KITES 2013: Is language like toilet paper?

It was a busy October on the seminar front. Just a few days after METM13, I found myself at KITES 2013, the annual meeting point of language technology in Finland. At lunch I got to talking with my fellow former students of translation studies about persistent general ignorance related to the quality of language services. Is language like toilet paper, such a banal, every day phenomenon that it is incomprehensible as a valuable concept to those outside the immediate professional circuit?

We only seem to notice the value of language when it’s missing or of really bad quality.

KITES is a cluster of Finnish companies involved in multilingual communication. Its major interests include the benefits of language technology in business. This year’s symposium addressed the future development of the language services industry. Topics included text analysis as a base of decision-making, big data and its impact on doing business, and how machine translation and related post-editing will affect language services.

EU invests dozens of millions of EUR in cross-cultural data technology development through several programs, such as Horizon 2020 and Connecting Europe Facility, CEF. Global companies spend millions in localizing their documentation and marketing messages to target cultures. So it’s not like there isn’t any money involved in the business. Top internet searches indicate a growing demand for translation services. Fast or accurate, the degree of automation vs. human intelligence, that is the question. So far it seems that machine translation drives the need for human translation.

How and where does language professionalism step in?

The concept of big data defies traditional processing and storage paradigms. It consists of volume, velocity, and variety, none of which matter without the 4th V: value. Microsoft presented how community-based, language-loving automated translation can make their solution an ultimate success. Microsoft Translator did wonders for the people of Haiti, but question remains for those currently employed in and wanting to succeed commercially through quality in the industry: how and where does language professionalism step in?

It is obvious that language strategy needs to be made part of business development for any company to succeed internationally. One of the best presentations of the day illustrated how the commoditization of translation leads to quantity-based fees getting lower and lower. That’s why educated translators need to focus on differentiation. Another buzzword of the presentations was disintermediation. Companies now aim to deal with customers more directly, preferably online, to drop the cost of services. In the language services business, this could mean that power is going back to the translators instead of language vendors who offer project management for a cost.

Do what you love and specialize to succeed. Power of passion is contagious.

Amongst increasing automation and crowdsourcing, I’d like to see value added to the business by building a profitable bridge between the fields of communication, marketing, and translation; by creating qualified content that fulfills its communication purpose in the target culture including expertise in the client’s business. Although transparent toilet paper is not a good idea, the cognitive process of multilingual and multicultural communication needs to be made more transparent and people reminded of how language is also a tool of strategic thinking, not only an everyday commodity. Just like in the toilet paper business, you either focus on selling as much low-quality paper as possible for the lowest cost or specialize in developing a smooth brand that everybody wants despite the price.

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