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22/09/2010

By Robert Etches (Denmark)

Snap shots from a conference

What is GALA?
The translation and localization industry is one of the most fragmented in the world, the ten largest companies not even accounting for 25% of global turnover. Nine times out of ten, clients select a national provider, which means they rule out many excellent options due to the very language and cultural barrier they are paying us to overcome. Translation agencies are often founded by linguists who turn into businessmen and women, rather than vice versa, which means their companies are run with a high degree of subjectivity rather than cold business acumen.

GALA (Globalization and Localization Association) is an attempt to bring together these many actors, both clients and translators, to discuss shared challenges and to try and map out a future for an industry that wakes up every day to the fact that translation is viewed as a cost, not an asset.


Who was there?
I was once informed that running a translation agency in Western Europe was akin to working for a philanthropic organisation that devoted its time and energy to helping other businesses free of charge. The chances of making money were certainly minimal. And yet, despite this, hundreds of us get up every day and do just that. Many of us had found our way to Prague to heatedly discuss the ways of the translation world with all our similarly passionately engaged colleagues from around the world. It was a forum buzzing with energy and passion, which left one thinking that the world would be a better place with a larger number of linguists in it!

EICOM participated as one of the members of LETS Communicate, a European Economic Interest Grouping comprised of like-minded translation agencies in Belgium, Demark, German and Sweden. We had a modest stand and enjoyed more than our fair share of attention, no doubt because our Belgian colleague, Dimitri Stoquart, is also a member of the GALA board and seemed to know everyone.

Other than us, there were approximately 200 buyers and sellers of translation services busily networking and discussing everything from crowdsourcing to content authoring. In line with the times, everything was covered by Twitter, if nothing else to help those whose arrival was postponed by Icelandic volcanic ash, which was once again causing delays in the European air space.


Jargonese and KISS
English language imperialism (as opposed to the British Empire type of same) is an issue at most conference the world over, i.e. the organisers are often English speaking and expect everyone else to understand even the most complicated of speeches. But GALA Prague also taught me that even ex-patriots like myself are left second-guessing when speakers switch from English to Jargonese. Acronyms fly through the air and the lix count just grows and grows …

One little corner of the language debate: the American infatuation with alliteration in business book titles, conference programmes, and presentations. There weren’t too many this time round (Risks and Rewards, Collaborative Content; and Moravia’s Million Mistakes), though Don DePalma saved the day for me by having one slide with five key words starting with "V"!

I also had to smile at the thought of an audience consisting of perhaps as much as 85% CEOs and other directors used to people listening to them, sitting there and basically having to keep quiet. We’re used to voicing our opinions, whether we know what we’re talking about or not, so it was no doubt good for many an ego to sit quietly and, if nothing else, surreptitiously answer a few emails. Perhaps one of the main lessons learnt from such conferences for we ‘masters of commerce’ is to Keep It Simple Stupid. Certainly, those speakers who didn’t were rapidly fighting a losing battle to retain our attention.

Two examples: the Tuesday plenary debate on Machine Translation (MT) and Wednesday’s on Collaborative Content.

MT is now beyond the nerdy stage and the level of interest reflected this. There were also some direct points of view put forward (fore and against) with Dion Wiggins (Asia Online) and Gordon Husbands (Wordbank) leading the way to even getting the attention of those delegates who had been enjoying excesses of Czech pilsner the night before. Here we were subjected to very little jargon, but rather a relevant debate and some hard facts. No-one who was there was in any doubt afterwards that, like it or not, every translation provider had to go home and draw up a strategy for and prepare a reasoned answer to customer enquiries in this field.

At the opposite end of the scale was the Collaborative Content debate, which I’m still not sure was about. GALA Chairman Hans Fenstermacher knew he was on a hiding to nothing from the word go, as he spent 20 minutes introducing his two speakers and trying to drum up some enthusiasm. But the fact of the matter is that the subject matter at best didn't seem to be relevant to 98% of the audience. What aspects of the looong 90 minutes were we meant to take home with us and implement? Were we to invest in analysis tools to link up to Tweeter, Facebook and LinkedIn to learn how our clients want to order and process translation? I think not. It was simply too far divorced from our daily work to be worth our while.

