Translation versus localization: creating globalized content

In an interconnected world, your content has value far beyond your backyard – so long as people can understand it. As part of the globalized content market, design teams are faced with a fundamental choice: should content strategy prioritize translation, localization or some combination of the two?

Reading versus comprehending
The first obstacle in developing the most effective strategy is that content marketers often don't recognize the distinctions between the two approaches. The terms "translation" and "localization" are often used interchangeably. 

"Your content has value far beyond your backyard."

The simplest way to understand the difference between translation and localization is to think of the underlying values they serve. Translation is a very literal, data-driven process: it takes data from one locale and substitutes its equivalent value in another locale. This means that on a basic level, the document is being reformatted to be read by a foreign audience.

For enterprises operating outside of their domestic market, bringing native content to foreign readers represents a challenge – one often met with a ham-fisted "throw it in a translator" approach. But as anyone who has used an online translation service may have noticed, a substitution-style translation of text or other content doesn't always result in something that makes sense. Even technical documents, driven and quantified by empirical data, may end up virtually incomprehensible – although technically readable – after a such a translation.

Crossing the cultural barrier
Karl Montevirgen, writing in The Content Wrangler, explains that translation is concerned with bridging the language barrier, while localization is about crossing the cultural barrier. As with prose, a certain vernacular expression or linguistic shorthand in technical material written for one culture may not carry over into another culture. Even in the hands of a trained bilingual and without a simplistic word-by-word translation, content that speaks to readers in different cultures with equal fidelity can be elusive.

This is where the world of dynamic content writing has a unique edge when it comes to translation. Depending on the sophistication of the content management and editing system, the ability to divide content into hypertext components makes translation more than simply substituting words; it allows for complex reconstitution of content into another language.

"With localization comes added costs – both monetary and time."

The value and cost of localization

This is where localization can edge out translation as a strategy to market content. By creating customized content with a culture's native tongue, you can ensure that the content speaks directly in the language of your audience while taking on the cadence and cultural mores of that demographic. This can have significant value when it comes to avoiding any miscommunication or snafus that may arise by awkward translation.

However, with localization comes added costs – both monetary and time. Localization requires native speakers and contributors, which will be able to communicate in any specific target language but may not be experts or otherwise familiar with the subject matter of the content. Alternatively, locally created content may be functionally indecipherable to the home enterprise, making fact-checking and editing impossible.

In the end, an enterprise looking to spread its content globally employs some mix of translation and localization to achieve the optimal combination of cost, schedule, and meaningful outreach.

How will online archiving influence content management?

The advent of Internet archiving has changed the way we think about media and content.  The continuum of information has flattened, unchained as it is from physical form, so that as soon as content is published, it can be cataloged, reused and repurposed at any time.

"As soon as content is published, it can be cataloged, reused and repurposed."

At the forefront of this revolution are websites like the Internet Archive. The site has amassed approximately 25 petabytes of data — a repository of digitized media including books, films, TV clips, websites, software, music and audio files, photos, games, maps, court/legal documents — all made freely available. As part of its "Wayback Machine" project, the Internet Archive offers the Archive-It tool, which has thus far saved historical copies of 484 billion retired and indexed web pages and which allows users to "[c]apture a web page as it appears now for use as a trusted citation in the future." The operators of the site liken the archive to the fabled Library of Alexandra – a repository of human knowledge and culture, supposedly lost in antiquity. 

"We believe it's crucial to provide free access to information. Our society evolves because of information, and everything we learn or invent or create is built upon the work of others," Alexis Rossi, Internet Archive's director of Media and Access, told The Content Wrangler. "In a digital age, when everything is expected to be online, we need to make sure the best resources are available. The human race has centuries of valuable information stored in physical libraries and personal collections, but we need to ensure that all of it is online in some form."

The challenge of cataloging
While maintaining the massive archive — according to Rossi, the site tops 50 petabytes due to built-in replication and redundancy — is a feat of engineering itself, the true challenge is in cataloging and maximizing accessibility. This is where the world of content management and archiving begin to intersect. By combing through the archives and breaking its content into hyperlinked components (similar to the way one constructs content in DITA), this can render content much more discoverable and thus able to be repurposed for new content.

This represents a distinct evolutionary – and revolutionary – shift in the way that we approach content, primarily in terms of scope. Whereas traditional authors might have been limited to accessing historical materials, modern authors are now theoretically unbound because all recorded and cataloged media and content are available at their fingertips. The fundamental question for authors and curators changes from "Does this content exist for citation?" to "Can I find the content?"

