Community Lives: Innovation in the language community

We constantly coin new words and phrases, extend the meaning of the words we use and drop archaic ones. Even dead languages like Latin find new life in the hands of enthusiasts.

The language community can surely lay claim to being one of the most vibrant and innovative in existence, a claim doubled in recent times with the breakneck speed of technological progress. But it seems to me that the language community has become fixated on innovation brought on by technology automation, and this is at the expense of recognizing the human elements of innovation in the industry.

There was a time when the Rosetta Stone represented the forefront of translation technology. Translations had an influential part to play in the work of classical rhetoricians and the work of those Greek scholars involved in the creation of the Septuagint. The history of Indian and Chinese languages also innovated with the works of myriad authors. Arabic translators created translation movements in the Islamic world as knowledge was assimilated from older sources. The one common thing all of these old traditions have is a dependence on writing. The scriptoriums of the Middle Ages indicate how a world hungry for knowledge was fed. Fast-forward to recent times and the advent of the computer era. There are many in our community who will recall just how swiftly innovation after innovation have occurred and the revolution that has transformed multilingual communications around the world.

Innovation driven by industry-specific problem solving

For sure, computers, software and big data have propelled us forward at light speed and resulted in many new members joining the language industry. But we would be in error to give all the credit for progress to the IT sector. In the early days of personal computing, it’s easy to forget the trials we went through, for example, with multilingual fonts! The contemporary language industry also can attribute its growth to an influx of people from marketing and advertising as well as IT. What these two industries have in common is innovation. They both are presented with problems and need to come up with solutions that have never been done before.

Corporate advertising and marketing departments bring a highly specialized set of skills to the business community as a whole. They have an understanding of how products and services offered to a multilingual market need to preserve the characteristics of their brands. However, as the global economy began to develop, they brought innovation to their role and this naturally impacted language use. As consumers we are often not entirely aware of the influence that advertising and marketing have in bringing products to highly diverse markets. The role that language plays in maintaining what works in one language when it is rendered into others requires equally specialized skills in multilingual innovation.

Let’s not forget that the Unicode we use and love today was not always so appreciated. Describing the ins and outs of the Unicode story is a book-length task. Let it simply be said that it is thanks to the innovative, organizational and technical skills of the Unicode community that we have the lexical equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife with hundreds of blades.

The IT people created the language technology to boost productivity and consistency across a variety of languages and marketing professionals fed in business development and the client service that created verticals and value add-ons. With these developments almost taken for granted, it’s easy to overlook the language side of the business, but here is where we need to pay attention to the innovation, problem solving and strategies used by linguists every day. In my own time as a language service provider, I recall the challenge of managing a user guide translation for virtual reality, where the translators had to understand some very innovative terminology in English and then to capture its quirkiness in their own language. Another challenge was posed by text wrapped around sophisticated graphics in beautifully designed documents presenting the findings of the Human Genome Project to the European Parliament. Oh, and the project deliverables were required within a few days… and nights! The lessons I learned from these experiences have stayed with me and have given me great faith in what innovation can achieve with languages, technology and our professional and motivated community.

Our community cares first and foremost about our languages and how best we can marshal our skills to overcome difficulties in uniting people across the globe. Problem solving is obviously key in this and can beef up our localization toolbox.

Innovation driven to explore new markets

We can learn a lot from what has happened with advertising. The internet explosion that took place in the 1990s precipitated a multitude of changes, many unforeseen. The advertising industry of the period was dominated by huge corporate agencies that made good use of technology until they found themselves floundering as it began to swamp them. The appearance of Google in the late 1990s and Facebook soon after initiated a seismic change in how advertising worked as technology began to drive the market. We are all aware of how our data has become a precious commodity to the tech industry. The consequence is a radical shift in how companies wishing to advertise target their audiences. Less and less do we find ourselves flipping through glossy magazines with their mass-marketed campaign ads. Targeting is becoming refined to the point where we as individuals find ourselves being enticed to click. The lesson, a tough one to accept, is to follow the tech.

Can our community really benefit from adopting a similar shift in how our work is delivered to its audiences? I believe we have no choice.

We need to address how to insert language, or more precisely languages, into standard business models. What can we do as a community to create more demand for our skills and services? Jeffrey Hammerbacher, Silicon Valley aristocrat for his roles in Facebook and Cloudera, his own data-analysis company, famously said that, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.” His dissatisfaction with the established business model of devising ways and means of interacting with webpages, all of which we’re familiar with, led him to innovate methods of data management using machine learning and advanced data analytics. Should we not be engaging the same level of entrepreneurial innovation with languages if we are to make a quantum leap that will position us in a deserved place in the global business hierarchy? Given that tech seems to be developing a much more interactive environment between users and machines, we have to be aware of the potential for making translations equally responsive as sources. The translation might even involve spoken words. The question is, will those words be machine-generated or come from a highly qualified human interpreter? Time will tell.

Innovation driven within the community

Thanks to the wonderful work being carried out by our universities, we now have students who will graduate with excellent language and technical skills. New entrants to the language industry may also be taught to adapt multidisciplinary knowledge to the needs of the real world. For example, MIT’s Community Problem-Solving Project helps us identify ways in which we can alter strategies in different locations to varying ends. It may not be immediately obvious, but someone has to think through health and safety issues that affect vastly diverse communities. Innovation in communities helps ensure their health.

We must not rest on our laurels. Even worse, we cannot keep working with the same set of practices simply because we’re comfortable with them. The distortion we see in the language industry supply chain, which often leaves translators as warm bodies, needs remodeling. But how do we achieve this without drastic measures that might be threatening to business decision-makers? The best way forward is innovation in working practices that will balance roles more equitably. I don’t think our clients would complain. After all, they now want a greater say in how language quality is managed, how problems are dealt with effectively and how deliveries happen efficiently and with certainty. Hierarchical business models now find competition from holacracy, in which structures are leveled out and professionals receive credit for the contributions they are actually seen to make, such as with Anonymity is the enemy of attributing credit where it’s due. Cooperative ventures have worked in other industries, the GNULinux community for example. I wonder how well that might work for us? Team building with self-governing multilingual, multicultural goals in mind could help move us forward and extend our community into under-developed regions. What about resolving the issues of attributing ownership to work? The innovations that technologies like blockchain promise could transform us into a powerhouse community that is second to none in the corporate universe, according to sites like

We must embrace change because if we do not, especially with technology often perceived more as a threat than a benefit, we just find ourselves caught in a volcanic eruption that like the unfortunate citizens of Pompeii buried them in a blanket of ash. Societies have constantly innovated in the languages they use and now we can add language-specific technological capabilities to the work that we do. Future historians will surely judge us for what we do now to embrace change, whether making the old new once again, or creating something revolutionary and new. Who knows? Maybe we will capture the attention of some ingenious artificial intelligence that will ask us, “How did you translate that?”