Some thoughts on localization vendor selection

by on Oct.29, 2009 , under localization, program management

Localization and translation are almost always outsourced, and for many good reasons. Vendor management is therefore crucial to any localization or translation program, and it starts with vendor selection. Every aspect of vendor management—the financial and legal relationship, communications, project coordination, risk planning, and so on—will be easier if you start by taking the time to find the vendor or vendors that are best-suited for your needs. A huge number of companies is eager to have your business, most of them will bend over backwards to adapt their processes to your needs, and many of them are truly excellent. But one size does not fit all. The best possible vendor for one company might be a lousy fit for your company. If I had to get it down to one sentence, my advice would be this:

Don’t go by price, go by who understands your needs the best.

If you have time for more than one sentence, read on. The best vendor is the one whose questions make sense, whose warnings ring true, and whose projections seem realistic. Trust your gut on this, because like Dr. Spock used to tell parents, “You know more than you think you do.” How do you find the vendor or vendors who will pass that gut-feel test? Here are some tips. Are they selling what you need?

What do you need—translation, interpretation, localization, or internationalization?

There might be a few vendors who can do it all, but most of them specialize on one or two of these service. If you’re not sure which ones you need, here’s a quick rundown on the differences.

Translation, often abbreviated T9N (T, nine more letters, N), means converting text from one language to another. If you are a best-selling novelist in Scotland, your books are translated from British English into a gazillion other languages. Harry Potter is available in 67 languages including both simplified and traditional Chinese? They’re even translated into American English! That’s right–if you pick up a copy of the first book at Heathrow, enjoy it on your flight home, and then decide to pick up book two on your way out of O’Hare, you’re in for a surprise; Harry and his friends don’t speak the same language. I like the British English ones better, myself—I think it makes more sense when British schoolchildren use British colloquialisms—even though sometimes I don’t understand every detail. Did you know that when British kids revise, they’re studying for an exam? When American kids revise, they’re rewriting a paper!

Interpretation is when you do translation live, on the fly. Interpreters are the staffers who translate at meetings of world leaders or who work in the sound booths behind the scenes at the UN for all those diplomats wearing headsets. Interpretation is a special skill that goes beyond basic translation—interpreters have to work instantaneously without reference materials, and simultaneously, speaking in one language while listening in another. Interpreters also have to be attuned to the cultural and political nuances of a situation, and they typically have to be experts in (or bone up on) the subject matter at hand. You might think those world leaders are under incredible pressure, but the interpreters have it far worse! A friend told me about interpreting for an incredibly high-level meeting; she couldn’t tell me the details, but I was able to piece together that it was probably for the meeting between Presidents Bill Clinton and Jiang Zemin talking about nuclear weaponry. She explained that she worked in a tag-team of four interpreters working fifteen minutes at a time, because that’s the most stress anyone could handle. Another friend told about a much more pleasurable interpreting job, in which she learned all about wine-making while translating for a group of Spanish investors visiting wineries California.

Localization, often abbreviated L10N (L, ten more letters, N) takes translation several steps further. Localization means doing whatever it takes to adapt a product or service to the needs of a different local market. For example, if you make cell phones in the US and want to start selling them in Korea, you’ll need to do a lot more than translate the user interface into Korean. You need to change the radio to work on the Korean networks, which use a different protocol. You’ll also need to rejigger your software so that it can handle Hangul characters, and you’ll need to come up with a keyboard and text-input system that enables people to write text messages using Hangul characters with their thumbs. If you’re smart, you’ll also enable roman, Chinese, and Japanese character input, because lots of Korean customers need to be able to communicate in Chinese, Japanese, and English every day. And if you’ve done your market research, you know that the Korean market likes small, slick, colorful devices; models that sell well in the US are probably going to seem big and clunky in Korea. Localizing your product means addressing all of these barriers to local adoption.

Internationalization (I18N) is the global version of localization: it means doing whatever it takes to make your product or service work everywhere in the world, not just specific local markets. That could theoretically include translation into every known language, but in practice it means overcoming technical details that limit you to certain parts of the world. Internationalization is laying a good foundation for localization projects to follow. For software projects, it means doing things like adapting your code to handle the character sets needed by all the world’s major languages—for example, even if your product will only work in English for now, it ought to be able to work with strings (text) in any language so that you can translate your interface later but users can work with international character data now. You should make it possible to work with all the number, time, date, currency formats, and measurement systems used around the world. Your icons should be general enough to make sense around the world—and you might be surprised how images that seem obvious here can be confusing or even offensive elsewhere. It takes research and hard work to get it all right.

Do your business models match up? What are your business priorities and challenges?

