As a language technology expert, Patrick Ullrich sees to the technically optimal connection between customer systems and our own. In doing so, adding value is very important to Patrick: his focus is on always finding the most logical means of achieving the objective.
We wanted to know what it is that fascinates him about the combination of language and technology in his daily work and what the latest trends are in the language services industry.
Hello, Patrick – in a broader sense, you have been in the language services industry since 2006 and, as a language technology expert, you work a lot with people who have studied linguistics or cultural studies.
Humanities are often referred to as ‘inexact sciences’. You are more of a STEM subject type, so more geared towards the natural sciences. What is the appeal for you in working in the middle of linguistic expertise and your area of language technology?
That makes me chuckle a little, because I don’t think that our translators and proofreaders would really like to hear their expertise referred to as an ‘inexact science’. I get the opposite impression, in any case.
I find it interesting that there are parallels in this regard. Context is important in both areas – both with regard to the language, to understand and adapt certain things, as well as with regard to technology, to decide which type of solution is the best in each specific case. So do I develop a ‘big’ solution that covers all problem cases, or rather a ‘small’ targeted solution for precisely this one particular use case?
This symbiosis – you can really almost call it that – between language and technology has fascinated me ever since I have been dealing with it. The two fields can be wonderfully united with each other, so I feel at home in our industry.
Which programming languages do you ‘speak’?
I’m not actually a software developer.
During my time as a product owner, I worked a lot with a software development team and ‘translated’ the requirements of the software into the language of the developers. I’d say I’m less enthusiastic about the programming languages than I am about the people who have mastered them. That makes really fantastic things possible, after all. But you also always need someone who makes sure that what is built, or developed, fulfils its intended purpose. For me, that’s the most exciting part of software development.
Let’s talk about your start at Wieners+Wieners, which took place exclusively remotely due to the pandemic. The Wieners+Wieners headquarters are located in Ahrensburg, near Hamburg, and you live and work in Franconia. So far, you only know your colleagues from a computer screen. Please tell us about how your onboarding process went under these circumstances.
I was curious to see how my colleagues would deal with a remote onboarding process. It was definitely something new for all of us. But my concerns were relatively quickly assuaged, since the pandemic – when I started at Wieners+Wieners – had already been ongoing for around a year and certain habits had already established themselves as part of the workday. I noticed that immediately, because I was already in contact with my new colleagues even before my first day of work. During videoconferences, we talked about how the first day, week and month would go. I was provided with an onboarding plan in advance, and I knew who to get in touch with regarding certain topics. But I am really looking forward to one day meeting all my colleagues in person. Videoconferences can indeed also be personal, but it is something different entirely when you get together in person for a week-long workshop or spend an entire day speaking to each other face to face.
Moving on to your average workday. Would you like to tell us what a language technology expert does?
As a language technology expert, I’m part of a team and make sure that our ‘tools’ are always up and running. CAT (computer-aided translation) tools, quality assurance programs and our ‘treasure trove’ – translation memories and termbases – have to work and be in optimal working condition. Those are the tasks that serve to support my colleagues when they’re preparing or managing translation projects, and thus also serve our customers. Seeing to the needs of our customers often involves overarching topics such as the automation of translation processes, connectivity and artificial intelligence that are hot topics in general right now. Those are all really exciting topics that we are dealing with in depth in the language technology department, as well as in the company as a whole.
You mentioned a term that is becoming increasingly interesting for the translation industry: artificial intelligence. What, in your opinion, will the impact of the most recent developments in this field be on the needs of international companies – that is, our customers?
The days of a company sending individual orders to language service providers in the form of a Word file that needs to be translated are coming to an end.
What we are increasingly witnessing is that two connected systems ‘speak’ to each other, and our customers are also becoming aware that this has to work, because that’s also how their internal processes work, too. If we take an industrial customer as an example, whose internal systems communicate with each other completely autonomously and exchange content. As a customer, I then expect my external service provider to also offer a similar connectivity solution.
Digitisation is constantly progressing and companies are becoming familiar with software from a completely different perspective. Some even develop their own software now, or at least manage the software where the content is stored that needs to be internationalised – even though that’s not their speciality at all! And I’m not just talking about a website that’s maintained in a CMS, but rather major product information management systems or industrial facilities and the like which communicate with each other.
The significant challenge is beginning in an advisory capacity early enough – so during the planning phase of implementation of a new system. As a translation service provider, we sometimes get involved in a process very late, once everything has already been decided. If we then ask the question of whether the content of the respective system can be managed internationally, we then get a response of: ‘No, we haven’t even thought about that yet.’ In such a case, we can of course translate a lot in theory, but it does no good if the translations can’t be published using the system. Fortunately, however, we are increasingly being involved in the planning phases at earlier stages.
These topics – connectivity or artificial intelligence as already mentioned – are major fields with a lot of potential, but they are also quite complex. In my opinion, we need to break apart the complexity in this regard and make purposeful use of the potential offered by these technologies. Only if you know what you need can you, as a customer, expect that your service provider deliver a tailored solution for your problem – simply and individually.
As a service provider, we expect ourselves to keep an eye on all the possibilities available on the market, thus enabling us to evaluate which technologies we use and in which areas we should be developing ourselves further. Talking to our customers allows us to more quickly understand what they need.
Neural machine translation is a big hit right now, for instance, but also almost old hat by now, because this technology is already established in the translation industry. In this regard, there are other topics that are creeping into the spotlight: namely, data protection and the anonymisation of data, so that trained translation engines are able to work in accordance with the GDPR in these machine translation systems.
These are things that can be done, but they require a lot of work, including coordination of approvals to clarify certain aspects and the like.
New blog articles and studies are published each week that present new developments in these fields. This, in turn, opens up a whole new field of possibilities. The market keeps us on our toes!
What would it be like, in your opinion, if machines alone were used for translations? When will the technology be so sophisticated that it can completely replace humans? Will that ever be the case?
Well, I was just wondering whether I would live to see that. ‘Replace’ is a strong word, and I think that machines will only completely replace humans in the distant future, if at all.
For that to work, creativity and independent thinking – here we are again with the humanities – would have to be replicated.
The technology that currently exists works rather well in individual cases, in particular if the machine is ‘trained’ – that is, fed data – but only in limited areas.
A good human translator knows their customers and their requirements inside out. If the machine is to deliver a similar quality, then there is a lot of work that has to be done beforehand: raw machine translations have to constantly undergo post-processing by human post-editors with specialised expertise. These data are then used to gradually ‘retrain’ the machine.
Although this is no guarantee that the machine will one day be as good as a human translator, it does constantly improve the quality of the machine results. In certain fields, machines are already able to deliver rather good results.
In addition, it’s exciting that there are already many articles authored by machines – be it product descriptions, technical articles or blogs. If machines were then able to learn from one another – meaning those that are already performing editing work and those that translate and adapt texts – there will at some point be solutions that we cannot even fathom in their entirety right now.
Finally, please tell us what, in your opinion, makes good work – at what point are you satisfied with yourself and your work?
In a nutshell: whenever a solution that I contributed to increases the value of our services. Be it qualitatively or quantitatively. Then I’m satisfied. There’s a lot that goes into that. The word ‘value’ alone consists of so much – you have to know what is valuable or how to work in a way that adds value.
Patrick, thank you very much for your time – we look forward to ‘properly’ getting to know you in person.
The interview was conducted by Marcus Schöne. Marcus has been with Wieners+Wieners GmbH since 2014 and, with a degree in Japanese studies, is at home in the world of languages. In his role as product marketing manager, he keeps his finger on the pulse of product and market trends in the field of language services for Wieners+Wieners.