MANAGING CORPORATE TRANSLATION ACTIVITY – MISSION IMPOSSIBLE?

When I meet with clients, I often seek to learn more about their corporate structure; identify others within the organization that would benefit from our services and find ways to offer economies of scale. The most common response is, “Oh, I am only concerned with my department and really don’t interact with the other areas that much.”

If I inquire as to the name of the Chief Translation Officer (CTO), I receive a blank stare. “We don’t have one of those.” So who is in charge of translation services at most large corporations? In many cases it is the Global Purchasing Department, or at least they think they are. The larger the corporation, the more difficult it is to enforce purchasing discipline. Translation is one of those items that permeates all areas of the organization yet has little to no central oversight. There are many reasons for this, and typically the level of spending is not sufficient to warrant an entire executive position to oversee this activity. Another reason is the needs vary greatly between departments. The diagram below shows translation activities throughout a typical large corporation. Not all translations are from internally generated content. Some may be to support business intelligence gathering, R&D efforts or foreign patent searches that require bringing documents from other languages back into English.

 

Corporate Translation Map.png

 

Companies that do a large volume of translations as an integral part of their business (consumer electronics, automotive or travel/tourism for example), tend to have much tighter control over their content and budget. But when it comes down to choosing a Language Service Company (LSC), who is really making that decision? In many cases it falls on the person responsible for ensuring the task gets done. A senior scientist looking to have a journal article translated, a project manager in charge of a global project, the marketing specialist or patent attorney. Each of these can go in a different direction. For patents, the outside counsel will have a preferred LSC doing their intellectual property translations and just bill the work back to the legal department. Marketing works with an ad agency that in turn has a specific LSC doing translations for them. In a pinch, some employees will use Google Translate as a “quick and dirty” way to avoid the effort of using an “approved” LSC. Many corporations use internal employees who happen to be bilingual as “free” translators.

As a result of the patchwork of departments, individuals and teams seeking a wide range of translation services, even with strong Global Purchasing department oversight, there will always be a mix of LSCs providing services to the corporation. There is also no simple method for aggregating those costs into a single budget item. In many cases, the cost of translation lies buried within a larger budget line and becomes invisible to anyone attempting to determine exactly how much is spent on translation. How are companies accounting for those internal personnel tasked with doing translations? If your bilingual technician is also translating, then he is not doing what you hired him to do in the first place and all you see is his annual salary plus benefits as a “cost.” What is the cost of the work not done in his primary field while he is busy translating?

While working for a large chemical company with their own internal translation department, I asked about how much control existed over enforcing use of their team to do translations. Their response was, “Some for North America, but little to none for overseas sites.” In fact, their group had to market its capabilities within the company to constantly remind employees they existed and could provide service to anyone needing translations. With many employees having a purchasing card and the ability to make purchases up to $1,000, there was almost no way to prevent someone from using a different LSC. The focus in most corporations is on getting the job done in the quickest, most cost-effective manner. The path of least resistance is to find an LSC based on a few minutes of web searching, send the work out and have it back before someone can object. This attitude is amplified if the “approved” LSC has a lengthy request and approval process, or takes so long to deliver a translation that the requester is left feeling there is no choice but to go outside official channels.

Corporate Purchasing departments are primarily gate-keepers who squeeze costs. Do those in purchasing solicit input and feedback from all the functions within the corporation using a particular service before making a vendor selection? In many cases I suspect they could not identify all the users of translation and in most instances, one LSC cannot perform all translation tasks equally well.

In summary, few large corporations have a clear picture of how translations weave their way in and out of their organization or the total cost of translations. For an activity that provides so much value above and beyond the actual cost of having the work done, it may be time to place a higher priority on managing and tracking translations at all levels across departments.

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