When Kim Harris moved from Canada to Germany as a student she had no idea that her love for languages would take her this far. What started with a simple translation for a UK company while Kim was working in a computer store kicked off her career as one of Europe’s leading players in language services.
That was more than 20 years ago and she has been working in the field ever since. Today, Kim Harris is the co-founder of one of Europe’s most successful language service providers, Text&Form. She is also a member of the Rosetta Foundation advisory board, a non-profit organisation focussed on promoting equal access to information and knowledge across the languages of the world, and the member of the editorial board for the European Commission’s Translation Initiative.
We had the pleasure of welcoming Kim to our office for a chat for the second episode of Understand with Unbabel. We talked about how translation has evolved in the past 20 years and how machine translations cut through the industry, how most companies now desperately need access to languages to sell across borders, and why we need to adapt technology to its purpose.
In 1996, Machine Translation was barely accessible
When Kim Harris co-founded Text&Form in 1996 the translation business was very different:
It was a much slower pace back then… machine translation was not accessible at all, it existed but, it wasn’t used at all.
There were a few MT systems in the 90’s but, as Kim explains, “they were used essentially for very large jobs and very large localisation companies that were able to implement them”. For smaller companies that was unthinkable.
Small companies didn’t even know that machine translation existed and even the translation memory systems that were being used were very cumbersome and very slow.
Nowadays the landscape has changed and MT is a firm part of it, and yet, companies still struggle to sell across borders.
Why companies need access to languages to sell across borders
Kim is very blunt about this:
If you can’t keep up with the people who speak the native language and sell in the native language, then you’re not going to be able to sell to that market… if they don’t provide quality information in the languages of the region in which they want to sell, then they won’t be able to sell because they can’t compete with those who do.
In fact, the truth is that people value language more than most people think, and according to Kim that “has been proven over and over again. People are more willing to take cuts in some of the features rather than in the language.”
But, what if you only translate your company’s website and your customers start to interact with you in those languages? That’s a whole new story according to Kim: “everyone wants information quickly but, you can’t translate user generated content by humans quickly so, you need to start looking at solutions”.
Language is a barrier to economic growth in the European Union
Language is particularly an obstacle across the European Union, where you have two dozen official languages. And, according to Kim, language has become a barrier to economic growth in the region:
95% of all companies in the European Union are small to medium enterprises, and these companies desperately need access to languages in order to be able to sell their products and services across borders.
Meaning that if these smaller companies had access to “more languages in order to be able to sell their services, like shopping online or access to certain types of audio services, then I do believe that economic growth in the European Union would improve”, she told us.
Which is, essentially, why the European Union is investing so much in machine translation research and translation services. There’s a clear need “ for tools that allow us to translate more quickly and now we have to be looking for tools that are fit for purpose as well, so MT fits a lot of purposes”.
However, as Kim pointed out “it’s difficult sometimes for the translation industry to accept that we do need these tools in order to be able to continue to grow the industry because many people see it as a threat instead of seeing it as something that will actually help them grow their business”.
Technology will never fully replace translators
“Technology plays a huge role in the future but I don’t think it will ever replace translators”. Why? Because as Kim puts it, “there are too many different types of content that need translation, some of which can be translated by machines, and will be in the future, but language is much too diverse for it to ever replace a human translator”.
Nonetheless, there are many challenges ahead of us, including adapting to the changing role of translators. For Kim, it will become “more of a community effort than a lone ranger one in the future.”
Watch the whole interview here and subscribe to our newsletter to receive the upcoming episode of Understand with Unbabel, a series where we dive deep into the issues, topics and challenges faced as we accelerate towards a world without language barriers.