Should you be using an online translation service?

The translation industry is changing rapidly. One of the biggest drivers for change is Machine Translation (MT) technology which has entered the mainstream. 10 years ago nobody would have considered using MT in a real-work scenario. But now some translation companies are using MT in their production process, providing their customers with post-edited MT. Some customers are even using MT themselves and bypassing traditional translation service providers.

Another development which may change the translation industry is the emergence of online translation companies. Companies like Babylon, Gengo and OneHourTranslation (OHT) provide a fully automated ordering system. Customers can order translations online 24/7 without speaking to agents, completing the order process using a credit card. And at cheaper prices than translation agencies. Everyone has used (or at least knows about) online travel systems like Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz. Before these systems were available, people would contact their travel agent for booking airline travel, using an inefficient and time-consuming process. The online travel systems have decimated the travel agency model. Will the online translation services have a similar impact on the traditional translation agency model?

The short answer, in my opinion, is no. Firstly, billions of dollars have gone into developing online travel systems, but I don’t see how online translations will attract the same level of investment. Moreover, translation is a much more complex product than air travel with many more parameters. There are many kinds of file types; different regional language requirements; data security issues. And although human beings are the ones flying the planes and manning the air traffic controls, air travel itself is a mechanized service. Translation on the other hand is entirely done by humans and is therefore not nearly as homogeneous as air travel. If two different people travel from New York to Berlin on two different planes, the end result is exactly the same. But give the same text to two different translators and you will often get very different results.

So should you be using an online translation service? Well it depends. Using these services is good in some scenarios and less advisable in others. We have tried out some of these services at GTS and I would like to share the experiences with you.

Minimum order policy. Most translators and translation companies have a minimum order policy. Translation prices are usually per-word, but what if a customer only needs to translate 50 words? Traditional translation agencies will not process an order for $7.50 because of overhead costs-the profit on the $7.50 job does not cover the costs and the translation company will lose money on the order. So they impose a minimum order. But the online services have no minimum order policy, so if you only need 50 words then you will only pay a few dollars. If you have very small orders then I recommend the online translation services. This also pertains to translation agencies themselves, who can benefit by using the online services in certain scenarios.

Reliability. If you need an urgent translation and can’t allow any delays, I would not recommend using the online services. They do not guarantee on-time delivery and are prone to adjusting the delivery time mid-course. The delivery times that they post are estimated and they reserve the right to change them. If you absolutely must have that court document in time for the hearing at 9AM, I would recommend that you contact a translation agency that you trust.

Translation Quality. I found the quality of these services to be inconsistent. Not to say that they provide poor quality. But when you order from a translation agency, a Project Manager looks at the material and assigns the work to the most suitable people. Care and attention to detail go into the work and into the quality control process. It is difficult to replicate that process in an online system that processes hundreds of orders a day. Translators are selected based on availability and selection is done using computer algorithms. A PM will do a better job than an algorithm when doing the job assignments.

Obscure Languages. As we all know there are hundreds of languages spoken in the world. And there are thousands of languages pairs that people need to translate. Getting translations in French, German, Chinese and Spanish is fairly easy because there are thousands of translators in these pairs. But what about getting translations in Lithuanian? Estonian? Maltese? Icelandic? When you order relatively obscure languages from an online service, it may take a long time to get your work. And I would not vouch for the quality, since the online service probably has very few translators for these languages in their database. Besides, why would I want to order a translation in Estonian from an online service in Japan? What added value will they provide?

No cash refunds and no money back. Once the online services charges your credit card, your money is gone forever. Even if you cancel your order, the most that they will do is issue a credit. But no cash refunds. And if your are unhappy with the quality of the work, tough luck. Most translation agencies only collect their fee after the work is delivered and offer a money-back guarantee if the work is not done to the satisfaction of the customer.

Have you used an online translation service? Please tell us what you think by leaving a comment.

10 things I don’t like about

Proz is the leading web portal for translators. And there are a lot of good things about their website. But when you’re the biggest you should expect lots of noise from the public-it goes with the territory. I personally have some gripes about them which I am going to air right here and now.

As part of the introduction to this post, I would like to say that we used to use Proz extensively and for years. But we had several disappointing incidents. One incident that I recall in particular was a large project that we needed in Norwegian. One translator promised a 30 day delivery schedule and despite many confirmation emails and phone conversations, did not deliver the project and (as it turned out) never even started it. She was a liar! I reported this to Henry at Proz but as far as I know, nothing was done about it and the same translator is still offering her services on Proz. At GTS, we have our own database for freelance translators. We have several thousand translators in the database and we post new jobs on a regular basis to our own internal list. We get better results from our own list, and without the bureaucracy of Proz.

Here is my list of grievances:

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Google Translate API Casualties. A partial list

On December 1, 2011 Google shut down the free version of its Translate API (v1) and informed that all users would have to switch over to the paid Translate API version (V2). As many of us have anticipated, this ended the party for many companies that enjoyed free translation services. Here is a partial list of websites/products that have discontinued free translation services to at least some extent.

