Sean Song is the founder of Translation Boulevard, a company that provides both translation and subtitling services. Previously, he worked as a journalist. He holds a master’s degree from Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism of the University of Southern California, and the London School of Economics.

He loves authoring articles about the translation industry and sharing his insight. In this interview with Emmanuelle Dumas, Language Solutions Manager at Booking.com, Sean talks about the many great things Booking.com has done to localize their content. Sean has translated over 10 million words for Booking.com and he also has experience in translating and managing translation for the tourism industry. He shares firsthand experiences and the lessons he learned while translating for the tourism industry.

This article was originally published in one of the most prominent magazines in the translation industry, Multilingual, on Jan/Feb 2020.

Booking.com:  Experiences and lessons learned in 22 years of localization

I started my career as a journalist, but subsequently became a translator.  More recently I started my own translation company as well.  In order to learn how to grow my new business, in 2018 I attended translation industry gatherings such as GALA’s annual convention and LocWorld’s conference on localization.  In one of the conversations there, I heard that the translation industry usually is under-reported on by the media at large.  One of reasons, I heard, is that the overall scale of that industry simply is not big enough to attract the media’s attention.

I agree with that view only to an extent.  As a journalist by trade, I know that good stories are everywhere.  You just need to dig them out.  A journalist cares most about finding a good story, regardless of which industry or sector of life it comes from.  Many times I have found good stories by talking with people sitting next to me or by visiting their homes after a news conference.  In other words, digging deeper will turn up good stories.

From where I live in Howard County, Maryland, I often travel Route 40 West from my home to the old house where I used to live in Catonsville.  At the intersection of Route 40 and I-695, the Baltimore Beltway, there long has stood a travel agency.  Even though I don’t remember of the name of that agency, I couldn’t help but notice the other day that it was finally closing down.  Feeling pity for the loss of that small business owner, I thought to myself, “what if he or she had adopted an online model earlier?”  Of course, I’ll never know the full story behind the closing of that business.

People may say that small local businesses go broke because of globalization, but that is not all that is going on.  Some big-name companies also have gone out of business because they failed to adjust to the digital age.

On the other hand, while localizing texts for the hotel industry since 2010, I have found that many small business owners, whether owners of small hotels or travel agencies, have achieved success by expanding their presence online.

This article is intended for readers who are interested in localization in the tourism industry or localization in general.  Learning from  successful localization efforts in the tourism industry could be beneficial, for both global companies and Mom and Pop stores as well.

Good stories are everywhere.  However, as a journalist, I have had to spend hours finding those stories online or though interpersonal communication.  Bridging that gap between a good story and the reader is the role of the journalist.

Following up on contacts I had made at LocWorld, I offered to dig out some of those stories to share with our readers.  I long had known of Booking.com as one of the pioneers in localization and thought that they were doing pretty well.  I speak from my own personal experience, as I have watched how my friends and colleagues in China used the Chinese version of Booking.com to search for local hotels.  Later, they saved themselves even more hassles when planning international trips, whether to London or Iceland.  So I reached out to Booking.com to see whether they would be willing to share their experiences with localization.  They generously agreed and arranged for me to talk with their Localization Head, Emmanuelle Dumas.

I asked Emmanuelle to share the history of their localization effort, their achievements, and any lessons they had learned.  She highlighted their “mixed model,” which combines in-house teams, freelance translators and writers, and translation companies.  I hope this will be helpful to other global companies that already are working on localization, as well as to others that are just contemplating starting down that path.  Small business owners also may benefit from this, as big companies like Booking.com also started small.  I hope you might agree that this effort, even in the oft-ignored translation industry, has turned up a good story.

To retain its authenticity, I have kept the following interview in its original Q&A format, although it has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Introducing Emmanuelle Dumas

Sean Song:  Could you just introduce a little bit about yourself for our readers?

Emmanuelle Dumas:  Sure.  My name is Emmanuelle Dumas.  I’m a French native speaker and by training a linguist and translator.  I have a master’s degree in Applied Linguistics and have worked all my career in the language and translation industry.  I started working on game localization and then moved on to work for some LSPs [language-service providers].

In September 2017 I joined Booking to manage the language services within Booking’s Content Agency.  The role is really about defining the language strategy and how best to support the business with innovative language solutions.

Localization at Booking.com

Sean Song:  Please tell us a bit about Booking.com and your localization history.  How did you start and come to excel as a global company?

Emmanuelle Dumas:  To give you a bit of history, Booking was one of the first online travel platforms.  It was founded here in the Netherlands in 1996. This certainly helped shape its future, because the Netherlands is a small country, and the Dutch people love to travel!  So the need to become international was there from the very early days.  It’s in our genes.