Perhaps you’re releasing a new laptop around the world and need to translate the BIOS strings, the set-up pamphlets, and the customer support website. Your priorities are volume and turnaround time. You probably have millions of words and several dozen languages, and you need it all turned around in a few weeks. You’ll probably need to work with one of the huge, multinational vendors that can respond to that kind of volume and time pressure, who can put together a sophisticated workflow system for you. And you’d better write a contract that will enable you to enforce your expectations about turnaround time.

Perhaps you’ve made a defibrillator device that flight attendants can use when passengers have heart-attacks on board, and you’ve just negotiated a major sale to a French airline. Your priorities are quality and risk management. You probably only have a few thousand words and some graphics to get from English into a half dozen European languages, but this product is literally a matter of life and death—those translations and graphics have got to be right, and they have to be so simple that they’ll make sense to somebody who’s working under extreme pressure at an unfamiliar task.

Perhaps you’re involved in a major patent filing and you need to review hundreds of existing patents and patent applications around the world to ensure that your invention is unique and new. Your priorities are efficiency and legal expertise. Many of the seemingly-related filings are probably irrelevant, and you don’t need a full-blown exact translation of each one; you first need your vendor to sift quickly through the pile to help you determine which ones are possibly relevant, and then you need accurate, legally valid translations of that smaller pile. This situation is all about efficiency: anyone can machine-translate a CD full of text files and then put humans to work on the important files, but what about when you’re starting with a carton of printouts? And your device involves sophisticated molecular chemistry? And there’s a potential issue with exporting encryption? You need a vendor that has experience in handling these kinds of issues.

It’s always about price, but don’t go by the lowest bidder

It’s theoretically possible that there are some organizations out there who aren’t worried about costs, but I haven’t run into any of them yet. (If you’re at one of them, give me a call, please! I’d love to learn more.) For the rest of us, we’re under constant pressure to get more done at lower cost, so we have to pay a lot of attention to pricing.

But there are costs and there are costs. Sure, fif­teen cents a word is cheaper than twenty-five cents a word, but it’s not that sim­ple.

  • What is the cost of a law­suit?
  • What is the cost of mak­ing a bad first impres­sion?
  • What is the cost of an unmet dead­line?
  • What is the cost of a crit­i­cal warn­ing that nobody can under­stand?
  • What is the cost of a bill­board that makes your com­pany look stodgy?
  • What is the cost of your project man­ager quit­ting in frus­tra­tion because your ven­dor can’t help him under­stand how local­iza­tion sched­ules work?
  • What is the cost of your in-country reviewer rubber-stamping or ignor­ing things because she’s tired of your vendor’s trans­la­tors argu­ing with her?

These kinds of costs are never just the vendor’s fault, nor are they ever just the client’s fault. They are the result of a mis­match between a client and a ven­dor. The best clients and ven­dors will do what­ever it takes to avoid this kind of situation—to start, build, and keep the part­ner­ships that will be prof­itable and sen­si­ble for both par­ties. Qual­ity guru W. Edwards Dem­ing said it all with his fourth point: “Don’t buy on price tag alone.” (All four­teen points with amus­ing illus­tra­tions by Pat Oliphant can be seen here.)

Conclusion

Take the time to find the vendors you understand, who understand you, and invest in a longterm partnership with them. Every client-vendor relationship will have challenges, but good clients will invest in win-win relationships with their vendors, and good vendors will work with you to figure out solutions that match your priorities and your means.

We’re here to help

If you need help finding a good vendor for your next project, or fixing a broken relationship with the vendor you already have under contract, contact us at info@globalpragmatica.com for a no-obligation consultation. GlobalPragmatica offers facilitative leadership with domain expertise in localization, internationalization, and project and program management. GlobalPragmatica provides pragmatic guidance to help a client-side organization develop and achieve its global vision through sustainable strategies, effective tactics, and committed teams. GlobalPragmatica also helps companies in the localization, translation, project management, and facilitation domains work better and smarter with their clients. Learn more at http://globalpragmatica.com or email us for a no-obligation consultation at info@globalpragmatica.com.

:, , , , ,

1 Trackback or Pingback for this entry

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Artwork

Global Pragmatica's artwork includes paintings by Zsuzsi Saper and digital photographs by Erin Vang. Further notes on specific pieces of art are given at the bottom of pages in which they appear. All artwork is copyright 2009–2010 by Global Pragmatica LLC®. All rights reserved worldwide.

© 2009-14 Global Pragmatica LLC®

All content © 2009-14 by Global Pragmatica LLC®. All rights reserved worldwide.

Global Pragmatica LLC® is a registered trademark of Global Pragmatica LLC. The ® symbol indicates USA trademark registration.

Contact Global Pragmatica LLC®

info@globalpragmatica.com
+1 415.997.9671
Oakland, CA 94611