Perspectives: Multilingual enablement in Spain and beyond

In April, while I was waiting for a plane to travel back to Barcelona from the UK, I noticed the “In the Future” campaign by HSBC bank. Among the nine statements the campaign makes, three have a deep impact in our industry: 1) In the future, even the smallest business will be multinational; 2) In the future, South-South trade will be norm not novelty; and 3) In the future, it will take many imports to make an export. All of them are related to the new world we are facing now, because as the campaign also says, “In the future, there will be no markets left waiting to emerge.”

Our industry is shaking. Smartling has received more than $63 million in funding. Crowdsourcing translation start-ups have also attracted the attention of venture capital: Gengo has raised more than $24 million and One Hour Translation around $10 million. Besides this, there are many other smaller investments, such as in translation management systems where XTRF received $2 million, and companies such as Straker Translations that have been mainly bootstrapped but are now growing at above-average rates. Even the more traditional player Moravia was acquired by a private equity firm as they grew to $100 million last year. Some of the companies in our industry will fail along the way, but one of them could just as easily become the largest in the Common Sense Advisory rank.

How are the market leaders reacting to these moves in the marketplace? Lionbridge is both acquiring companies (CLS Communication) and creating the spin-off onDemand, which is already making more than $4 million. Transperfect set records in 2014 by growing 17% over the previous year to make $470 million in revenue, and SDL is self-named as The Leader in Global Customer Experience Solutions.

From all this, it looks like our industry is not in danger at all, and growing much more than in previous years. However, many smaller language service providers (LSPs) with no specialization may be putting their survival in danger. In this scenario, my gut feeling is that you need to do one thing really well to sustain your competitive advantage in the long term, as Nova Language Services in Barcelona is doing with high-risk medical translations. And if the translation world is becoming more technological, the same strategy your company has been applying for decades is no longer valid.

Whenever I publish similar thoughts, I get comments from people who believe that there will always be a market for high quality translations created with love and passion by top professionals — and I completely agree. Even if this market has the highest number of players and profit margins have been decreasing for years in many verticals, it will continue to grow, although not at the same rate as other less appealing opportunities. So the question is: are there other technology-based business models related to language that might be attractive for translation companies? Here are some ideas on emerging fields that might not be overcrowded and some companies that are leading that space.

Ecommerce is exploding. Any small shop can sell worldwide thanks to platforms such as the well-known Amazon, eBay or Alibaba, and more specialized sites such as Etsy or Fab. One of the leaders in this field is the multinational company WebInterpret. Although they are not a translation company, they have grown to more than 200 people with an innovative business you can test for free. Innovation means creating new solutions that others might not have thought of, and they are achieving a significant success thanks to a very powerful value proposition.

The generation of meaningful content on the internet is a huge business. The company www.linktomedia.net in Barcelona is creating the future of problem solving in any language. Starting in Spanish with www.uncomo.com, the company has now expanded into several countries including France, the United States, the United Kingdom and Brazil, thanks to translation. For them, traditional business models in our industry are not viable due to the high costs and high risk, and their Barcelona-based solutions provider has become a partner through a win-win model that is focused in the future and not in the short term. If you do not think out of the box, the 99% of content that is not translated today will always remain monolingual.

In this modern age, websites must enable easy-to-find search results for their customers so they can discover relevant information in just one click. This is what Inbenta specializes in with their products for customer support and ecommerce. Using an artificially intelligent search and utilizing advanced natural language processing in their technology, Inbenta understands the meaning of the customer’s search and provides the most accurate results, not only in Spanish, but in over 30 languages.

Internet users generate huge amounts of data. Some of it might be useless and has no impact, but even just a small part of this data can be valuable for companies, and, you guessed it, it is written or recorded in multiple languages. The process of gathering, processing and reacting on it is not straightforward even today. In this field, the company Daedalus from Madrid is selling its natural language processing solutions (including sentiment analysis and reputation management in a wide variety of languages) through its brand MeaningCloud. Data and content are worthless if you cannot understand their meaning.

In the future, all devices will be connected. Everyone will be connected. All the time. Therefore, there are an incredible number of the Internet of Things and Smart Cities companies addressing several problems that the current early adopters are facing today and will be ready for the majority really soon. One of these is Worldsensing in Barcelona. The language aspects in their business model will play a key role, as we have seen with the acquisition of wit.ai by Facebook, or Amazon products such as Echo. These can become interesting opportunities for translation companies.

In this sense, many of the multilingual communications in the future will be speech-to-speech (STS). My company, tauyou <language technology> started working on STS back in 2006, but it was too early to introduce reliable products into the market. Today, Nuance leads the high-end market, while Google and Microsoft have powerful technologies too. In Barcelona and with offices on the West Coast, the company Verbio is growing fast and expanding in the United States, providing custom speech solutions in several underserved verticals where Spanish is the most important, and also providing innovative business models for speech recognition and synthesis, together with biometric solutions.

Between the speech recognition and synthesis, focused machine translation systems are to play a meaningful role. In Spain, the core is a group of well known research institutions including the natural language processing group lead by Lluís Padró at the Technical University of Catalonia, who developed the open-source suite FreeLing, and the Transducens group from the University of Alacante, whose main contribution is the rule-based machine translation software Apertium, which was funded by Google Summer of Code several times. Maybe due to the multilingual nature of Spain, there are also a number of companies providing machine translation solutions. No matter if the products are rule-based or statistical, hybrid or any other type, linguistic knowledge is key in the performance of the engines, and also, in the further development of any natural language processing tool.

Finally, technology today enables marketplaces to better connect suppliers with demand. The majority of companies in the translation world might have used ProZ or TranslatorsCafe, together with other platforms such as oDesk or freelancer.com. In Spanish-speaking countries, the alternative is nubelo.com, which has received almost $5 million in investment. If you visit their website, you can find not only translation services but also other types of freelance professionals throughout the world. There is a clear need in the Spanish-speaking world.

So in this wonderful world full of exciting new opportunities, the future is here. Are you taking part?