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Editorial

Why Machine Translation Matters in the Modern Era

9 minute read
Kirti Vashee avatar
Develop global content strategies to be a leader in digital innovation and customer experiences globally.

We live in an era when people have access to more information than has ever been available in the history of mankind. The implications of this are so significant that it is worth considering some context to gain a full understanding of the current situation.

In 2012, the Encyclopedia Britannica announced that, after 244 years, it would no longer print any new editions. The 32-volume 2010 installment was the last print edition of that great publication. The primary cause for this was the increasing use and relevance of digital sources of information, including Wikipedia, which would fill more than 2,670 books the size of one volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica if it were to be printed. Some may argue that Wikipedia is a less reliable source of information than the Encyclopedia Britannica, but the contrast in the volume of information each of the reference works has to offer is astonishing.

Disrupting Giants of Industry

This rapid expansion in the amount of content we have at our disposal is even more astounding if we survey the larger information landscape, which reveals that more data has been created in the past two years than in the entire previous history of the human race.

content growth

When we factor the additional dimension of language into that equation, we see that this is truly a special moment in the history. We are in the midst of a veritable global content explosion.

This explosion, however, presents special challenges to the modern enterprise, which now needs to assimilate, digest and determine what information is — and isn’t — relevant to customers. Those who fail in that endeavor will become increasingly irrelevant — as we have seen countless times in the retail industry in particular.

Once-iconic brands like Encyclopedia Britannica have fallen by the wayside, and many more risk quietly disappearing for good (Sears and Toys R Us, among others). Studies suggest that many more companies, across many industries, will disappear simply because they fail to understand the importance of this content explosion and the related digital disruption it causes.

Related Article: How Machine Learning Will Tame the Explosion of Unstructured Data

Disrupting Customer Behavior

The behavior of the modern customer has also changed. People are now much more affected by content. In fact, in many modern B2C and even B2B businesses customers can now interact with a brand — across the whole customer journey — without ever talking to a salesperson. Studies have shown that as much as 67 percent of the buyer’s journey is conducted digitally (though some put a different spin on that statistic), and that customer behavior is driven by content that people discover.

It can be said that in the modern era, companies that provide relevant, high-quality content succeed, and those that don’t become irrelevant. The following graphic shows the many stages at which relevant customer content is required to persuade and develop a deeper engagement with a potential customer, and then foster an ongoing relationship.

customer buyer journey

Now, consider doing this across the many languages that are needed to engage and connect with global customers, and we see a crying need for more than just translations of packaging materials — brands also need readily available and constantly updated content in multiple languages that influences buyers during the evaluation and decision-making process. And don’t forget the need to provide adequate support information in the post-purchase phase of the relationship.

Historically, corporate marketing and communications teams had a great degree of control, but today most people distrust corporate messaging and would rather rely on the shared opinions of fellow consumers. In terms of relevance, the shelf life of business content is growing shorter and shorter, and therefore marketers are beginning to question the value of traditional (slow and expensive) methods of translating content.

As we know, the fastest-growing type of content is user-generated content (UGC), which is mostly found in blogs, community forums and social media services like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. IDC estimates that 70 percent of the content on the web is user-generated content, and much of that is very pertinent and useful to enterprises. This content is now influencing consumer behavior all over the world in what is often referred to as word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM). Consumer reviews are often more trusted than corporate marketingspeak and even “expert” reviews (which are often paid content created on behalf of brands). We are all familiar with user ratings and reviews on Amazon.com, travel sites, CNET and elsewhere. It would be helpful for both global consumers and global enterprises if these reviews were made multilingual.

Related Article: Found in Translation: A Global Customer Experience

A Linguistic Tipping Point

It is estimated that computers translate as many as 600 billion words a day, across the various machine translation (MT) portals. This dwarfs what the localization and professional business translation industry does by a factor of 99. Clearly, global customers need specific information that may not be available in their native tongues, and they will use MT to get at least a gist of what they need to understand.

Learning Opportunities

While many continue to moan about the quality of machine translation tools, we have already reached a point in human history where the substantial bulk of language translation is being done by computers.

Global customers who research products and services can and will get many disparate sources of information that are not controlled by an enterprise to make decisions about whether to buy a product. MT will allow them to get access to non-native language content and instantly obtain translations that are “good enough” to support the personal evaluation process.

In our modern times, we’re experiencing a state of unprecedented connectivity thanks to technology. However, we’re still living under the shadow of the Tower of Babel in terms of global human communication ease. Language remains a barrier in business and marketing. Even though technological devices can quickly and easily connect, humans from different parts of the world often can’t. And traditional translation service offerings simply cannot scale to the needs of the modern enterprise without leveraging technology in a substantial and competent way.

There are many cases where MT just makes sense for business translation needs, and it would be foolish to even attempt multilingual initiatives without competent MT technology as a foundation. Usually, this is true in situations that have some combination of the following factors:

  • A very large volume of source content that simply could not be translated without MT in any useful time frame.
  • A rapid turnaround requirement (days, hours or minutes) for the content to have any value to the people who need translations.
  • A user tolerance for lower quality translations at least in the early stages of information review.
  • A need for information and document triage to identify the highest quality content in cases that involve large collections of documents. (The triage process can also identify the documents that are so important that they need to be translated by people.)
  • Budget constraints that make the cost of traditional translation services unaffordable.

Related Article: Global Customer Experience Requires a Local Touch

Content-Driven Engagement

One can find this combination of requirements in several customer communications-oriented applications, like a technical support knowledge base, ecommerce product listings, customer service material and customer experience reviews for all kinds of products and service experiences. However, in an increasingly digital world, we see the need to be able to process large volumes of business content to identify what is most relevant and valuable for ongoing business needs as well.

So if we summarize key trends, we see the following:

  • A content explosion that makes huge amounts of information available to global customers to help them understand products and services on a scale that has never been seen before. Much of this content is out of the control of the modern enterprise, but yet it can deeply influence the behavior of potential and existing customers. Understanding what is most relevant and important is also becoming an increasingly valuable skill.
  • An era in which content is your best salesperson, with customers everywhere using digital content to make purchase decisions. To be relevant in the modern era, companies will need to be present at every stage of the buyer and customer journey, offering relevant and high-value content. Those that provide the best digital experience (DX) will thrive and prosper, and those that do not will struggle and fail.
  • Modern global customers who expect to get as much content and information in their native languages as their English-speaking counterparts around the world do. MT technology use will continue to evolve to support those needs. MT technology will continue to improve.

“[Mass machine translation] is not a translation of a work, per se, but it is rather, a liberation of the constraints of language in the discovery of knowledge.”

Peter Brantley, University of California, Davis

Thus, in this era of digital disruption, content-driven customer engagement and relationship-building, and global customers who want access to the same content that their English-speaking counterparts have, what are the leaders of a modern enterprise to do?

In light of the demands facing enterprises, it’s clear that these three skills will really matter in the future:

  • An understanding of what is relevant content within the deluge that every enterprise today faces.
  • An alignment of content development and management strategies, with efficient and optimized translation processes that enable the enterprise to quickly reach a global audience.
  • An understanding of emerging AI-based technologies that will help the enterprise rapidly evolve to the point where it has the ability to produce relevant content and establish a global digital presence so that relevant content is delivered to the right customers at the right time.

About the author

Kirti Vashee

Kirti Vashee is a Language Technology Evangelist at SDL who was formerly an Independent Consultant focusing on MT and Translation Technology. He was also with Asia Online (Omniscien), and was previously responsible for the worldwide business development and marketing strategy at SMT pioneer Language Weaver, prior to its acquisition (by SDL).