Good translations start with good source content

If you’re surprised to hear that the biggest impact you can have on your translation budget lies with your source content, you’re not alone. Shoring up your source content seems counter-intuitive, but it’s exactly the right strategy to get the most value from your translation and localisation projects.

Organisations can achieve 50% to 80% reduction in translation costs and a 30%-plus reduction in delivery time by implementing best practices around managing source content. The Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply says that operating in an omnichannel environment is increasingly a part of supply chain challenges – so streamlining and cost reduction is as important as thinking about the customer experience.

Translation is the too-late phase

It’s hard for translators to work in today’s business environment. They are perpetually at the end of the supply chain in any iteration of content production, and they are asked to produce localised content – that is, translations that have been adapted for suitability in local markets – in often impossibly short time periods, increasingly making it difficult to meet an unrealistic standard of quality.

More often than not, translators can see the problems upstream in the supply chain, but find themselves unable to effect any changes that would make the situation easier for themselves or their clients. They may not have direct access to the actual client, as a translation agency sits between them and acts as gatekeeper, and they may not even have reliable access to the tools that could improve the production process.

The client, meanwhile, struggles to get the content out to the translation agency and back again in a smooth manner. There continually seem to be bumps in the process that cause delays, mistranslations, or increased administrative overhead – needless cutting and pasting, for example.

It may be of some comfort, then, to know that good practices start at home, to mangle a perfectly good saying. Having a sound production process and robust source-language ecosystem lays the foundation for smooth development of localised content. In turn, this makes it easier to integrate the localised content into your products, websites, apps, knowledge bases, and content hubs.

Ready to adopt good localisation practices

It’s when companies are at the stage in their content maturity models when they recognise that content is an important part of their product or communication strategy that they are willing to invest in content as an asset. For companies not at that level of awareness, the rest of this article will not resonate. This is an important assumption, as in-house practices often reveal that companies are willing to live with broken content processes all along the line. They may say that content is king, but the king is shackled in a dungeon, and the keys have gone missing.

For the companies that are at the level of the maturity model where they are ready to take action, we make the following assumptions.

  • The company values content for its business value. Content isn’t considered that afterthought that fills in the pretty design, but a work product in its own right. In other words, the company recognises that the way that customers understand the products, services, instructions for use, value proposition, and the brand itself.
  • The company recognises that content production is not a commodity, and so does not fit the traditional supply chain model. Content returns in various iterations – new version, new language, new revision, and so on – and needs to be managed with the same care as other work products with iterative processes, such as code.
  • The company recognises that content is intrinsically different than data, and manages content with checks and balances suitable to it.
  • The company has equal interest in customers in the many markets, and aims to give them as much respect as the customers in the primary market.

Meeting these assumptions is an important point, as organisations which have not reached this stage of awareness are likely not willing or able to move to an operational model where they are ready to optimise management of localised content.

Put controls on source content

The single biggest impact you can have on your localisation efforts is to get your source content in order. A foundational principle for producing good translations is managing your source content well. Ideally, an organisation would create a superset of their source content, and re-use it across all of their output channels. This model accrues a tremendous amount of ROI, and the more languages you produce, the more this applies. Managing source content well involves making the most of semantic structure and metadata tags to help computer systems understand what the content is about, and as a result, how to translate that content more effectively.

Make your content translation-friendly

There are several writing theories with principles that apply to localised content. The principles of the Plain Language movement, for example, are a way to ensure that content is accessible to everyone. Controlled vocabulary is another technique from which you can borrow to ease confusion when terms need to be translated. Both of these theories agree on avoiding jargon, idiom, slang, and euphemisms, as they are harder to translate and often meaningless in the target language. Also pay attention to colours, gestures, and images. For example, there is no hand gesture that is not offensive in some culture. (Even the Facebook “thumbs up” for Like is a rude gesture in an entire area of the world.) Professional writers and translators will spot these errors and point them out or correct them.

The 3 techniques that are most common are:

  • translation – a faithful word-for-word rendition in another language
  • localisation – translation with additional compensation for differences in the target markets
  • transcreation – completely changing the message, if necessary, to make it meaningful to the target audience.

Transcreation is obviously the most resource-intensive, and will likely get used for marketing and other persuasive content.

