The Constant Challenge of Source Content Quality
Turning something that's perceived as cheap or ugly into a more valuable or beautiful object has been the goal of alchemists through the centuries. Many languages have expressions that echo their quest to turn lead into gold. An English proverb maintains that you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. The French take a different animal to task, "On ne saurait faire d'une buse un épervier" – you can't turn a buzzard into a sparrow hawk. And a Russian might say something like, "Из мусора конфетку не сделать" – you can't make candy out of garbage.
Language service providers face the same problem when clients ask them to produce high-quality translations from flawed source content. This sign at a pier in Cocoa Beach, Florida is an example of one such challenge.
Most linguists would chuckle at the conflated but still understandable warning – violators or trespassers will be prosecuted." They would quickly figure out the intended meaning and produce a usable translation that wouldn't confuse Spanish- or French-speaking tourists. While working on it, though, they'd be relieved that the sign-maker hadn't printed other possible variants of this misguided caution.
The quality of the source content remains a constant and growing challenge for translators, whether they're human, machine, or hybrid. In fact, nearly every discussion we have about translation ultimately ends up being about output quality and, of course, cost. Faulty source might be mentioned in passing, but not with the frequency or furor that leads to mainstream media stories about bad or mistaken translation, even though many such errors stem from this problem.
To determine best practices for fixing the source, CSA Research has been interviewing buyers and suppliers about their content supply chain – that is, how they manage the life cycle from production to translation to publication to retirement. Given the enormous volumes of information being created daily and the growing demand for more locales, successful organizations must focus on preparing source text, images, and other materials so that they are easier to translate or localize. Otherwise, they condemn downstream translators and other content manipulators to improving what they receive, reworking it, and frequently calling the original author. In the process, we uncovered four elements of an effective source content strategy:
- Know your audience and what you need. Enterprises produce a surprising amount of content that has at best a hazy notion of its purpose or audience. When it is written with no particular reader in mind, it tends to be unclear. To add to the confusion, a lot of content must serve two audiences that may have competing requirements.
- Be more analytical and ruthlessly eliminate anything that doesn't meet a stated business requirement. This is easier said than done, but deleting unneeded content both reduces costs and lets you focus on what you do need.
- Organize information to promote reuse. How often have your authors written the same material over and over again just because they cannot find it or do not know that it exists? Each time they do this, you pay for rework, a particularly insidious form of waste because it can be difficult to detect. This task is especially difficult for organizations with distributed authors.
- Focus on writing content that is easy to translate. This last step is called content source optimization (CSO). It requires a consistent approach to developing usable, translatable materials from the outset. CSO requires authors to adopt a "translation-first approach" and be aware of how their choices affect linguists. One simple step that can deliver significant benefit is to employ non-native speakers in your editorial teams: They will identify problems even the most careful authors can miss. Cloud-based software and plug-ins for commonly-used authoring and graphical tools can also help with this task.
Stay tuned for more advice and insight about the content life cycle. Next week CSA Research will publish a report on content source optimization to follow up on our recent TechStack™ analysis of translation quality and in-source review tools.
Just out of curiosity -- how would you say, "You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear" in your language? Let us know how.
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