The increasing importance of global content accessibility

“For the the Internet to fulfill its most ambitious promises,
we need to recognize translation as one of the core challenges to an open,
shared and collectively governed Internet. Many of us share a vision of the
Internet as a place where the good ideas of any person in any country can
influence thought and opinion around the world. This vision can only be realized
if we accept the challenge of a polyglot internet and build tools and systems
to bridge and translate between the hundreds of languages represented online.”
- Ethan Zuckerman, The Polyglot Internet

I had the privilege to speak recently alongside a number of people whose work I’ve admired for some time. We were on the beautiful University of California Berkeley campus at the Berkeley Globalization Conference put on by LISA (Localization Industry Standards Organization). The sessions covered a vast array of topics, from enterprise language intelligence to controlled authoring; from multilingual online marketing communication to the language industry’s role in the content management ecosystem.

Each of the two dozen or so different topics could form the foundation for a great CMS Myth article – or three. And I will no doubt incorporate that inspiration and information into future articles. But today I want to write about the topic that jumped out at me as the most weighty and inspiring one for content management professionals and publishers: the increasing importance of global content accessibility.

Much more than WCAG and Section 508

When I use the term accessibility here, I’m not referring only to making content available to people with disabilties, though that certainly forms an important piece of the global content accessibility puzzle. What I’m referring to in this case is the accessibility of content to as wide an audience as possible, without technological, linguistic or other barriers. I recently heard someone say that only ten percent of scientific papers are ever translated into another language from the one in which they were authored. This person went on to speculate that we may very well already have the cure for cancer or solutions to some of the most critical problems facing the world today. What if pieces of the solution are scattered across scientific papers in Chinese, Arabic, German and English and simply need to be translated and brought together into a single body of information?

Two speakers addressed the topic directly, but nearly everyone who presented
touched on it – whether they did so intentionally or not. Everyone involved
in the creation, publishing and management of content,
from content strategy and authoring through to localization and search visibility
optimization, affects its accessibility. And therefore we all have a degree
of responsibility to ensure the content we shepherd through the lifecycle
is as accessible to as many people as possible. For those of us in the
content management business, this means making sure the tools and processes
we develop, customize and implement encourage and enable highly accessible
content.

Globalization is dead. Long live globality.

I thought the idea of the importance of global content accessibility was introduced
and supported best by Donald Barabé, Vice President of the Canadian
Government Translation Bureau. He started by stating that in the globalized
world, the term “globalization” is passé; that we must now
talk instead about “globality.” He went on to explain that “globality
is the end-state of globalization – a hypothetical condition in which
the globalization process is complete or nearly so and a new global reality
is emerging.” While
some might argue that the intense and widespread economic turmoil of recent
years has caused some nations and organizations to scale back their international
initiatives, it would be difficult to argue that the world is not more globally
aware than ever before and that there is not dramatically greater interest
in cross-border information sharing. And that there are far more and better
technologies than ever to assist with the authoring, localization, publication
and management of that information across language barriers and national borders.

One startling example shared by Mr. Barabé: In 1909, there were 37 international
organizations and 130 international non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
In 2009, there are 500 international organizations and more than 10,000 international
NGOs! (In 1989 there were 300 international organizations and 4,200 international
NGOs.) The United Nations alone has six official languages: English, French,
Russian, Arabic, Chinese and Spanish. It’s for good reason that the staggering
volume of content that is authored, localized and managed at the U.N. is the
stuff of legend in the language services and content management industries.

Information poverty and the Asian language content gap

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” -
Nelson Mandela

In a another mind-expanding and sobering session, Kirti Vashee of Asia Online
illustrated the harsh realities of information poverty. He talked about all the
money and effort going into providing computers and Internet access to children
in developing nations, and the tragic truth that there is little content in their
languages for them to access once finally online.

Here are just some of the staggering facts Kirti shared: By 2013, nearly half
of all Internet users will be in Asia. Despite this, less than 14% of content
on the Internet is in an Asian language. Of that 14%, 6% is in Japanese, another
6% in Chinese, 1.5% in Korean and just 0.03% in all other Asian languages combined!
If the English language Wikipedia was translated
into the major Southeast Asian languages of Bahasa Indonesia, Bahasa Malay, Tagalog,
Thai and Vietnamese, it would, as one content source, represent more web pages
than all the rest of the online content in these languages combined.

The machine, the crowd and the network

Machine translation has long been the butt of jokes and the object of scorn
among professional translators and language purists. It has historically been relegated to churning
out gist translations of low-priority legacy technical support content and
always accompanied by detailed disclaimers absolving the publisher of all responsibility
for the accuracy of the translation. Broaching the topic of machine vs. human
translation at a language services industry event can inspire the kind of
passionate reactions that you might expect if you were to try distributing
leaflets for your candidate of choice at a business meeting in a presidential
election year. But the time for machine translation has come.

Companies like Google and Microsoft are featuring machine translation ever
more prominently in their offerings and, while still clunky at best in most
cases, machine translation is improving. It has to. There is simply far too
much content in far too many languages needed by far too many people to put
off the aggressive integration of machine translation into the global content
workflow. That said, it definitely has a long way to go before it will be reliable
for things like medical or legal translations – and it may never replace
human translators for creative content like marketing copy.

In the mean time, it continues to improve as a valuable tool for very quickly
generating a rough draft that can then be reviewed, edited and polished by
human translators. Those human translators are more and more coming together
via social networks and platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and others
and engaging in what is referred to as crowdsourced translation. In most cases
the crowd is translating from the original language, and in some they are acting
to correct and polish machine translations. In either case, it is proving to
be a very popular and – to the chagrin of many in the language services
industry – often very efficient means of translating and localizing applications
and content.

Think your content isn’t for an international audience? Think again!

I’m still surprised at how many content creators and website developers
tell me that they don’t need to worry about internationalization, localization
or translation — that their audience is comprised of U.S. English speakers
only. That’s a shortsighted, limiting – even selfish point of view.
Whether yours is a business, government, non-profit or academic organization,
there’s no way for you to know who may have an interest in and benefit from
your content. With Google Language Tools, Microsoft’s Bing Translator
and the rapidly growing list of other tools available to enable multilingual
search and machine translation of online content, there are more ways than
ever for Internet users around the world to find and read content in languages
other than their own. But that is only possible if the content is published
in a way that makes the use of these language tools possible.

And that will be my next article. Look for it in the next couple weeks!

About the Author

Steve has spent more than a decade building global brands and helping clients succeed online in the U.S. and abroad. A seasoned online business strategist and marketer, Steve has significant experience in the technology, entertainment, health care, publishing and travel & tourism industries, among others. In addition to writing magazine articles and white papers about international marketing and technology trends, Steve addresses audiences around the country, from the Japan Society of New York to the Software Association of Oregon. Steve is a citizen of the world, with a focus on Asia, and currently resides in Portland, Oregon where he works for Connective DX, a global agency serving clients from offices in Portland and Boston.

More articles from Steve Kemper

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