Make your content interoperable

Industry has hundreds, if not thousands, of content standards that help store content, move content between systems, move content through the production, and so on. Your web or software developers may know about W3C standards that relate to the Open Web Platform, accessibility, semantic web, and the Web of Devices (the Internet of Things). They may not be as familiar with XLIFF, an interchange format commonly used to move content through the localisation process, image standards such as SVG, which has a handy text layer to store multiple language translations on a single image as metadata. Knowing the standards and deciding which ones apply to your projects can dramatically ease workflows and save significant time and money.

Use established workflows

When you use industry-standard workflows for translations, your project can go around the world in a day or two, and be translated with a minimum of drama. A typical workflow would be to export well-formed content (going back to interoperability standards) to a competent translation agency through a Translation Management System. The agency will run the content through your translation memory, subject the new content to machine translate, and then have it post-edited by a qualified translator. The quality-checked content is pushed back into your content repository and is ready for processing. Now, you can see how managing your source content can affect production efficiency of your translated content.

Use the right tools

The operational overhead of managing translations manually can be significant. It’s possible to bring down that overhead by using some industry-standard tools. Translation processes have become very sophisticated, and these tools are at the heart of automation and scale.

  • Translation memory. At the very basic level, a translation memory is a must. If you use a professional translation agency, they will use the translation memory to compare new translations with previous translations, and avoid translating sentences which had previously been translated. You own your translation memory, though, and are entitled to have the file for your own use, for example, with other agencies.
  • Translation automation. At the next level is project automation. If you translate or localise content regularly, a TMS (translation management system) can improve your processes a lot. Source language files get passed through to a TMS, which handles everything from calculating the number of words to be processed, to passing the files to translators and collecting the translated content, to calculating costs and generating invoices, to passing the translated content back into your content editing system into the appropriate file or database structure.
  • Machine translation. The larger your project, the more likely you are to use machine translation as the first pass at translating content. Machine translation happens before translators polish up the language in what is called the post-editing phase.
  • Content optimisation. The larger, more advanced organisations use software that scans the source content for not just spelling and grammar, but also for consistency, form, and harder-to-measure things like tone and voice. This sophisticated software can also offer authoring assistance to keep cost-sucking language problems from entering the body of content at the source.
  • Managing content as components. Organisations that produce masses of content have been using authoring environments called a CCMS (component content management system), where the source content is managed at granular levels. This means that content gets created once and re-used wherever it’s needed. This is called CODA (Create Once, Deliver Anywhere), which began as a topic-based, modular way of developing content that has become the centre of multi-channel publishing strategies.

Up-skill your content developers

Using the right kind of content developers to manage your content is important. Investing in the right skill sets will pay itself back in no time. The skills that content developers such as technical communicators, user assistance writers, and content designers bring to the table are often learned while working on larger teams with other skilled content professionals. On the scale of most-to-least suited to the job of writing content for translation are product managers and software or web developers. They bring important skills to the table, but it’s not creating content!

A word about Agile projects

Corporations using professional writers – that is, technical authors who understand how to manipulate the technical side of content to automate and scale – generally get source language delivered within the same sprint as the code, and translated content delivered one sprint later. This may seem like an over-generalisation, but the observation comes from years of experience and discussions with dozens of technical communication managers around the world. The work done up front to ensure that this can happen takes place in Sprint 0. This is where the story arc gets determined, based on the customer journeys, along with the work that projects the number of target languages, the output devices, content connection points, and so on. This allows content to be set up in ways that anticipate a content framework and lifecycle that works in that situation.

What you can fix, what you can’t

We can recognise the possibilities that strategic management of content can open up. These techniques will benefit larger companies that have:

  • translation and/or localisation needs
  • variants in language usage across multiple markets
  • cross-market content or native languages in alternative markets
  • cross-border commerce adaptation of language
  • usage differences, such as outputs to multiple devices
  • omnichannel marketing environments
  • rising use of social content
  • a strong need to respond to growth that involves more content

There are no silver bullets to solve localisation problems; to believe that would be naïve. Small companies that have limited translation needs, for example, would struggle to justify putting in a full-blown translation management system. They might need to find a hosted solution where a third party handles the management side of translation. Yet the same principles apply: localisation best practices begin with good source content.


Image copyright: Jayel Aheram, Flickr (CC)

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