Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

When Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard built their first audio oscillator in a Palo Alto garage in 1939, they can hardly have foreseen that one day the company that bore their names would need technology to translate its literature into 36 languages.

But with global exposure comes the challenge of publishing in 170 countries, a feat Hewlett-Packard meets through the use of more than 200 translation agencies.

This in itself creates a co-ordination challenge – any small change made to a piece of HP’s documentation may have to be reflected in numerous translations, in formats ranging from the web to printed manuals.

Consistent terminology is also important, particularly in making technical documents comprehensible, and for maintaining the company’s branding in marketing material. The task is even more difficult when different agencies are working on parts of the same document.

Alison Toon, translation and localisation manager of HP’s content management services group, was asked in late 1998 to review translation of one of the group’s support websites. As well as improving consistency, Ms Toon’s aim was to avoid paying for duplicate translations and to manage the workflow of tasks such as breaking up documents, checking formats, sending them to translation agencies and then to reviewers.

There was limited use of “translation memory” software tools, but Ms Toon says: “Often, they were just scanning files and seeing what the difference was.”

From a fairly small pool of available tools, Ms Toon and her team selected Uniscape, an enterprise-wide platform that centralised translations and managed workflow.

After first deploying it for Japanese translations, Uniscape proved so successful that it was used for other languages on the website.

Ms Toon’s remit grew as other parts of HP’s business began asking for her team to look at their translation processes.

Ironically, Uniscape itself was bought just days after HP completed its Compaq acquisition in May 2002. Uniscape’s new owner, Trados, led the market for desktop software tools for translation agencies and renamed the Uniscape suite Trados GXT.

HP now uses Trados tools with half a dozen content management systems and several customised databases. One of Ms Toon’s team members can alter the Trados platform to work with new systems in about a day, and staff in many of HP’s business units can request translation via an intranet portal.

In June 2005, Trados was bought by SDL, a translation agency. SDL supplies services to HP and Ms Toon says there was some apprehension among translation agencies, as many of them use Trados software but compete with SDL. “But we’re working to keep everything separate,” she says.

An average of 50 per cent of translated work is now re-used as a result of the Trados/SDL deployment.

The returns on investment have varied within different business units. However, Ms Toon says that if the deployment had not gone ahead, her own unit would need three times as many staff as it has today.

Cost-savings have also helped HP to expand the number of languages it uses.


To put online translation tools to the test, we decided to feed the opening lines of the Balzac classic Le Cousin Pons into SDL’s engine at freetranslation.com.

This may have been a little unfair as no translation software company claims its tools are well suited to interpreting fiction. Most are better geared towards industrial publications, such as tractor instruction manuals, but we neither had one of those, nor felt any particular inclination to read one, so opted for Balzac instead.

In the spirit of fair play, we also subjected the same chunk of text to the C-grade schoolboy French of Ben Hunt, FT Digital Business editor, who tackled it in exam conditions and without reference to a dictionary, online or otherwise.

Below are the original French, followed by the online translation, Mr Hunt’s, and finally the 1968 translation of the late linguist Herbert Hunt (no relation), which is now available as a Penguin Classic.


Vers trois heures dans l’après-midi, dans le mois d’octobre de l’année 1844, un homme âgé d’une soixantaine d’années, mais à qui tout le monde eût donné plus que cet âge, allait le long du boulevard des Italiens, le nez à la piste, les lèvres papelardes, comme un négociant qui vient du conclure une excellente affaire ou comme un garçon content de lui-même au sortir d’un boudoir. C’est à Paris la plus grande expression connue de la personnelle chez l’homme.


About three hours in the afternoon, in the month of October of the year 1844, a man of age an about 60 of years, but has that everyone eût given more than this age, went alongside the boulevard of the Italians, the nose to the track, the smooth lips, as a négociant that the has just concluded an excellente matter or as a happy garcon of himself. This is at Paris more big expression known personal one with the man.

Ben Hunt

At about three in the afternoon, on an October day in 1844, a man of about 60 years, but whom life had made look somewhat older, walked the length of the Boulevard des Italiens, his nose in the air, (les lèvres papelardes), like a diplomat coming to the end of a great negotiation or a young boy happy to be leaving his bedroom.

In Paris that is the greatest personal expression of satisfaction a man can show.

Herbert Hunt

About three o’clock in the afternoon, one day in October 1844, an old man of some 60 years (though anyone who saw him would have thought him older) was walking along the Boulevard des Italiens, with his nose thrust forward and a smug expression on his lips, like a merchant who has just made an excellent deal, or a bachelor emerging from a lady’s boudoir, pleased with his prowess – in Paris the expression of male self-satisfaction can go no further.

Get alerts on Mergers & Acquisitions when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article