Macro/Micro: The how of mobile localization

More Africans have a mobile phone than a toothbrush. And 75% of Americans bring their cell phone with them into the bathroom. According to the International Telecommunication Union, there are 6.9 billion cell subscriptions worldwide. Clearly, mobile has permeated our lives.

If you think about how mobile impacts us here in the world of translation, it’s easy to realize the cell phone’s growing prevalence impacts the type of translations we perform — client assignments should become increasingly more for mobile apps and less for long user manuals, more for mobile-optimized websites and less for PDF printed brochures. But mobile as a medium doesn’t mean that translation needs for traditional document translation will go completely away and, while the acceleration of the app introduces a new assignment type, the cell phone’s greatest impact on localization has little to do with the type of assignments we receive.

In this column, I actually try to forecast trends before they hit translation and guess which way they will go, kind of like watching the hard-to-predict Plinko gameboard after a contestant has just dropped a chip at the top of this board on the TV gameshow “The Price Is Right.” The chip on mobile was dropped long ago. Smartling’s been around for four years, long enough to see competitors such as Applingua, Ackuna and others hit the scene as translation management platforms for apps. When a trend has been around long enough to be copied, suffice to say it’s become commonplace, if not passé. While not every language service provider is yet with the program, mobile app translation has now become common enough that we’re looking for a new boundary to push, a new chip to fall. Here at In Every Language, we’ve started television app translation for Apple and Amazon Fire TV. We have to think beyond the phone when it comes to apps, just like our clients need to think beyond English. The fact that some of us are already moving beyond that means early adoption, as a phase, is over. On the Rogers innovation adoption lifecycle bell curve, this means mobile app localization has passed on to the pragmatists and will soon hit mass market with the conservatives. So mobile app localization is still a wave of the future, but in that Disney World Epcot kind of way — imagined, but already now. Thinking about what we translate for phones is today and tomorrow, but it may not be the day after, and the day after tomorrow is what I try to write about in “Macro/Micro,” at least when I can.

The thing is, it’s not the what that matters when we think of mobile, but the how. In a world where the cell phone has grown so elemental that most Americans are lost without one, both literally and figuratively, can translation survive stuck on a laptop?

I’m a fan of a big screen. Don’t get me wrong. Heck, there are some thought processes — anything involving math, for example — where I personally still insist on using pen and paper. And as Nataly Kelly’s June 19 article disclosed, there are still far too many translators out there who won’t even use translation memory. The idea of getting a translator to work on a mobile phone when you can’t even get him or her on a computer-aided translation (CAT) tool is like asking a man to marry you on the first date — way too much too fast. But as many have been swift to point out, not all translators fit the persona stereotyped in Kelly’s article. Those of us who do realize that the future is now need translation processes to keep up. After all, if I can operate my office elevator, make a bank deposit, hail a cab or buy a wedding gown all from my phone, why shouldn’t I be able to translate on it too?

By 2016, it’s predicted that 90% of all US college students will own a smartphone. By contrast, Ball State University reports that roughly only 30% of its students own a tablet. Translation students today become translators tomorrow, and our processes will either be ready for their technology expectations or they won’t.

Of all the CAT tools on the market, WordFast is really the only one that saw this coming. Headquartered in Paris, France, the translation memory maker debuted WordFast Anywhere in May 2010. Before translation can come off the laptop, translators have to stop saving all their data on a laptop. Designed to help translators quite literally work anywhere, WordFast’s tool was the first to notably push translation into the cloud. And making the cloud possible means making cellular processes possible.

That was 2010. Since then, though, there’s been relatively little by way of smartphone translation workflow development. If we go back to the Rogers curve, WordFast would therefore be a very early adopter, so early that others in the field still have a chance to be early too.

The Rosetta Foundation is one of those others. In July, the Irish-based nonprofit released Kanjingo, its own iPhone app designed specifically for translator post-editing. Developed in partnership with the Center for Next Generation Localisation (CNGL), the app is “intended to enable and assist with volunteer translation projects, particularly in crisis situations and in economies where people generally do not have access to computers but may have access to a smartphone,” according to CNGL’s Joss Moorkens. This move makes perfect sense. The Rosetta Foundation’s whole mission is to make use of translation as a way to provide health and educational information to those in impoverished and under-developed areas. If a translator in Africa does not have a laptop, only a smartphone, he or she must therefore translate upon that phone.

Through making the translation process available to this subset of translators, The Rosetta Foundation is not only making it easier for their translators to operate, but is economically enabling a continent and is pushing the rest of us to innovate. If they, who make or charge no money, are able to do this, what is taking those of us in the for-profit world so long?

Don’t get me wrong. My own company is jumping on the app localization bandwagon and translating the heck out of those things. And there’s still a lot of dialogue there to be had — developing best practices and whatnot — when it comes to translating for mobile. But I really would like to challenge the localization industry to stop thinking about what we do so much as how we do it. If we had to start translation all over, and the only place we could do it was on a phone, how would workflow look? How would CAT tools change? How would we do it?