5 features of a truly collaborative translation platform

Almost all CAT tools today claim to be "collaborative". But do they live up to their claims? Let us find out what true collaborative translation means.

These days, content volumes are growing faster than ever, and “going global” is a major trend in many industries. But some localization customers feel that traditional LSPs are unable to easily tackle large and urgent projects. In need of a better solution, they turn their eyes to “crowd” translation platforms. Popping up like mushrooms, these claim to provide the “good new way” to localize.

Despite the obvious effects of hiring “crowds” for translation, such services provide something traditional LSPs cannot boast: They are quick, cheap, and easy to use. You click a button, and hundreds of hands start working on your job and get it done in no time. Alas, for many clients this is a fair tradeoff for the appalling quality they get as a result. Surely, this approach will backfire, but it might be too late to fix it.

So can “real” LSPs fight crowdsourcing platforms in their own territory? Can we provide a smooth and quick collaborative translation experience while keeping the quality plank high? In response to this challenge, almost any CAT platform today claims to be “collaborative.” But “collaboration” is a word that one can inflect in many ways, and one does. For instance, one can simply allow users to share translation memories and call that “collaboration.” One can make project managers spend hours splitting large files into “digestible” chunks and call that “collaboration.” Finally, one can have you pay a hundred dollars per each “collaborator,” and — you got it.

Is this really what we expect when we hear the word “collaboration”? Hardly. What we expect is something like Google Docs. We expect contributors to see each other’s work in real time. We expect them to be able communicate easily and in context. And we don’t expect them to go broke just for being there together.

Realtime collaborative translation in Smartcat

So when assessing a collaborative translation platform you have to see past the ads and find out how collaborative it really is. And here are five important features to look for.

1 — Interactive collaboration between translators

Many “collaborative” CAT tools require cutting large files into smaller parts to be distributed among translators. The project manager will have to make sure that each translator gets a relatively equal volume to work on.

In essence, each translator will be just working on their own part as if it were a separate project, without seeing each other’s work. Those who finish early will have to sit there idle, wasting the precious time you need for the project. Once finished, the project manager need to “glue” the files back together, wasting more time and bringing in human errors in the process.

In many cases, this makes the game not worth the candle. A truly collaborative translation platform rids you of the need to split or glue anything. You will just assign certain document parts to individual translators, and if someone finishes early, you will reassign more segments to them. Every translator will be able to see what others do and, if needed, bring attention to their mistakes or omissions (more on this later).

Recently, such an approach allowed one of Smartcat users — a middle-sized LSP actually — to translate nearly 500k words every day for several weeks straight. In “peak hours,” there were up to 100 translators working at the same time. And there was only one project manager handling the whole project!

2 — Collaborative translation and editing

Reducing work in progress a key principle in today’s project management paradigm. But in terms of translation, unedited work is such a work in progress! Let’s say, you are doing a 100,000-word project with the standard TEP (translate-edit-proofread) approach. If “T” costs you $0.10 per word, you have $10,000 worth of inventory before “E” and “P” are done. $10,000 of unfinished words lying there as some warehouse stock — not a small amount, is it? If the editor has to wait for “their turn,” a whole range of issues may arise:

  • The translator is busy with another assignment by the time the editor asks a question and cannot recall the subject in detail.
  • The editor finds an error after it has been replicated tens or hundreds of times in the document and has to correct them all.
  • An experienced editor may not have the flexibility to move from project to project as urgencies might require so.

Thus, the CAT tool must provide both horizontal and vertical collaboration. In other words, the editor must be able to start working on the document well before its translation is completed. The same goes for proofreading and any other stages you need. From Smartcat experience, such vertical collaboration alone can cut the delivery time almost twice.

3 — Context-specific communication

One thing that sets collaborative translation apart from mere crowdsourcing is the degree of communication between collaborators. In the latter, each “head in the crowd” doesn’t really care what the others are doing or thinking. In the former case, all translators make their contributions to the discussion, turning them into a synergetic whole.

Allowing many people to work together on a project is of no use if you can’t provide the right means for them to communicate. Otherwise, you have to either turn the manager into a “relay device” between various contributors, or let them interact on an external platform. The former is a waste of resources, the latter a loss of control, and both a hindrance to quality.

Thus, communication has to be built into your collaborative translation environment. Translators, editors and other participants must be able to discuss both the project in general and its specific parts in context. Smartcat users say that such context-specific commenting ability is one of the main quality drivers in the projects they do on the platform.

4 — On-demand scalability

You don’t always know in advance if a project will need scaling. Sometimes, a customer wants you to translate just a page on their website, but then realize that they need it in whole. Or request to translate to 10 other languages. Or their business grows unexpectedly and demands more localized content and a stronger localization partner.

Often, such demands have a “deadline yesterday” and give you no time to set up the whole “collaborative translation machine” from scratch. That’s why it’s important that your CAT tool allows you to scale when it is needed, as much as you need it, and with as little additional effort as possible. If you need a separate installation just to enable collaboration, you are wasting time you can’t afford wasting.

Ideally, there shouldn’t be such thing as “scaling” at all. If you need to translate more content, you just add files to the project. If you want more languages, you add languages. If you need more people, you just assign more of them. Ideally, the CAT tool should come with an easy access to freelancers who can readily work in it. The Smartcat marketplace, for instance, has provided many of our users with the capacity they needed when their own resources were insufficient.

5 — Affordable growth

One last (but not least!) thing to keep in mind is that collaborative translation can be costly. You might not notice this when you just start working, but the more you grow, the pricier it can get. This can be especially painful if you are a relatively small agency and cannot afford major investments. Then you are often left with no choice but to forfeit the job to a bigger vendor. And if you are big enough to afford such spendings, they will often be unproductive because you will not need the purchased licenses a lot of the time.

Therefore, pay close attention to the pricing tables. Most of them will have some sort of user-based licensing, but some won’t. In the latter category, many will be open-source, in which case it also makes sense to study the quality and support terms, which are pain points for this kind of software. (For the record, Smartcat is free and proprietary, with 24×7 support is provided to all users at no cost.)

We expect the importance and prevalence of collaborative translation to grow even faster in the years to come. As an LSP, you should face the challenges posed by the coming data tsunami now. Otherwise you might just end up washed away.

Good news is that you can still ride this wave. One thing you have to do is arm yourself with the right technology — such as Smartcat.