Understanding the Translation Interoperability Challenge

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JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

Warsaw, Poland was the site of the 2011 Translation Management Europe conference. As the second keynote speaker, I presented the business case that many companies use to move to the OASIS DITA standard. Because many business cases are based on the promised reduction of translation costs, the delegates to the conference, mainly representatives from localization service providers (LSPs), were interested in learning more.

However, the conference was a learning experience for me as well. Speakers representing LSPs, localization coordinators at the “buying” companies, and academia, focused on the need for Translation Package standards. Unless LSPs agree to follow an interchange standard, it is highly likely that as buyers of translation services, we will find that our content is not secure.

LSPs use a wide variety of software tools to manage the translation processes. The translators themselves, most of whom are freelancers, use other tools. Each of the tools developers interprets the standards, such as Translation Memory Exchange (TMX) or the XML Localisation Interchange File Format (XLIFF), differently. They add their own functionality to the standard configuration, resulting in interoperability problems. One illustration showed a significant loss of data when a translation package was moved from one tool to another. No tools provider, it was suggested, fully complies with all the requirements of the standards.

As buyers of localization and translation, information-development managers need to be aware of the potential interoperability problems, particularly if you send content for translation to a variety of LSPs. Data in your source files can be eroded through the process of moving files from one tool to another. File erosion can affect your translation memory and information about your project. The possible loss of project information means that you may have difficulty communicating your requirements with your vendors, your reviewers, and your authors.

In a recent incident, we experienced directly the problems that could be caused by translation tools, especially those that are not tuned to work with DITA files. An older version of a translation tool inserted spaces between DITA elements. The spaces resulted in extra blank links in the translation PDFs. It took many hours of investigation to discover what had happened and to find a solution to correct the corrupted files.

As the conference speakers pointed out, tools vendors want to provide the best solutions for their customers. They may implement only part of a standard or add their own proprietary functionality to the standard. The interoperability promise of using a standard suffers as a result.

Content management system vendors and developers of XML editing tools do the same thing. We find many “versions” of DITA support, much of which makes the content difficult to exchange from one system or tool to another. If content is moved, valuable information and functionality may be lost.

As the speakers at TM-Europe pointed out, tools developers need to agree on the importance of interoperability and adherence to the set of standards. Customers need to be aware of the issues involved and demand that the standards are correctly implemented and “extensions” to the standards do not make it difficult or impossible to move content from one system to another.

If you have moved to the DITA standard to reduce translation costs, you need to become educated about the entire translation process. You must understand the benefits and limitations of the tools that your LSPs use in their processes. It’s not enough anymore simply to toss the source files to the LSPs and translators. You must understand how the processes work in detail. Without this understanding, you are likely to end up with little or no cost savings.

A compliant implementation of the OASIS XLIFF standard promises to correct the problems. The panel led by Micah Bly, translation coordinator at Medtronic, a medical device company, demonstrated the TIP solution. TIP stands for Translation Interoperability Protocol. TIP allows for the seamless exchange of data between tools in the translation tool chain by using a subset of XLIFF 1.2 elements and attributes (extensions). For more information about TIP, go to the LinkedIn group, Interoperability-Now. This protocol is open, non-proprietary, simple, easy to implement, and fully documented. Insist that your LSP implement TIP as soon as possible.

For more information about the OASIS XLIFF standard, review Comtech’s August 2011 DITA/XLIFF webinar at <http://www.comtech-serv.com/webinar-ditaxliff.shtml> and information about DITA and XLIFF at <http://www.oasis-open.org/committees/download.php/29787/XLIFF_DITA-webinar.htm>

Dr. JoAnn Hackos is the CIDM Director.