Why Are Standards Important?

And Why Are They Important in Translation?

Chain and gearsOnce upon a time, translation was made by “elevated experts”, who were presumed to know everything in another language and did their job in splendid isolation. Then globalization commenced and businesses stretched out for new markets worldwide. The demand for translation increased over the capacity of any individuals. The era of mass translation had begun.

In the pre-Internet era, clients were translating individual documents in a single language. But when the demand for multiple languages increased, along with the need to handle multiple projects for the same client, there came translation memories, content management, and single sourcing.

With the ultimate surge of the Internet in the past ten years, the global translation market has further changed and developed considerably, while globalization has brought a significant number of companies onto foreign markets. Businesses that never had to deal with foreign languages before have been suddenly finding themselves in great need of translation services.

Companies, as well as consumers, want the best products and services for the least cost. Standards play a critical role as they simplify product development and reduce non-value-adding costs. Standards increase users’ ability to compare competing products: they may establish size or shape or capacity of a product, process or system; they can specify performance of products or personnel and define terms so that there is no misunderstanding among users.

Standardization of components has led to mass production of automobiles. Standards help ensure that camera cards and batteries can be purchased anywhere in the world, that a light bulb fits a socket, and plugs for electrical appliances fit outlets, making work smoother and places safer.

Therefore, when a company is new to the foreign marketplace and has never dealt with translation before, it may be resting easy by selecting a translation company that lean on and is equipped with industry standards.

What Are Standards?

The Oxford Dictionary roughly defines a standard as a level of required or agreed quality or attainment, and something used as a measure, norm, or model in comparative evaluations. The Webster Dictionary defines standard as something established as a model or example by authority, custom, or general consent.

According to ISO (International Organization for Standardization), a standard is a document, established by a consensus of subject matter experts and approved by a recognized body, that provides guidelines on the design, use or performance of materials, products, processes, services, systems or persons.

In this respect, a standard’s goal is the achievement of the optimum degree of order in a given context.

Standards establish specifications and procedures designed to ensure the reliability of materials, products, methods, and/or services. Standards also establish consistent protocols that can be universally understood and adopted, thus fueling compatibility and interoperability, simplifying product development, and speeding time-to-market.

Standards are important as they should ensure quality and compatibility between buyers and providers, and allowing for accreditation and rating. They should also leave no space to guesswork, giving measurable assurances for critical business decisions. In fact, when successful, standardization leads to a decrease in costs, while adaptation leads to an increase in sales.

Standards and the Translation Industry

Standards apply to products, processes and management systems. Their value, especially as to products, is very clear to people in the real world.

So far, translation industry standards have concerned processes (DIN 2345 or ASTM F2575-06) and management systems (UNI 10574, ÖNORM D 1201, and EN 15038). In both cases, the main issue was quality, even though this concept remains mostly vague and subjective. Quality is a fiercely debated subject in every time, everywhere. Nonetheless, it is also a magical term: in Edward De Bono’s words, the term quality instantly explains everything and forbids further questioning.

In July 2003, the Translation Standards Institute (TSI) was established to develop and publish translation standards relating to a wide range of knowledge domains and applications. It was an academic effort, which in fact vanished five years later a few publications of no impact.

The weakness in the approach to standards becomes manifest when considering that, when announcing the release of ISO 12616, Translation-oriented terminography, ISO’s Communication Officer Elizabeth Gasiorowski-Denis declared that this was the first international standard for managing terminology in connection with the translation process, and that it was expected to result in an increase in performance and productivity for translators as well as improved text quality of translations. Has any of these expectations been confirmed since then?

The translation industry has actually produced no product standards, and failed in any effort to ensure quality in the translation product, since a general consensus on common requirements for any language services has not been reached. Therefore product standards focus only on data representation.

In addition, the translation industry still lacks translation quality metrics, development methodologies, and specification models, while an extensive cooperation of all players is necessary to maintain current standards.

Interoperability and Interchange

In a world with ever increasing amounts of data, data is more important than the application that created it. A document should be edited with an application that did not create the original data, and should be sent on to others who can continue editing it with other applications. This is called interoperability.

Interoperability requires fully understandable interfaces and unrestricted access to format specifications. Interoperability also requires that systems can automatically interpret the information exchanged meaningfully and accurately to produce useful results as defined by the end users of both systems. With respect to software, interoperability is the capability of different programs to exchange data via a common set of exchange formats, to read and write the same file formats, and to use the same protocols.

According to ISO/IEC 2382-01, Information Technology Vocabulary, Fundamental Terms, interoperability is the capability to communicate, execute programs or transfer data among various functional units in a manner that requires the user to have little or no knowledge of the unique characteristics of those units.

Briefly said, interoperability concerns important questions of power relationships.

Interchange is actually post-facto interoperability, and current translation industry standards actually deal only with data interchange. Nevertheless, the mess of standards often makes interchange hard even within the same product family without conversion, often lossy.

