I’m often asked about the benefits of having an internal linguistic team at a software company. Here’s why I think having one is absolutely invaluable within a tech environment, but definitely at one where agility matters, and especially when using a CI/CD model. If you’re in a company where all of your teams are moving fast and making changes frequently, an internal linguistic team becomes critical to success.
“Write what you know” is the golden advice given to writers, but it applies for translators too. The more expertise you have in a subject, the greater your ability to produce a fantastic translation. In-house employees know how the product works. They can log in and use it. They’re aware of the details of the company’s messaging and mission, and importantly, how it changes every day. They’re immersed in the materials and terminology in the target language every day. How they translate is naturally going to be far more aligned with the brand voice, resonating better, and driving the best results. Ultimately, what this means is that your customers, your audience, your community, your fans — and anyone who consumes the content your company puts out that this team touches — is bound to have a higher-quality experience.
Language service providers (LSPs) will naturally argue that they can achieve similar quality, but with a caveat. This quality can be obtained, if and only if the customer is willing to do a ton of work to “feed” the LSP with lots of feedback. The customer will need to devote their constrained time to train their linguists, provide ongoing feedback, and constantly help them get up to speed. For many companies, that’s simply too much work, and it’s not realistic in a highly agile, CI/CD environment. Often, the time you have to spend retraining and updating vendors becomes overwhelming, leading to tremendous inefficiencies and creating a bottleneck in the process.
LSPs are in a difficult position, because if customers won’t go to this level of trouble to train them and constantly retrain them on their content, they really can’t deliver the highest quality. Also, they usually don’t pay linguists for training; they pay them using a per-word model only. But customers are often in a bad situation too, because LSPs swap out linguists in the supply chain whom they’ve invested in training. Companies without internal linguistic teams are often none the wiser when this happens, but more sophisticated consumers of translation services, those with in-house teams, can see a new translator on their account from a million miles away!
Ability to Scale
You can’t train external vendors in your brand voice without having in-house experts who can gauge whether those vendors are able to deliver high quality. At some companies, this work is relegated to marketers, who simply don’t have time for that work. Internal linguists alleviate that burden for marketing teams, so they can focus on… ummm… marketing!
What happens when marketers are too busy to train external vendors? They will either take on more work to do this themselves (bad use of their time), deal with major review burden and fix every mistake themselves (not scalable) accept sub-par quality from vendors out of desperation (bad for the customer experience). Otherwise, they cannot launch their campaigns on time and make progress (bad for business). The trade-offs here are not insignificant. Marketing productivity is critical, and I believe localization teams play a huge role in “marketing enablement” much in the same way sales enablement teams drive sales productivity. This isn’t a topic most companies tend to think about, but this is the way I conceptualize it.
There are systems that it’s not wise for external vendors to access, ever, where content must be stored and published — for that reason alone, having internal linguists is a must. There are protocols that internal employees all need to be trained in when it comes to how to handle content. Internal employees will be trained on all of this, while external vendors simply adopt their own rules and often will sign agreements the client asks them to do so.
The problem is in the localization industry that the supply chain includes many, many freelancers and individuals. While I’m a huge fan of freelancers, the reality is that most LSPs do not heavily regulate what those freelancers are doing, where they are storing things, who they are sending it to, and who might be working behind them in a cafe and see what’s on their screen. Those individuals haven’t been trained in the company’s security practices and might not know how risky some of their behavior could be for the end client company.
Data protection and privacy laws also must be complied with. There is sometimes sensitive information that must be translated internally, to ensure it doesn’t leave the walls of a company before a PR/comms team gives the final word. There are at times topics of a legal nature that perhaps a company would prefer not to send ex-house. For all of these reasons, internal linguists play a vital and critical role at any tech company that takes security seriously.
