Is blockchain technology right for the language translation industry? Anyone working for, or with human translation services — or who might depend on a good translation document now and then — might have heard a bit of buzz about blockchain lately. But what exactly is blockchain technology (for those who aren’t quite sure), and will it help transform the translation and localization process, or not make much impact on written translation services at all?
We talked to Dr. Atefeh Mashatan, an expert on cryptography and information systems security at the Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, about the general hype around blockchain, the future merits of blockchain outside the financial world, and the impact it may or may not have on different industries — including the translation services industry.
GlobalVision: For the uninitiated working in the translation services sector, could you briefly detail what blockchain actually is, as well as differentiate it from cryptocurrency (for anyone who might still confuse the two)?
Atefeh Mashatan opens in a new window: In its simplest form, blockchain technology is a type of Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) that is virtually centralized meaning there is only one version of the truth, i.e., that information captured on the ledger. Other features such as smart contract capabilities have been added so that contracts or transactions can be executed automatically.
Blockchain Technology was initially developed as the enabling technology behind Bitcoin. And that’s why many non-technical people may confuse the two. However, since its initial development, blockchain technology has been applied to many different use cases other than cryptocurrencies, and in many industries other than finance.
GlobalVision: In your opinion, why is there so much hype around blockchain systems these days — including inside the language translation field?
Atefeh Mashatan: The description I have written for our [Fields Institute Technology Symposium] event answers your second question on point:
“Blockchain technology has solved a fundamental problem of how one can prove, and effectively manage, the ownership of an asset in an environment where everything can be copied or modified. With this problem solved, the Internet can be used as the foundation to build out large-scale transaction processing platforms. This fundamental breakthrough has created a lot of interest and investment in both academia and industry. Due to the great potential in revolutionizing many industry applications, there is a lot of hype and enthusiasm in the industry about blockchain technology.”
GlobalVision: In the translation industry, and for local translation services, there’s talk about how blockchain systems can speed up the payment process (between vendors, translators and clients), and perhaps reduce overall business and operations costs. For translation services and other industries, what are some of the pros, cons and obstacles to implementing blockchain?
Atefeh Mashatan: Blockchains allow for transparency, efficiency, immutability of records, auditability, privacy, and security, which reduce problems of system component and database redundancy, fraud, misuse, and many privacy and cybersecurity challenges. Although blockchain technology has been around for about a decade, and industry enthusiasts have been advertising it in the past five years, we have not seen any widespread implementations beyond cryptocurrencies.
This raises the inevitable question of why we do not see widespread implementations if blockchain technology has this much potential. Few industries have fully adopted blockchain technology so far, and most efforts have only manifested in Proof-of-Concept implementations, as opposed to systems employed in production.
GlobalVision: As already touched upon, there’s some hype about blockchain in the translation document industry. What are some issues translation services and other businesses might have to contend with if integrating blockchain-based systems into their standard workflow (for example, blockchain giving translation clients more verifiable and traceable access to different sections of an ongoing translation project)?
Atefeh Mashatan: There are serious challenges on our way to benefit from the full potential of this nascent technology. Some of these challenges are easier to resolve, while others may take considerable amount of time and coordination among industry stakeholders. Some of these roadblocks are of a technical nature, while others are business related. Scalability and performance issues, cybersecurity challenges, and integration and interoperability concerns are technical challenges the industry has to address prior to mainstream implementations. Until then, the industry’s reluctance is due to lack of trust in this technology.
Unlike many other technologies which were first developed and matured in academia before the industry got excited about them, blockchain technology has not been vetted or gone through academic due diligence, which makes it susceptible to a variety of issues. It is highly expected that the industry will overcome the aforementioned technical challenges in due time by dedicating adequate resources. It is the business challenges that will pose as more persistent roadblocks on our way to a widespread industry adoption of blockchain technology. Ambiguity in the governance, uncertain regulatory status, and cultural adaptation challenges are among the business issues we will face on our road to widespread integration with blockchain-based systems and processes.
Blockchain Technology Use Within the Language Translation Industry
Given the complexity of the development and implementation of blockchain technology, the size of the translation industry, and its reliance on a much smaller translation software market, it is unlikely that blockchain technology will be implemented from the ground up in any of the solutions used by our industry. The more likely scenario will be the use of platforms and solutions, developed by more comprehensive industries, that will have blockchain technology embedded in them.
For instance, we foresee PayPal and larger banks moving a lot quicker in implementing and utilizing blockchain to address international transaction needs than the translation industry can ever fathom to achieve. Paying suppliers in the language translation industry will continue to take place through current mediums even if in the future blockchain technology is used in that process.
Similarly, major database companies, whose tools are the foundation of Translation Memory solutions, can much more rapidly implement and adapt blockchain technology to create inter-relational properties with data than the translation industry can on its own.
Who is Likely to Succeed with Blockchain?
Finally, companies developing machine translation engines utilizing neural networks hardware and software may rely on blockchain and similar technologies to achieve higher accuracy and scale. It is much more likely that larger companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon or Microsoft will be able to achieve that than smaller companies focused only on providing translation services to a limited set of clients.
Bottom line, blockchain technology advancements will be leveraged by the translation industry, but not before they become ubiquitous and cost effective.
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