Hans Fenstermacher, CEO of GALA (Globalisation and Localization Association) reflects on his experience working within the localization industry and tells us his views on some of the problems and opportunities affecting the industry today.
KantanMT: Hans, you’ve been working in localization for over 25 years, and with GALA since 2002 – how did you get started in the industry?
Hans Fenstermacher: I began as a translator and interpreter in New York City in 1982. I was lucky to get an in-house translation position right out of college, where I received excellent training from seasoned experts. I translated everything they would let me from 6 languages into English – documents, annual reports, business letters, print ads, you name it – and I worked as an editor/proofreader on lots more. I also did some consecutive interpreting (legal, medical, business meetings) and was thrilled to be an interpreter at the L.A. Olympics in 1984 in the UCLA Olympic Village, too. Those first few years were a great linguistic and operational training ground for my career. After getting my M.A.L.D. from the Fletcher school (and briefly considering a career in the U.S. State Department), I decided to jump into the translation business with both feet and haven’t looked back since!
KMT: What events (actual events/technology developments) do you feel most helped to shape how the localization industry operates today?
HF: You have to remember that the translation business was the original offshoring industry. We’ve sought resources in-country ever since I can remember. The Internet gave that process a huge boost; now we were able to find and work with linguistic resources all over the globe! Not to mention all the other advantages the Internet gave the business world. Then there’s Translation Memory. I recall my early days in the translation business, translating the same sentences over and over again. What a huge productivity gain to be able to recall those and reuse them. On the other hand, I do think that as an industry we “gave back” those productivity gains in the form of discounts to the clients much too quickly. Instead of using the extra margins ourselves and investing in more ways to improve our business, we seemed eager to pass the cost savings right on to the customers. That was great for them, but not so good for us as an industry. And this pattern has become chronic over the past 20 years. We’re seeing it again with MT, I’m afraid. This is one of the reasons that it’s hard for smaller LSPs – which, it must be remembered, is most of the localization industry! – to do R&D and innovate.
KMT: Is there anything that has maintained itself since you began working in the industry (service levels/attitudes etc.)?
HF: On the positive side, with those who do translations for a living, quality is still considered paramount. You really find very few language professionals who don’t care about doing a good job. That’s encouraging and continues to give our industry a great base to build the future on. Some linguists and business owners are perhaps too insistent on “high quality” without really knowing what that is or how to define it, but if I were a customer, I’d rather work with those kinds of people to adjust expectations around value (quality vs. cost) rather than wringing my hands about not being able to find someone to do a decent job.
One negative thing that has been slow to change is the general attitude about translation from those who buy it. It’s still largely an afterthought, an add-on at the end of the content process. I think this comes from persistent ignorance about what translation is and a lack of ability to assess the end-product. That’s changing, albeit too slowly (but I’d like to think that GALA is helping accelerate the business community’s understanding). We have a ways to go still, but companies are finally (!) realizing that their markets are global and that their potential customers don’t want to struggle to access their products in languages they don’t speak.
Something that is both positive and negative is the general attitude toward technology. As the industry has become increasingly technologized over the past 30 years, more and more emphasis is placed on tools to solve all our problems (quality, workflow, etc.). But just like in any business, adding technology to a flawed process doesn’t fix the process; in many ways, it just emphasizes the flaws. But technology has been a huge boon to translation, no question about that. MT (which it used to be said was five years from perfection and always will be) has really become a useful tool that is finally (mostly) ready for prime time. And we have other fine CAT and workflow technologies that have enabled our industry to rise to the challenges of the 21st century.
KMT: What do you think is next in terms of game changers for the industry?
HF: I think the interpreting and speech translation sector is ripe for disruption. Technologies are fast coming upon us that will change how we deal with speech. This could give a big boost to languages that have a small digital presence – I’m thinking of African and Asian languages, where much less digital, written content has been produced. Speech recognition and generation have made big strides in recent years. But I think the biggest advances are still to come.
I think the next few years will see some fascinating combinations of existing technologies to form a sort of “bleeding” edge for the industry: MT+transcreation for marketing on the fly? Sounds far-fetched, and yet I’m sure somewhere someone is stroking his or her chin thinking, “Hmm, maybe, just maybe!” How about TM+MT+authoring for automated content creation simultaneously in multiple languages? Without writers or translators?? Sounds heretical, and yet…
KMT: Are there any under the radar start-ups that you think will shake things up (apart from Kantan ;))?
