English first, then shock & horror: other languages don’t fit. Develop a technical fix. Which turns into a business opportunity. Until the next big digital thing starts the cycle all over again.

Sound familiar? Two decades ago, English-only software suddenly had to adapt to other language communities. Ohmygod! Double byte languages, different sort systems, tangible otherness. The technical fix was “localization”, which eventually evolved into the GILT industry and opened up a business opportunity for translators and their minders.

Just one decade ago, bright new web entrepreneurs suddenly realized you could reach further, inform better and sell more if you “globalized” your site into other languages. Ohmygod! Double byte languages, different sort systems, tangible otherness, lotsa money. The technical fix involved investing in globalization content management systems and streamlining workflows. And opened up a further opportunity for web site translators and their (richer) minders.

Now today, the rise and rise of blogs as the new personal publishing platform appears to be shuffling through the same old digital content choreography. First the new practice spreads through the English speaking/writing community. Then it’s rapidly adopted by other linguistic communities, probably starting with semi-bilinguals. The original content stream suddenly goes opaque. Ohmygod! We English-speaking first adopters can’t read Arabic, Pashto, Russian, Chinese… bloggers who have something important to say to us, given the ambient madness. Then comes the technical fix…

In fact we’re still looking for a technical fix, well exemplified in Tim Oren’s stream of ideas and proposals, and partially summarized in this recent Salon article.

So the longer term question is: will translating the blogosphere open up a new business opportunity? At first sight, no. Blogging today is personal, informal and anti-commercial. So friends or bloggers themselves are more likely to do the translating, if any. Yet witness the discussion about what’s happening to Joi Ito, a bloggerato who writes (in English) about digital copyright issues. It turns out that NEC is now re-purposing content from his blog, and translating it (professionally?) into Japanese.

Yet as the blogosphere grows, it will presumably develop tools that will trawl premium content from the oceans of self-serving static, and invent an appropriate business model to sustain that rich content stream, social software notwithstanding. So there is a strong chance that someone will seize on this new opportunity offered by this latest manifestation of Babel’s curse, and end this particular ‘new content’ cycle by delivering a cheap but effective transblogation service, based on whatever technical fixes make most sense.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.


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