"Authors are now unbound by the traditional constraints of archiving."

The great equalizer: Free
Tied into this increased availability is the fact that the content made available by Internet Archive and similar sites is totally free. This access model, in its own way, has become an equalizer of sorts, homogenizing the "Can I find it?" question to an egalitarian take on human knowledge. The free component is an ideological cornerstone of the Internet Archive and its contributors, which includes Jessamyn West, a library consultant and community liaison for the Open Library project.

"We make it available for free, and that's especially important to the underprivileged and to people in other countries who may not have free access to information," West said to The Content Wrangler. "This kind of access has great value, because knowledge is power."

This, however, may be a simplified take on the true value of archiving. While not every site may provide meaningful — or accurate — information, experts like John Wiggins, director of Library Services and Quality Improvement at Drexel University, claim that content creators can still benefit from the historical aspect of an archive, allowing them a glimpse into the way cultural forces have shaped and guided content throughout time.

A return to physical content archiving?

In a unique and unexpected twist on the traditional push to digitalization, has announced it is shuttering its site, freezing services as of September 2016. What makes the story surprising is that the site's operators, Craig Mod and Chris Palmieri, have written in a Medium post that they will be archiving the site's nearly 2,000,000 words and 14,000 photos onto a microprinted two-by-two-inch nickel plate and sent to various locations all over the world, including a copy ending up in the Library of Congress.

'Medium, not media' 
The plates can only be viewed with a 1,000-power optical microscope and have a lifespan of roughly 10,000 years, resistant to fire, water and salt damage. Mod and Palmieri pointed out that, while they will be paying to maintain a digital, hosted version of the site and a historical copy will be entered into the Internet Archive, the process is designed to embrace a physical footprint over a digital one.

"The process does not produce "data." It is not like a CD," write Mod and Palmieri. "It is not a composition of 0's and 1's representing the information. It is the information itself. The nickel plate is a medium, not media.""

"The nickel plates have a lifespan of roughly 10,000 years."

Repository or crypt?
This take on "time capsule" archiving is nothing new: In their coverage of the project, The Atlantic talks about the Crypt of Civilization, a 2,000-square-foot sealed vault initiated by President of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Thornwell Jacobs, in 1940. The vault contains about 640,000 pages of text reproduced on microfilm and is designated to be reopened in 8113 C.E.

"Today we can place articles in the crypt and nothing can keep them from being readable a million years from now," remarked Jacobs while planning the Crypt in 1938. This, in a sense, mirrors the optimism of Mod and Palmieri and even alludes to the coming modern era of increasingly inexpensive and simple content archiving. However, only two years later, Jacobs seemed to have taken on a more somber tone in the wake of global war breaking out.

"The world is now engaged in burying our civilization forever," he recorded as part of speech included in the Crypt, "and here in this crypt we leave it to you."

Time capsules 
While these words may seem melodramatic, they retain a certain ring of truth even now: While our archiving and content management capabilities have grown more sophisticated, archives will always remain vulnerable to acts of malice, negligence or simple indifference. The vast digital depositories of information we have aggregated and cataloged could vanish into the ether with the failure of a specific server or be rendered unreadable by future generations accessing it with futuristic technology. In essence, while the idea of a physical archive for media may seem antiquated, it may in fact be a worthwhile investment in preserving content well into the foreseeable future.

New White House initiative aims to bring government into tech age

Marking a distinct transition from the technological missteps of previous years, the White House has announced the formation of the United States Digital Service. Described as a "startup" founded by President Obama, the goal is to partner government with technology providers to create a more intuitive, modern approach to addressing national priorities.

"What if interacting with government services were as easy as ordering a book online?" writes the Executive Office of the President. "The challenges behind brought this question to the forefront, changing our government's approach to technology."

"The White House has announced the formation of the United States Digital Service."

Learning from past mistakes
Indeed, this reference to the issues that occurred during the launch of is telling. As the first major push to implement public policy via a major technological initiative, the seemingly unending issues hampered the site's overall efficacy and put a serious damper on the optimistic tone of the Obama administration. Rather than attribute the failure to negligence or mismanagement, industry experts like Aziz Gilani saw the site as an example of "too much, too fast."

"The federal government is just like every other enterprise out there," Gilani told CMS Wire. "It's facing a lot of pressure to join the world in Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) transformation, but then be able to release and maintain applications with the shortened sprint times required to support those types of applications."

