Perspectives: Working together on open source

Translation processes have become technically more complex since the beginning of the 1990s, when translation memories (TMs) entered the industry. The development has increased rapidly in recent years and will continue to do so in the future. This is one reason why prices have been under pressure ever since.

But there is another current trend related to this. Big language service providers (LSPs) make suppliers and customers dependent on them and their processes through their technology. There are several current technological opportunities, needs and trends that enable and nurture this development:

 Web-based systems and cloud technology enable end-users to work directly on files with their own tools, preventing smaller and mid-sized LSPs and translators from influencing the process.

 Complex automatic workflows (especially for large language buyers) need complex software and often require development knowledge to handle them.

 (Semi)-auto-correcting loops will be necessary to increase machine translation (MT) quality and make MT most productive in the future. Some  of these correction loops will be with human involvement and some without.

 Automatic quality checks of the source language regarding linguistic and formal criteria will be used to determine prices. This way, source texts with better quality will be offered for lower prices, especially when  translation is done with the help of MT.

 Lower translation quality will be offered for lower prices and higher quality for higher prices. To make this possible, LSPs need to proof and standardize translation quality for their customers.

These current and future trends require technical expertise and call for LSPs to have their own IT staff. In addition, these trends will continue to enable the big players to push word prices further down while keeping the quality up. Thus, it will become more and more difficult for small and medium-sized LSPs to stay profitable — and to keep their independence. Without control over the processes, these LSPs tend to become mere cat’s-paws of the big LSPs, and are in danger of being kicked out of the market.

This is especially true for single and regional language providers. But it is true as well for smaller and mid-sized multilanguage vendors (MLVs) that simply cannot afford to invest as much in IT as the big ones.

As I perceive it, to cope with these trends, small and mid-sized LSPs must invest in IT in order to compete and stay independent and profitable. They have to be able to influence, customize and build the software necessary for their needs as well as for the needs of their clients. They have to own their software and their processes, instead of owning licenses and delivering content to web portals.

Partnering on IT

Of course, these LSPs cannot afford to do all of this on their own. Thus, they have to cooperate with others. However, this is no handicap: many of the most successful companies are those that cooperate with their competitors.

This leads me to the main topic: to cooperate with competitors on IT, you need an easy solution from an organizational and legal point of view. For this purpose, open source is an ideal solution. Some of the best-known examples are widespread open source content management systems such as WordPress or Drupal.

There are a lot of community open source projects in the language industry: Okapi, OmegaT, translate5, OpenTM2, Translate Toolkit and Moses, to name just a few. If you add up the functionality of these tools, you get a relatively complete picture of what you need for professional translations. Yet there is no community open source tool that is complete or modern enough to be used as a major production tool in today’s LSPs. A system that aims to integrate the open source tools out there and add the missing functionality to the different projects is needed to match current and future needs.

So, we have the need for LSPs to cooperate on software, we have open source as a good model for that, and we have a number of existing open source tools for different areas of our business. Yet there has been no major cooperated effort between LSPs on software and in putting together the different open source pieces for a comprehensive system usable by end-users. One reason for this is that cooperation is built on trust and expertise. To have trust between competing LSPs, you need a neutral party that is not an LSP itself, or affiliated with one.

Community open source in the translation industry

This vision of realizing community open source usable for end-users in the translation industry is gaining momentum – due to the engagement of many people and companies.

Last fall, IBM finally released OpenTM2 to the public in the same version they use internally, and they update it on a regular basis.

Crowdfunding for an open source translation system — called simply Open Source Translation System at this point — has been set up. The current and first funding effort aims to integrate translate5, OpenTM2 and Moses-based MT systems. The result will be an open source web-based platform for translation, proofreading and post-editing that includes TM and MT integration and supports multiple users, roles, and simple workflows. The goal is to create a platform that is easily extendable by plugins without having to change the core of the system.

The first phase of this crowdfunding successfully raised €21,000. Additional envisioned steps are aimed, for example, at integrating Okapi for file format conversion and quality checking — and everything the companies using it need and propose. Every interested company or individual is highly welcomed to engage and contribute his or her ideas. Only with the engagement of as many companies and individuals as possible, will this vision be realized.

We may think that many of the problems in our world, our societies and our economy come from people and companies only looking for their own benefits at any cost. They work against each other instead of cooperating, helping and caring for each other. What is needed, as a contrast, is an attitude of companies and people cooperating, helping each other, sharing and giving.

This is our motivation for creating open source platforms, and we believe this is the way to go for smaller and medium-sized LSPs so that they can prosper in an industry where the big players become stronger and more technically advanced with increasing speed. An attitude of giving and sharing creates strong networks of people and companies — and helping each other to cope with the challenges of the market and the pressure the big players try to impose. The interesting and funny thing is, you have to mean it; otherwise people will realize it.