In-house translation teams — still worth the investment?

It is hard to imagine today what the translation industry was like just 20 years ago. Did people go to the library to research obscure terms? Did they type out their translations on a typewriter? Did companies courier source texts to freelancers? The answer is probably yes to all of these questions. So it’s not surprising that in those times, an in-house translation team seemed to be a much more convenient solution for businesses with ongoing translation needs.

Fast forward to 2013, and it becomes obvious how much technological advancements have transformed the industry. It’s still growing year over year even during times of economic uncertainty in the traditional markets. However, benefiting from that growth are less the in-house translation teams and more those who support an outsourced translation approach such as freelancers and language service providers (LSPs). Granted, LSPs offer a strong value proposition: they are specialists in localization, project management and translation technologies; their services are often available 24/7 with as many or as few freelancers on call as necessary, businesses only pay for the services they use (as opposed to an in-house team that is a fixed cost); and increasingly LSPs specialize in a field — a single language, market, technology or industry — that makes them true subject matter experts.

So why would a company still invest in an in-house translation team? How can it get a better return on investment than if it had partnered with an LSP? Looking at our translation team at Vistaprint, I believe there is an incremental value to be gained by having translation teams in-house, but they need to be carefully managed in order to succeed. The following steps give a good overview of the different aspects that we considered at Vistaprint to get the most of our in-house translation talent.

In many cases in-house translators find themselves in rather unusual reporting lines. Their managers are often responsible for sales and marketing, online content or software engineering. At Vistaprint we used to operate in a similar setup but quickly realized that marketing managers knew very little about the translation profession and missed out on important opportunities to fully develop their in-house talent. It also limited the interaction with other departments, especially the creative team — a collaboration that is key when translating marketing communications (Figure 1).

We consequently had the team report to the creative director, which proved to be an ideal setup for a number of reasons. Translators were involved in the creation of new advertising concepts and could flag potential localization issues right from the beginning. Their service level agreements (SLAs) and processes were closely matched to those of the copywriters, allowing them more time for creative translations, and it also helped set expectations to marketing partners that translation is an expertise, just like graphic design or copywriting. Aside from these larger advantages, the teams benefited from a close interaction between design, copy and translation on a daily basis, with many ad hoc meetings to clarify the idea behind a message or brainstorm sessions for the next big campaign. There were also discussions at someone’s desk about how a translation can be adapted to fit into the design.

Of course, this setup also helps us attract the right talent: translators who see themselves as creative writers, who like to interact with others and enjoy being stimulated in this way.

Self-promotion is key for in-house translation teams. Colleagues who are not involved in day-to-day international marketing communications often have no idea what the translation team does and how it’s different from using Google Translate. We spent a lot of time giving ourselves more visibility, attending meetings or organizing training sessions to show colleagues the difference between what they think a translation is and what we actually do every day. This is an ongoing process, and just last week we had to explain to a group of designers why the phrase “Wishing you peace and joy” is problematic in a number of languages. Especially when you don’t know how many people send the wishes, and how well they know the person receiving the message (should it be a formal or an informal you?). This is beside the fact that in many cultures, peace and joy wouldn’t be first on the list of things you’d wish another person at Christmas. On the upside, however, many people are fascinated once we share some language oddities we come across every day. So, we make use of our internal communication tools to share short stories of interest that sensitize colleagues to our profession.

Translators aren’t just experts in their language, they’re also experts in their culture and how it compares to other cultures. Consequently, we can offer a lot of valuable information for marketers, designers, the research or the product team about how a nation ticks, what is typical, what is celebrated and so on. The designs in Figure 2 show an example where translators created a mood board of typical types of breads for their region, which the designer then used as a basis for business card and postcard templates.

 

Hiring and promoting talent

Something every translator needs to confront on a regular basis is a certain lack of education among the general public that translation is an acquired expertise that needs to be studied. Companies need to learn this, too. When looking to hire in-house translators, a degree in translation should be an absolute must. Sometimes this meant we had to push back on recruiters who presented us with CVs of candidates who had studied something unrelated but claimed to have been working as a freelancer for a number of years. To us, it was about more than just the degree. People who decide to study translation have other things in common. First of all, they haven’t become translators because it was the lesser of all evils, they chose to become a translator. That makes them feel passionate about it. They also love to do research, to keep learning and to pay attention to the details. In the microcosm of a translation team, someone who does not share the same values may be a source of disruption, aside from the fact that it also tends to show in that person’s work. To make our point we tried to draw comparisons with a graphic designer: no one would consider hiring a graphic designer on the basis that the guy may not have a formal degree in it, but he has a Mac at home. So why would we hire someone whose only qualification for the job is that they are a native speaker of the language we’re hiring for?

