Testimonies

In 1983 the three-year-old Apple manufacturing facility in Cork began to assemble supplementary packs for European buyers of the company’s new Apple IIe computer. These contained special ROM components that configured the systems to support different character sets, keyboard layouts and video display formats. The packs enabled the workforce in Cork to ship ready-for-use computers to each country.

Apple’s in-house term for this procedure was ‘localisation’ – a word that later became associated with packaged software rather than electronic hardware.

When this transpired, it was Dublin, not Cork, that took centre-stage. One after another, the biggest software developers in the US selected the city as a base for engineering the international editions of their products. They contracted out translation, testing and logistics work to a growing band of specialist service providers, many of which had Dublin offices. Industry associations, university courses and collaborative research projects followed.

By the 1990s the city was a global hub for software localisation. Dublin was the place where simultaneous shipment milestones were achieved, where emerging translation technologies were trialled, where language engineering standards were defined and where localisation practitioners looked for expertise to address their problems.

After the turn of the century, however, online applications supplanted software packages. Most code was downloaded over the internet instead of shipped in boxes. Software design had evolved to accommodate linguistic and cultural diversity at an early stage of product development. The localisation industry consolidated and contracted. And Dublin’s pre-eminence declined.

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1982-91: Factories for software

The Industrial Development Authority (IDA) had a systematic method of increasing the number of US electronics firms in its client base. It tracked the emergence of new vendors, waited until their revenues reached a certain level and then asked them to consider producing their goods in Europe. It offered financial incentives – normally a fixed grant for each employee – for them to locate in Ireland rather than some other country.

Dozens of American hardware manufacturers – suppliers of computer systems and peripherals, electronic components and voice and data communications equipment – took up the IDA’s incentives. By the early 1980s some of their Irish operations had started to produce technical manuals and other documentation in different European languages. Some of these subsidiaries were also given the task of adapting products to meet the electrical and telecommunications standards that pertained in different European countries. The single market was still some years away and the national regulations were riddled with variations.

Many of the businesses approaching the IDA’s big-enough-to-expand-into-Europe threshold in those years were software developers, not equipment suppliers. The development agency had previously supported a string of projects in which US software companies hired programming staff in Ireland. None of these lived up to its expectations. Most, in fact, failed soon after they began.

The software trade was, however, changing rapidly with the arrival of applications for personal computers – products that were selling in numbers that the industry had never experienced before. These were shipped in boxes containing floppy disks that contained the code and documentation that was written for end users rather than trained computer administrators.

The assembly of software packages was a better much fit for the IDA’s industrialisation strategy than the development of software applications. Companies that were packaging products for use in Europe needed, however, to support a variety of languages, currencies and legal requirements.

MicroPro, the leading supplier of word processing packages for microcomputers, was the first American software company to undertake localisation in Ireland. It recruited an initial group of eight programmers in summer 1981, trained them in California and opened an office in Dun Laoghaire in March 1982. The new engineering group delivered MicroPro’s WordStar product in multiple languages and in separate versions for a wide range of computer models. The first non-English release was in Japanese. European translations came later. The Dun Laoghaire operation soon employed more linguists than programmers.

Language engineering was tedious and tricky in the early 1980s. Multilingual computing was not just a matter of finding correct translations for a piece of text in target languages. It also required the correct selection of characters and accents for each language. Then the translated text had to fit into pre-allocated spaces on the computer screen – an awkward task in the era before graphical user interfaces. Furthermore, by the time that an application was available in French or Japanese or Arabic, a new English language release was probably available and the computer’s operating system may have gained extra functionality.

Most software engineers who worked on core product development – especially the high fliers at corporate headquarters in California or Massachusetts – considered that their professional time was too valuable to waste on these complications. It was not long before the software factories in Ireland took notice of these attitudes and lobbied their parent organisations to add engineering tasks to their responsibilities.

Lotus Development pioneered this business strategy. In 1984 the company struck a deal with the IDA to open a facility in Santry. This would not only carry out disk duplication and packaging, but also provide work for local printing businesses. Lotus Development Ireland was initially modelled on the hardware assembly plants with production lines and warehousing. It even held an official opening ceremony where politicians trumpeted the government’s ability to ‘create’ jobs.