Quick-turn needs are a reality of most SaaS companies and any with a CI/CD backbone today. Often, a single line needs to be translated into all languages, sometimes within just hours or minutes. Thousands of deploys daily means everything changes frequently. You simply cannot get the agility from an external vendor that you can get from an in-house team, especially not if you care about high quality, and guaranteed access, anytime, to trained linguists operating with vetted and secured systems, who know your business and brand deeply. Internal linguists can respond quickly, in real-time during their workday. The dependency on a localization supply chain of third parties slows everything down immensely, and isn’t suited for many projects, especially short and quick-turn ones.
Here’s an example: a product launch campaign is about to go live with a send to fifty thousand customers, but at the last minute, an important header on the landing page the email points to needs to be changed, as it was flagged by legal as problematic. The header is only six words long in English. What can you do if you don’t have an internal team to help?
- Delay the launch. If you don’t have an internal linguistic team, you can call your vendor for help. If you’re lucky, the vendor might be able to get these translations back to you by the following day, delaying the launch globally, because the languages you need are spread across many time zones. But there is no guarantee that they’ll be high quality or that your normal freelancers on your account will be available on such short notice. Plus, you’ll likely have to pay a rush fee for each language. The big problem here isn’t simply that people are sitting around waiting on localization. The real problem is that your company is missing out on potential leads and revenue for each and every passing day that you cause a delay! While there is some improvement to be gained in up-front planning, the reality is that at highly agile companies, long planning windows that give everyone the luxury of a long line of sight are often simply unrealistic.
- Utilize other resources poorly. More commonly, this situation induces the “internal translation scramble.” Marketers will be asked to provide the translations, but if those marketers are not available for some reason, the marketer in charge will start to ask around for people on other teams (CS, Sales, etc) to “play translator” for the day and help out. This actually devalues the work of translators, making people think anyone who speaks another language can do it, and also making people frustrated that the localization team can’t help fast enough. What’s worse is, the opportunity cost incurred by those marketers. How many leads could they be generating instead of doing unexpected linguistic QA work? It’s a horrible waste of their time!
What’s the end result of all this? Localization teams get blamed. Why did the marketers or others internally have to drop everything and scramble? Because localization couldn’t help. Why did the launch get delayed? Because localization couldn’t turn it around fast enough. In other words, not having an internal team means that localization is even more likely to be scapegoated. And if you ask me, while it stinks, part of this blame is actually fair! Because it’s our job as localization team members to support the company’s needs, and if we’re not able to provide that level of agility, we are truly failing our company, and we need to seek to do better!
Let’s all sit with that one for a second. It’s hard to hear. Localization folks often take on a victim mentality and think, “But it’s not my fault, we sit downstream!” or “We can barely get any headcount as it is, how can we lobby for an internal team?” What I would urge you is to never engage in that line of thinking, and instead, to ask yourself what you can do instead. To truly listen to your stakeholders and try to solve the problems they’re shouting about.
My take is that where many localization teams fail is that they haven’t tried hard enough to build relationships around the company, or to build a strong business case, and haven’t taken their thinking to the next level to solve this business problem. It’s never as simplistic as “It’s not my fault!” or “There is nothing we can do about it.” There is always something you can do to help change things. Advocating for internal resources requires building new muscles and looking at things from a very different lens than the one we are usually trained to use in the localization profession.
Also, localization is a niche. We can be insular at times. It’s easy for us to fall back into our comfortable (but sometimes outdated) ways of thinking about how problems are solved in our industry, which we have to admit, are merely an outcome of past ways of doing things, especially waterfall development days, which are quickly becoming a thing of the past (or simply never existed in the first place, in newer companies.) If the overall development model for software has been changing, how are WE changing accordingly as an industry? I believe in-house teams are a key part of the new and more modern system that has to exist to map to CI/CD realities.
If you have an in-house team, you can more easily pivot in a variety of situations, but importantly (and especially right now in the current economic climate), you can move resources around during times when you need to spend less externally, to help make your Finance stakeholders and your internal budgetary owners happy.
