Takeaway: Language, translation and user experience

Every December I threaten to publish my industry predictions for the following year. I read everyone else’s thoughts, sure. Reviewing this year’s predictions, far and wide, what struck me was a marked absence of any clear user experience dimension to the direction of the translation industry. 

It always seems that analysts don’t tell you about the future at all. They tell you about the recent past. Well, two recent innovations come to mind, both in the mobile space and both coming from outside the translation industry itself — points that are telling in themselves. The arrival of Quest Visual’s Word Lens and Google Translate’s Conversation Mode on Android reminded me of how language really has become central to the mobile user experience.

Launched in December 2010, Word Lens combined the super-hot user experience topic of augmented reality with instant translation. The app allowed iPhone users to use the device’s camera to translate text to and from Spanish and English. The translation can be done off-line and in real time, and the translation generated is placed back on the image itself, shown on the phone — almost sci-fi stuff. Most comments about the app were about the linguistic quality — limitations graciously acknowledged by the creators — and issues handling diacritics, fonts, positioning and so on. So what? These comments miss the point about where the technology generally could go in terms of innovation and opportunity.

Google Translate’s Conversation Mode was first disclosed in 2010, but in January 2011 it received usability updates. This feature (English to and from Spanish only now) allows users to talk in one language and the phone translates their input into the other language for the person at the other end in almost real time. Come on, even if the quality is off at times, you don’t have to be a fan of Ensign Hoshi Sato with the Star Trek Universal Translator to be impressed!

Again, most industry comments were about poor linguistic quality, churlishly asking if you would want to use Conversation Mode as your interpreter in court. One person, for example, objected that the translation for “My friend drank too many pints of Guinness, he needs to go to hospital” [sic] wasn’t quite right. Again, the real significance is missed. Court interpreters will not be out of work. Language quality can be addressed. But Conversation Mode offers a very personal experience described as “augmented humanity.” The personalization of your own voice means that soon you can converse with others in your language of choice, too. Super possibilities!

Does any of this mean translators or agencies, be they mom-and-pop or super-sized, will be out of business? Absolutely not. If anything, the user experience trend will drive demand for translation and open new opportunities for existing translators as well as new ones. It will also open opportunities for innovators outside of the core translation industry, people with smart ideas about integrating language-based features into mobile and other devices. The translation industry needs to engage with this and stop being dominated by professional linguistic opinion. For example, can the industry meet the technical and people needs of a mobile user experience? Can it rise to translate user-generated content of all media on a mobile device? Can it supply the style guides, terminology repositories and technology for the mobile user experience? Are language service providers (LSPs) capable of offering cultural advice on how language technology can be integrated in the mobile space given different ethnographic usage patterns of mobile devices? Why haven’t any of the existing large LSPs done what Quest Visual and Google have done? Can they identify mobile app language opportunities and design an out-of-the-box user experience themselves?

Plenty of other evidence about the importance of language in the mobile, augmented reality and personalization space abounds. Check out the mobile personalization research done by Ireland’s Centre for Next Localisation for a start or the presentation from Lionbridge called “Ubiquity, Mobility, Immediacy, and Translation.” Personalization was mentioned at TAUS, too. But the language industry is really just starting out on this path.

We don’t hear enough about the role of language in enabling the user experience, but I predict that in 2011 innovations in the mobile space will help change that. Within three to five years the idea that language is part of the user experience will be taken for granted.