The pros and cons of crowdsourcing translation
By Ian Henderson, CTO, Rubric Language Services (www.rubric.com/za)
Crowdsourcing translation services – what an intriguing, even shocking concept! Subscribing to the philosophy of grassroots movements such as open source software, Wikipedia and even popular revolts like the Arab Spring, crowdsourcing seriously calls the value of traditional expert translation into question.
The last time this happened, machine translation (MT) made an aggressive play for market share in an industry dominated by human translation (HT).
In the bruising contest that ensued, new niches were carved out for the respective combatants, but it was a third party, computer-aided translation (CAT), that emerged strongest.
CAT is the true post-human face of modern translation, combining efficient computing techniques with human quality and process to deliver infinitely scalable, top-quality, streamlined translations that MT and HT cannot compete with.
The madding crowd
Now, sweeping change is upon us again. Venture capitalists are apparently falling over themselves to fund platforms or services based on community translations. And it’s easy to see why. Community translation purports to be cheap or free, quick and to deliver results.
Amara, a crowd-sourced subtitle translation service for Youtube, received a $1 million grant from, among others, Mozilla, and has shown it can translate videos into 20 languages in 24 hours.
Smartling, a technology platform for recruiting community translators, has attracted $24 million in VC funding. It is also the translation platform for non-profit TED of TED Talks fame.
If amateurs can produce original content, and this can be ‘perfected’ over time by a process of peer review, are CAT techniques still relevant? Let’s examine the lessons to be learnt or inferred from crowdsourcing efforts.
When Macromedia launched Dreamweaver in the US in 1997, it was blown away to receive a fully-translated version of the user interface from a French fan of its products a year later.
But think twice before leaping into China without a localised product, collateral or website. It stands to reason that a new product has more excitement value than further updates, and any crowdsourcing strategy would have to incorporate a plan B down the line.
Crowdsourcing has further worked better in the case of Mozilla, whose Firefox browser is offered in 70 completed languages. Like Dreamweaver’s fans, community translators of Mozilla Firefox are dyed-in-the-wool tech enthusiasts who know browser terms in their own language and can invent appropriate words for newly invented concepts.
Commercial vs charitable
But unlike Dreamweaver, the objectives of Mozilla are not commercial but developmental, inspiring more devotion as a consequence.
Firefox’s French community, it transpired, are just as passionate as Adobe’s, routinely responding to new versions with swift translations. Even when you’re changing the world, some communities are bigger enthusiasts that others, and crowdsourcing as a community engagement tool has its productive limits.
Horses for courses
As proved in both cases, enthusiasts can offer greater technical accuracy in certain cases than professional translators. But this disregards the fact that professional translators do a great deal of research (within reasonable limits), and power users don’t necessarily make good translators.
Translation, properly approached to ensure quality and cost-saving efficiency, is not a middling undertaking, and regardless of the claims, does not scale. Soliciting translations requires infrastructure – namely, a self-contained translation kit that allows the owner of the original text to receive translations back and debug it for coding or formatting errors.
In addition, it requires a project management competency that not even big companies care to maintain. Compare this to supporting an in-house marketing competency (in-sourcing) or project-managing a crowd of suppliers delivering various components of a marketing solution to augment in-house skills. Because you’re paying crowdsourcing rates (little or nothing), your suppliers are unlikely to take on very much work, which swells the supplier base and adds to the management burden.
Nor are they likely to be very good. Poor quality translations place a high burden on peer reviewers, which is a passion killer (other than perhaps in religious communities such as core Linux contributors). In a well-managed process (outsourcing), peer review would happen much earlier. So, considering the vendor and outcomes management overhead of the crowd, why do it?
On closer examination, the supposed benefits of crowdsourcing – quality, low cost and speed of results – can be illusory.
Many cases exist in which, to a greater or lesser degree, communities should work in tandem with language service providers (LSP) to provide quality, scale assurance and project management.
As with each new game-changing event on the tech landscape, it re-sets the market, but always less dramatically than first thought.
