Perspectives: Cloud computing, SaaS and translation tools

Over the past 20 years we have seen substantial progress in the field of computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools and technologies, and with the advent of cheap desktop computing and the internet we have seen the barriers to entry drop. To start a localization company, all you need is a PC, an internet connection and a list of potential customers and translators. Currently, over 80% of the global translation market is run by small to medium-sized enterprise (SME) organizations.

This fragmentation, however, has in many ways acted as a barrier to CAT tools adoption. Large translation companies can afford to build automated workflows and CAT tools or could buy them from their competitors, but for many SMEs this is less feasible. By and large, SMEs have to rely on desktop CAT tools.

Although these can be attractive as solutions for SMEs, they nevertheless force them into an ever-increasing dependency on the tool providers. The PC licensing model means that customers are on a constant treadmill of upgrades that may add little in terms of improving the usability of the tools. There are a number of other issues with desktop CAT tools. For language service providers (LSPs), there is the problem of how they provide access to these tools for their translators. Since most translators are subcontractors and are usually located geographically far from the company, it can be difficult to provide them with the necessary CAT tools. This often means that the translators have to buy the tools themselves.

Let’s establish some fundamental principles here. LSPs do not translate; they project manage translation and localization jobs. Translators and reviewers should not have to pay for CAT tools. They should have the necessary translation memory (TM) matching, terminology identification and so on prepared for them in advance and have the necessary tools provided for them for free. Any such tools should be completely intuitive and learned within 15 minutes.

The other thing that has characterized the CAT tools industry is the lack of support for standards. Take word counts as an example. There are as a many different word counts as there are CAT tools, although a standard called GMX/V has existed since 2007. Some companies even had different products that produce differing word counts.

Things are about to change dramatically. In my 21 years working in localization I have never ceased to be amazed at how inefficient the traditional desktop paradigm is for a highly collaborative environment such as translation. E-mailing files backward and forward, shifting work from translators to reviewers and then possibly back again all introduces delays and potential points of failure. Google,, Twitter and Facebook have shown the future is not on the desktop, but on the internet. In the last ten years we have seen a tremendous improvement in internet bandwidth and technology. Ten years ago, I was using a 54Bbps modem, and I am currently connecting at 40Mbps using FTTC technology. Browser technology, standards and software have also progressed dramatically over this period, and this trend will no doubt continue. In 2010, we saw the introduction of a new breed of CAT and translation management system (TMS) based on the SaaS (software as a service) model.


Benefits of SaaS

One of the great benefits of a SaaS solution is that it does not involve a major one-off purchase of a software license. You pay monthly and should not commit to more than a one-to-three month subscription. Full support and maintenance are included in the subscription price. A proper SaaS implementation will allow customers to vary their licenses from month to month. As we all know, translation work comes in peaks and troughs, so you should only pay for the number of licenses required per month.

With a true SaaS you should get at least three to four software updates automatically during a year, insuring that you get all of the improvements to the software in the subscription price. SaaS systems, due to the nature of the development process associated with server-based systems, can benefit from a constantly improving environment with regular updates. There is no two-to-four years’ wait for the latest version of the software, and you are guaranteed access to the latest version.

In addition, you are supplying your translators with tools that require no licenses on their part and that do not require installation and training. Issues such as having to split up large files into smaller units for translators or joining very small files together to form a viable translation package cease to be an issue. A well-architected SaaS solution will be able to handle files of infinite size — just try putting a 500-page word file through a desktop CAT tool or join multiple small files into a viable package size for translation. Such a system will be able to handle multiple translators working on the same file at the same time as well as reviewers and correctors.

Major LSPs that provide TMS and CAT solutions say that they do not make any money from software sales and that this is merely a component of their strategy. However, they may nonetheless try to force subcontractors to use and pay for using their software. The situation gets much worse with any SaaS solution offered by a major LSP. Locking in all of your linguistic assets with a competitor is a dubious strategy at best. You not only effectively hand over all of your translator information but also your TMs and terminology. You become a mere vassal of your competitor and are not only forced to give them vital information, but also have to pay them for the privilege.

A proper SaaS TMS/CAT solution will allow you to integrate a customizable web-based ordering and payment system into your own website so that customers can upload, get quotes, pay online and initiate the workflow for translation jobs. This gives small and medium-sized LSPs some of the same advantages that large LSPs have. With a SaaS solution, you can also use advanced technology to integrate your SaaS instance directly with customers’ content management or workflow systems.

Open Standards systems, especially those implementing the OAXAL architecture, allow users to safely migrate their assets from system to system without fear of lock-in. This is critical as the industry still suffers from this proprietary mentality. Even Open Standards are “extended” or so badly implemented by some tool providers as to make moving data as difficult as possible. With a properly implemented Open Standards system, these issues do not arise.

With a browser-based environment, the support and asset sharing issues associated with desktop packages disappear — unless, of course, your internet goes down or you live in an area with spotty service. As a last resort, if bandwidth is a problem, you can always download the translatable file in a standard format such as XLIFF and work offline, but you lose the benefits of interactive real-time sharing.

In addition, the SaaS support staff have direct access to any problems that might arise and are able to provide a level of support unimaginable in a desktop-based package. An added advantage is that multiple translators can work on the same file at the same time, obviating the additional onerous task of cutting up files into smaller multiples and then the equally difficult task of trying to stitch them back together again after translation and review. Having a browser-based server centric system also means that there is no need to send files via e-mail with all of the associated problems, such as files being incorrectly marked as spam. With a SaaS solution, all the assets are updated and shared in real time, and the data remains securely on the server.

Another interesting feature of browser-based user interfaces is that the design tends to be much cleaner and functional than with desktop packages. The translator can concentrate on what he or she has to do: translate, rather than having to be a filter or obscure package feature expert.

A well-implemented SaaS browser-based platform will support all major browsers, thus allowing translators who use MacOS or Linux to be able to use their existing platforms to translate online. Small and medium-sized LSPs can now compete on an equal footing with the industry giants. They can have access to even better technology and tools than the industry leaders all for a modest monthly outlay. SaaS TMS and CAT tools have created a completely new environment that will change the localization marketplace ecology for good. This is indeed a pivotal moment in the industry and one that will mean more competition, better tools and the ability to take on the challenge of an ever increasing workload as the demand for translation constantly increases.