Global Sound Bites

Member Spotlight: Valeria Barbero

Valeria Barbero

Business Director and Program Manager at Mother Tongue

Program Director of WL Membership Committee

  1. Tell us a bit about yourself and your role as Business Director and Program Manager at Mother Tongue.

I grew up in Piemonte, Italy. My hometown is at the border with France up on the Alps, so French has always been my second language. Later on I studied English and spent summers in London learning the language and doing small jobs to prolong my stay. I always had a global mindset and could not wait to leave the small town where I grew up. When it came to university I chose to study International Relations (IR) and I specialized in War Studies as I liked the strategic aspect of the discipline. Later, while doing my PhD I further specialized in asymmetrical warfare but then left at the dissertation stage.

My love affair with languages did not end with the summers in London and, over the years, I studied German, modern Greek and Persian. Although I always loved languages, I never really thought of them as vehicles to a career, until I found myself in Silicon Valley, where my background in IR seemed quite irrelevant on the local job market. So, at some point I stopped dreaming of moving to Washington DC or working for the United Nations and started recreating myself with whatever skills and intellectual capital I could bank on. I never looked back, and now I am very happy with my role at Mother Tongue where I get to work on services to the language industry that are more strategic in nature. In the short term my focus is on leading a major Account that involves the localization of material for an exciting and relatively new technology. In the long term, I want to raise the company profile as I am sure there will be great opportunities for a company like Mother Tongue. We combine a deep knowledge of marketing adaptation and copy origination with new technologies and new media for delivering communication and brand awareness. Unfortunately, the marketing adaptation and localization is not very well represented in our industry, but I am planning to change that!

  1. You have a strong academic background in International Relations and years of experience in the translation and localization sector. How did you get started in the industry?

I got started as a freelancer after I left my PhD. I had done some translations of academic materials for colleagues and I guess that rekindled my interest in languages. After a few years as a freelancer I made my way in the industry from the ground up: tester, Italian localization specialist, PM/AM, Team Lead, etc. My focus was never just the linguistic aspect though, I cannot help but have the bigger picture in mind, so I was always looking to make a move in an area of our industry where I could best use my big picture mindset and analytical skills.

What I thought of as a weakness – my need to understand things top-down – proved to be a strength, because I tend to place my work in the context of our industry, and our industry in the context of the broader economic and political system. I love reading about, analyzing and observing the localization industry and avidly participate in as many events as possible. It does not take much to fall in love with this industry, it is global by definition, combining people with very different backgrounds and perspectives. The industry has a strong technology aspect and it is full of amazing female role models! I felt very lucky to be part of this world from day one and still feel that way.

  1. Do you have a specific process you follow for your localization projects? If so, please describe.

Processes are a means to an end and you have to make sure you assign the right weight to each. Sometimes what I see in our industry is that people are so focused on the process, that they end up valuing it more than the end itself. If a process no longer serves the goal in the best way possible, you should change that. Obviously you need to consider other factors like budget, resources, timings, etc. But what I see too often is that processes end up stifling innovation and in the long run they create inefficiencies instead of solving them. So, to answer you question, no I don’t have ONE process for localization but there are many different possible processes depending on the materials, the tools available, the budget, the end-goal, the client, etc.

Also, and this is something that I see more and more lately. Often, especially the younger generation (no fault of their own, but a sign of the times!) assumes that a solution necessarily involves some type of technology. And that is not always true. Technology is just like any other tool, sometimes it is your best answer, but sometimes it is not and you have to be open and look for other solutions. Analysis and a little experimentation can go a long way. You can always go back to the way you were doing things before, but if you don’t experiment in the first place you will never know any other way. I have always struggled with rigid mind sets and people who think there is only one way of doing things. I love anything dynamic and open ended.

  1. How did you get involved with Women in Localization and what are your current responsibilities?

Oh gosh – Women in Localization and I go way back to when we were a local Silicon Valley network and I volunteered to help out at our events with anything from greeting people to cleaning up afterwards. The organization grew fast and I then joined the Global Expansion Committee. One year after joining the WL, I launched a series called Global Soundbites, featuring Chapter Managers who were doing all the grassroots work and growing our organization around the world.

Last year, I took on the responsibility for the Membership Program and I am currently the Membership Program Director. My main goal is to consolidate and grow our members’ base by better understanding who our members are, what their expectations are and then find the best way to engage with them.

Every minute spent with this organization is worth all the effort, and seeing all these women, and men, providing their time, ideas, support, guidance and just sweat is truly inspiring. Besides, Women in Localization allows me to really think about the next generation of professionals and how to ensure they have a smoother path to success. To me, the educational and nurturing components have always been very important and whether it is with my team, with the universities I cooperate with, or within Women in Localization, I try to support and provide as much guidance as I can to the next generation. Encouragement and support for exploration and curiosity is the biggest act of respect we can give to people coming into our industry.

  1. What would you say to someone who is considering becoming a WL member? What are the benefits?

Women in Localization has been an immensely rewarding part of my professional life. The benefits are multiple, aside from events and networking opportunities, there is access to exclusive content, the industry-focused job board, partnerships with other organizations and a fabulous mentorship program. Then, and here comes the best part,  there are the women of Women in Localization, and they are fabulous!! They are incredible role models to anybody in the industry and out, and they really are bad-ass for being where they are. But what I also experienced is just plain solidarity and support from a simply human perspective. That feeling of having a community that supports, listens and engages with you and helps when you need.  Just in the past couple of years I moved from Silicon Valley to London and then to New York. I relied on this network for all sorts of information, guidance and just plain friendship and fun. Because we do a lot of that too!

  1. What advice would you give to someone who is just starting in the localization industry? What values, skills and competences do you think are important to succeed in this field and find satisfaction in what they are doing?