Enlisting help from the world of tech
Through the USDS, the government aims to avoid the errors of the past by bringing technological infrastructure design in-house. To do this, the startup employs a team of engineers, led by Mikey Dickerson, a former Google engineer who played a key role in salvaging Dickerson has been an outspoken critic of the government's previous efforts – or lack thereof – to embrace technology, saying that the private sector has long since blown past federal agencies in the way they interface with cutting-edge technology.

"First of all, government still calls it 'IT' and 'cyber' which the tech industry does not, and that's a clue right there," Dickerson told Gov Insider. "This issue has become particularly acute and visible to the public in a really painful way. Ten years ago the iPhone didn't exist and now innovations like smart phones, GPS and Uber are deeply intertwined across people's everyday lives – with government looking flat-footed by comparison."

"Different systems designed separately breed translation and communication issues."

Streamlining content design and dissemination
One of the biggest hurdles to government-sponsored technology is creating consistency across every agency. In previous years, the government eschewed a top-down approach to content design and consistency, opting instead to have each agency individually contract out for their technology needs. This led to a fundamental operational roadblock: Design would vary dramatically from agency to agency.

Beyond the aesthetic mismatch and user-experience incongruities stemming from this lack of consistency, disparate systems separately designed bred translation and communication issues. Cross-agency data exchange became difficult, contributing to the infamous delays associated with government agency communications. It also rendered the ability to generate data-rich hypertext effectively impossible.

These are essentially the same problems facing large groups of content creators who operate within the same company but are otherwise completely disjointed in their associations with each other.  Agreeing to a common set of information architecture rules brings these groups into alignment.  Establishing a common data-encoding standard lets them share their information more easily.  Adopting a common set of tooling streamlines the collaboration and the overall productivity of each team.

The USDS is following a similar playbook. Its U.S. Web Design Standards program provides a style guide, mobile-responsive design constraints, and recommended open-source coding tools to create a seamless web standard across all agencies subject to federal oversight. Whether or not the USDS will broaden its scope to include content creation and management systems remains to be seen, but the push towards commonality inspires some optimism within the world of content strategy.

A browserless world via chat apps?

Just when the content market gains parity with full web 2.0 integration, new apps and functionality are shaping the way we manage and distribute content to consumers. An emerging trend: a shift away from open accessibility browsers to proprietary chat apps.

In Facebook's Spring 2016 announcement of expanded functionality in its Messenger app, one of the benefits emphasized by the social media giant was new content publishing capabilities. Facebook invites developers to build bots that use the Messenger Send / Receive API, which now supports, "…not only sending and receiving text, but also images and interactive rich bubbles containing multiple calls-to-action." The company also announced integration of's Bot Engine, which allows for developers to build more "complex" bots around machine-learning algorithms that can process natural language patterns. 

"80 percent of user time is spent on just five applications."

Too much to surf
While it's difficult to speculate as to its full impact, the expansion of chat app functionality may in fact signal that consumers are looking for a more direct way to receive and transmit data by way of content.

"Today, we no longer surf the web because there's too much to surf," writes Chris Moore is Chief Revenue Officer of Nexmo for The Content Wrangler. "Now, the bottomless ocean of information and data at our disposal has arguably become the Internet's biggest weakness. That reality, combined with the rise of smartphones as mainstream consumer devices, has ushered in an app economy where chat apps are fast becoming the new default destination for web-bound consumers."

Moore goes on to say that, according to a recent Forrester report, 80 percent of user time is spent on just five applications, with the closed-system of social media and messaging being the primary places spent. This could effectively mean that chat isn't just the web of tomorrow – it's essentially the web of today. 

An evolutionary essential 
So what does this mean for content managers? Simply, it means that chat- and social integrated-content management tools are a growing necessity. The ability to aggregate content and data, and apply learning algorithms in the forums where the most communication is occurring is the next evolutionary step for the content management and hypertext market. This means, too, that XML content management systems cannot hope to stay relevant in a market where content consumers are looking to bypass browser-oriented portals in favor of direct-from-the-vendor apps driven by user-configured bots.

According to Daniel Nations, a trend expert for About Tech, the "browsers of tomorrow" will likely be each website offering unique, proprietary apps and creating a seamlessly integrated browsing experience.

"I imagine it would be like merging our current browsers, ActiveX, and Java to create something that can be both a mini-operating system and a development platform," speculates Nations.

Mr. Nations may be showing his age, since ActiveX and Java in the browser are falling out of favor for their nearly innumerable security weaknesses.  Nevertheless, his core point is worth noting, "For you and me, it would be like loading up our office application, seamlessly switching between a word processor and a spreadsheet, and just as seamlessly switching to a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game."