The local management at Lotus was acutely aware how transitory this type of job creation could be and that grant-subsidised warehouses were far from essential for technology corporations. Lotus general manager David MacDonald – who subsequently wrote an academic thesis on strategies for the Irish subsidiaries of US companies to make themselves indispensable – persuaded the parent organisation to set up a software development division in Santry. This group was given responsibility for localisation engineering and testing in 1986.

Software vendors like Microsoft, Claris and Ashton-Tate soon followed its example, often poaching staff from Lotus to share the expertise that they had gained there. By mid-1991 eight international corporations had established software localisation groups in Ireland and two more were at the planning stage.

Most of these firms farmed out text translation assignments to external service companies or to individual translators. It soon became apparent, though, that the localisation process was much broader than translation, requiring code modifications, testing and quality management. Localisation projects were also larger than other translation jobs, particularly when the big software vendors were preparing major product releases. The mainstream language services business was too fragmented to operate on this scale.

Dublin company Softrans International, which started trading in 1985, differed from existing translation services by offering software engineering skills as well. It went on to tackle the automation of localisation services, introducing its own computer assisted translation database. This suggested words, phrases and sentences in up to six different languages for the terminology in English texts.

As more US companies set up localisation units in and around Dublin, more start-ups surfaced to offer support services. Companies such as Softrans, ITP and ELT took advantage of an influx of people from other European countries to the city, hiring native speakers of various languages and training them on the job.

1992-99: Skills hub for a global industry

Software companies have always tended to imitate one another and therefore congregate in clusters. Lotus and Microsoft were the biggest names in applications software in the early 1990s. Oracle, Symantec, Corel, Frame Technology, Informix, Novell and other vendors followed their example by opening localisation units in Dublin.

These corporations generally started their Irish operations with software packaging and distribution, sourcing data storage media and printing services from external suppliers. But localisation was high on their agenda. Accordingly they sought out document authoring contractors, technical translation services and software testing specialists.

Localisation service providers from other places came to Dublin as well. IDOC and Berlitz, which bought a majority shareholding in Softrans in December 1991, were followed by specialists like Gecap, SimulTrans and Lionbridge Technologies.

Software translators generally concentrated on the few major European languages that accounted for most of the revenue streams for software products in languages other than English. For this reason the industry still classified as Arabic as a ‘smaller’ language – a ranking that had nothing to do with the number of speakers. Gradually, however, software vendors and localisation service providers paid more attention to languages with non-Roman characters and right-to-left text flows.

Localisation projects were not always successful. Some missed out on cultural nuances or suffered from linguistic blunders. The localisation business was also highly competitive and service providers had to subsist on thin profit margins.

At this stage of the industry’s evolution, each software product vendor still had its own style of project management and each localisation service provider had its own workflow practices. Some service providers invested in computer assisted translation or translation memory in the hope of reducing their costs. They did not necessarily inform their customers.

Inter-company collaboration was limited and uncoordinated until 1994, when a new representative body, the Software Localisation Industry Group (SLIG), was formed. In the following year the Localisation Resources Centre (LRC) started operations at the computer science department in University College Dublin, where it created a library of language translation tools and other software localisation products.

The Lotus organisation in Santry continued to act as a trendsetter in language engineering, pioneering new techniques and supporting customers throughout Europe, South East Asia, South America and the Middle East. Many of the localisation industry’s leaders had spent time at the Santry operation, which retained its international responsibilities after IBM acquired Lotus in 1995.

The Microsoft Worldwide Product Group in Sandyford, meanwhile, streamlined its translation procedures in conjunction with the introduction of the Windows 95 operating system. Unlike its predecessors, this release was designed for localisation. Display boxes on users’ screens were automatically resized when the original English text was replaced with something else. Windows 95 also required applications software suppliers to step up their localisation practices and to roll out products more rapidly in more languages.

In 1995 SLIG estimated that about 4,000 people in Ireland were employed directly in the engineering and manufacturing of localised products.

