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As the pandemic drives businesses online, translation is becoming a key part of the digital transformation equation. One large-scale behavioral study in 2014 showed that 75% of consumers are more likely to buy products from websites in their native language. Another, this one by Localize, found businesses that invested in translation were 1.5 times more likely to observe an increase in revenue.

Against this backdrop, Smartling, a self-described cloud translation company, has raised $160 million in a venture capital round led by Battery Ventures. CEO Jack Welde says that the proceeds will be used to expand Smartling’s headcount while supporting product development and marketing efforts.

Smartling, which was founded in 2009 by Welde and Andrey Akselrod, is a language translation company that enables customers to localize content across devices and platforms. Smartling leverages a combination of AI-powered translation tools and human translators, localizing content for particular markets to ensure its intended meaning and connotation remains the same — and isn’t misunderstood.

“Two truisms have emerged about today’s enterprises: all business is global, and content drives global business,” Welde said in a statement. “The third leg of that stool is translation, since nearly all customers want to buy in their own language. This is a tremendous opportunity, and we are excited to realize it together with Battery.”

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Localizing content

Smartling uses automation to quickly translate content into different languages. New content on customer sites and apps is flagged for translation and sent to translators for rewriting; when changes to the original language are detected, all foreign-language versions are flagged for translation. The changes are then delivered to front-end users through the backend of a customer’s system, independent of app updates.

In 2017, Smartling launched a mobile delivery network designed to deliver updated translations to smartphone apps decoupled from updates to the app’s core code. The idea is that international users see translated content faster without having to update the app beforehand. Instead, updates and new translations can appear as soon as the user opens the app.

Smartling claims to work with a few thousand translators in addition to an in-house staff of about 160 to provide text and video translation services. Translators perform their work in a computer-aided translation tool, which is followed by a translation review, legal review, and editing process.

Smartling relies partially on machine translation — i.e., AI-powered translation — for “high volume, low priority” content translations. While generally accurate, studies show that machine translation systems can produce text that’s less “lexically” rich than human translations — and more prejudicial. Google recently identified (and claims to have addressed) gender bias in the translation models underpinning Google Translate, particularly with regard to resource-poor languages like Turkish, Finnish, Persian, and Hungarian.

We’ve reached out to Smartling for more information about its AI bias mitigation efforts and will update this article if we hear back.

Opportunity for growth

In a boon for Smartling, the market for online translation services continues to climb steeply upward. According to Statista, it’s doubled in size from 2009 to 2019, reaching $49.6 billion two years ago. The machine translation market alone could be worth $230.67 in the next five years, Mordor Intelligence projects, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 7.1% from 2021 to 2026.

Underlining the opportunity, over 361 million people around the world participate in cross-border ecommerce. A study by Standard Chartered found that nearly half of U.S. businesses today say that their best growth opportunity is outside the U.S. And according to Common Sense Advisory, 76% of buyers say that they prefer to purchase a product with information in their own language when faced with the choice of two similar products.

Smartling has competition in Language I/O, a startup providing AI technologies for real-time, company-specific language translations. Unbabel and Lilt are among other rivals in the segment. But Smartling has managed to attract “hundreds” of large business-to-business and business-to-consumer customers including InterContinental, Pinterest, Shopify, and SurveyMonkey.

“Enterprises generally succeed on the strength of technology, supply chains, people, and workflows. As content has become essential to go-to-market strategies, content distribution has in some sense become its own supply chain and workflow. And, as that content supply chain extends globally, translation at scale has become the critical last mile for global enterprise growth,” Battery Ventures general partner Morad Elhafed said in a press release.

Smartling has raised over $220 million in venture capital to date.

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