Being a translator at Vistaprint is not for everyone. We share a large open office with dozens of designers, so it can get loud sometimes, or people may have a quick meeting right next to you, which can be distracting. A lot of emphasis is placed on collaboration and team spirit — how we got there is just as important as the result. We need to hold many presentations where we talk about localization or explain the translations we chose. This is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some translators prefer to work on their own without having someone to report to, and to focus their attention exclusively on their translation with little interest in the choices other translators are making for their language. 

Equally, the marketing nature of our texts requires us to transcreate many of our communications. This means translators need to be critical of the source text and always bear the target reader in mind. That’s why we have created translation tests that specifically look for these qualities. A line in a previous test talking about customized checks used to read: “While they pay the bills, checks also show recipients what your company is like. For example, if you’re a dog walker, create puppy checks to show that you’re passionate about what you do.” Attached to the text was a brief that instructed the translator to really localize the text, so it would sound natural to their readers, with full liberty to move away from the English source text. If then, despite those instructions, a Spanish candidate translated dog walker literally, their application would not be taken any further. While there are some dog walkers in Spain, it would certainly not be the most common use case. The translator we eventually hired replaced it with the example of a vet.

Once the right talent has been hired, it is another challenge to retain it. People who are attracted to marketing translations enjoy the challenge of having to translate different texts every day. If the work gets monotonous or they feel there’s nothing more to learn, they’ll leave. We therefore spent a lot of effort on creating competencies and career paths to show our translators how they can grow and where they can specialize while pursuing a career at Vistaprint. We conduct regular one-on-ones, team meetings and brainstorm sessions to learn from each other and to provide feedback on the areas in which we can grow.

 

Tools, process, quality

Once the right team is in place, it needs to be able to work with the right tools. Initially we compromised on this and worked with a computer-aided translation tool that was built in-house. However, we realized that we could never develop new features as quickly as we’d need to in order to keep up with the industry. It took some diplomacy to get our software engineers on board to support the purchase of a third party tool without discrediting their efforts, but effectively they had better things to do themselves than to be updating an old tool over and over again.

Working in a customized workflow with MemoQ and its server for two years now has led to significant productivity and cost savings. This is not to mention the fact that we now work with the latest technologies on the market, while before we did not even have a spellcheck. Knowing what we know now, we would not make any compromises on tools again. They are part of setting up a translation team. After all, who would hire graphic designers and then have them work using Microsoft Paint?

One of the biggest challenges for translators is that the localization process always comes at the end, so that every deadline missed along the way effectively eats into the translators’ time. And that’s still a good-case scenario. Frequently, translation is forgotten altogether or project managers are unaware how long a translation takes. During my first week at
Vistaprint, the team was asked to translate 40,000 words for a new product that was going to launch seven days later. With just one translator per language, no backup and no advance notice whatsoever, this clearly wasn’t going to happen. Eventually, the European product launch had to be postponed by several releases — not the best way to start a new job. However, looking back, I believe this was the best thing that could have happened, as it clearly highlighted the need to integrate translations into project planning and to educate the business on our capabilities. Having an actual example of what happens when people do not follow the process was a great incentive for everyone to cooperate and support our integration into the business’ core processes.

While there will always be projects that haven’t been planned, we aim to get advance notice on at least the biggest ones. Any major business projects that now launch in our European markets need a translation sign-off (along with all other supporting functions) on the scope and preliminary timelines before they are approved by the business leadership.

In teams where there is only one translator per language, quality is a risk that needs to be managed. This risk management begins with hiring the right people, setting up SLAs and processes that allow enough time for translators to check their work and having in-country reviews for the most important translations. Additionally, we have set up a process where random sample translations are being assessed by affiliated freelance translators to get a peer-to-peer reading on their quality.

Although translations that have not been checked by an independent reviewer have a higher risk of containing mistranslations or other mistakes, we believe that with the precautions above this can be minimized to an acceptable level — given that we do not deal with medical or technical translations where one tiny error can have consequences of massive proportions. In fact, because our translations are used for marketing purposes, the risk that an LSP-managed translation does not fully convey the marketing message, brand, tone of voice and other specific localization elements is significantly higher.

