughly understanding the range of potential users and potential requirement for the final result;
  • working out the projects start and end points with the client;
  • establishing and coordinating a budget;
  • selecting the optimal techniques;
  • selecting software and equipment;
  • making a comprehensive and detailed assessment of external and internal obstacles;
  • putting together and effective team;
  • coordinating the team’s efforts and providing access to the information needed by all project participants;
  • setting up training;
  • laying out project timelines and monitoring the plan’s execution;
  • developing instructions and checking for compliance;
  • making day-to-day management decisions, foreseeing potential problems and dealing with them in a timely manner.

A typical translation project management process is illustrated on the chart.

In short, about 75% of the industrial approach to translation depends on project management.

The translator as machinist (automating the process)

It was not long ago (and to some extent it even persists now) that people who were not closely involved in the translation business imagined the technical translator as a kind of bookworm, a scrawny individual with a pale face and dark circles under his eyes, plugging away behind a desk piled high with books, dictionaries and scrawled stacks of paper. Fortunately (or unfortunately) that individual (if he ever really existed) has long since become history. Today’s translators work as a whole team of specialists, armed with the latest hardware and software. Automation is of critical importance for the modern translation business, making it possible to perform the constantly growing volumes of work on time, at a reasonable price and to a high quality standard. Computers are widely used in the modern translation industry, making it possible to partially or completely automate:

  • the recognition of speech or text;
  • conversion between various document formats;
  • document analysis (to determine the volume of translation work);
  • the extraction of terms from the text;
  • terminology management;
  • creating a database of translations based on an existing corpora of translated documents that contains corresponding source-translation pairs (commonly known as alignment);
  • translation based on a database of previous translations (which substantially improves the quality of translation, while making the process more cost-efficient);
  • machine translation;
  • collective translation work and simultaneous access to terminology for groups of translators;
  • tracking document changes throughout the production cycle;
  • translating updated versions of documentation and software;
  • analysis and verification of translations, along with editing and correction;
  • translation project management;
  • quality control.


Many of these steps are decisive in maintaining a properly functioning translation process. For example, the resources for creating and maintaining terminological references make it possible to ensure terminological consistency within a specific subject area, whether within the scope of a single project or to handle several projects for a single client. The use of translation memory (TM) technologies to create translation databases makes it possible to reduce the volume of translated texts (sometime by as much as 50%) and cut costs by eliminating the need to process repetitions and text segments that can be found in among the stored translations. This also increases speed, ensures a high degree of translation consistency and quality, makes it possible to work with text in a wide range of formats, and provide the means by which a large number of translators can work on a single project. Although machine translation (MT) involves a great deal of preparatory work and large expenditures for equipment and personnel, it does provide a high production rate and, when carefully integrated with TM, it produces passable translation quality and low process overhead costs.

Automation issues are extremely complex, but they are so central to the operation of the modern translation process that they deserve to have an article of their own.

If you prep enough lab rats you can cook up a decent PhD thesis (modern quality control techniques)

Unfortunately, learning the art of translation in the course of actual projects is often a costly indulgence. For example, errors in the translation of advertising materials or technical manuals can “bust" the timeline for getting a new product to market, lead to lost advantages and loss of clients, and can run up multi-million dollar losses. There are well known cases of poor quality documentation leading to loss of human life in hazardous industries. That is why the most important underpinnings for the modern translation process are its quality control techniques.

The demand for translation quality varies by subject area, type of text translated, client requirements, and the specific nature of the project. For example, in advertising texts, particular attention is paid to style, clarity and vividness of language, and to the precision with which concepts and ideas are conveyed at symbolic and cultural levels. In technical translation the main thing is uniformity of presentation, consistency in the use of definitions and terms, and precision in conveying meaning. Scientific publications, games, and fiction put forward their own set of quality demands. Regardless of what a project’s details or a client demands may be, there are certain ground rules:

  • there should be no spelling errors in the text;
  • a translation should correctly convey the sense and subtext of the original, while taking into account the target audience’s linguistic and cultural differences;
  • terminology should be used consistently;
  • the translation should not be worse than the original.


The Localization Industry Standards Association (LISA), which is an international association working in the area of localization standards (translation, and cultural and linguistic adaptation), has developed a model for ensuring the quality for localization and translation projects. This model takes into account the quality control measurements being employed by the recognized leaders in the information technology field: Microsoft, Digital Equipment, Rank Xerox, IDOC Europe, DLS and IBM. According to this model, translation quality can be assured by two independent processes: by the selective sampling of materials or by the continuous monitoring of all. The evaluative measures of translation quality are divided into seven categories: mistranslation, accuracy, compliance with accepted terminology, language, style, compliance with the norms and standards of the country for which the translation is being performed, consistency (uniformity) in the use of concepts and definitions. Within these categories, errors are classified as critical, major or minor. In practice, quality control is often performed in accordance with global standards such as DIN 2345, ISO 9002, UNI 10574 and SAE J2450. However, these methods and standards can only add to the quality requirements that are set by individual translation clients. Establishing a quality control procedure for specific projects consists of several stages:

  • the required level of quality is determined based on the overall standards in a given sector, the translation agency’s standards, the client’s requirements and wishes, the specifics of the project and an assessment of end-user expectations (the target audience);
  • based on these requirements, measures are developed to ensure uniform quality throughout the entire project, and the overall process is mapped out, depicting its individual stages to include actions to be taken in the event of unforeseen circumstances;
  • this information is used when compiling a schedule and assembling the project team.