Here are some reasons I think in-house resources actually enable major flexibility in terms of cost control and flexibility of spending:
- Project management fees disappear. When you do projects internally, you can set up smart systems with automation to ensure that minimal project management burden is required. This means that you’re not double-paying for both external and internal project management. Let’s assume for a small quick-turn job, for a very simple example, you’d have to pay $100 which is broken down as $30 of profit for your agency, $20 for a rush fee, and $50 which goes to the translators. With an in-house team, it might take only a few minutes of a PM’s day (no additional program spend), and you’re saving on both the profit margin plus the rush fee. Obviously, this is why you don’t want to use internal linguistic resources for every single type of job, but for small, quick-turn jobs, the cost savings are obvious.
- Per-word models don’t map to value. Not all words matter equally, so let’s be real about it. If there is a single sentence or even just one word on a call-to-action button, a good translation versus a bad one could literally affect thousands of conversions, meaning hundreds of customers, meaning many tens of thousands of dollars in revenue for your company, or perhaps hundreds of thousands over the long term, depending on how long that campaign lives, how many leads it generates, and so on. Are you really going to pretend that word is worth only 20 cents per language when it could influence thousands of dollars in revenue? Having internal linguists means you can deploy those resources on the content that matters most, and ideally that’s closest to revenue impact.
- Teams need spending flex. It takes people to spend money. If your company is doing well, and your sales teams over-perform, you might actually need to use localization as a convenient place to invest due to a quarterly surplus. While this isn’t often talked about, it’s a reality for companies at various phases of growth. If you have both an internal team and external team, you have more flexibility to ride the waves, and can likely spend more when you need to, ironically, because you’ll have the internal resources to carry out quality control even on untested and newbie vendors who might not yet be able to deliver large volumes at high quality.
- Internal team reputation matters. If as a localization team, if you constantly have to say “oh let me ask our vendor,” people will naturally wonder why they don’t just work directly with the vendor instead of working with your team. If vendors are your only line of defense to lean on especially during high-stress or high-impact moments, and it’s not clear what value you are actually adding, this can make you look weak and like you are not fully in control of the resources and initiatives you manage. Not many people know that localization vendor management is an art and science in and of itself. Having an internal team is one way to take back control! If you have an internal team, you’ll have more options than just being at the mercy of your vendors. You really need both to have a flexible system, but you cannot rely on just one or the other too heavily.
Relationships are fundamental, and I believe this to be the biggest and most overlooked benefit of internal linguistic teams. Every single person in a linguistic-focused role on your team is not only a “linguistic resource” but of even greater value to a localization team, an additional human relationship-builder within your company. If you hire people who speak the languages of your key focus countries, they will naturally work closely with the other people driving growth in their regions. They’ll be viewed as an integral part of those geo-specific teams, and an extension of them, and a key enabler of their go-to-market execution.
Localization teams get pulled in a lot of different directions. They need to be connected across functions and geographies. I believe one key reason localization teams get siloed and buried within companies is simply that no one can be everywhere at once. No matter how flexible you are with your schedule, there are lots of time zones, lots of cultures, lots of functional leaders to build relationships with, and overall, a lot that goes into working at a global company. At a high-growth company where roles and points of contact change frequently, this is a particular challenge.
That’s why, if you can hire internal linguists and ensure they focus not just on “translating stuff” but on actually spending some of their time being strategic partners to their geographic counterparts and building strong relationships of trust with others, they will become absolutely invaluable members of your team. They can also grow into other roles at your company, even outside of localization, where they can be valuable advocates for localization embedded into other teams.
It’s Not Either/Or — It’s Both/And
There are many important roles for translation vendors to play at software companies, and most companies couldn’t achieve scale without them. There is no doubt that translation agencies play a vital role and a tremendous service for their clients. After all, nearly all of us working on the buyer side of localization, myself included, have sat in that seat and know what it’s like to work on the vendor side too. We know it’s not easy!
That said, I believe the growing trend will be for companies to build in-house teams along *with* their external vendors, in order to achieve a balanced portfolio that unlocks all of the benefits listed above, on top of the benefits we all know exist from working with external vendors too. Diversity of resources means flexibility, agility, scale, and often, the ability to serve as the best steward of company budget, and importantly, the ability to be the best possible partners you can be as an in-house localization team while acting in the interests of your customers and company.