Friday, June 20, 2014

The Expanding Translation Market Driven by Expert Based MT

There has been much talk amongst some translators about how MT is a technology that will take away work and ultimately replace them, and thus some translators dig in their heels and resist MT at every step. The antagonistic view is based on a zero-sum game assumption that if a computer can perform a translation that they used to do, it inevitably means less work for them in future. In some cases this may be true, however this presumption is worth a closer look.

While stories of MT mishaps and mistranslations abound, (we all know how easy it is to make MT look bad), it is becoming increasingly apparent to many in the professional translation business, that it is important to learn how to use and extend the capabilities of this technology successfully, as the technology also enables new kinds of translation and linguistic engineering projects that would simply be impossible without viable and effective implementations of expert MT technology. Generally, MT is not a wholesale replacement for humans and in my opinion never will be. When properly implemented, it is a productivity enhancer and a way to expand the scope of multilingual information access for global populations that can benefit from this access. 

MT is in fact as much or more a tool/technology to create new kinds of translation work, as it is a tool to get traditional translation work done faster and more cost effectively. While MT is unlikely to replace human beings in any application where translation quality and semantic finesse is really important, there are a growing number of cases that show that MT is suitable for enabling many new kinds of business information translation initiatives that may in fact generate whole new kinds of translation related work for some if not all translators. MT is already creating new kinds of translation work opportunities in all the following scenarios:

  • With high volume content that would just not get translated via traditional human translation modes for economic and timeliness reasons, and thus the use case scenario is either use MT or do nothing. MT is used to lower total costs that make content viable to translate without which it would have never been translated. This in turn has created new work for human translation professionals in editing the most critical content and helping to raise the average quality of expert MT output.
  • With content that cannot afford human translation because the value of the information is clearly not worth the typical human translation cost scenario.
  • High value content in social networks that is changing every hour and every day and has great value for a brief moment, but has limited value a few weeks after the fact.
  • Knowledge content that facilitates and enhances the global spread of critical knowledge.
  • Content that is created to enhance and accelerate information access to global customers, who prefer a self-service model as in technical support knowledge base databases which have new content streaming in on a daily basis.
  • Content that does not need to be perfect but just approximately understandable for exploratory or gist purposes.
One point worth clarifying upfront is that much of the interest in MT by global enterprises is driven by their need to face the barrage of product/service related comments, discussions and opinions that flow in social media and influence how customers view their products. This social media banter is very influential in driving purchase decisions, often much more than corporate marketing communications which are seen as self-serving and self-promoting. Also, as products grow in complexity it becomes important to share more information about power features and extended capabilities. The issue of growth in the sheer volume of information is increasingly clear to most but there are actually translators out there who think the content tsunami is a myth. EMC and IDC have well documented studies that show the continuing content explosion. 

Global enterprises who wish to engage in commerce with global populations have discovered that the control of marketing has shifted away from corporate marketing departments to consumers who share intimate details or real customer experiences. User generated content (UGC) such as product experience related comments in social media e.g. blogs; Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and community forums have become much more important to final business outcomes. This UGC content is now influencing customer behavior all over the world and is often referred to as word-of-mouth-marketing (WOMM). Consumer reviews are often more trusted than corporate marketing-speak and even “expert” reviews. We all have experienced Amazon, travel sites, C-Net and other user rating sites which document actual consumer experiences. This is also happening at B2B levels. It is useful to both global consumers and global enterprises to make this content multilingual. Given the speed at which this information is produced, MT has to be part of the translation solution to digesting this information, and conversion to multilingual modes, to influence and assist global customers in a time frame where it is useful. For those of us who understand the translation challenges of this material, it is clear that involving humans in the expert MT development process providing linguistic and translation guidance in this process, will produce better MT output quality. The business value is significant so I expect that linguists who add value to this conversion process will be valued and sought after.

While some translators see MT as a big bad wolf that looms menacingly around, they fail to see that the world has changed for everybody, especially corporate marketers, PR professionals, and any enterprise sales function facing customers who share information freely with details of personal customer experiences. An individual blogger brought Dell to its knees with a blog post titled Dell Hell. Some say it triggered a huge stock price drop. A viral video about careless baggage handling of musical instruments resulted in a PR nightmare for United Airlines and perhaps even a negative impact on their stock price. This user experience content really matters to a global enterprise and they need strategies to deal with this as it spreads across the globe and influences purchase behavior. As the infographic below (bigger version available by clicking on this link) shows, every time a consumer posts an experience on the web it is seen by 150 people, which means small improvements in brand advocacy result in huge revenue increases, and 74% of consumers now rely on social networks to guide their purchasing decisions. This means that non-corporate content becomes much more important to understand and translate since these experiences are being shared in multiple languages.

