The Evolution of a Multibillion Dollar Industry – From Floppies to the Cloud

To be called a veteran is a dubious honour, and as sure a sign of aging as greying hair. As I sit here looking back on my almost three decades in the translation/localisation industry there is little doubt that I am one of its veterans, something of which I am proud.

We are only days away from the United Nation’s International Translation Day on September 30th. The UN describes this international day of recognition as:

“International Translation Day is meant as an opportunity to pay tribute to the work of language professionals, which plays an important role in bringing nations together, facilitating dialogue, understanding and cooperation, contributing to development and strengthening world peace and security.”

The date of 30 September was chosen because it is the feast of St. Jerome, the Bible translator who is considered the patron saint of translators. St. Jerome was a priest from North-eastern Italy, who is known mostly for his endeavour of translating most of the Bible into Latin from the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. He also translated parts of the Hebrew Gospel into Greek.

St Jerome

The UN encourages all member states, international and local organisations and individuals to celebrate the occasion to raise the awareness of the importance professional translation has in this modern world. A world that has been shrunken by the advent of technology that now puts instant, worldwide access in the hands of many of the world’s citizens.

Given this call to celebrate and commemorate, I thought it a good moment to write a blog reflecting on the journey this industry has taken since I first joined a small company called Softrans (subsumed later by the newbie, Berlitz), all those years ago.

On reflection, the average translation office of yore was truly a low-tech, primitive environment compared to today’s office full of super technology and computational power. To give you an idea, here’s a list of technologies we didn’t have, way back then:

  • CAT Tools
  • Machine Translation (of any calibre)
  • Email (although it came soon after)
  • The Internet
  • The Cloud
  • Memory Sticks
  • Windows (although it arrived soon after)
  • Software development tools such as Catalyst
  • HELP authoring tools
  • Automated software testing tools
  • Workflow systems

The modern localisation professional must look at this list and scratch their heads in wonderment as to how we managed to produce anything. Well, here’s a list of tools we did have at our disposal:

  • Fax machines
  • 5 ¼ inch 1.2 mb floppy disks (you read that correctly)
  • DOS (do you remember C:>?)
  • 24-hour delivery services (replaced by the internet!)
  • Internal translation teams
  • Internal desktop publishing teams
  • Internal engineers (with few tools)
  • Manual software and help testing
  • Manual Software building
  • A choice of maybe three DTP packages

And as if that was not bad enough, the machines at our disposal in those days were slower than a wet Sunday. In Softrans, the average translator had use of an IBM 286. A machine that had a whole 10 MB hard drive (that’s not a typo), 128K of RAM (ditto) and a four colour CGA screen. The RAM could be boosted to a massive 640K. Oh, and to move it you needed someone to lift all 80 lbs of it. The operation system was DOS. When you turned it on, instead of a shiny looking Windows GUI you saw C:>. And off you went typing your commands to get started.

But technology does not stand still, and soon we were able to upgrade some of our translators to the IBM 386 model. Yoo-hoo – now we had screaming fast computers. It had a 256K RAM and a huge 40 MB of hard disk space. They also came with the first version of Windows, a revolutionary development in GUI.

They were much fought over by the translators. And I say translators, as the early localisation office had basically two main production departments; the translation department and the desk top publishers. There was also a small project management team and a small engineering group. Project management was still a discipline in its early development, without any of the tools on today’s project manager’s desk.

The engineers were more IT support people than the software engineers that are so needed today. As the industry developed, customers saw that shipping translated documentation and non-localised software and Help did not make much sense. So, they started asking for the Help and software to be translated. Consequently, the engineering team began to grow and evolve in to the engineering discipline that we have today. The engineers then had few of the tools we have today. Software engineering tools such as Catalyst did not exist in any commercial sense. Some of the bigger software development companies had their own internal tools, but it was the mid-1990s before a commercially developed tool – Catalyst – was made available to the engineers in companies like Softrans.