House Speaker Paul Ryan proposes future legislation converted to XML

A recent measure by House Speaker Paul Ryan will see "all legislative measures" converted to XML. Ryan announced this proposal at the 2016 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference, saying it would be the continuation of work started by the creation of the Bulk Data Task Force in hopes of making "the House more open and transparent" – giving developers to opportunity to scrape data and make it more publicly searchable.

"All legislative measures will now be converted to XML."

"Now we're working to go further, and publish even more current and past documents in XML," Ryan told the assembled conference-goers. "I've asked our team to keep moving ahead by publishing all legislative measures in a standard format. That means enrolled measures, public laws, and statutes at large."

The Bulk Data Task Force was the work of Ryan's predecessor, John Boehner, and was designed to convert documents in bulk to digital markup languages. This led to the creation of the United States Legislative Markup Language, an XML vocabulary used to encode all versions of the United States Code created on or after July 30, 2013.

"We want to have a project we can start and complete in a fairly short time frame," Lisa LaPlant, Federal Digital System program manager for the Government Publishing Office, the government group initially funding the project, told FedScoop. 

In addition go improving transparency, Ryan stated that the conversion would help lawmakers make more informed decisions when proposing or arguing legislation. By entering laws into XML, the ease in searching and keywording historical legislation will, according to Ryan, guide lawmakers away from "making or repeating the mistakes of the past."

‘Green’ content: How DITA allows us to reduce, reuse and recycle content

From its inception, the Darwin Information Typing Architecture has represented a revolutionary approach to content. Rather than, as Precision Content puts it, seeing written content as a "monolithic, linear flow of information across pages," DITA emphasizes content as a set of smaller, reusable, self-contained components. This architecture allows hypertext-like topics to be warehoused, aggregated, and distributed to meet the ever-changing needs of those who consume content throughout the world.

"DITA allows authors to reduce, reuse and recycle data into new documents."

Several major innovations got their impetus from DITA. The role of the author shed those tasks focused on layout since DITA-based writing uses format-independent XML. Instead, authors became content curators, working closely with subject-matter experts to ensure the highest quality and accuracy of the data found in technical writing. Publication became fully automated as unformatted XML was paired with pre-defined XSL style sheets to deliver beautifully formatted content instantly and on demand.

However, it's DITA's optimization for smaller topics that drives another important innovation: reducing, reusing and recycling data into new documents. In this way, DITA takes on an almost "green" lifecycle, mirroring, in a sense, the global environmental and pollution crisis that drives our collective focus on reducing, reusing and recycling the things we produce every day. Indeed, the glut of information available today means we are putting unprecedented amounts of data and content into the world, clogging data lakes and making content creation wildly inefficient. The Association for Information and Image Management reports that nearly 50 percent of an author's time is spent just searching for information – well above the roughly 5 to 15 percent of time spent actually reading the information.

DITA renders the need to create new documents out of whole cloth because content is constructed from reusable and verified data. Also, DITA's built-in semantic information dramatically improves content searching and research efficiency, virtually eliminating the endless sifting through stacks of potentially irrelevant data.

Building and implementing a successful collaborative writing strategy

As the world has become increasingly interconnected through technology, talent teams have simultaneously grown more geographically dispersed. This is by no means a bad thing – historically, relying on location-based teams limited the opportunity to synthesize insights by lacking a diversity of experience and talent.

“Talent teams have grown more geographically dispersed.”

With new collaborative documentation tools, the ability to remotely create, manage and track changes to documents brings unfettered accessibility, but also creates a creative engineering challenge. How can a team of individuals, all armed with unique insight and talents, come together to create a single document that is greater than the sum of its authors?

Virtual collaboration requires more than just an efficient, dynamic content management platform – it requires talent management in the form of delegation, structuring of responsibility and team accountability, and strategy.

Collaboration versus individualism
According to Rebekka Andersen and Charlotte Robidoux in Center for Information-Development Management, collaboration often runs counter to modern corporate culture. Team members have their value appraised individually by management, with isolated metrics that do not account for their role in the larger group. This in turn leads to a separate set of targets that each team member has on their mind, even when collaborating.

“For technical writers, the individual focus is hard to avoid since the practice of writing is normally a solitary activity,” Andersen and Robidoux wrote. “But when writing practices are automated, writers must transcend the inclination to work alone and own whole documents. Yet if the management framework in which they work does not endorse a collaborative culture, writers will have little reason to change their writing behavior.”