However, the big advantage of LSPs is that they are never closed. Even if a freelancer is sick or on vacation, there will be another one available as a backup. With an in-house translation team these scenarios need to be planned in advance. We decided to recruit a number of carefully vetted freelancers to help out in such cases. By always working with the same ones we can ensure a level of consistency that we feel we wouldn’t be able to control or police when working with an LSP.

This network of backup freelancers is also invaluable to guarantee increased capacity at any moment should there be an unannounced project. Knowing that a reliable freelancer is taking care of the day-to-day translations enabled us to branch out into more areas of the business where our local expertise can add value, which makes the translation job at Vistaprint in general more varied and challenging — a great way to retain talent.

Having freelance back-ups allows us to focus on other projects while the day-to-day translations are still being taken care of, and this in turn allowed us to offer more services to more departments. Vistaprint operates across 25 locations worldwide, so there is also a large internal translation demand. It also employs over 4,100 people, operates more than 25 localized websites globally and ships to more than 130 countries around the world. To support the various functions, we created a network of freelancers and interpreters who are on call to provide translation services to departments such as legal, internal communications, public relations and customer services. By doing this, we created a single point of contact for the business to reach out to when they have a translation need. At the same time we help facilitate smooth communications across all the different languages and cultures that make up Vistaprint.

These collaborations did not happen overnight and it took a lot of self-promotion, flexibility and high quality service to educate and encourage other departments to reach out to us for help. It is rewarding though, because it allows us to work with numerous colleagues across the globe and gives the team a feeling of being at the heart of the business

Most recently we leveraged the experience of individual team members to also support the business with interpretation during focus groups or video shoots and subtitling and voiceovers for tutorial videos. This allows different team members to specialize, mentor others and ensure that we have an expert for each localization service.

 

Brand

In a challenging market environment, businesses need to distinguish their products by more than just features and price. A strong brand can actually liberate businesses from having to follow the prices set by the competition and helps ensure customers will return again and again. Additionally, strong brands can benefit greatly from the promotion satisfied customers will do on their behalf.

Global companies face multiple challenges in the matter of brand: they need to ensure their brand remains consistent across all locations and various consumer (and employee) touch points. Their brand also needs to be locally relevant while maintaining an overall brand essence. And the bigger a company gets, the harder it is to control all its communications. Especially when different value points are being called out in different markets, pan-European campaigns can get very complex. It is here where we see an in-house translation team as invaluable. The translators can be the link between the global communications team and the country experts, working with both sides to develop strong communication strategies, tone-of-voice documents and style guides. This will allow them to take a source text and adapt it confidently to suit their individual target market.

And there’s another powerful factor: when you invest in in-house talent, you allow people an equal voice at the table, which leads to more balanced, and ultimately better, decision making. More importantly, you give them ownership. Once people take ownership of their work and their careers, they will strive to excel. They will always take pride in what they do and be prepared to go the extra mile. This creates a unique working environment that cannot be matched with third-party vendors.

These steps took time to implement and we haven’t completed the journey yet. Some of these points are far along; others still need a lot of work. But it’s an exciting journey and it’s rewarding to see our people grow while we’re on it. We’re all happy to be able to work in our profession, and yet get to indulge in our sociable nature, to experience the comfort of being in a team of likeminded individuals (and have geeky discussions about the use of future tenses in the different languages) while working in a multicultural corporation that requires more from us than “just” being excellent translators. It is very fulfilling to work in a company where our colleagues see us as cultural experts, and where we get the chance to work with different nationalities and expand this expertise on a daily basis.

We wouldn’t have been able to get here without the top-down support by the business leadership. We’re very lucky that our CEO, Robert Keane, feels passionate about accurate translations and speaks several languages himself. This has certainly influenced Vistaprint’s decision to build an in-house translation team during a time when most other businesses shut theirs down and began to outsource all their work. It also gave us the opportunity to prove to ourselves that with the right support and leadership, an in-house translation team is still worth the investment, even in today’s digital age.

Of course, it has to be added that this setup works for Vistaprint, but is unlikely to work for everyone. Businesses that just start out on the international market may not be able to afford the fixed cost of an employed translator. Large corporations may have such a high volume of translations that they’d need to hire an entire brigade of people to manage it. Others may work to such tight release schedules that they’d need ten people during release week and zero people on the other days. However, that still leaves hundreds of companies that could benefit from keeping translations in-house. At least it’s worth thinking about.