BITS and Pieces

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Robert Etches, Innovation Consultant

In his keynote speech at the EUATC conference in Madrid last month, Innovation Consultant, Robert Etches, thoroughly convinced about the pressing need for rapid innovation in the language industry, warned us by saying “Never has it been so dangerous to do nothing.” A visionary in the domain of the use of Blockchain technology in the language industry, the Thought Leader talks to us about the possibilities for change and innovation in the language industry.

You have been stressing the idea of change in our industry. What do you think is holding us back?

Well, one of the reasons I believe our industry hasn’t changed is because we’ve been relatively successful over the years and made quite a lot of money doing the same things we have been doing for 30 years now. In fact, there are very few industries that can compete with our growth rate. I would say that this has made us lazy on the language technology front. Apart from MT, the technology that we are using today is pretty much the same as in the late 80s when Trados first hit the market. People forget that, not so long ago, translation was to all intents and purposes a ‘cottage industry’, so growing in the early stages has been relatively easy.

But with the world changing so quickly around us, it is naïve to believe that someone won’t come in and change the way we have been doing things. Our industry is at a stage where somebody coming with a very different idea from the outside could completely change the game. And no industry or business operates in isolation. Futurologists are saying that there will be more change in the next ten years than in the last 250! To base your business on a belief that people will still be translating in the same way in ten years is at best risky.

What can business owners and stakeholders actually do to change?

One of the things I said at the EUATC conference in Madrid (19 April 2018) was: “What would you do if you could go to work on Monday and start from scratch? In what ways would you company be different?” One of the key challenges faced by company owners are the legacy issues – all the software and hardware – not to mention the wonderful people brought in over the years. But this is the time for business owners to show a lot of courage and start thinking in new ways.

We need to do away with the “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” approach. Business owners can then aim at a two-fold change: 1) a change in technology that will enable more and better multilingual communication and 2) a change in the attitude among all the major stakeholders. I have begun by changing my definition of an LSP. An LSP, I always say, is a Language Solutions Partner as opposed to a Language Service Provider. LSPs need to think of themselves as active partners, not passive providers.

Another primary element of this shift in attitude would be to confront the practice of commoditising our product with word rates. We need to stop! People buying this ‘commodity’ negotiate in the same way they would with someone selling carrots or stationery. Rather than selling a commodity, we need to start selling multilingual communication solutions that raise awareness about the client’s products and brand. We must help leverage the value of our client’s intellectual property through multilingual communication.

You also seem to be convinced about the power of Blockchain. Could you tell us a little bit more about it?

Blockchain is a technology that will drive real change in society. People tend to focus on the hype around Bitcoin, but behind the media noise a lot of industries and sectors are busy exploring the ways in which blockchains will change everything! Just one example: 26 central banks from around the world have already started looking into blockchain technology because they know it will be disruptive when it arrives and they want to be fully equipped to be able to deal with it.

The time has come for us to utilise this technology in our industry as well. It is a sort of a truth machine which gives everyone greater control of their data. Today, Facebook and Google gatekeep your social media data and sell it to people. But what if you controlled your own data? Blockchain used as a language ledger in our industry will allow our community to share linguistic data in a new way and empower businesses and people to communicate as never before.

Finally, could you share your thoughts on the language market in India and how European LSPs stand to benefit from it?

I am very excited about it for two reasons. Firstly, it is a very young market. From a purely business point of view, European companies can come in with capital and experience. For the right company, I can’t even think of an upper limit for the opportunities that await us in India. Our industry is global by definition, and yet it scares me to see how local and regional we act.

Secondly, there is an untapped 4 billion-euro market for translating between the Indian languages. If we can combine breakthroughs in technology with good business acumen, there is no reason why a small number of firms can’t help commerce in India to grow even faster. Along with that, it would also be a fantastic business to be a part of. I always talk about “doing better business” – where you can do the right thing and make money while doing it. In the context of the Indian market, helping people to better understand each other would be the right thing to do and given the size of the market, it would generate good commerce. In that respect, India has huge potential for companies that move first … with the right technology! I would say that, as a language market, India has more potential than probably any other region of the world.

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Sonali Kulkarni Editor in Chief - BITS and Pieces | Professional French-English Translator A novice at adulthood with a persistent travel bug, Sonali is a language professional by day and a pathological bookworm by night. She is an aspiring hyperpolyglot and is conversant in six languages so far. A fresh graduate with a degree in English, she is currently living life one flight ticket at a time. When not translating at her desk, she is normally found immersed in a new language, planning her travel itineraries or already on a faraway exotic land.