Key to addressing this failure of culture is the ability to provide transparency and accountability through collaboration tools. The act of technical writing no longer needs to be solitary: Tracking changes, annotation and interdocument communications all function by not only serving the final product, but creating a narrative and commentary to explain why changes were made.

Delegation and roles
Another way to avoid the pitfalls of poor collaboration is to establish clear roles with all collaborators, going so far as to have delegated editing privileges that match roles. A simple workflow with designated roles might include:

  • subject-matter expert, a collaborator whose job is to aggregate and sort data to form the document’s foundation.
  • A drafter, who is tasked with creating the initial content that conforms to the chosen information model.
  • A reviewer, who works through the drafted documents and makes broad edits related to improving clarity, focus and coherence.
  • An editor, who focuses on copyediting and verifying data and sourcing.

While each role can likely be performed by multiple team members, having a more narrow focus of expectation can be helpful to ensure maximum efficiency. This can be particularly useful when it comes to expertise-based tasks within technical documentation.

A unified vision
Beyond organization and delegation, a successful collaboration strategy often includes an element of inspiration. A team of technical writers should not be treated as cogs in the machine, with their eyes fixed solely on their one prerogative, ignoring everything else around them. This can lead to a disjointed quality of the writing, redundancies and inefficiencies, as well as a lack of morale.

It falls to organizers to be able to clearly and concisely articulate the vision and purpose of the larger document. Your team needs to be more than just interconnected – they must be working toward a singular goal, with a clear sense of the importance of their work. By talking about the value their work brings to the enterprise, it emphasizes the importance of teamwork and collaboration.

The role of social media in technical documentation

Due to its pervasive nature, social media has reshaped a variety of business operations. When it comes to technical documentation, the intersection of social media with more traditional content-creation functions has many technical writers wondering about the future of their jobs, their skills, and their craft.

Blurring the difference between author and audience
Writing on behalf of Information Week, David Carr claimed that social media has – by way of wikis and blogs – reshaped the technical writing world into more of a “two-way communication.” He discussed how the rise of Internet commentary, largely driven by social media, has “democratized the world of publishing.” This has led to a struggle for some technical writers, as they fight for attention and authority while the line between “author and audience” starts to blur.

Carr pegged the challenge for technical document writers as welcoming “community involvement” and transitioning from creation-oriented processes to curating. In a way, this mirrors the transition happening within the world of technical documentation software: Modern content curation platforms allow for geographically dispersed teams to comment, edit and contribute content, rendering the document a truly collaborative effort. This, from an authorship standpoint, contributes to the work being considered as a living “social document,” versus the tightly controlled documentation of yesteryear.

“Social content has many implications for technical writing.”

‘A natural method’

The publishing and distribution of technical documents has also evolved alongside social media. In a survey published by the Center for Information-Development Management, the authors consulted with a number of companies, representing a strong cross-section of industries, corporate sizes, and business goals. They asked the companies to answer a variety of questions about the social media initiatives they had for their technical content programs.

The CIDM found that, similar to Carr’s assertion, the companies generally used social media in a two-pronged approach when it came to their technical documents: to “push content to users and to pull in user feedback and content.”

“Social media is a natural method for conversational interaction with users and customers,” wrote the study’s authors. “Typically, content is pushed through social media announcements with links to documentation sites and wikis where customers can then post comments, suggestions, and additional content.”

Building communities
The direct interaction with customers was particularly cited as a measure of effectiveness, according to over 40 percent of respondents to the CIDM survey. But soliciting meaningful feedback to technical documentation isn’t as simple as creating a post. The survey revealed that one of the major challenges for respondents was generating and maintaining interest, something that often may take “…a year or more of concentrated effort” to build.

This is what Michael Lykhinin in the STC India Indus blog referred to as the need for technical document authors to “learn how to architect and foster user communities and then how to incorporate user-generated content into their workflows.” Tying back to Carr’s assertion, Lykhinin urged authors to embrace a more curatorial approach to community input, becoming “community information librarians and conversation enablers/facilitators” for external communities.

For internal communities, like the closed loop of authorship software, Lykhinin wrote that technical authors can play many roles, but that the organization and delegation of a team is preferred, with roles designed to match “level of experience with the product, leadership ability, and communication style.”

A plan of action
All the voices cited in this blog advised that technical document authors focus of the creation of one specific thing: a social media strategy. This can help give structure to the way that social media is used by authors, as well as assign metrics to measure its efficacy. The goal is to both foster engagement while successfully establishing governance and standards, for the purpose of enriching technical documentation.