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Dream job? Knowing English is not enough

By Nandini Lakshman, BusinessWeek
July 18, 2007 12:31 IST
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What's the big advantage that India has over China? That's easy: It's India's more than 200 million English-speaking workers. But English-language skills in India only go so far. The world's largest democracy has 18 official spoken languages and 52 dialects, including Bhojpuri and Pahari.

This linguistic reality is increasingly presenting multinationals with a problem. More and more companies are setting up factories and hiring workers with limited English. Other companies want to market their products to India's newly affluent consumers, but a mastery of Hindi, Malayalam, and Tamil is essential to reach them.

As India's economy continues to open and grow, English is no longer the de facto language of business and selling. Yet the economy lacks the legions of skilled Indic language translators it needs to overcome these obstacles. "There are self-taught translators in India, but getting professional people is tough," says Ravi Kumar, founder of the New Delhi-based Indian Translators Association.

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That means a huge new opportunity is developing for firms that can provide essential translation services, whether through trained specialists or the use of sophisticated new translation software. When a global pharmaceutical company set up its plant in India a few months ago, most of the local workers it hired didn't know English. So it hired an American outsourcing specialist, Mumbai-based Lionbridge Technologies, to draw up an e-learning and safety manual in the local language of Hindi.

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"There's great demand for localization in India, but almost no supply of translators," says Robin Lloyd, vice-president of Lionbridge India, which began offering Indian language translations only a couple of years ago.

When Finnish handset maker Nokia wanted to reach out to India's heartland, it developed 10 local language interfaces on its mobile phones. All its manuals had to be translated into the local languages. And a year ago, when Google and Microsoft decided to make the world's information available to local Indians, it wasn't just a question of translating their existing English content, but developing new content.

Launched in January, Microsoft's Vista operating system is already available in nine Indian languages, including Tamil, Kannada, and Telugu. MSN India believes that developing local language content is key to growth. "We have to go where our advertisers go," says Jaspreet Bindra, MSN's country manager.

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Meanwhile, the big advertisers like Motorola and Hewlett-Packard are seeking consumers in the hinterland. So much so that even as English language print and television media are booming, the top five most-read publications are still regional and published in Hindi, Malayalam, and Gujarati. And the regional-language television channels continue to score over their English counterparts by a wide margin.

Developing standards for translators

Today, while Google's toolbar and menu appear in five Indian languages, Google search is available in at least eight. "As we relate to Indian users, we have to address two central issues: How do we organize all of India's information, and how do we make it accessible and useful to Indians," says Prasad Ram, research and development head at Google India's headquarters in Hyderabad.

Such concerns weren't always so pressing. Until quite recently, companies hired a neighborhood translator with fluency in two or more Indian languages. Now casual language skills are no longer enough, and the demand for professional translators is overwhelming.

And in information technology, where the skills shortage is forcing IT companies to develop an industry-required curriculum in engineering colleges, the disorganized translation industry is starting from ground zero to develop professional standards.

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To satisfy this explosive demand, Aksharmala, a training academy in Mumbai's northern suburb of Powai, boasts India's first translation institute. It was launched by Lionbridge in collaboration with the Mumbai-based SNDT University, a women's institution. Talks are under way for similar tie-ins with institutions across India.

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Aksharmala picks up students already fluent in languages and trains them in the rudiments of commercial translation. Even Kumar of the Indian Translators Assn., who also runs New Delhi-based translation agency AlliedModlingua, says he has to invest in training.

"We are not here to teach languages, but to provide technical knowledge on how to be a professional translator," says Lionbridge India's Lloyd. It's hard work. India is the only place where "we have to create a translator from raw material," he adds.

When Ravindra Katyayan was teaching Hindi at SNDT University, he was moonlighting as a translator, helping translate English literary works into Hindi. Now writing his first script for a Bollywood movie, the 39-year-old Katyayan says that his stint at Aksharmala has helped him master the technical tools required for his new craft. And his assignments, once sporadic, now come regularly.

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He has translated work manuals and software content for Motorola, Nokia, Microsoft, and Yahoo!. Chicago-based Indian technocrat-cum-entrepreneur Sam Pitroda last year said that the demand for such services is so high that "it has the potential to generate more than 500,000 jobs in India."

It is this lucrative aspect that has prompted Shivram Mudaliar, fluent in the South Indian language of Tamil, to continue to localize outdoor and print advertising for ad agencies for more than two decades. A bachelor of arts, he started translations from his suburban Mumbai home to make extra money in college.

But today he is aiming high. He plans to take a course from the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, on how to use translation productivity software that analyses text and recreates the meaning in the desired language. "The opportunities are tremendous," he says.

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Nandini Lakshman, BusinessWeek

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