Links:Arab Spring (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_Spring)Venture capitalists (http://www.commonsenseadvisory.com/Default.aspx?Contenttype=ArticleDetAD&tabID=63&Aid=3023&moduleId=390)Smartling (http://blogs.wsj.com/venturecapital/2013/10/09/smartling-raises-24-million-to-translate-everything-online)Amara (http://www.amara.org/en)Rubric Website: http://www.rubric.com/zaRubric on Twitter: @rubricinc
Billionaire Kumar Birla Champions Regional Supply Chains
As the head of the Aditya Birla Group, a US$46bn firm that operates in 36 countries, Kumar Mangalam Birla is no stranger to splashy strategic moves. Yet his recent announcement that he no longer wants to acquire globally distributed supply chains stood out. While many companies have struggled to cope with shipping backlogs, his firm has chosen to pivot and focus on regional networks. Said Birla: ‘We wouldn’t look at a company or a business where you source in one corner of the world and sell in another’.
He cited protectionism, the pandemic, and the limited movement of products and people around the world as ABG’s primary causes of lost profits. And they aren’t alone. Over the past year, 900 of the U.S. and Europe’s biggest IT, defence, and financial services firms have lost an average of US$184mn apiece.
An Era of Global Disruption
Over the past few decades, low shipping rates and rapid delivery times have lulled multinational firms into a false sense of security. In the early 2000s, companies chose to take on significant global supply chain risks in exchange for increased profits. First, it made sense to manufacture higher-value goods, such as electronics, in low-cost regions throughout Southeast Asia, India, and Africa. Second, first-tier suppliers started to outsource the manufacturing of specific components to second-, third-, and even fourth-tiers—leaving supply chains with extremely limited visibility.
So when COVID-19 disruptions struck certain regions, companies were caught unprepared. Usually, these events come few and far between. But over the past ten years, we’ve seen a number of ‘black swan’ events that have thrown the supply chain industry into chaos. Here’s a quick history of the most significant events in recent years, thanks to the MIT Sloan Management Review:
- 2010. China creates export quotas for rare earth elements.
- 2011. The Tōhoku Earthquake hits East Japan; flooding sweeps throughout Thailand.
- 2016-present. Trade wars between the U.S. and China hurt suppliers.
- 2020-present. COVID-19 pandemic shuts down international shipping ports.
Now, Kumar Birla is one of many who want to re-evaluate how we run our supply chains. Though his company has acquired 40+ companies in the last quarter decade, Birla intends to build up local hubs rather than expand operations.
Why Pursue Regionalisation?
Combine Chinese economic dominance, global supply chain vulnerabilities, and major government policy shifts around the world, and you have a storm brewing on the horizon for big multinational firms. As Brookings noted, ‘the biggest risk for trading opportunities in the developing world is growing protectionism in more advanced economies, often dressed up as national security protection’.
Altogether, from the U.S. to the European Union, governments are trying to protect their domestic supply chains, secure adequate stockpiles of materials, and build world-class local networks. Consider Biden’s recent executive order, which seeks to bring semiconductor manufacturing back to home soil, or Japan’s bid to open more memory chip fabrication factories near Tokyo. The Aditya Birla Group intends to react in kind. Said Birla: ‘We’re looking at regionalism as a very big theme’.
Will Others Follow Suit?
In the post-pandemic economy, global businesses must decide whether to expand or contract. On one hand, the Alibaba Group’s Cainiao Smart Logistics Network recently launched a direct flight between Hong Kong, China, and Lagos, Nigeria. On the other, the Japanese government is desperate to make its chip manufacturing domestic. Indeed, as two supply chain strategies diverge in a post-pandemic world, the one businesses take may make all the difference.
Yet Birla is confident that regionalisation is the right call. According to his words at the Qatar Economic Forum, even necessary cross-border transactions should be smaller in scope. And as the Bloomberg Billionaires Index now lists his net wealth at US$10.4bn, up 52% from 2020, he may have the cash to test his theories out. ‘Regional hubs, regional presence, regional employment, catering to regional demand’, he stated. ‘We’re a global company rooted in local economics’.