The big software publishers were now aiming to deliver major products simultaneously in multiple languages. This required them to address localisation issues at an earlier stage of the development and testing cycle. Their planning and process management methodologies evolved accordingly and, in some instances, localisation became embedded in their core business strategies. Simultaneous shipment policies also required faster translations. New technologies emerged, promising to streamline localisation project management or to automate aspects of text translation.

Developers like Trados and Lernout & Hauspie introduced ‘workbenches’ for translators and opened sales offices in Ireland to target potential customers. The most notable Irish-originated offering in this field was the Catalyst translation management system from Corel’s office in Dublin.

At the end of 1998 the LRC shifted its priority to national and international research, tweaked its name and became the Localisation Research Centre. It also moved to the University of Limerick. The LRC ran conferences that attracted localisation practitioners from across Europe and North America. Later on, it reached out to Asia and Africa and organised events for localisation professionals in those territories as well.

The cluster of software vendors and localisation companies in Dublin had now matured into a skills hub for a global industry. Along the way the biggest players had absorbed most of the small outfits, which meant that few of the service providers in and around the city were Irish-owned. SDL International’s takeover of International Translation and Publishing in March 2000 emphasised this reality.

2000-02: Monopoly players

Customer expectations were changing in the localisation industry as the new millennium dawned. Marshalling resources behind the latest release of an operating system, spreadsheet or database was less critical than in the past. Most software was now distributed online with little or no documentation. Updates were more frequent and more routine. Information and support were delivered over the web and translation services would soon go online as well.

Furthermore, the largest software companies were no longer releasing their applications in just four or five major languages. Some were asking for versions in 100 or more, hoping to generate sales in parts of Asia and Africa that had been overlooked in previous decades. Other vendors, in contrast, were now concentrating on very specific lines of business where end users were willing to accept American English as a global working language. These developers found that they could ignore localisation completely.

The early 2000s was a time of upheaval for all technology-based businesses. The internet-oriented ‘dot com’ ventures that had shot to prominence in the previous decade were falling just as rapidly. Their financial value dropped and many ceased trading or were acquired at bargain prices.

Software localisation was susceptible to this wave of slowdown and consolidation, succumbing to a wave of mergers and acquisitions in the same way as other information technology services.

The surviving language service providers – most notably Berlitz GlobalNet, Bowne Global Services, Lionbridge and SDL International – attempted to scale up their operations and to deliver a full spectrum of consulting, translating, engineering and testing services to the software industry. They hoped to become so indispensable to the product vendors that they could raise their charges and thus recoup the costs of their acquisitions. Their goal was to grow big enough to become exclusive contractors to the likes of Microsoft.

None, however, were able to achieve this sort of dominance or to command higher prices. The costs of entering the localisation industry were still relatively low and the international growth of smaller contenders frustrated the would-be monopolists. Alpnet, Moravia IT and Uniscape, for example, expanded into Ireland during the years of consolidation.

There were, of course, requirements for localisation in areas other than software. But the localisation industry in and around Dublin had evolved through a close association with the software trade. Its structure and practices reflected this background.

Some service providers had tried to diversify into multimedia technology in the 1990s, but this never really took off. Multilingual web sites presented more attractive opportunities in the 2000s, but web content translation was a much less centralised activity than software package translation. It did not need monopoly service providers and it did not need geographic centres of expertise.

Dublin-based engineers continued to play key roles in standards development. The XML Localization Interchange File Format (XLIFF), indeed, became a landmark standard for the exchange of text, glossaries, translation memory and software code. XLIFF originated in a dialogue among the Dublin subsidiaries of Novell, Oracle and Sun.

The Institute of Localisation Professionals (TILP) was also born in Ireland. Launched in 2002, this was a representative body for localisation professionals, rather than an association for the companies in which they worked.

Dublin’s pre-eminence in the localisation industry was gradually eroded in the 21st century. The chance convergence of software factories, technical translators and multilingual coders in the city had evidently run its course. The industry could take pride, however, in what it had conceived in the 1980s and achieved in the 1990s. Packaged applications on floppy disks had disappeared. But the Dublin cluster had produced project management methods, translation tools and technical standards that were far more durable.

Last edit: April 2018

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