Our first office outside of the Netherlands was opened in Barcelona in 2002.  In 2005, Booking.com was acquired by Priceline, an American platform also in the hotel space.  Priceline’s acquisition of Booking.com gave it a foothold in Europe and, for Booking, provided us financial opportunities to expand further internationally.  From its beginning, Booking was very data-driven.  As we looked at adding languages, we always did it according to consumer needs, so languages were added based on consumer demand, at the beginning primarily to translate hotel descriptions.  And for a long time our approach to content was really transactional like that.  When it worked well, we continued, and we added languages on the basis of demand.

In 2010 we started adding language specialists to work alongside our UX [user-experience] copywriters, and supporting our cycle of A/B testing.  From then, it really became clear that the language specialists were supporting the user experience in multiple languages, so we have continued to scale up in that way.  Today we have 44 languages.  I believe that the last languages that we added were Icelandic and Argentinian Spanish.  Last year we added Georgian for our partners’ tools, but not yet for our customer content.

Now of course we constantly look at what markets we need to develop next and for me, in my role looking midterm, I consider what key markets the company is focusing on:  are there languages that we need to add, how do we need to upscale our internal teams, or what content will we be sending to our internal language specialists or external teams in the future?

So from the very beginning translation and localization have been at the core of what we do because Booking has been international from very early on.  Translation and localization boost our business because they allow us to be locally relevant.  With physical presence now in 70 countries and more than 200 offices, we are able to evaluate our local relevance every day through those local offices.

This global reach means that our local teams are constantly talking to our partners and also our guests, of course, and we have constant feedback on how locally relevant we are, what we could do better in-market.  Thus I would say that localization and translation are at the core of our business.

Booking.com:  Lessons Learned

Sean Song:  Would you have any experiences or lessons from your localization efforts from which others could learn?  I mean common pitfalls, or experiences to share with other global companies.

Emmanuelle Dumas:  We are very lucky to have a unique mixed model with internal language specialists being so involved in experimentation with localized copy, so we are able to tell very early on what works in certain markets and what doesn’t.  The local teams, working closely with our UX copywriters, are able to give feedback on copy that does not work well and provide an alternative better suited for use in their market, this can happen very fast.  Having worked in LSPs in the past, I would say that, if we relied exclusively on external resources, the feedback loop would be much slower.

When you can have internal localization experts and specialists constantly working with UX copy then it enables faster and higher-level localization and better adaptation to market.  My experience is that we are on target for each market faster because of our close coordination, and ensuring first time right voice of Booking.

Sean Song:  The CEO of a company, SmartLink, also made that same point, in a webinar on GALA I heard recently.  The buyer wants a direct relationship with the translator, not necessarily replacing the LSP but communicating better what they are trying to do.  Yours is a great suggestion, because you have direct relationships with the content writers, creators, translators, and your consumers.  A lot of companies give everything to the LSP, probably because they just want to have a good night’s sleep, but then they wake up to headaches because of mis-communication.  If you have only indirect communication with the content creators, they will not know the immediate response from the market.

Emmanuelle Dumas:  That’s exactly right.  I think probably you can achieve it with an LSP, but they probably need longer agreements, more in-depth communication, longer feedback loops to achieve the results that we achieve when our product teams and language specialist teams are basically part of one team within Booking.  The other advantage is of course that our internal language specialists are so passionate about the product, about our company, about the brand, and about what they are translating.  There is a level of involvement and engagement that you get from internal language teams that you cannot get from an external provider.

Sean Song:  Is the cost higher to hire an LSP or to maintain an internal team?

Emmanuelle Dumas:  Well, I think this is very difficult to compare and evaluate because it depends very much on what you include in the costs of localisation. In my experience most companies using LSPs need to involve teams in Product and Marketing to support with guidelines, terminology validation, review, feedback, final content approval… These are a lot of hidden costs, and for us, a model that would simply not be efficient or scalable enough.

We prefer to look at the value that having our internal teams generate, the edge it gives us to enable multilingual and multi-market copy experimentation so fast, and similarly, to ensure high-quality locally-relevant branded messaging for our marketing campaigns.

Sean Song:  I agree.  A lot of buyers just want the certainty of saving money.  You point out that it is not only hard to compare whether they are saving money but the quality of the work differs, too.

Speed, Quality, Feedback

Emmanuelle Dumas:  Nowadays, it seems that time to market is key. We are working with internal stakeholders and also sister companies who are most concerned with both a short time to market and high quality.

In general, our model provides the best basis for fast turn-around and faster change.  If we need to take a different approach, we can do it in less time and more flexibility with an internal team.

Sean Song:  What feedback do you get, from either hotel clients or other consumers?  Please cite one or two examples.

