Why translation management is broken, and how to fix it

Many of us in the localization industry have rallied for most of our careers to achieve a very big, collective dream — getting organizations to take translation seriously. 

Those of us who work in this industry, whether as buyers or suppliers of translation, can easily see what the problem is. Most businesses treat translation as an afterthought even though it fuels global revenue. As a result, it is rarely centralized and rarely gets attention from the executive team. So even though translation is a core component of any global business strategy, it’s often relegated to the bottom rung of the corporate ladder.


Translation gets stuck in organizational silos

Generally, an organization’s management realizes it needs to do something about translation due to an urgent business need. Something has to be translated. Often, it’s because of a new opportunity in another country. Less commonly, it’s because the company has made a strategic decision to go into a new market.

As a result, the natural reaction is to first look at the organizational chart of employees and wonder, “Who will own this?” Rarely does anyone think they need a quarterback for something as seemingly simple as translation. In the mind of the uninitiated, buying translation is as easy as calling up to order a pizza. For companies that are new to it, translation is rarely viewed as a strategic investment or a component of global growth. It’s seen as something that just “has to be done.” As such, it often gets assigned to a low-level manager, an intern or a receptionist. The problem? These individuals rarely have the resources or skills to treat translation as what it is: a strategic business investment that fuels a company’s global growth.

Thus, translation becomes stuck in a silo. Often, the same process is repeated around the company, so translation then gets stuck in multiple silos. As an organization becomes more global, suddenly other parts of the organization rely on translation too. It often starts with a need from sales or marketing, but then permeates the product and operations teams, client services and even finance. Translation usually stops just short of the executive team.


Enlightened approaches

to translation remain illusive

Some of the more enlightened companies, especially those that are serious about growing international revenue, see that what they need is “more than just translation,” so they end up calling it “localization.” That’s a bit closer to the truth, but still not exactly right. Those of us who are practitioners know that these two processes differ, and we know exactly how. But when buyers new to translation use this term, they are often trying to distinguish between a literal, bad translation (which they call “translation”), and a translation that truly resonates with the target audience and sounds local (which they call “localization”).

Still, no matter what they end up calling it, when management looks for a place for translation to “live,” they often relegate it to middle management on the product or engineering team, or occasionally marketing. Once in the silo, translation unfortunately tends to stay there, neglected at worst, deprioritized at best.

And of course, the bad news for the organization at large is that meanwhile, other areas of the company purchase translation, yet none of them benefit from the translations that other groups have paid for. Centralization is a pipe dream at these companies, and the best they can do is to centralize a few groups to make translation a shared service. As a result, the brand loses consistency as it crosses borders, usually making it harder for the company to compete in local markets.

In other words, many companies incur a large opportunity cost that they aren’t even aware of, due to the lack of any organizational centralization for translation activities. But the lack of centralization itself stems from a bigger root cause — a failure to give translation its proper place within the organization.


Where translation should live
at a modern organization

Does translation need a C-level title? Is there a need for a chief globalization officer? What about a localization czar? Well, this is not necessarily the best solution. There’s a reason that such titles are uncommon. Translation should be represented on executive teams at many businesses, but not in this exact form. While there may be exceptions, at most companies, the proper home for translation is under marketing — global marketing in particular.

I know this might be a controversial statement for anyone who has witnessed large localization departments housed under product or engineering. This is the case in many older organizations that have been around for decades. That model had its reasons for emerging in its day. But here are seven key reasons why putting translation under marketing is a better model, one that is more suitable to any modern, tech-driven business that wants to truly maximize its global growth:

1) Budget. Marketing has the biggest budget at most companies, and therefore can throw great power behind translation. Other departments suffer from much smaller budgets, and can become so cost-conscious that they are often forced to take a miserly approach to translation, which can reduce quality and ultimately create an inferior user experience.

2) Investment mindset. Marketers are increasingly viewing all content (not just multilingual content) as an investment that can be leveraged across many channels, programs, and campaigns. Their reach, especially where content is concerned, extends well into other parts of the organization, such as client services, sales and product. As such, they are more likely to view translation with an investment mindset, calculating the value it can bring their companies overall, instead of just looking at it narrowly and myopically as a cost to be reduced.

3) Accountability. Marketers are more accustomed than ever to showing campaign attribution and return on investment (ROI) for the various programs they undertake, including content marketing programs. Rolling translation into this kind of system ensures that ROI will be tracked. When translation is housed in other departments, a common problem occurs — the business owner for translation doesn’t actually have access to the internal data from the marketing team that would enable them to prove ROI. Often, it’s like pulling teeth, and these in-house localization managers struggle, not because they don’t have the skill or desire to prove the ROI of translation. It’s because they can’t overcome the internal barriers. And the root problem of that is that they have the wrong organizational home to begin with.

4) Quality. If translation can get proper attention and support from anyone in the company, it’s going to be from the people who are in charge of, and understand, communications. They are less likely to try to skimp on quality than other parts of the organization with smaller budgets might be. Indeed, as more and more marketers are moving toward search engine optimization (SEO) focused, inbound and content-driven strategies, and as they realize the importance of high-quality content to help them improve their search engine rankings, translation quality suddenly takes on more importance than ever before.

5) Strategy. Translation will never be part of a business’s core strategy if it doesn’t have a seat at the executive table. However, that doesn’t mean that translation needs a separate and additional seat. It simply means that the seat where translation should live is the marketing seat, ideally global marketing. Quite simply, this is the best way for translation to become centralized at any modern organization. Then translation becomes built into the marketing strategy, which is guided by the overall business goals.

6) Technology. Marketing is increasingly tech-driven, and marketers today seek to understand the ROI of every activity via systems, technologies, analytics and tracking tools. The budget for marketing technologies alone has risen dramatically in the last few years, and translation technologies are now being viewed as an integral part of the marketing tech stack, along with customer relationship management tools, SEO and search engine marketing tools, online advertising portals, content marketing tools, social media platforms, advocacy marketing platforms, content management systems and so on.

7) Web. While the majority of enterprise content, especially legacy content, still resides in the form of business documents, this is changing fast. Many modern organizations already skew more toward web-based content, and this trend will only continue as laggards migrate their content toward online methods of creation and publication as well. Who owns the company’s web presence? Marketing.

So, in a modern company, translation should naturally “live” under marketing. Ultimately, who cares more about high-quality communications that reflect well on the brand than marketing? If there’s any department that will value translation enough to put its money where the customer’s mouth is, it’s marketing.

For many years, well-intentioned localization and translation managers tried very hard to “sell up” and try to convince executives of the value of translation. Getting the time or attention of an executive sponsor was nearly impossible. Only the very savvy or the very lucky, sometimes both, were able to fight for budget, time and attention for translation activities at their companies. But this mindset has obvious limitations. If localization has to rely on a “sponsor” to get attention, it’s clearly not a true priority for the business in the first place.

For modern and tech-savvy companies, translation will have a seat at the leadership table, not in the form of a mere “sponsor,” but in the form of a marketing leader, ideally the global marketing quarterback. Only then, can translation move from being viewed as a cost to being seen as an investment. And only then, can the industry’s long-held dreams of truly centralized, enterprise-wide translation management, change status from “pipe dream” to “foregone conclusion.”