Terena Bell is an independent journalist writing for The Atlantic, Washington Post, Fast Company and others. She is former CEO of In Every Language and was on the GALA and ALC boards.
This issue’s Client Talk takes us to Scandinavia, where tech startup No Isolation operates in seven languages. But the company rarely works with a language services provider. Why?
Based in Oslo, global content manager Iver Syverud Thorsen and his coworkers speak Norwegian. But the company’s “native language” is English. No Isolation sells two products: a cross-generational communication app named KOMP and a robot for chronically-ill children called AV1.
The company website is in Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, UK English, French for France, German and Dutch. Content about AV1 is also localized for Iceland, Finland, Romania and Greece by the product’s distributors — a practice this column has only seen in the past from American manufacturers. Local freelance copywriters create additional product info; conference handouts; and teacher, parent and customer documentation in-language.
For the site — and social media, which No Isolation also localizes internally — the process is needlessly arduous. Since the company and its employees don’t share a native language, a copywriter creates web and social copy in her preferred language, then personally translates it into English. This copy then gets sent to No Isolation’s public relations company for German and Swedish translation and to additional freelance copywriters for French and Danish. Remaining languages are localized by bilingual sales or management staff.
For the back and forth, Thorsen says, “We’ve made our own system with Google Docs and Slack. When a text needs translations, the content manager posts the document in a Slack channel with the flags of each language that it needs to be translated to. When the translation is done, the translators react with the same flag.” Information is apparently copied and pasted between Slack and Docs.
Iver Syverud Thorsen
When asked about translation management software, which comes in free and paid versions, Thorsen says this system “works for now! As a startup, we needed to find a solution that was easily scalable without costing too much.”
So 1-5, how important does No Isolation think professional localization is?
In addition to this “scalable” web of distributors, copywriters, public relations vendors, internal managers and bilingual sales reps, No Isolation does turn to translators from time to time. Thorsen ranks professional translation’s importance at a 5, explaining, “It’s extremely important that we have the same quality of text and content across all countries.” But despite the high score, he adds, “It’s not necessarily important that the translation is done by professionals.”
In our April 2018 issue, Hank Enright, buyer for pizza chain Papa John’s, noted professional translation and professional translators aren’t always synonymous. Perhaps Thorsen might agree. In one way, No Isolation’s website is more thoroughly localized than some career translators have done, adjusting a home page statistic about loneliness — the consumer problem KOMP and AV1 address — for each locale. For example, the English site says more than nine million Brits are often or always lonely, whereas the French site provides the comparable stat for France. Unfortunately, far too many “professional” translators, left unchecked, would simply translate the UK stat into the target language.
“We knew early on that we had to localize this kind of content to make it relevant for different markets,” Thorsen says, explaining in-house researchers suggested the change. He notes true localization, compared to translation, typically happens more on the site, which “needs to have perfect language and tone,” unlike app updates that are “easier to translate word for word.”
When No Isolation does enlist translators, Thorsen says it’s not to get material in the target language so much as “to ensure that sentiment and tone are accurately translated across from one language to another” by reviewing website copy that the company already translated in-house. Tone and complexity of work are also critical to the translator versus somebody else’s decision.
The emerging pattern
No Isolation presents an interesting conundrum and one we haven’t seen in this column before: They’re a European client that — as profiled, at least — translates like an American one. Maybe it’s a case of the grass is always greener, but US vendors often lament about how European clients just seem to “get it.” Whereas American clients have to be persuaded to buy translation period, European ones need to be convinced to buy it from you. But with No Isolation, we see the same reliance on bilingual employees that five profiled American companies shared last year. Evidently, the difficulty of persuading buyers that translation is different from bilingualism isn’t continent-specific.
“We are very fortunate to have very capable employees at our offices and without them we would need to use professional translators for everything,” says Thorsen.