Emmanuelle Dumas: We collect user feedback in a number of ways to have different touch-points on quality.  Of course we have stakeholder surveys, for satisfaction and quality.  Also, after every major launch or major project with our internal stakeholders, we use feedback loops to find out how our general stakeholders evaluate our quality.  Then internal Booking employees form another layer of feedback, since all of us are also Booking.com users and we have a culture of feedback!  We have a system in place internally whereby everybody can give feedback on the quality.

I’m French, so when I use Booking.com in my language, if I see something that I find a little bit strange, I can directly provide my comments through our feedback system.

Finally, we also conduct end-user surveys for customers and partners, to find out what the users think of the language on Booking.com:  what they think of the forms of address or our communication in general.  We try to measure quality from all of the possible angles.

LSPs vs Freelancers

Sean Song:  Other companies hoping to globalize as Booking.com has done may be just starting their localization process now, so they want to hear what’s best for them: to hire an LSP such as you worked for, or to manage an internal linguist team. What’s your view as to what’s the best for a global company?

Emmanuelle Dumas: There are advantages to every model. Probably the answer is somewhere in the mixed approach. For us at Booking, I have to say that, even though I came from a background of having worked with many LSPs, when I joined Booking and its internal Content Agency team, I was amazed by all the advantages that it brings, and how quickly and efficiently we can support the business.  Essentially, our platform is really our formula for localizing content and constantly optimizing.  We run a lot of A/B experiments to determine best content solution.

Sean Song:  Excuse me, what are “AB experiments”?  

Emmanuelle Dumas:  “A/B experimentation” means basically that we are testing different variants of different elements on a page, for example how a call to action is worded or how certain information is displayed, to see which performs better with our users.  With this model, it’s very useful for us to have internal language specialists working so closely with our product teams and our copywriters.  It enables us to get content ready and localized fast.

Sean Song:  This is probably one of the gold nuggets Booking.com has found, because a lot of people are considering whether they should have an internal team or just hire an LSP.

Emmanuelle Dumas:  Our model is mixed, of course.  Our internal teams work on a lot of our most critical, branded, content, and they are at the core of our localization process, but, like other large companies, we also use freelancers and LSPs for specialized or very scaled content.

Machine Translation, Languages, Quality

Sean Song:  I see.  But what about machine translation?

Emmanuelle Dumas:   I knew that you would ask about MT.  We now have live machine translation in 12 languages, for property descriptions, for example.  When our MT team was built, roughly two years ago, they started working on neural machine translation.  Because at Booking we had so much data on property description that we had been translating for years with freelancers, we were able very quickly to build neural machine models to very, very high quality.  Today, after just two years Machine Translation team have put 12 languages in production.

Sean Song:  How many languages are you currently translating into?

Emmanuelle Dumas:  Currently we are translating in 44 languages.

Sean Song:  Wow, 44 languages!  I’m very impressed.  How do you control the quality of managing those 44 languages?  

Emmanuelle Dumas:  As I mentioned earlier, ours is a mixed model with internal and external teams and translating very different content types. So we have a created a quality framework that actually supports all of our needs, including content and services.  The quality framework looks at quality, from a purely linguistic point of view but also from our stakeholders’ feedback, as to the level of quality that they need for the product.  In addition, we also look at the end-users’ perception of the quality of language on Booking.com.  For example, we run surveys to find what our users think about the language, the tone, and how we address the users, their experience when they use Booking.com in terms of pure language.

We also can do some very targeted quality research, for example, we can pretest on a specific challenge we have with a language or product.

Strategy for the future

Sean Song:  As my last question, do you have a vision for the future or a strategy for the next five years and beyond?  I wonder especially about machine translation, which you mentioned:  a lot of things are going on there in the world of localization.

Emmanuelle Dumas:  Well, our machine translation team certainly does and I think they basically are looking at training their model for more languages.  That is one of the things they are working on, and also more use cases for machine translation.  Now we are using MT only for our property descriptions and user reviews, but not in many languages.  Obviously, we are trying to deploy MT on more use cases, and more languages.

On my side, I’m also concerned midterm with what should be the next languages that we need to focus on,  the markets our business is focussing on, whether we will need to add new languages, and how are we going to go about it.

Now that Booking.com has grown to be a platform where people come to book much more than just their accommodation, we have many products and a lot of different types of content.  Our language teams strength is to be very integrated with the business and to be part of the Global Content Agency within Booking.com.  We are looking at basically collaborating with the business on more of their content, what the next leads will be, and how we can support them.  For instance, last year we localized the Booking Assistant chat product into several priority languages to support our customer service, providing faster solutions to Booking.com users.

Sean Song:  This has been so helpful.  Thank you very much.

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