Which is, by the way, a major factor that has to be borne in mind when planning a conference of this sort. The industry is still comprised of literally thousands of small language providers for whom participation in a conference is going to happen once, max. twice a year. That’s all we can afford – and I’m thinking more of the time than money.

As such the professional organisations of which we are a part, need to cater to our needs: what's just around the corner (e.g. MT); what trends should we be introducing into our companies or helping establish at our customers (e.g. authoring and integration projects); what potential partners are there out there who can help us provide our customers with professional services in new markets? And what about the many language service providers (LSPs) who are primarily Single Language Vendors (SLVs) only providing services to the large Multi-lingual Vendors (MLVs)? Was there even one topic of debate aimed at discussing the whys and wherefores of this incredibly important relationship?

For the great majority of LSPs there is something completely surreal about hearing that SAP translates half a billion words a year. We have some really nice, loyal clients who provide us with turnovers of 5,000-10,000 euro a year, and having been doing so for decades. Their translation is also important.

I realize that it is hard to strike a balance between CEOs advocating that we fire all our translators and replace them with salesmen, and CEOs that kept an excess of staff during the financial crisis of 2009 because good translators are hard to find and we'd rather lose money short-term than let down our customers and staff long-term. But I'm sure GALA is working on it!


Wheeling and dealing
The most exciting facet of these events is the networking in the corridors. There are just as many ways of doing this as there are people attending, but it was fascinating to be a part of it (and benefit from it) – and of course to stand back and admire colleagues ‘in action’. A few caveats from the conference: Ann-Marie Colliander (Common Sense Advisory) playing the floor with a discreteness and subtlety many of us could learn from; Indra Samite (Tilde) making the most of every minute – on Wednesday, when most people were worse for wear, Indra was already well into her first meeting in the foyer at 08:30; or Dimitri Stoquart (Stoquart) as laid back as only he can be – most people seemed to know Dimitri and wanted to shake his hand to make sure they too can retain the services of such a highly respected French SLV.

Others were desperately keen to sell their message and obviously not too interested in hearing what their fellow participants had on offer. Oh how we were all weighed and no doubt found wanting by our colleagues!


Dress code
I wondered whether the level of relaxed dress code was proportionate to one’s level of success. Arturo Quintero (Moravia) couldn’t have been more casually dressed, and remains as relaxed and accessible as he always has been. I credit it to the time he spent living in Denmark – the only Danes that wear suits are bankers, lawyers or worse.

Felt somewhat sorry for my good friends at SDL Trados, which appears to have a very strict dress code. Strange when their CEO comes from Manchester (I sort of do as well), a city I don't equate with that sort of look and feel. So, let them wear jeans and T-shirts next time, Lancaster. It will work wonders!

Got caught out myself, actually. Had the distinct impression that we were meant to ‘dress up’ for the GALA dinner Monday evening, and found myself wearing pin-striped trousers, jacket and a tie pretty much for the first time since leaving boarding school back in 1977! Things got only worse when I borrowed an umbrella from the hotel, as it looked like rain. All of a sudden, and much to the amusement of my colleague Udo Leinhäuser (Leinhäuser und Partner), I looked like a stereotyped British gentleman, rather than ex-Goa hippie and current hobby organic farmer. Oh well, if you can't laugh at yourself ...


Conference highlights, lowlights, and what was missing
The speed networking session was extremely popular. Remember all those directors who have to sit and listen? Here was their chance to talk! Next time round there should be some be structured workshops where we can share ideas and tell about our products. Most of the speakers avoided plugging their own products, but there is a real need to provide forums where it is OK to strut one's stuff. Attendees then know that there's an element of sales involved and can handle what they hear accordingly. Let's not forget the ad hoc workshops that happened in Prague. I heard good feedback about these, so next time GALA could perhaps make attendees more aware of this option.

