Language Matters

Translators are under-paid, their expertise under-valued, their contribution to society and the economy under-estimated. Who on earth wants to be a translator? Let me give you a piece of advice: if you are interested in making money, do not get into the translation or localisation business. Your employees will hate you because you pay miserable salaries, your clients will treat you like a utility that should be cheap and always available, and yourself and your business will always struggle for survival. That is the ‘real world’.

I have been working in the ‘real world’ most of my professional life. When I did not, I observed it carefully. Here are three lessons I learned during those years.

Lesson 1: Translators are good people
Rarely have I met a translator who joined the profession to become a millionaire. In most cases, my friends and colleagues were people with an open mind, well travelled, and interested in connecting people, cultures, and businesses. Most of them are also interested in doing this to the best of their abilities, they are professionals. Most of them are concerned about the content they translate and the impact that content has. All of them were interested in technology as a tool to help them do their job better. All of them rejected technology that pretended to be better at doing their job, but still required them to fix the ‘few’ quirks it said it couldn’t handle yet. Translators believe that what they do has a meaning. They are not (primarily) motivated by money.

Lesson 2: Companies are interested in profit
Companies are investment instruments. Their purpose is to deliver a service or a good at a price that yields as much profit for their investors as possible. The aim of many companies is to be bought by bigger companies at a profit to their original owners. Translation and localisation companies are no different. Their interest is to translate as many words as quickly as possible at a quality that they can get away with, and at the highest price possible. If they believe that a job can be done by a machine they will use a machine. They are not concerned at all about the content they translate as long as they are paid for it. If you turn this argument around: they will not translate any content into any language unless they are paid for it. They are (primarily) motivated by money.

Lesson 3: Language services are too important to be left to the ‘real world’
To avoid any confusion here: there is nothing wrong with any of the above. Except, that the model works for just a fraction of people, languages, and content on our planet – and even for these it works only just about. Mainstream language service providers never step out of the ‘real world’, the silo they live in. They are worried about the profitability of their businesses, they complain about the low profit margins they make, they deplore the lack of training universities deliver to their future employees. When I listen to them, I sometimes wonder why they do what they do at all? It must be horrible to get up in the morning facing a day with under-qualified, moaning employees, clients that are like sharks ready to have them for lunch, and accountants telling them that their business is getting closer to the abyss of bankruptcy. They persevere, but even in their perseverance they only cater for about a quarter of the world’s population, a tiny fraction of the information and knowledge that should be exchanged across languages, and less than 5% of the world’s languages.

A new Approach: The Global Conversation in Communities
Less than a year ago, we came up with the idea of the Translation Commons ( It’s simple: there are tens of thousands of language volunteers happy to help global communities to exchange their knowledge and information across the languages of the world. We just need to connect them. The Translation Commons is where that happens. It is an open space that is maintained by The Rosetta Foundation. There are a few rules, but otherwise it is up to the volunteers and the communities to decide what is going to be translated. Impact and affecting change is what counts, not the number of words and profit. Within less than a year, the community using the Translation Commons has grown from nothing to an astonishingly:

  • 4,780 volunteers, 900 active users;
  • 60-70 volunteers working on projects per week on average;
  • 81 languages;
  • 106 partners, 70 of which active since started, 20 are active per week;
  • 30-40 registrations per week (volunteers and partners);
  • 850 projects since beginning, 539 projects of these on Trommons, 175 in two months (Jan/Feb ‘14);
  • 20 new projects/week on average; 66 active projects per week.

This ‘operation’ costs The Rosetta Foundation currently less than 4,000 euro per month, invested into the operation by people who believe it delivers incredible value, has a huge impact, affects tremendous change around the globe, and inspires translators, communities, and everybody working in The Rosetta Foundation and on the Translation Commons.

What you can do

If you share our believe that Language Matters, that language services are too important to be left to the ‘real world’, if you want to support the Global Conversation in Communities, this is what you can do:

If you would like to discuss your possible involvement in the development of the Translation Commons (it’s an open source project of The Rosetta Foundation!) or support our work by whatever means, please contact


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