Localization strategy

Translation Management System: What It Is, and Key Features

A translation management system is a type of software designed to automate the translation process. Learn what makes a strong TMS and how to choose the best one for your translation needs.
Localization strategy blog category featured image | Phrase

Doing business on a global scale increasingly demands offering products and services in the native language of the buyer. To put it simply, buyers expect quality translated and localized content at every stage of the buying cycle.

Managing the complete translation of a product or service information package in one language is complex enough. Managing multiple languages across multiple products can get out of control fast, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Localization technology can help.

Translation management systems (TMS) are software platforms designed from the ground up for translation project management at scale. They create a workflow from the initial upload of content to the finalized reformatting of the completed translations.

This guide walks you through what that means, the technical considerations involved, and how to make a purchasing decision. It also addresses costs, capabilities, customer support, and training. Finally, it looks at how to integrate the translation management platform into your globalization strategy.

What is a translation management system (TMS)?

A translation management system is software that facilitates the processes of translation and localization from start to finish through smart automation. It eliminates manual and repetitive tasks and improves the efficiency of teams across the globe.

By incorporating project management and business intelligence features, a TMS is able to fully manage the flow of content in multiple languages through the complete localization process—from uploading localization files and the actual translation to publishing. There is key-based and file-based TMS software.

Translation management systems vary by specialization, type of content, and user requirements. Nevertheless, most contain a core set of functions:

  • Automated importing and exporting of content
  • Support for multiple languages, concurrently
  • Tracking of progress from import to translator and reviewer, and export back to the source application
  • Report generation
  • Time management
  • Vendor management
  • Project progress monitoring and reporting
  • Billing, invoicing, and cost tracking
  • Machine translation (MT) capability
  • Integral translation memory (TM)
  • Integral glossary or termbase
  • Integral in-context support or knowledge base
  • Out-of-the-box integrations with other tools
  • Application programming interfaces (API) for connectivity to existing systems

By seamlessly integrating all of the above capabilities, a TMS provides translation and localization teams with a centralized platform for collaboration. It is an all-in-one tool for taking products or services global and key for implementing a localization strategy.

The difference between translation and localization

To evaluate and select a translation management system, it helps to understand the difference between translation and localization. While these terms are often used interchangeably, they have different definitions:

  • Translation is the transfer of text from one language (the source) to another (the target). The goal is to accurately reflect the meaning and purpose of the original.
  • Localization is the process of adapting that translation to the culture of the target market so that it looks and feels as native as possible.

For example, there are multiple versions of Spanish based on the country it is spoken in—European, Mexican, Argentinian Spanish, and so on. Delivering the exact same translation to all of them can cause issues based on national pride and identity, or there is an actual difference in meaning.

On-site vs. cloud-based translation management systems

When selecting a translation system, one important consideration is whether it exists on internal, physical servers or is based in the cloud online.

An on-site TMS is software installed on a company’s server and managed by its IT team. Any updates and feature upgrades require downloading and installing new software versions. These systems are typically required when security, legal, or intellectual property issues are a concern.

In contrast, cloud-based translation management systems exist entirely online. Provided an internet connection is available, they can be accessed remotely via a browser interface.

The advantages of a cloud-based translation management system are manifold:

  • Smooth implementation of the translation and localization process, thanks to the ready-to-use, yet customizable workflow of the cloud-based TMS.
  • Easy access to the translation platform from any device, anywhere, and anytime.
  • Flexibility: A cloud-based TMS is able to adapt to your business requirements and scale with your growing translation and localization needs.
  • Enhanced security against data loss in case of a system failure, thanks to multiple virtual servers underpinning the TMS.
  • Cost-savings: The cloud-based TMS provider is responsible for ensuring the platform is up and running at all times, so there is no need to invest in complex internal infrastructure and maintenance.

Why does a business need a translation management system?