To attain the necessary quality, it is essential to have a style guide that translators and editors are required to use. This guide should focus primarily on the language, culture and distinctive perceptions of the target audience. It also needs to contain the distinctive details and requirements of the specific project, the specific field, and the specific client. In addition, this kind of guide will need to delineate the basic rules for drafting the translation, including the use of quotation marks, dashes and fonts, an indication of which titles and abbreviations should go untranslated, and so on.

All translated material should pas through multistage review. The first priority is checking the translation itself: the first check is done automatically (grammar, spelling, and terminology), and then manually following a standard loop: translator — technical editor — literary editor — translator (for approval of changes) — proofreader. Next is a technical review to ensure compliance with the formatting requirements, preservation of special layouts, and so on. Depending on the required style level, as determined in the preparatory stage, the review process may be more or less complex.

The standard quality control process is shown in the following diagram.


Translation from Individual Services to Industrial Production: or No Hocus-Pocus—Just Business Focus.

The concept of translation and intercultural communication is extraordinarily broad and can cover a broad spectrum of tasks. For example, knowing one or more foreign languages, you can communicate on your own with foreigners. For that there is no need to bring in high-powered specialists, unless of course the discussion will be particularly important and will demand profound understanding and the ability to fully convey your thoughts. In this case the smallest mistake or failure to understand some cultural nuance could have tragic circumstances. (For example, we all know that political figures and top business men, many of which are quite well versed in foreign languages, often use interpreters for the simple reason that, to gain professional level mastery they would need to become one and work at it every day.) If you need to get a general idea of what some page on the Internet is about, there is likewise no need to call up a specialist. Just use of the well-known on-line translators. If you put one of the machine translation programs on your computer you will be able to get the gist of almost any document (except perhaps for highly specialized texts) and then decide which documents are truly important for you and are worth sending off to the professionals. (The latter method, for example, is widely used in various international organizations to identify only those documents that need to be translated amid a vast stream of materials in different languages.)

However, in those cases dealing with translations of any significant size or with translation into several languages at once, or with deadlines and quality concerns, the need for a professional approach becomes vital. As a general rule, translation expenditures do not exceed 1% of the total overhead involved in getting a given product to market. On the other hand, a translation that comes in late or is of poor quality can become the straw that breaks the camels back. A delay in marketing a product or scandals arising from a non-professional translation failing to take into account some nuance of the target audience, can nullify all of the efforts and resources spent on implementing a business project.

Taking on an industrial approach to translation services does more than just make it possible to meet large volume translation orders quickly and with high quality. It simultaneously tackles the crucial problem of cutting translation costs, the severity of which is tied directly to the increase in translation demand. Automating translation work, eliminating many functions that used to be done by hand and actively using accumulated translations makes it possible to significantly reduce the cost of the process, which thereby reduces the cost of translation services. The need for constant management of a whole array of tasks requires that a carefully selected team of specialists take part in the process. This helps foresee and resolve the widest possible range of problems in the early phases, reducing complications in such a way that they can be managed using standard techniques, prior to the point at which the problem would require additional expenditures. When working with individual translators or even with a small group of translators, potential problems often are not even recognized in time, much less being dealt with in a timely fashion. Finally, using the kind of standardized, well-established and fully documented processes that are typical of an industrial approach will make it possible to reduce the time and labor spent on individual subtasks and conserve resources by using what we already have (organizations, software, and so on).

Above we tried to provide a general understanding of the complexity in setting up a modern translation process. But these are complexities, and the efforts that translation organizations expend to build and enhance processes will ultimately make it possible for clients to obtain high-quality services at prices that are significantly less than the expenses they would inevitably incur under an independently organized process.

You might quickly print off a draft brochure on a personal printer but you would hardly start up your own printing house to publish that same brochure in 50,000 copies, especially if your own business is something far removed from publishing. It is unlikely that anyone would imagine taking it upon himself to install office equipment, just as a way to decrease his company’s need for that equipment. Organizational and financial expenditures on this undertaking could only be recouped if the activity in question becomes a new focus for your business. However, as recent business strategy research demonstrates, a company can reach true greatness only if it will narrow rather than expand its business focus. This means that time and resources spent taking on secondary, non-essential activities will almost always turn out to be far less effective than the investment of resources into a company’s main line of business. In other words, if providing translation services is not your “be all and end all," putting this process in place as a secondary need will be more than economically disappointing. It will almost certainly hurt your main interests.


There is no way to capture all of the points of a complex process in a single article. We looked at the main features of modern translation technologies, trying to show why it is that only a flow process, and the use of the latest technologies make it possible to satisfy the fast-growing demand for rapid, high-quality translation. Obviously, managing the problems that are facing the contemporary translation services market can no longer be addressed by individual translators, or even small translation agencies. What is increasingly required is the “industrial" approach; the artful establishment of all the translation processes, and a sensible adherence to global standards for efficiency and quality.

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