While I think a few years ago I would have suggested lots of technical skills, what I see now is that most people have enough technical and digital skills for our line of business. They have grown up with technology and they can’t even imagine a time when screens and smartphones were not around. However, there are other skillsets that are equally important and possibly harder to learn. Collaboration, empathy, sharing successes and failures with equal grace and equal drive to understand how to get better. At the end of the day, these are the issues that you see more often affecting team work. It is not really how much one is familiar with HTML or knows basic coding. And obviously, all work today is team-work. This is not to discourage knowledge of technology of course, it is crucial, but it is not the only skillset people should focus on.

I would also suggest that they maintain the intellectual curiosity, the will to experiment and never take anything for granted. Sometimes the questions we ask are way more important that the solution we end up finding. In fact, we end up finding a certain solution in part because of how we have asked the question.

Strategic thinking and analytical skills are very, very important – especially in higher positions. Practice makes perfect of course, so the sooner people start thinking in this way the better! No project is exactly the same, no client has the same set up and I think it is important to approach each engagement starting from scratch and thinking about how it will evolve and how you can make it work. Be confident and comfortable with analyzing a project, determining all its components and moving parts, disassembling and reassembling. It does not really matter whether you are analyzing a project or a painting, the ability to break it down to its essential components and how they are connected is an essential skill in any career and in life, really.

One of the things I do with the people I work with or that report to me, I encourage them to think about their career goals, and to try to see how their current work fits into that. It is very easy to get caught into the day to day hamster wheel kind of routines and I find that good for a hamster but not so good for humans. So, making time to step away from routines, looking at the bigger picture and making sense of what you do in a long-term, strategic career perspective is very valuable.

I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to help some people in their career by getting them to think this way. We all operate within a system. The system, an organization, eventually will push you through the pre-set career paths and you can have a decent career even with limited strategic thinking. The question is “Are you going where you really want to go?” I could never blindly follow conventions and always think that what I choose is better than what I am being pushed into – then I can only blame myself for it!

  1. What are your thoughts on Machine Translation? Can they help companies reduce costs without hampering translation quality?

I am very fascinated by neural machine translation and artificial intelligence. I think it opens up a lot of opportunities in our industry. It is no panacea, but it can be a valuable tool. It will never replace the good linguists and talent who work on creative copy and mark out the better companies (like my own!).

It can certainly be a great tool in certain scenarios and mostly, on certain types of materials: long straightforward copy, standard translation materials that are repetitive in nature, where you want consistent translations. In these cases, machine translation is great and of course it keeps improving, which gives you incentives to stick at it and work with the technology to maximize the long term benefits. Where you need creative and engaging content, machine translation is not yet your friend, but with advancements in general AI, who knows… maybe we’ll partner up with machines on creative content as well in the future. I hope our industry will establish a good working relationship with machines, right now it is still in the process of being defined and I think some people are very concerned about automation taking over and fully replacing human work. Historically, technology has always created this kind of anxiety when presented as a cost-efficient replacement for human labour. However, if you look at how it has played out, humans have been able to find a balanced relationship with technological change.

Every mature industry goes through certain phases when technologies disrupt the regular ways of working and thinking, and then there is a phase of adaptation. But eventually, markets and industries tend towards stability, and balance is restored. You can analyze the history of humanity by looking at changes in technologies, societal organizations and communications. There are phases, some changes are easier than others, some periods of adaptation are longer and more convoluted than others, but eventually equilibrium is restored and there are periods of relative stability within dynamics of constant change.

  1. Where does localization go from here? What do you see as the future of our field?

I think we are on a growth path, caeteris paribus of course! The global economy is under trial by some protectionist policies and pockets of political instability, but there are no global armed conflicts (fingers crossed!), the financial world has regained some stability and credibility, and the basic global economic infrastructure, with its complex network of treaties, organizations and bilateral agreements, is still strong. The tendencies to support a cooperative global economy are still stronger than the localized tendencies to undermine it. So, all in all, I am hopeful that growth in our industry can be sustained at a systemic level.

There are many factors in the economy right now that favor growth for our industry in the near future. Whether this will result in actual growth however, depends on how well companies take advantage of these incentives and how the markets respond to the global economy. The cost of moving goods around the globe has decreased significantly, logistics are ever better, and e-commerce platforms continue to grow, incentivizing and helping companies take their products to global audiences. Obviously, this means that clients in our industry will have more materials to localize, however they also have to strategize and prioritize where they invest. Not all content and not all materials bring the same added value. I think this is an issue that the client side has to figure out right now and it is strategic in nature.

On the LSP side, I think we have to meet clients where they are, and offer a broader range of services with different processes and categorization, delivering more holistic partnerships. There is a great deal of fragmentation with content and many different channels are involved, requiring specialized knowledge for implementation and local adaptation. The will, ability and expertise to accomplish this cost-effectively for clients can be a very important selling point for companies. Last but not least, we have to consider audiences and geographies. Some markets are ripe and ready. The localization of some products and services in markets like India is just waiting to happen, mobile technologies allow companies to reach a great number of people with a reasonably small investment and as that economy grows, they can grow with it and establish a presence and loyalty for their brands. Growing at a slower pace is certainly Africa and the Arab speaking world. Both regions have struggled in the past politically and economically, but they are more stable now and so there is opportunity there as well. And obviously in the rest of the world too, it is really a matter of how much companies want to invest in market penetration or expansion, where and how fast.

I am certainly very positive about my company, Mother Tongue. We bring to the table in-market talent and knowledge not just about the language, but about local trends, the economy and the culture. We specialize in brand communications and advise clients on how best to go to market if they want to really connect with the local audience. I think these strategic value adds will be an ever more important part of our industry in future.