The failure to exchange translation memories and terminology in a standard format is not a matter of interoperability; the failure to integrate translation software with content and document management systems is.

In his most widely known book, Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan advocated that a medium itself, not the content it carries, should be the focus of study. The famous statement The medium is the message means that the form of a medium is embedded in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.

If the content is more important and more relevant than the container, only independence from formats (the container) could free content, and this independence can only be achieved with a general consensus on and respect of common specifications and guidelines. In short, through standards.


The translation industry is using a large palette of technologies. Some (like translation memory technology) are obsolete. Translation technologies should  be interoperable, since no technology can pretend to cover all needs and be ever-lasting. To this end, translation standards should be open, although this is in contrast with the current trend. The industry counts much too many technology providers that are also service providers, in a permanent conflict of interests.

Standardization is needed in data representation and in content creation. Data should be available for further processing by other machines and programs. Data should also be possibly merged, connected, and combined on the broadest scale. Sometimes, data may describe other data, and for data to be machine processed, we need an unambiguous and common model to access, connect, and describe them.

Does any superior, independent entity exist in the translation industry to enforce any standard whatsoever? Definitely not. Even GALA’s new effort is flawed for the same approach as LISA’s, which cannot lead to anything new nor significant.

When de jure standards miss their goal, de facto standards prevail. The world is actually dominated by de facto standards such as the MP3 audio format, the QWERTY layout of keyboards, the 1/2-inch (12.7 mm) spacing of the rollers in a bicycle chain, etc.

To better understand the importance of standards, not only for the translation industry, let’s take the impact that the new Apple’s iBooks project could have on the ebook industry.

Using a mining metaphor, we could redefine Apple’s project as shovels for pyrite seekers, in which no-standard shovels are sold to seekers to have them, spontaneously, sift through the empty spaces within the property of the shovel maker, who thrives on prospections made where there would be no reason to seek.

The iBooks project aims at profiting at the expenses of authors and publishers, who are asked to pay huge fees to fill an empty library without being able to sell their books elsewhere.

Right now, the existing incompatibilities between the various e-book formats require a new layout of the same book for each format in which it is to be delivered, having the choice of a format be based on the size of the prospective market.

Therefore, the absence of de jure standards leaves a big chance for victory not to the best format, but to the one that is best marketed, as the Betamax vs. VHS story has shown.

The obstructionism of the major translation technology providers cannot but slow down the evolution of the entire industry. Another major issue that could be at least partially solved by standards is transparency in the offering of services. Transparency depends on good communications between customers and providers, which can be made clearer with the use of a set of mutually recognized standards.

Therefore, once again, standards will come from outside the industry, to face the inconsistencies, weakness, and insubstantiality even of the major players. The forces that need and demand real easy data flow/interchange are stronger than any of the industry’s standards players, tools vendors, and experts.

It is not a coincidence that the founders and/or owners of the major or emerging companies in the industry do not come from translation. They have possibly a degree in finance, and a master in business administration like Michael Meinhardt of Cloudwords, who says that translation service providers often enjoy a scarcely transparent environment, while customers would like to have transparency. Transparency gives providers a better insight into their customers’ processes and to buyers a better measure of the value of the services they are buying.

Innovation through Commoditization

Commoditization is a major effect of the surge of the Internet and globalization. The translation industry has been unable to anticipate it and was overwhelmed. Commoditization is helped by indifferentiation and subsequent competition based on prices. Standards could help customers to compare competing products and providers to differentiate on a clear basis, thereby leading eventually to a transparent offering.

On the other hand, the industry’s commoditization of statistical machine translation is one of the most significant and far-reaching innovations, moving value creation into adjacent components and services.

Data is crucial to create high-quality machine translation solutions for specific industries/companies and language pairs, and cleanness is as important as volume. Translation memories that have been collected over the years are an invaluable source of data. In this respect interoperability is crucial to ensure scalability and easy integration of machine translation solutions into translation processes and workflows.

The new frontier of translation industry is in the preparation and cleaning of data for machine translation. Are the industry players ready?

Conclusion: the “As If” Approach

In Letters to a young contrarian, Christopher Hitchens described the dissident’s approach as inspired by Vaclav Havel’s proposed living “as if” things were actually and radically different from what were.

So why not try to act, with all due respect, as Oscar Wilde, who lived and acted “as if” moral hypocrisy were not regnant, or as Rosa Parks, who acted “as if” a hardworking black woman could sit down on a bus at the end of the day’s labor?

Translation industry players, at least the Elite, those who decide to act in the name of those who are not able or have no voice to speak, could act “as if” standards were on the ground, defined and effective. They might refuse to genuflect before the industry golems, make their choice with tools and fees, and join forces to be stronger instead of dividing and weakening, desperately seeking for a job or a client, and allowing the golems to eat them in one gulp.