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GUEST COMMENT What could advances in translation tech mean for your business?

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Ecommerce has changed the way the world does business. Your website and other online resources can theoretically be accessed by anyone with an internet connection and, if you offer shipping or digital products and services, you can also sell to customers all over the world.

The domestic market is enough for some, with UK consumers spending more per capita online than those of any other nation. The international market is huge, however, and getting bigger all the time as developing markets join the ecommerce flood. At the end of last year worldwide ecommerce sales stood at USD $1.316 trillion and that is predicted to almost double, to $2.489 trillion, by the end of 2018.

It’s possible to make inroads into certain markets with an English-only web presence. English is, after all, still the most commonly used language online and to some extent it serves as a lingua franca or bridging language in the online and business worlds. According to Statista, around one and a half billion people speak English to some degree worldwide, but that still means the vast majority – five and a half billion – speak no English at all.

Furthermore, only 375 million of that one and a half billion are native English speakers and studies carried out by Eurobarometer and Common Sense Advisory confirm what really ought to be a common sense conclusion – that those who speak English as a second language prefer to visit websites and shop in their own native language.

In order to reach the maximum amount of people, it’s essential to speak to consumers in a language they understand. Advances in translation technology can help many businesses to do so.

Automatic translation

Machine translation, or MT, simply involves using software to translate written material from one language to another. An example many people will be familiar with is Google Translate, which is used by more than 500 million people every month, making over a billion translations every single day. The app allows you to simply type or paste text into one field, set the languages (or have the source language detected automatically) and read the translated content in another box. This can be great for achieving a rough and ready translation, or for getting the gist of material in a foreign language, such as comments or posts left on your blog or site.

Machine translation has improved a lot recently, with statistical techniques being employed to recognise whole phrases and their closest counterparts in the target language, rather than always translating word-for-word. It’s still not perfect though, and relying on straight machine translation is not generally recommended for business material intended for publication, whether it’s website content or marketing materials.

When Taco Bell re-entered the Japanese market earlier this year it made headlines for all the wrong reasons. A spokesman admitted that automatic translation contributed to hilarious mistakes on their website that promised delicacies such as ‘low quality chips’ and ‘Supreme Court beef’ instead of ‘the beef Crunchwrap Supreme’.


Many businesses and even governments make use of machine translation but most only use it in conjunction with a skilled human eye and mind. The US Department of Labor said last year: “It is seldom, if ever, sufficient to use machine translation without having a human who is trained in translation available to review and correct the translation to ensure that it is conveying the intended message.”

This, in essence, is the process of post-editing. Skilled human translators can scan machine-translated content for any glaring errors or make more involved alterations to make the material read better. Post-edited content will be of a higher quality than raw machine translation but can also be both quicker and cheaper than using human translation alone. Furthermore, at a recent webinar on translation trends, Microsoft Translator’s group program manager Chris Wendt also talked about post-publishing, post-editing or P3, which involves further edits to take place on a live web page.

Using translation memories

Translation memories and glossaries can be another useful aid for human translators working with technology. These allow databases of previously translated material or company-specific terminology to be stored, searched and re-used where appropriate. This can speed up future translations, as well as helping to maintain consistency throughout your translated materials. This can be particularly good for things such as technical terms, business jargon and product names.

Another recent development is the opening up of translation application programming interfaces or APIs. Essentially, these pieces of kit can allow you to directly ‘plug into’ your translation provider’s translation management platform for quick and easy translations. This can be great for translations you need in a hurry or on a regular basis, such as blog posts, press releases and website updates.

Dealing with the spoken word

While translation deals with written materials, interpretation deals with the spoken word. Skype and other video chat services have already revolutionised the way business conference calls can be made. Now the company, which was bought out by Microsoft in 2011 for a reported $8.5 billion, has unveiled a ‘real-time’ process that purports to bridge the gap between translation and interpretation, taking the words spoken by one participant in a multilingual conversation and presenting an on-screen text translation to another. This could be incredibly useful for businesses working with foreign partners or maintaining international offices but there are still some issues to be ironed out. Some previews suggested that the ‘real-time’ processing could actually take around 10 seconds, leading to long gaps and stilted conversations. The app also struggled with regional accents and is so far limited to just a handful of language pairings.

Competitors to Skype include SpeechTrans, which claims its users can have a conversation in more than 40 languages over fixed-line or internet phone.

We might still be some years from a flawless, Star Trek-style Universal Translator and some doubt that day will ever come. Translation technology can undoubtedly be useful however and ongoing innovations ensure that businesses of all shapes and sizes can benefit from those advances.

Christian Arno is the founder and CEO of translation company Lingo24

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