The translation industry. Say what?

Technology may not replace human translators, but it will help them work better

TALK into your phone in any of the big European languages and a Google app can now turn your words into a foreign language, either in text form or as an electronic voice. Skype, an internet-telephony service, said recently that it would offer much the same (in English and Spanish only). But claims that such technological marvels will spell the end of old-fashioned translation businesses are premature.

Software can give the gist of a foreign tongue, but for business use (if executives are sensible), rough is not enough. And polyglot programs are a pinprick in a vast industry. The business of translation, interpreting and software localisation (revising websites, apps and the like for use in a foreign language) generates revenues of $37 billion a year, reckons Common Sense Advisory (CSA), a consulting firm.

The market is growing, and widening. Translation in continental Europe was once dominated by the “FIGS” (French, Italian, German and Spanish); Japanese, Chinese and Korean were the only Asian languages to speak of. Roughly 90% of online spending is accounted for by speakers of 13 languages, says Don DePalma of CSA. But others are becoming more important, for reasons of both politics and commerce.

The European Union’s bureaucrats now have to communicate in 24 tongues. In Asia once-neglected languages such as Vietnamese and Indonesian matter more as those countries grow. Companies active in Africa regard that continent’s languages as increasingly important. Big software firms like Microsoft find it profitable to localise their wares in small languages like Maya or Luxembourgish. Translation is no longer usually to or from English.

Technology, far from replacing humans, is instead a tool that helps them keep up with surging demand for high-quality translation. “Translation memory” (TM) was the first big useful tool. Since the 1980s translators have been able to dip into vast TM databases containing whole sentences that have already been translated in a given language pair, helping them to speed up repetitive work, such as translating instruction manuals.

“Machine translation” is the next step. Computers learn from huge databases of already-translated text to make ever-better guesses about how to render whole chunks from one language into another. Translators used to scorn this, seeing their human judgment as irreplaceable. Now, says Jiri Stejskal of the American Translators’ Association, it has won respectability.

Technological change has not brought consolidation to a fragmented industry, however. Lionbridge, which has the largest disclosed revenues ($489m in 2013), makes much of its money from services other than translation. Like most of its rivals, Lionbridge talks up technology, but is fairly traditional. The heart of the business is managing projects, acting as a go-between for customers and freelance translators on jobs like managing file formats and locations, client reviews and so forth.

Tedious project-management tasks like these may offer scope for disruptive innovation—perhaps from the translation world’s equivalent of Uber, a taxi app. Software is unlikely to replace the translators, but it could co-ordinate their work with clients more efficiently. Smartling, an American company which seeks to cut out middlemen in this way, has clients including Tesla, an electric carmaker, and Spotify, a music-streaming service.

Jochen Hummel, a pioneer in translation memory, says that a real breakthrough would come from combining software, memory and content management in a single database. But making money may still be tricky. The American tech titan has not tried to commercialise Google Translate. A former executive says the firm experimented with content-management software but “decided to focus on easier stuff, like self-driving cars.”