This graph details how negative experiences multiply in negative impact, as consumers tend to be much more invested in sharing bad experiences than they are about sharing positive experiences. Thus it is very important that global enterprises monitor social media carefully. This is yet another example of what content really matters and how social media drives purchasing behavior. 

So if all this is going on, it also means that what used to be the primary focus for the professional translation industry, needs to change from the static content of yesteryear to the more dynamic and much higher volume user generated content of today. The discussions in social media are often where product opinions, brand credibility and product reputations are formed and this is also where customer loyalty or disloyalty can form as the customer support experience shows. This is what we call high value content. MT is a critical technology that is necessary as a foundational element for the professional translation world to play a useful role in solving these new translation challenges. However, it is important to also understand that this challenge cannot be solved by any old variant of MT, especially the upload and pray approaches of most DIY (Do It Yourself) MT. This is challenging even for experts and failure is par for the course..

Where MT creates new translation work opportunities


Some specific examples of the expanding translation pie that MT enables and drives:

The knowledge base use-case scenario has been well established as something that improves customer satisfaction and empowerment for many global enterprises with high demand technical support information. To develop and improve the quality of the MT translations in knowledge bases, very special linguistic work and translations need to be done. And while we see many examples of translators commenting on the poor quality of the translations we also see that millions of real customers provide feedback to the global enterprise suggesting that they find these “really bad” translations quite useful for their purposes, and prefer that to trying to read a tech note in a language that is not as familiar. Thus, while MT is imperfect we have evidence that many (millions) find it useful. Generic users on the internet are information consumers who have to deal with a language barrier. They are often the customers that global enterprises wish to communicate with. Their growing acceptance of MT suggests that MT has utility in general as a way to communicate with global customers, even though it is clear that a machine’s attempt at translation is rarely if ever as good as a human translation.

We are now also seeing that social media content based sentiment analysis is increasingly being considered as a high value exercise by marketing groups in understanding global markets. To translate international social media content it is useful to understand core terminology and get critical language translations in place and steer expert MT. This is new kinds of linguistic and translation related work which involves understanding the behavior of language in specific domains and discussion forums and then building predictive translation models for them. This new linguistic engineering work is an opportunity for progressive translators. New skills are needed here, an understanding of corpus at a linguistic profile level, the ability to identify MT error patterns and develop corrective strategies by working together with experts. The objective here is to understand the customer voice by language and develop appropriate marketing response strategies.

We also see the growth of sharing internal product development information across language within large global enterprises. Rather than use a public MT engine that can compromise and expose secret product plans it has become important to develop internal corporate engines that help employees to share documents and presentations in a secure environment and at least get a high quality gist. This effort too benefits from skilled linguistic engineering work, corpus analysis, terminology development and strategic glossary and TM data manufacturing. 

Every large translation project that is ONLY done because the cost/time characteristics that expert managed MT lends to it will generate two kinds of translation opportunities that would not exist were it not for the basic fact that MT made this content viable and visible in a multilingual context:

  1. Post-editing of the highest value material in a multimillion word corpus
  2. Translation of content that simply would NOT have been considered for translation had MT not made it economically viable and feasible.

So the next time you hear somebody bashing on “MT” ask yourself a few questions:

  1. What kind of MT variant are they talking about as there are many shades of grey? Amateur DIY experiences producing shoddy MT output abound, and translators should learn to identify these quickly and avoid them. Dealing with experts provides a very different experience and allows for ongoing feedback and improvement. MT is a tool that is only as good as the skill and competence of the users and is not suitable for many kinds of high value translation work.
  2. Are you dealing with a client/customer who has a larger vision for expanding the scope of translation? There is likely a bright future with anybody who has a focus on these new massive data volume social media projects.
  3. Are you playing a role in getting information that really matters to customers and marketers translated? While user documentation is still important, it is clear the relative value of this kind of content continues to fall as an element of building great customer experiences. The higher the value of the information you translate to your customer, the higher your value to the client.
But I expect that there will still be many translators who see no scenario in which they interact with MT in any way, expert-based or not, and that is OK, as it is a very different work experience that may not suit everybody. The very best translators can still put machines to shame with their speed and accuracy. But I hope that we will see more MT naysayers base their opinions about MT on professionally focused expert MT initiatives, rather than the well-publicized generic MT and lazy DIY MT initiatives that are much easier to find.

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - Buckminister Fuller