let’s build a translation assembly line

OK, first of all, what is the definition of an assembly line? From Wikipedia: “An assembly line is a manufacturing process in which parts (usually interchangeable parts) are added to a product in a sequential manner using optimally planned logistics to create a finished product much faster than with handcrafting-type methods.”

Let’s begin with the preconditions we have that need to be factored into our translation assembly line:

1. It needs to be faster, better and cheaper

2. It needs to support nearly all of the world’s languages

3. It needs to support nearly all of the world’s electronic file formats

4. It needs to support nearly any tool one may choose to use

5. It needs to be able to be monitored and generate necessary budget to actual reports

Where do we start? Well, whenever I think about assembly lines; I think about Henry Ford. What did he do? What preconditions did he face? How can we learn from it?

Again, from Wikipedia: “Henry Ford was the first to master the assembly line and was able to improve other aspects of industry by doing so (such as reducing labor hours required to produce a single vehicle, and increased production numbers and parts). However, the various preconditions for the development at Ford stretched far back into the 19th century, from the gradual realization of the dream of interchangeability, to the concept of reinventing work flow and job descriptions using analytical methods.”

Reducing the number of hours required, reinventing work flow , increasing production, interchangeability – these all sound like the same challenges we face in the translation industry.

Here is another example outside of the automotive industry also from Wikipedia:

The Terracotta Army (circa 215 BC)

“The Terracotta Army commissioned by the first Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi is a collection of about 8000 life-sized clay soldiers and horses buried with the emperor. The figures had their separate body parts manufactured by different workshops that were later assembled to completion. Notably, each workshop inscribed its name on the part they manufactured to add traceability for quality construction.”

Whether is it is Qin Shi Huangdi, Henry Ford or the translation industry. The challenges remain the same, how do we bring together a workforce, a set of materials and a set of tools and build something in a faster, better and cheaper way?

Challenge #1: The Materials

An electronic file is typically the first thing to enter our translation supply chain, and that file has typically come out of a different assembly line such as an authoring system, publishing system or a development system. In the automotive world, car parts are standardized so that they fit together predictably once they reach the assembly line. Same story with the Terracotta Army body parts. In our world, not only is there no standard, we typically have to disassemble what we receive to get it into our assembly line before we can even start work.

Challenge #2: The Tools

We need tools to automate repetitive tasks on our assembly line. In our auto and terracotta examples, both assembly lines have been designed with interchangeable tools and interchangeable parts according to proscribed standards. In our world, standards are weak, and there are only limited interchangeable tools and interchangeable parts.

Challenge #3: The workforce

Repetitive tasks have been automated in the successful automotive and terracotta examples leaving their workforces to focus on adding value to continuous improvement of the process. In our world, the workforce barely has time to think about improvement, because the friction associated with workarounds, dropped hand-offs, unclear standards and limited interchangeability leaves them barely able to keep up. Not to mention their piece rate, price/word, continues to go down.

My Suggested Solution

Open and shared tools, with standardized ways of connecting to and processing the materials (files) in an interchangeable way so that our workforce can be more efficient in producing faster, better and cheaper translations. This is the only way we will ever build a true translation assembly line.

Who can make this happen? Industry associations in partnership with academia and commercial organizations are how it is done in other industries. Let’s face it; most of the time we spend on this our industry is attending conferences (largely for networking purposes), and there has been only limited progress in interoperability, extensibility and efficiency to benefit the industry as a whole.


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