An oral history of machine translation — and the
friendship it forged
By Marjolein Groot Nibbelink
Many members of the language industry community describe their career flow as a result of coincidence or chance. Olga Beregovaya and Anna Schlegel both have a more intentional path, working in localization specifically since the mid-’90s. They are considered true trailblazers within the industry, and both were featured in MultiLingual’s first women’s edition in March 2022. Today, Schlegel is Vice President, Global at Procore Technologies and Beregovaya is vice president of AI and MT at Smartling — both are board members of Women in Localization (Schlegel is a co-founder in 2008 together with Silvia Avary-Silveira and Eva Klaudinyova, and Board Member for the past 15 years). In what is perhaps the most striking of chance meetings, they describe their accidental encounter a decade and a half ago.
Anna Schlegel worked for VMware and Cisco for several years in the ‘90s, where she had experimented with TM2 from IBM and had been among the first to try machine learning (ML) and machine translation (MT) with a future vision of how the world would localize endless amounts of content.
“By then I had already trained Google to speak Catalan via a crowdsourcing workflow,” Schlegel said. “So machine translation did not scare me — it was fascinating to me.”
In 2008, she was Acclaro’s general manager for the West Coast division, working for Michael Kriz in San Francisco. “I remember telling my team at Acclaro about MT and that we should try it. I was scared of their initial reaction, because it was still rather new for most agencies back then. You’d get the typical reaction of ‘Oh no!’ But very quickly we started our own pilots and projects.”
She did not know any of the people she was put in charge of, so she set about getting to know her team. One of her good friends, Andrew Lawless, had once told her that office vibes are very important. “So, I was also clearing the office from things we didn’t need, making it cozier, me being the mom of very young children. I remember buying things for the office, changing how my desk space looked. I was in total familiarization mode,” said Schlegel.
At the same time, and only a few doors down the hall, Olga Beregovaya was the CEO of Promt Americas, the enterprise division of PROMT, one of the two oldest MT companies in the world that developed rule-based MT technology. By chance, they had both taken up offices in the same old brick-and-timber office space in San Francisco’s South of Market district.
Anna Schlegel (AS): “We had some summer months when I would leave late, or come early, and I’d leave the door open.”
Olga Beregovaya (OB): “I was spending my days yelling loudly into my phone or my computer microphone, mostly using words like ‘MT,’ ‘edit distance,’ ‘integration of MT and TM,’ and, ‘When will we push this new integration?’”
AS: “I remember a couple of times hearing Russian, and people having discussions in Russian.”
OB: “Also, why bother closing the office door?”
AS: “I didn’t think much of it. But as a language nerd, I liked it. Again, I kept hearing them speaking: the same voices, a man’s and a woman’s voices. One day, before going to get my car, I went to see the title of their business. I think it was either on their door or next to it, a sign that said ‘PROMT.’ What the heck is that? A few days shortly after, I went to say hi, but they weren’t there. I had to wait until I heard the voices again and really ran there because I had this curiosity to see what PROMT was and what these two humans were all about.”
OB: “As a result, on one sunny day, something that most resembled a human hurricane stormed into our office and demanded we show her the person yelling all day about MT. She said she was a GM for an LSP, whose office is literally two doors away, and is very interested in the subject.”
AS: “And bam! It was the first time I saw Olga and Alex. And they were just the same as I had heard them in the past, in the middle of some discussion in Russian. I think I said, ‘Hey, I work across the hall in that office over there.’”
OB: “I remember every detail of what she was wearing that day and what her hair looked like. Also, I was totally blown away by her energy and a mix of extreme kindness and curiosity about the world around her. And, of course, MT in particular.”
AS: “I remember that they welcomed me inside, and of course, they were developing MT solutions. It was too much! We hit it off quickly because we were all in the business of language localization. And they were the future of it, the super innovators. In the following days and weeks, we popped into each other’s offices. At one point, I had to choose a larger office for our West Coast operations and we left, and we were no longer across the hall.
“I learned a lot from Olga. She struck me as a genius already back then. I couldn’t understand everything she said, but I followed her thoughts anyway because I knew we would not be able to localize all the content in the world without people like her.”
OB: “After a few profound geeky conversations about natural language processing in general, MT in particular, and what MT can actually do for LSPs these days, we decide to do a pilot together.”
Anna Schlegel officially co-founded Women in Localization in that same year: 2008. Together with Eva Klaudinyova and Silvia Avary-Silveira, she developed the non-profit member organization to one of the industry’s most recognized platforms for gender equality in localization. As of 2023, Women in Localization counts more than 9,000 members and continues to promote community support, inclusion, and the sharing of industry best practices.
Beregovaya was invited by Schlegel as their first speaker. Despite being nervous and not used to public speaking at the time, Olga agreed to speak and did so for free. The room was packed because MT was the talk of the industry in the late 2000s.
AS: “I was so proud to introduce her as my brilliant friend. Olga joined our board recently as head of technology, and we kicked things off to a whole other level with her. She continues to be a visionary in the space of artificial intelligence, neural machine translation, and natural language processing. And the rest is history. We all use it or an evolution or it!”
Back at Acclaro, Schlegel’s team started piloting MT and saw how beneficial it would be. In the years since this unique chance encounter, Schlegel and Beregovaya have not only attended many conferences together but also become close friends.
AS: “She’s one of the ones you can say anything to. The ones you count on with one hand, who you can call at any time, the ones who make you order her drinks before she shows up. The one who will dance with me in the middle of a restaurant.
“I continue to be in awe of her brilliance, but I now enjoy her perspective on life, her home, her trips — wherever it is we can meet in the world. We keep tabs on our families, we have done yoga together, we have crossed borders together, we have cooked together, we have laughed so hard we can’t stop. She is that type of friend, and I could not be luckier. Life gives you a few people who are just incredible. With all these years of friendship — 15 now — I know that we will be way older and still be the same, someone you can bounce anything personal off of, and have the friendship that you experience with mega best friends. We are both very dedicated to our families, society, giving back, social justice, being female executives, leading innovation, and we know many of the same people. It is an incredible gift. She is a gift to this world. What we all need: a true friend.”
OB: “Anna is one of my favorite people in the world, both a dear friend and an inspiration. We have laughed and supported each other through the good and the ‘otherwise.’ Now I am also serving on the board of Women in Localization, and it is so great to be able to brainstorm with Anna (and of course all the other amazing ladies on the board and in the organization) about the role we women are playing in the industry, and about the future vision. That, and I am confident that this woman has at least 48 hours in her day, based on everything she manages to engage in and accomplish. Life works in mysterious ways, and this one was nothing short of a miracle.”
However people end up in this industry — and whether or not they ever meet in person — interpersonal connections such as the one between Olga Beregovaya and Anna Schlegel have been the pulse of the community since its inception. From trailblazers to thought leaders, and from project managers to freelance translators — we are reminded that nothing is more valuable than a dear friend.