The fast-paced globalization of markets fuels expectations of content to be published in multiple languages. Coupled with the growing information economy, this can mean dealing with a bewildering array of content types—from technical documentation to marketing materials. Multiply it by ten or more languages, and you have a project management nightmare.

For decades, spreadsheets might have worked for small-scale translation projects, but localization needs have evolved so fast that things can quickly spiral out of control with ever-growing teams of managers, linguists, developers, and designers working across time zones and geographies.

Think about it for a second. It can be easy to make a mistake in a process where you need to constantly monitor, update, and modify a spreadsheet. Now, multiply that chance by the number of people involved in the project, and you've got yourself a recipe for a disaster. It takes only one translator to send the wrong version to lose days or even weeks of work.

The process starts with copying content from its source to a spreadsheet and then spreading it across to translators. Once they’re done translating, they send their work in the form of a text document or another spreadsheet that must be once again copied and pasted into the original spreadsheet.

Since translations can vary in quality, it can happen very easily that a string ends up untranslated or pasted into the wrong cell. Going back to find and fix these errors can be hard and time-consuming.

On the other hand, if they are left undetected, they can cause issues for your end-users or just leave your product looking unprofessional. Because of the above, it can be difficult to calculate the real cost of your process as well as your translation management ROI.

With translation software embedded in your localization strategy from the start, the improved ability to manage multiple languages across a product or service line means:

  • Faster time to market
  • Stronger international brand reputation
  • Increased global revenue growth

A translation management system speeds up the time to market

Translation can be time-consuming, especially when the volume of product and service information keeps growing. Any tool that makes the translation and localization processes faster than manual management directly impacts time to market.

Recently, it has been common for products to sit in warehouses ready for shipping but waiting for translated documentation. As supply chains move faster, a more effective translation process, made possible through an integrated TMS, becomes critical to moving faster when entering new markets.

Translation software strengthens international brand reputation

Reputation is based on perceived quality, the buying experience, and the user experience with the product or service. A highly-respected international brand can remove cost objections and assure new buyers that the experience will be beneficial.

Translated content is often the global buyer’s first exposure to a company’s culture and values. The quality of that translation, its respect for the buyer’s culture, and the responsiveness of the company when entering new markets are all important. A TMS, with its quality control and review processes, can make a big difference in brand perception and acceptance from day one.

A translation management tool can increase global revenue growth

Revenue is directly related to time and reputation. The faster you can bring a product to new markets, the sooner you will see improved growth rates on an international scale. The aforementioned quality controls also mean a product with a great reputation may be chosen over one with a lesser reputation, even if the cost is higher. A translation management system greatly improves a company’s ability to manage multiple translations faster while maintaining quality. This translates directly into increased cash flow.

What are the advantages of a translation management system?

Without an integrated translation tool, translation teams need to coordinate via email, spreadsheets, or disparate chat tools. The use of freestanding, special-purpose applications like translation memories and machine translation engines must be handled manually. These ad-hoc solutions may be fine for basic translation in minimal languages.

However, as soon as the translation requirements get more complex, manual processes can considerably slow things. When content is moved from format to format and person to person, the probability of errors and omissions is multiplied. Translation platforms address all these issues by giving a business a dedicated workspace for end-to-end translation project management.

Translate content at scale through smart automation

One of the key advantages of translation technology is its ability to automate tasks like content flow through translation memories, communication between various stakeholders, report generation, and more. Once the content is entered into the system, it remains there throughout the process, eliminating version control issues.

The degree of automation varies from system to system, as do the configuration options. For example, some TMSs use integrations with multiple machine translation engines, each with its own strengths. Smart automation ensures a faster and more consistent process when handling high volumes of content and multiple languages.

This automation is particularly useful when using the TMS as a localization tool. It ensures that the translated code or user interface elements will not “break” the software or website.

Foster collaborative teamwork in the cloud

One of the most powerful aspects of working within a translation management system are its collaboration and internal communication tools. Translation is a highly collaborative process involving project managers, department and product managers, translators (often outside contractors), and others. Working in a unified communication environment makes this much easier to track and manage.

