Don’t sell snake oil

I’ve been working in the language services industry for a while now, so I used to think that I was already familiar with all of the TMS systems there were. I was right about this for a while. However, these days it seems there is a new language technology provider (LTP) popping up every week. This is great news for our industry as we are long overdue for some meaningful innovation in this area. However, it can be a struggle to stay up to speed with all the latest technologies out there. Sometimes I can’t help but feel like an old man in my rocking chair shaking my head at all the newfangled technologies. Do I detect some laughter? I’m quite sure some of you can relate!

Every time I open up Facebook (And let’s not even discuss the transition to Snapchat…), I see an advertisement for a particular translation company that I have never heard of before. (I’m not going to say the name because it is not relevant here). And when I say “every time”, I’m really not exaggerating. This ad campaign is aggressive. The ad has even followed me to other sites, showing up in banners and popups while I am just minding my own business online. It is quite literally following me. It won’t stop. All I want to do is watch the latest Star Wars trailer in peace, but this stupid ad won’t leave me alone.

So I finally gave into the pressure (yes, I usually end up doing whatever Facebook tells me to do) and clicked on the advertisement. I wanted to see what this was all about. The website is slick. It goes into detail about how their innovative new platform includes such features as “built in spellchecker” and something called “translation memories.” I’ll be perfectly honest, if I were somebody else (somebody with less experience in this industry), this product would sound pretty damn fabulous.

However, I’m not somebody else. I’m me. And it took me about 10 minutes to realize that what I was looking at wasn’t even a new translation company. The advertisement was actually for a machine translation platform. Ah, OK! That’s fine. Machine translation is great! However… What made me suspicious was how long it took me to realize that there was no actual human translation involved. From all of the content on the website, any inexperienced (yet reasonably intelligent) consumer could easily make the assumption that they would be buying human performed translations. Indeed, inexperienced consumers generally don’t know the difference between machine translation and human translation – until, that is, their foreign customers start screaming at them.

Delving a little deeper, I started looking at the various features that this platform had to offer. Here are a few that I jotted down:

Translated Documents will be automatically formatted

Editor’s note: No. No they won’t be automatically (magically) formatted. I am disturbed by this level of shameless misdirection (if not outright lie). In fact, if you pause the promotional YouTube videos in the right places, you can clearly see extra line breaks and missing spaces after periods in the translated documents they are showing off. Keep in mind I didn’t go hunting for this. I only watched one video, which was a video that was supposed to be about showing off how great the product worked.

[Machine] Translation learning

Editor’s note: They are referring to custom-training the MT engines. However, there is no mention that this will of course mean hiring linguists to post-edit the content. The website made it seem like this was a breeze. However, we know that in order to train a machine translation engine, we have to have human translators involved in this process. Nine times out of ten, this means hiring an LSP. Any self-respecting LSP is going to already have their preferred methodology for training and maintaining MT engines that allows them to be more efficient, but now you will be forcing them to work in this tool that they have never heard of before. Good luck with that.

"Innovative" Translation Memories

Editor’s note: Really? Translation Memories? Innovative? Is this 1993? I’m not even going to comment on this further… I just can’t…

I could go on, but I think I’ll stop right here. I believe I have presented enough evidence to be able to pass judgement. And what is my judgement?
Well, my judgment is that it actually looks like a pretty neat tool. They are providing trainable machine translation technology as a subscription service, in a system that integrates translation editing environment (CAT tool) and some basic quality checks like spell checking. Purchasing the (reasonably priced) paid subscription models also gets you access to their APIs so that you can integrate it directly into existing workflows. The platform looks fine. Nothing that is going to completely disrupt the language services industry, but fine. This is a new company so they maybe don’t have all the bells and whistles rolled out yet, but everybody has to start somewhere. I welcome newcomers to the area of language technology because this is a space that has been tragically devoid of any real innovation for a while now. Perhaps a little competition from new entrants like these guys is just what is needed to spur innovation.
What I don’t like though, is a trend that I’m seeing not just from this unnamed company, but from a lot of new startups in the language services industry. It’s this new idea that translation is automated and easy. It’s not. Translation is complex and sometimes messy, at least when it is done right. This is not a very popular opinion to have these days, though – especially working on the vendor (LSP) side of the fence. Language services buyers (LSBs) used to know that translation was complex. That is why they engaged with LSPs in the first place, taking advantage of their expertise and outsourcing the headache.
When working for LSPs, my sales pitch to clients used to be:
Localization is hard. Let us help you with that.
Now I’m not able to get past the word “hard” because they don’t want to hear how difficult anything is. And why would they? They’ve be preconditioned by aggressive marketing campaigns to believe that translation is easy. They are seeing the same Facebook ads and watching the same YouTube videos as am I. All those marketing materials are telling them the same thing: Translation is easy! The difference is that many of them don’t have the experience needed to be able to properly interpret that message.
This is not good news for LSPs. Clients onboard tools and platforms like this because they don’t know any better. They think it will be easy. Then they eventually realize that the tool is not living up to their expectations (ex., there may be some additional DTP work needed to clean up those “automatically formatted” files). By the time these LSBs reach out to an LSP, they are already incredibly frustrated and expect the LSP to fix everything for them. That is fine, actually. That is what good LSPs do for clients every day – fix things. What is not fine is that these LSPs are then told that they have to work within the same tool that is responsible for causing issues in the first place. Perhaps because of binding long-term contracts, or maybe because of a refusal to walk away from an already incurred sunk cost the client still wants to use this tool. This makes for a no-win situation.
Maybe I’m just an old man on my front porch rocking chair shaking my wrinkled fists at those pesky neighborhood kids. But I don’t think so. I welcome the newcomers to this industry. Lord knows we need some fresh blood to keep the rest of us on our toes. I wish the best for this new company and their overly-aggressive ad campaign. However, I would just ask one thing:
Please don’t sell us all snake oil.
You don’t need to. You have a lovely platform and you don’t need to make it seem better than it is. If you don’t want to take that advice, then I understand. You need to say these things because if you don’t, your competitors will. I get it. But then you should probably fix those formatting errors in your marketing videos. They kind of undermine your entire message.

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