In my 20+ years of working in the content development arena, I have experienced a curious phenomenon at almost every company I’ve called upon or spoken with: content silos. Vast gaps of space, often physical and always procedural, between the people who create content and the people who prepare that same content for a global audience. Again and again, it leaves me scratching my head.

For example, at one of my larger customers, the content development groups are located on a separate campus from the localization team. I’m not talking about a different floor of the same building or even a different building on the same campus. I’m talking about having to get in my car and drive to a completely different campus if I want to meet with both groups on the same day.

Even at my smaller customers, the documentation manager often has no idea who is responsible for translation. Or the localization person has three other jobs (including head of European sales) in addition to being responsible for having the content localized and translated. [I think the thought process is something along the lines of “Hey, you speak French, Italian, German, and Spanish. Let’s put YOU in charge of translation!”]

This situation simply boggles my mind. And I’ve been told that I’m not imagining things – this is the way things really operate at most companies.

Looking back over my career as a writer, manager of content development, and business owner of a content development firm, I shouldn’t be so surprised. Here is a fact for you:

  • In all of my years of being in this field, I have never, not even once, been asked by a customer to write content with a global audience in mind. Not once. And I’ve been involved in the creation of literally millions of pages of content for over one hundred companies.

The people creating the content simply don’t think about people who do not speak English as their native language. It is not a requirement and it does not enter their minds when they plan, develop, and refine their text.

It is no wonder that the task of localizing and translating content for a global audience is difficult, time consuming, and expensive. Translation often becomes, in effect, a complete rewrite project. It is also no wonder that the translators end up iterating multiple times with their customers (who, by the way, didn’t have anything to do with the original writing of the content to begin with).

To the content creators, their task is complete once the source English version is finalized, laid out, and published. To the localization team, this is exactly where their job begins. No conversations happen along the way: no check-ins, no reviews. Sure, many companies have guidelines and style guides, but often there is no guarantee that localization was even contacted for input on the styles to begin with.

Another common feature of this situation is finger pointing. The content developers say, “Your translations are all wrong!” The localization people chime in, “Your source content is terrible!” And we all know how many problems finger pointing solves.

To me, this lack of communication is mind-boggling. In my opinion, the quality of the source content is the most important factor that drives the ease and accuracy of translation. It is also the number one factor in controlling translation costs.

I would be remiss if i didn’t mention that over the past couple of years I have come across a few companies who are starting to pay attention to the global marketplace during the writing process, particularly in the tech doc arena (alas, marketing content is an entirely different story). But I still haven’t come across any companies who have truly integrated the writing and localization teams to the point where they are sitting and working side-by-side, in neighboring cubicles, focused on the final outcome from the very beginning.

I think we should demolish the silos. Bringing development and localization together should be one of our goals if we want to control costs, improve quality, and really address the needs of our global customers.

Val Swisher
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