Takeaway: Authors, localizers and language barriers

During the keynote panel for the recent Localization World conference in Seattle, Rory Cowan (CEO of Lionbridge) admonished us vendors that “we shouldn’t be telling authors what to write.” As the moderator of that panel (I had initially thought the term referee would be more apt, but it turned out that I didn’t need my whistle), I felt duty bound at the time to preserve my impartiality in the discussion. Now, with all due respect and from this bully pulpit, I would like to offer an opposing view.

Rather than stressing the distinction between authoring and localization, we should be erasing it. The fact that the French don’t speak English as their national language (or, for that matter, that we Americans don’t speak French as ours) is an accident of history and geography. Content is content, and users are users.

Don’t get me wrong. Localization continues to be critical to global success and is historically undervalued, even by companies that spend a great deal of money on it. But localization is only an element in a long, sometimes complicated process of providing products and services to customers. It isn’t special, separate or onerous, and it shouldn’t be treated that way. If localization isn’t adding value to the product, then it’s either being done badly or it shouldn’t be done at all.

When it comes to product content (documentation, help, web content and so forth), for too long there has been an artificial divide between content creation and localization. Perhaps it is based on the mistaken belief that localization is a mechanical process like photocopying or shrink-wrapping. Our industry’s irritating concentration on tools and automation does nothing to dispel this belief. But localization isn’t special here either; it should be seen as part of the authoring process. Authors and localizers need to focus on a shared interest and responsibility that goes well beyond how services are outsourced and managed.

The fact is that localization isn’t something service providers do to content — it is content. That makes localized content just as important as the original.

During the same keynote panel, Mark Lancaster (CEO of SDL International) offered his view that “what our clients really want to buy is a load of translated words.” That’s what clients are buying right now because that’s pretty much what we are selling them. But I would submit that what clients really want is good communication with their customers because good communication makes for happy (read: loyal) customers. This means that we are all really in the business of helping our clients acquire and maintain their customers’ loyalty.

How can we do that? For one thing, by adding value to the path from the product to the end customer. But the current artificial barrier between authors and localizers makes it exceedingly difficult to add that value. It stops the flow of useful information in both directions, and it makes it too easy to ignore what’s on the other side.

What if the barrier didn’t exist? The direct link between authored words and translation quality (oh, thou elusive grail!) would be manifestly clear. Authors and localizers would focus on creating truly global content from the ground up, with unique input from both sides. Good usability would become a joint goal, not a catch-as-catch-can attribute of content that happens not to be in English. Authors and localizers would understand better how each and every content decision they make affects the other. They would work harder — and more successfully — to generate cost savings and reduce time to market.

It’s time to retire the weak model of “We write, you just translate.” This approach has fostered siloed thinking (“What’s good for us is good for the world”), ill-conceived usability strategies (the translation memory tools will improve consistency) and poor localization choices (“We can save money because the Germans don’t need manuals”). Not only should we be telling authors what and how to write, we should be demanding it; and they should do the equivalent right back to us.

Will this always be easy or smooth? Nope. But together, authors and localizers share a responsibility to create customer satisfaction, and if we have to poke each other in the eye once in a while to do it, c’est la vie. M