  • Ackuna, the Cloud Translator. The website is still there but the free translation has not been working in the last 24 hours. (Ackuna is owned by Translation Services USA, see next on the list).
  • Translation Services USA. This company switched over to the Microsoft Translator API so some of the languages work. But some of the languages (like Welsh and Yiddish) which Microsoft does not support are not working.
  • Ortsbo. This company also switched over to the Microsoft Translator API and some languages work. But some of the languages don’t work even though they remain as menu selection options.
  • Lingo24. This company has discontinued its free online translation services.
  • This company has discontinued its free online translation services.
  • ToLingo. This company has discontinued its free online translation services.
  • Transperfect Transimage. This is an iPhone app developed by Transperfect which ran on the Google Translate API. It no longer works. I am betting that there are more free translation apps for smartphones that no longer work.

There are also a lot of websites that used free widgets that were powered by Google Translate V1 or that used scripts that called the deprecated API. You will be able to see some of them by doing a search on “Unable to perform Translation: Please use Translate v2.” Google terms this as a Terms of Service Abuse, click here for more details.


Cinderella night for Google Translate API Users

Anyone remember the Y2K scare? For months leading up to the new millennium, the news media brought us lurid predictions of the havoc which would be wreaked by the Y2K effect. Would planes fall out of the sky? Would the pumps at the gas stations stop working? The power grid? Would the bank computers know how much money we have? Lots of people, myself included, were worried and waited in anticipation for the clock to strike midnight on 1.1.2000.

Why am I bringing this up? Well tonight may be doomsday for developers who built applications around the Google Translate API, and users of those applications. In it’s announcement last May, Google announced that it would be terminating its free Translate API service.

 The courtesy limit for existing Translate API v2 projects created prior to August 24, 2011 will be reduced to zero on December 1, 2011. In addition, the number of requests your application can make per day will be limited. Google Translate API v1 will be shut off completely on the same date (December 1, 2011).

So tonight is the night. Just like in the story of Cinderella, the fair maiden must leave by midnight or be revealed as a chambermaid. But will she leave a glass slipper behind? Will the prince be able to find the fair maiden with the only foot to fit the slipper?

What will happen to all of the applications that run on the free Google translations? Will the translations stop working? Will we start to see a Google message that says “this website needs a different google api key” (like it does for Google Maps)? Will the developers who switched to the Microsoft Translator API need to discontinue some of the languages (since Google has some language pairs that Microsoft does not). Will some developers start to charge money for automatic translation services? I’ll be on the lookout for answers to these questions and I hope you will too. Please report anything you see.

Another issue I am interested in is security. Now that Google is charging for use of its API, will hackers try and target the API? A blog post I just saw warns against this very eventuality. Will some clever developer find a way to spam the (still) free Google translation website and mine the translations for free? Will Google be able to clamp down on this? These are questions which will be interesting to learn more about as the events unfold.

Can Transperfect save Worldlingo?

In translation industry news: Transperfect is continuing its shopping spree by acquiring Worldlingo, the company that pioneered the Internet translation industry (read the news here).

Worldingo was founded in the late 1990s by Australian Phil Scanlan, an independently wealthy and very shrewd business person. Mr. Scanlan did a few things that caused Worldlingo to prosper. He purchased a Systran Enterprise Server 5 system and started selling machine translation solutions for websites years before anyone had even dreamed about doing it. He gave away free website translation widgets that linked back to the Worldlingo site. This gave Worldlingo number 1 ranking in nearly every keyword phrase associated with translation. And he made a deal with Microsoft that integrated Worldingo into every Microsoft Office product software license so when someone asked for translation from Microsoft Word, for example, they received the free translation from Worldlingo.

All of this gave Worldlingo total domination of the search engines for years. And they made a ton of money. But since then a few things have happened: (1) Phil Scanlan left Worldlingo in pursuit of other endeavors. (2) Microsoft dumped Worldlingo in favor of their own MT which is now integrated in MS Office. (3) Google and Microsoft offer free translation widgets so who needs Worldingo for that? (4) Worldlingo stagnated with outdated Systran 5 technology and left it there for years. Only about 2 years ago did they integrate Language Weaver into their website. (5) Many new companies have started to resell MT solutions and Worldlingo is now just one of several in the field. (6) Worldlingo has been dropping like crazy in the search engine rankings and is continuing to lose ground. And Worldlingo lives on Internet traffic.

Which leads us to Transperfect. What are they buying? MT technology? Worldlingo does not have any proprietary MT technology that I know of and licenses software from MT vendors. Customers? Customer loyalty in the online world is fickle (how can you be loyal to a website?). Worldlingo does have a very snazzy online ordering system. But they now face stiff competition from other online translation companies like Babylon and MyGengo. The software solutions they are selling for website translation are outdated and now face stiff competition from companies like ToLingo and Smartling.

The main asset which Transperfect is buying, in my opinion, is a (still) strong online presence. Something that Transperfect is lacking. The question is: will Transperfect breath new life into Worldlingo? Will they integrate new technology which will revive the website and make it a dominant player in face of all the new competition? Will they pump in funds to improve the site in face of the growing competition in the online translation world? Will they be able to help Worldlingo stop their online decline?

Transperfect’s acquisition policy, to the best of my knowledge, is to let the management continue to do their own thing after the deal has been made. The big question is: will that save Worldlingo?