Rather than emails and notes attached to files, the system stores metadata about each piece of content. These metadata snippets or tags help keep it in context as it moves from project manager to translator and others in the workflow. Management can “see” into the workflow to track progress, cost and financial issues, and adherence to schedules.

Integrate with your existing tech stack

A TMS does not operate in a vacuum. Content is created in other systems like content management systems (CMS), product information management (PIM) software, and other creation and publication systems. In sales, for example, the ability to quickly retrieve and share translated materials can help automate the sales information-sharing process. APIs can automatically deliver translated content to customer relationship management (CRM) systems. Many TMSs offer built-in connectivity with the leading tools, making integration with familiar tech stacks easy and automatic.

Ensure translation quality and consistency

Translated content represents your company or organization in a global transaction. Poor quality or inconsistent style reflects poorly on your products or services. Maintaining quality is a primary reason to invest in a TMS. The system contains tools that are designed to not only maintain a consistent voice but to avoid unnecessary translation costs.

  • Translation memory parses the content and identifies any sentences or sections, such as safety warnings, that may be used consistently across a variety of content. It saves the earlier translations and compares word-for-word matches to determine if the previously translated content can be reused. It's important to note that data saved in the translation memory is a valuable corporate asset that grows over time.
  • Term bases, also referred to as translation glossaries, give translators and reviewers consistent guidelines on the meaning and usage of words and phrases that appear frequently in product documentation and other content. They provide an instant reference, with the context of the content, for recommended usage, syntax, abbreviations, and more. Glossaries, when integrated into the TMS, are instantly accessible at any stage of the translation workflow.
  • Translation style guides: A TMS may support the creation of native language style guides that are automatically included with the translation package, ensuring consistent voice and brand identity. Style guides give specific directions to translators for use of industry, business, or product-specific terminology, formatting, SEO, and other standardized practices determined by the business’ communication team.

Other built-in tools for helping with context include the ability to attach screenshots with text—useful for user interface (UI) translation or when working with multimedia content like video. Commenting gives the project managers and others the ability to attach comments to a piece in context. Software translation management systems offer a tagging or metadata capability to control the code quality and functionality as it is translated.

Reduce translation costs

The internal tools mentioned above serve an equally important function when it comes to reducing translation costs. They eliminate many manual tasks to speed up the workflow when dealing with high volumes of information in multiple formats and languages.

Machine translation streamlines the overall translation process

One major factor in saving time and reducing the cost of translation is the growing viability of machine translation (MT) engines. These tools, usually developed by specialized providers, use AI and machine learning to provide a basic translation that can serve as a starting point for human translation.

Some TMSs integrate one or more MT systems into their workflow, generating a translation and including it in the package sent out for translation and localization. It is advantageous to have access to multiple MT options as some are specialized for various types of content, like technical documentation or software UI elements.

It is important to note that these MT systems become more and more sophisticated over time as they “learn” from repeated usage. For many basic translations, their output may be usable as is when a fast turnaround is required.

Faster time to market means faster revenue growth, but translation can become a bottleneck that holds everything up. The use of a robust TMS goes a long way towards eliminating these costly roadblocks to market entry—and as the translation team becomes more familiar with the tool, these savings will rise via improved efficiency.

How does a translation management system work?

The basic building block of any TMS is a defined translation workflow. Translation is a linear process, starting with content, and ending with that content translated and returned to its context, ready for publication. Understanding these workflows helps you understand how these systems work.

File preparation for translation and localization

The first step in the workflow is the preparation of content for translation. This may include any required editing, flagging potential issues like word length or colloquialisms, running content through translation memory, and running a machine translation engine as a reference for the translator.

Extracting content, building a resource file, and importing it into the workflow

The prepared content is packaged up for delivery to the translator. This package may include a resource file for storing text for reuse, any special instructions or comments, and machine translation output. The package is delivered to the translator, whether in-house or a contractor.