HF: Well, Tony’s always been at the forefront of the industry :)! We’re all not privy of course to the secret strategic thinking taking place at most startups, but I’m really encouraged by what we can see. Now that the financial crisis of the past 5 years is mostly behind us, there’s a renewed energy to innovate and disrupt. It seems venture capital is getting in the game again, consolidation is back in the news. People are investing in the future of our industry. It’s exciting! From what I’ve seen in the past 18 months as CEO of GALA – side note: after 30 years in the LSP business, I have the privilege of being more of an observer now, and it’s fascinating – I think we’re going to see some pretty innovative things coming out of emerging language markets, like Russia, China, India. Not to mention the tremendous work going on in Africa, mostly under the radar. Sometimes people ask, when will Africa catch up? If you ask me, Africa isn’t going to catch up, it’s going to lead!
KMT: People always talk so highly of GALA and its events – what do you think that GALA brings to the industry that other organisations don’t?
HF: Thanks, I’m glad to hear that. We at GALA work incredibly hard on behalf of the language industry. I was a freelancer, production manager, business owner, and corporate executive in the past 30 years, but I’ve never worked harder in my life than right now. And the same goes for all of us at GALA. We have a huge passion for improving the industry and helping our members grow. It shows in our events, publications, collaborations, and programs. One thing people may not realize is that GALA is entirely funded by ourselves: no grants, no government money, no outside capital, nothing. We operate like an entrepreneurial startup, lean with no frills, so we focus all our energy on delivering value to our members. Another key point is that GALA is non-profit. That means we can, and we do, re-invest all our funds in programs and activities that help our members and the industry. And membership dues are our fuel! Events are great occasions to learn and network, and we love them. But annual dues from our over 400 member companies are what sustain our work all year long. Finally – and this is critical – one of GALA’s key missions is to promote and advocate for the industry. I don’t think any other language industry organization does as much as we do to proclaim the value and importance of the language business to the world. Without languages, everything stops. It’s that simple. GALA is the global voice that relentlessly makes that point.
KMT: What role do you hope GALA will have in the development of the translation and localization industries?
HF: A huge one, I hope! I think our role can be two-fold. To the industry itself, we want to become the global resource for information, development, and standards. GALA can help continuously improve and professionalize the business of language and be a vehicle for sharing and multiplying knowledge. Secondly, facing outward beyond our localization “bubble,” GALA can be the voice of the professional language industry, speaking with credibility and authority to the business community, policymakers, and others. In the end, our mission is the same: make sure that languages are a core element of every global engagement. That will mean more value for language work and more business for the companies who do it!
KMT: The GALA, Istanbul conference looks like it’s going to be another great event. What part of this particular conference are you most looking forward to?
HF: Wow, that’s a tough one. So many great elements. Think! Interpreting is a wonderful new addition to focus on the exploding interpreting sector. We’re really happy to be working with our new partners at InterpretAmerica on that. We also have the Director-General for Translation coming to speak to us. He represents the biggest language-services buyer in the world. How exciting is that! One of the best parts of GALA Istanbul, though, will be seeing so many friends an colleagues and meeting new ones. I can literally go from 7 in the morning until midnight every day and not talk to everyone I want to. This is our biggest, best conference yet, so I’m sure that will be an even greater challenge than usual!
KMT: What advice would you give to people who are attending the GALA conference for the first time to make the most out of the event?
HF: Don’t be shy! Don’t hang out with the people you work with (much as you may like them J). Walk up and introduce yourself to new people. Our signature event “Speed Networking” is an awesome way to get a jumpstart on that, so don’t miss it. Visit the exhibits! It’s not about selling or buying, but about learning. This is a great way to see new tools in action (some have special demos, too), ask questions, find business partners, and more. Talk to GALA members about the organization! Find out what it can do for you, and how you can get involved and gain more value for your work. Finally, ask the GALA team for help! If you’re looking for something or someone in particular, ask us. We’ll help get you connected.
Thanks to Hans for taking time out of his busy schedule to take part in this interview – we’re sure that the Istanbul conference will be a huge success and look forward to meeting many interesting people during the event.
The KantanMT Team
Interested in setting up a demo with the KantanMT team during the event? Send Niamh (firstname.lastname@example.org) and email to book in a time slot!