The flip side

of localization

Cecilia Piaggio

Cecilia Piaggio is the founder of Latin América Habla, a nonprofit that protects and digitalizes endangered languages in Latin America. She is celebrating over 20 years in the localization industry, and is currently working as a consultant for RWS Moravia.

If you are a localization player, you impact the lives of people around the world. Making content accessible to millions in their native language is fascinating. Machine translation has exponentially accelerated the amount of content that we are able to make accessible.

But how true is this really?

A friend of mine would say “that’s a partial truth.” We enable content around the world, but not the whole world. We enable it for communities that qualify as potential markets, which is how businesses grow internationally. Companies have an assumed ROI per locale that, in the past, was calculated based on research and sales projections. The industry has evolved thanks to the monitoring of website traffic, data mining and business intelligence, and is allowing localization to be based on the demands of the market in real time. This means that now, those communities that consume more localized content will see increasingly more content in their language, perpetuating this cycle.

Dominant languages tend to grow, and minority languages are endangered. This is a natural cycle of life, but what is unprecedented is the speed at which this process is happening. The internet and globalization have fast-forwarded this natural cycle to an alarming stage. There are 7,000 languages worldwide. Only 20 of them represent 50% of the world’s speakers and it’s estimated that one language dies every two weeks.

From an academic point of view, when a language dies, ancestral knowledge is lost and a culture tends to disappear. Our creative capacity as humans gets more restricted because our visions are more homogenous. Thus, humanity is impoverished.

What is more important is that when a community loses its language, part of its cultural identity is lost and this is experienced as a symbol of defeat. People who speak endangered languages are generally living in an unjust, oppressed or marginal surrounding, having been conquered and dominated. They have been forced to abandon their mother tongue and adapt their traditions to fit into the dominant society that surrounds them.

As localization players, we contribute to globalization and thus contribute to language constriction. In so doing, we may make minority communities feel that their cultural identity is being lost. As an industry, we should acknowledge this fact and take accountability for it.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs for petroleum companies have a focus on green initiatives. What would a strategic CSR program for the localization industry look like?

If you are a language service provider, you could enable the community to build their own glossaries and memories. If you sell products or services, you can open your interface (or part of it) for communities to localize, like Facebook currently does with their CSR program.

CSRs are becoming increasingly important at a strategic level. While the goal of these programs is to allow companies to take responsibility for the social and environmental impacts of their operations, it also gives them the opportunity to become more appealing to consumers and candidates seeking a job.

There’s also a deep cultural change that pushes us in that direction. Consumers are supporting brands that invest in causes of their interest. Employees want to work for mission-driven companies that align their personal values with the ones of the company. In fact, Glassdoor reported that for job seekers, the culture and values of an organization are as important as the compensation and benefit packages.

We in the localization industry can help minority communities feel valued and respected by adding CSR programs that enable preservation of endangered languages. By doing so, we can be part of an important cultural change that will have a lasting impact on many people and communities worldwide.