The machine translation plenary and debate worked well. It was relevant, and participants were prepared to risk playing Devil's Advocate for the sake of the debate. The other two debates were, in my mind, simply not relevant enough for the industry. The crowdsourcing was interesting as such, but as mentioned above, the 90 minutes of Collaborative Content was not the way to use 50% of the time available on our last day.

Reinhard Schäler’s Localization from the bottom up, was as brave as it gets. Could see that Reinhard almost took a deep breath before embarking upon his efforts to get us to translate – gratis! Think he also managed to say the word ‘intolerable’ 5-6 times and those present could only agree with his message of the need to help the needy. Nice coincidence, by the way, that the latest number of ITI’s Bulletin magazine, lends its cover to the same debate.

Eva Klaudinyova’s (VMware, Inc.) Who do you think you are? gave vendors and other clients (though 80% vendors) an opportunity to see the world from the other side of the table. Some of the questions as indeed some of the answers were a bit obtuse, but I was nevertheless surprised to see so few take the chance to try and understand how our clients think. The classic chain is client -> vendor -> translator, where the translator complains about the vendor and the vendor complains about the client (or is that the other way round!). But any sort of mutual partnership (anywhere in the ‘food chain’) has to be based on mutual respect, and for that we have to be better at understanding each other. One reaction that surprised me: vendors were asked if they had ever fired a client. The general answer was no, we just put up our prices or provide poor service. Just think if that was the translators' attitude to us? Or, still worse, that our clients squeezed us out without telling us. How we would howl!

Bob Donaldson’s (Carson Strategy Group) and Robinson Kelly’s (Clay Tablet Technologies) What the technology companies won’t tell you was a mixed blessing. The subject, integrating localization data into our clients’ other workflows, is absolutely central to the future of our industry (I'd have liked to have seen this as a plenary debate and/or a workshop discussion), but I felt that the guys, while saying it was essential, also made it more complicated than it really is. If a small company like my own can do it, then I’m sure many others can as well.

Tom Smith’s (SDL Trados) Efficient Content Authoring was another presentation that was spot on the money. Linking authoring to translation is one of the biggest practical issues that we need to address in the years ahead, especially as machine translation starts playing a larger role. I’d have also liked to have seen a workshop on this subject and heard how my colleagues around the world are tackling it. Integrating systems, including authoring tools, are ways in which we can create a lot of real new value for our clients. And integration is all about long-term relationships and mutual respect, as opposed to price bashing and passing the buck.

What was missing? I’d have liked to hear about ways in which my colleagues are tackling the trend that sees more and more text data being stored in databases (CRMs, ERPs, CMSs, etc.) and sent to us in small 'bits' with very little or no context. How do we help our translators; how do we help the client proofreaders; how do we throw the approved data back into the database – and how do we ensure that translation memories are wholly in line with said database so that next time round 100% hits reflect what’s in the database? In other words, real hands-on 'stuff' that LSPs can use in the daily running of their businesses. Perhaps in fact, over and above the presentations and plenary debates, GALA should be enhancing its role as a forum facilitator (there’s that alliteration again!), allowing companies to present solutions. With over a hundred company owners collected together with nothing to do but discuss how they run their businesses, it should be possible to run ten workshops where 2-3 people could make shorts presentation (10 minutes) and then open up for discussions, rather than the 5 minutes made available at the end of most of the presentations in Prague.

But … not too much GALA bashing either! All-in-all, a successful conference. No doubt about that. GALA is proving itself a dynamic organisation capable of bringing together a critical mass of clients and LSPs. This bodes well for its future, and should act as a wakeup call to other industry organisations that have perhaps rested too long on their laurels. Doubt whether I’ll make it across the Pond to the next American-based conference, but pencil me in for the Lisbon conference in 2011.

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Category: STATE OF THE INDUSTRY

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