Translation too was done in a rudimentary way. The translator worked in MSWord, translating directly from the English hardcopy source document. They relied on dictionaries and self-created glossaries to keep them right. They would create the glossaries by laboriously identifying key terms in the English and then, in a table, translate the term in to their local language. Each translation team had an editor whose job was to ensure continuity of terminology across the project. The editor also had the task of keeping glossaries updated when the reviewed copy came back from the customer. Very few customers had their own glossaries. Indeed, most customers did not have a translation/localisation department. As a consequence, their translation would be managed by groups as diverse as marketing, internal training, or simply an individual tasked to run the project.

Because the only means of external communication was by fax, post or overnight courier it meant that translation companies had to keep a core team of translators in-house. Softrans, for example, had French, Italian, German and Spanish (FIGS) translators. It was like a mini UN. So too with DTP. Today, in the era of the home office a translator or DTP person can be in Timbuctoo but so long as they have access to the internet they can be usefully productive. Not then, everything had to be housed under one roof, which caused high overheads for companies as they needed to supply desk space, heating, lighting etc.

Today, jobs are delivered by the pressing of a key and off zips the project. Or, the work is done on the customer’s network without the files every having to moved from their control and monitoring. No project is too big as the Cloud offers an endless amount of storage space. In the Softrans’ day a project was delivered on a mass of 5.25-inch disks. Each had a capacity of 1.2 MB. So, a large project took a very large number of disks. These were usually shipped by overnight courier. On occasions, the disks got corrupted in transit meaning a new set would have to be sent, so causing a delay of days on something that was badly needed by companies with product ready to ship to meet a particularly tight marketing window.

The first time I realised that the industry was developing a tool to help speed up translation was when Softrans was chosen to trial a new product called a Computer Aided Translation tool. That tool was called Trados. It was about 1994 when I first came across it. I remember translators falling in to two categories; those who feared that their jobs would become redundant, and those who were cynical about the possibility of technology making their job easier. But as it was introduced over time, both groups began to see the power of Trados. It very soon became an essential part of the translation process. No translator today would even consider translating a large project without using a CAT tool. Even more so, no customer would accept you translating from scratch every time and charging them for new words in every project!

And here I am still loitering with intent inside the localisation industry. This time in the marketing department (previously, I managed translators, DTP groups and engineers) of one of the most innovative technology groups in the industry KantanMT.com. Kantan is at the cutting edge of machine translation technology. Kantan started with Statistical Machine Translation, before riding the wave that is Neural Machine Translation. MT is a technology that has an amazing exponential growth. The advent of the Cloud, super-computers and huge volumes of translated data has fed the industry like petrol to a fire. And, as with all ‘new’ technologies – for example CAT – the cynics are out there saying it cannot be done. The translators are decrying MT as a sorcery that is going to disappear their industry. But I am too long in this industry not to realise that MT is a technology that the translation/localisation needs to lift in to the next level of development. The industry profile is not longer one of small translation companies like Softrans with its $1 million turnover, but companies that are now valued in the billions.

The business world has contracted, and every major company sees its market as global. They need to overcome the challenges that language brings, and they want to do this in the speediest, most cost-effective way. Machine translation allows this to happen. The market will not allow MT to disappear. You only need look at the companies now committed to MT – Amazon, Google, eBay, Facebook; to name but a few, to see that MT is fast becoming the norm. The translation paradigm is shifting fast. But translators will not disappear; their jobs will just take on a different dimension. They will become more editors than translators. MT will become an integral part of the standard workflow. It will become part of the process just as much as CAT did in the past. We are seeing exciting new developments in translation/localisation. It is difficult to predict what is coming around the corner for the industry; but unlike the IBM 286, IBM 386 and floppy disks, it is not going to go away!

Enjoy International Translation Day!

Aidan Collins is a language industry veteran. He works in the marketing department at KantanMT.

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