Global, Regional, Local: Managing Coronavirus and…Translation Spend?
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Global, Regional, Local: Managing Coronavirus and…Translation Spend?

In the last few months in the UK, nationally collected statistics on coronavirus outbreaks have been made available locally. These data can identify recorded infections per street and even per apartment block in more densely populated areas. Track and Trace, which was previously handled nationally with mixed success, is now being partly devolved to local councils. They have the knowledge of locales in their area and the ability to knock on doors if necessary.

In a recent BBC Radio interview on the topic, the reporter aggressively asked a local government official whether it would have been better to have local involvement from the beginning of the pandemic. The interviewee calmly explained that many measures could only be done nationally, such as providing financial aid to businesses to furlough staff, creating policies for border control and education and other legal measures. But now that we’re in a containment phase, additional local action with the benefit of local knowledge is necessary to prevent another national lockdown. In addition to this national-versus-local debate, we’ve heard discussions about the different legal, health, law enforcement and educational structures in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales that have resulted in slightly different approaches to the pandemic, plus arguments about the World Health Organization’s role in managing the pandemic at the global level.

Thankfully, in the translation business, lives are not at stake in as direct a way as they are for those managing the pandemic. However, the discussions around the appropriate responses to the spread of coronavirus have reminded me of the tensions that exist in multinational companies between global, regional and local purchasing and marketing departments and the difficulties that are often encountered when companies try to manage global messaging and translation spend.

Global, regional or local management of translation requirements

In multinational companies with multiple divisions, local offices are often responsible for purchasing translation services from local suppliers. These tend to be freelance translators or smaller companies (single-language vendors, known as SLVs in the industry, as opposed to multi-language vendors or MLVs). The local divisions get local rates, have close contact with their linguists and get just what they want.

From a central purchasing perspective, however, this a nightmare, as translation spend can easily spiral out of control with too many suppliers. It’s also a nightmare from the central marketing perspective, with the potential for inconsistent translations leading to brand erosion. To overcome this situation, global marketing and purchasing departments often embark on initiatives to centralize how and from whom translation services are purchased. This usually culminates in an RFP process looking to select one, two or potentially three MLVs in place of the plethora of SLVs and freelancers being used at the time.

But to do this in a multi-national, multi-divisional company is a non-trivial task. Over the years, I have seen a number of such initiatives run aground, leading to failure for the purchasing and marketing departments and, if the process gets as far as selecting a language services provider (LSP), leading to the LSP’s failure to deliver as expected. Assumptions around centralizing spend are not as straightforward as they might seem.

What are these assumptions and how can common pitfalls be avoided?

We’ll reduce costs by centralizing translation spend

One driver for centralization that can also be used as a measure of success is cost reduction. This is based on expected economies of scale: buying all translation from a single supplier or a vastly reduced pool should enable the purchasing department to negotiate lower rates. However, if price per word (the most common unit for translation pricing) is used for cost calculations and comparisons, this measure alone is unlikely to show any cost reduction.

MLVs cannot match local freelancers or SLVs on price per word. MLVs manage the onboarding, training and quality evaluation of the linguists they use and build teams of translators so that they can guarantee consistent delivery and quality. They offer a single point of contact for all languages, have a wider range of services and usually invest in the latest language technology. A freelancer purchasing model lacks both the added value and scale offered by MLVs, but naturally at an associated cost. And while the security, scale and services of an MLV might be of interest to a global purchasing or marketing department, these factors are mostly irrelevant to local office needs. Why would a local office buy into higher prices for services they do not require?

We’ll manage the translation budget centrally

It may seem logical to take control of the budget and oversee translation for the business as a whole. The question in this case is whether it’s even possible to know how much translation is required across the business and what the global budget is. Translation spends are often hidden in other cost centres such as marketing, legal and publishing, so how can the centralized function manage all the disparate departments’ needs? Can the centralized function effectively convince local stakeholders to relinquish control over their relationships and funnel everything through the new MLV instead? Not surprisingly, once the centralized marketing and purchasing functions understand the web of intricacies, some choose to avoid the conflict and abandon centralization.

Technology will enforce compliance

Another centralization assumption is that implementing technology can enforce the use of approved suppliers. Some companies make it mandatory for employees to use the company e-catalogue to order products and services only from authorized suppliers. Other companies look to select a language services supplier with their own online portal through which all translation orders must be placed. Occasionally, companies request that translation suppliers connect their translation portal to the company’s e-catalogue via a “punchout”. The aim is to funnel all requirements through the technology in order to capture and measure the global translation spend. However, there are several reasons the punchout connection doesn’t support the business process of buying translation (see my LinkedIn post on the topic).

In general, if local teams perceive that the technology adds complexity rather than simplify things, they will find ways around it, rendering the solution ineffective. From the MLV’s perspective, dealing directly with local offices negates their advantage over SLVs of providing global coverage with a single point of contact. Furthermore, they incur additional costs by having to manage many local stakeholders with relatively small requests transacted in a variety of local currencies.

The new language services provider will just ‘plug and play’

Once the LSP is selected, the purchasing department believes their work is over and the language services provider just needs to begin translating. However, the LSP’s work to ensure that they can deliver to the stakeholders’ requirements is just beginning, and without buy-in from end users throughout the organization, that’s going to be an uphill task.

The onboarding phase is the time for learning, training, setting up processes and building trust. The advantage of selecting a truly global MLV is that it should be organizationally structured to provide global coverage with a consistent message and level of service. In order to do so, on top of organizational and process discussions, the MLV should work with all stakeholders to understand their language requirements, which include:

  • Gathering existing brand guides, tone of voice guidelines and product terminology applicable to the language markets targeted for translation;
  • Learning the language preferences of the stakeholders in each market and how they will determine what a “good” translation is;
  • Performing a content audit to establish the content needs at the global, regional and local levels; and
  • Mapping content types to the various localization approaches, which include:
    • Translating accurately to reflect the global brand;
    • Translating and adapting to be faithful (rather than literal) to the original to convey meaning;
    • Translating more freely to communicate a concept;
    • Adapting content at the regional level (e.g. for legal or cultural reasons) before being translated; and
    • Writing content from scratch in the local language when it is specific to one market, using only a brief as a guide.

Successful management at all levels

Any initiative to centralize translation spend will likely struggle to be successful if it merely compares word rates between suppliers or is betting solely on the implementation of technology to enforce compliance. Success will come from the LSP and client working in a true partnership. Both parties need to continue selling the value that the partnership provides through discussions with stakeholders at every level of the organization in terms that are meaningful to them. Each group of stakeholders has its requirements and the frameworks used to fulfil them as part of the partnership.

What we have seen in the UK’s management of the coronavirus pandemic is a debate around the different roles that each tier of government can and should play in response to a crisis. Similarly, when prospective clients and providers engage in a global translation RFP, they should question each other on how they’ll work together globally, regionally and locally to be successful in deploying the overall solution. I’m not suggesting that the questioning be as aggressive as the BBC Radio reporter’s, but a similar line of enquiry may prove enlightening for both parties, help select a suitable language services provider and enable the successful implementation of the centralized translation services initiative.


Many thanks to Solutions Architect Stuart Sklair for authoring this post.