Translator selection and communication

Translators come in many types. Ideally, they are native speakers of the target language and subject matter experts in the topic being translated. The system should contain internal tools for finding vendors that are the best fit for the project, cost, and determining their availability.

Once a match is made, all communications ideally take place within the system. This provides a paper trail in case of a disagreement and helps eliminate redundant communication and version control issues.

Post-translation quality review

An important step in the workflow is the translation quality review, generally done by another translation professional. This provides the necessary second sets of eyes’ for identifying quality issues. The system routes the translation to the reviewer and tracks progress and comments.

Re-import of content for publication

Reintegration of the content from translated text to the final format is a big translation challenge. The content might be text to be inserted or referenced by code, audio tracks transcribed into subtitles, marketing copy, or technical documentation.

A TMS uses information like tags or metadata that stays with the content throughout the workflow and tells the system how it should be handled. After some initial configuration, much of this complex work can be automated within the system.

Vendor billing management

Financial management tools like vendor management and payables, invoicing, and reports for senior managers are tools built into modern TMSs. The system compiles process information data such as cost, time factors, and other data points and then offers the ability to generate a variety of reports with that data. This helps with progress and expense tracking, and it helps to identify areas for workflow optimization.

What is the best translation management system?

It all depends on your needs, budget, and desired outcome. The best translation management system is a cloud-based, all-in-one platform that streamlines your translation management end to end. When evaluating a translation management system, like Phrase TMS, you need to consider both your business needs and the budget available. Here is an overview of factors to consider when looking for the optimal translation management system for your requirements:

Is it a specialized or general-use tool?

Each TMS has its own strengths and weaknesses. Some are more scalable than others. This is important if you anticipate high volumes of content and multiple languages. Some are designed for language service providers used by many companies to outsource translation, while others are better for in-house teams.

A specialized TMS may focus on translations with unique requirements like software, UI, or audio-video content. You need to determine if you need a general workhorse or a highly sophisticated tool designed for one purpose. You also may consider building an internal localization team as part of your selection process.

Ease of use and customer support

Translation management systems can be complex, with a lengthy learning curve that requires training. They often become mission-critical, so downtime can be a real issue as delays inquire costs and lost goodwill. The customer support and training packages offered should be evaluated as part of the buying process.

Ease of use is critical, especially if your team is relatively new to managing translation and localization. You may have the option of getting a basic system and upgrading its capability as your sophistication and requirements expand.

Costs: direct and indirect

Most cloud-based TMSs, which make up the majority of modern solutions available, are based on a subscription. This may be based on data flow, user counts, implementation costs, customer support package costs, and more. When comparing, it helps to determine a process for comparing these actual costs from vendor to vendor.

If you require an on-site solution for security or legal reasons, the system will probably involve a custom price quote that also includes costs for periodic updates, upgrades, and bug fixes. It may require an initial installation by the provider’s technicians on your servers.

Who else is using it?

Ask to talk to others who are using the system you are interested in. By comparing notes with actual users you can determine if the system is a good match for your requirements. User review sites like G2 or Capterra can also be useful in discovering how products are used and rated by actual users.

Advanced machine translation capabilities

A relatively recent feature addition to many systems are integrated connections to one or more machine translation engines like those developed by Google, Amazon, and others. Every day, these engines use artificial intelligence and machine learning tools to increase the quality and range of their translations. Translation management systems with strong machine translation integration may be the most scalable and highly valued as these tools improve.

Trialing a translation management system

Most TMS vendors offer a user trial period where you have a certain amount of time to try out the system, learn its basic functionality, evaluate usability, and get a general feel for its value. It is strongly recommended that you combine these trials with the available customer success team support. This support can greatly improve the onboarding experience and make evaluation much easier.

Because choosing a translation management system is a significant investment and key for the global success of your business, it is recommended that you reach out to providers and work with them at some point in your evaluation. Given the complexity and importance of this choice, interaction with their sales or engineering team early in the process is a good idea. You will be glad you reached out.