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Celebrating 25 Years of Lionbridge Innovation

How Lionbridge became a Language Service Provider powerhouse, enabling its customers to achieve global expansion along the way

Lionbridge is celebrating its silver jubilee in October. In the coming months, we will examine in detail where the localization industry is heading in the next 25 years. But first, we look back at both the industry and how Lionbridge helped shape it.

When Lionbridge employees reported to work in 1996, the year the company was founded, they made their way to founder Rory Cowan’s suburban home in the quiet town of Concord, Massachusetts. Once there, they would carry out their tasks in his living room.

With under 10 employees, Lionbridge was like most of the tens of thousands of translation companies at that time. They were small outfits whose employees worked manually—via fax and snail mail and without any productivity tools—to provide language services in what was a fragmented industry. But unlike the other translation agencies, Lionbridge would grow exponentially and ascend to the top of the Language Service Provider (LSP) pack to become one of the largest, most-experienced and most-trusted LSPs in the world.

As Lionbridge celebrates its 25th anniversary on 10.10, we examine the last 25 years of our evolution and project what the next 25 years will bring. Lionbridge has been responsible for the expansion of global business and this trend will only accelerate in the future.

Following those days in Cowan’s living room, Lionbridge’s employee base would grow from the small cadre of language experts to its current employee base of 5,900 Lions who report to any one of the 42 offices located in 23 countries. How did this seemingly unassuming agency become an LSP powerhouse when so many other LSPs either failed to grow or outright failed? A lot of Lionbridge’s success had to do with its resourcefulness, its ability to expand its portfolio and services and its secret weapon, or what Cowan respectfully refers to as its global misfits.

What Were the Driving Factors of Global Communication?

A confluence of technical advancements along with political and economic events, mostly between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, made it easier for people to connect globally and increased the need to communicate across languages.

On the technical side, think of the way the internet progressed from academic usage to personal usage, the launch of Windows and the standardization of Intel-based computers that made inexpensive computers readily attainable for consumers. Economic and political flashpoints included the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, outsourcing to India in the 80s and the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995, which promoted globalization.

These defining moments would shape the business climate for the next several decades. As technological advancements and cultural shifts unfolded, Lionbridge was poised to bridge the communication gap. In what is now called localization, Lionbridge helped their customers capture experiences in any language and for any country so they could expand their businesses globally.

What Types of Threats Did Lionbridge Face?

While Lionbridge started out like many other LSPs, its ability to capitalize on evolving technologies enabled it to break from the pack and soar.

“Most service companies are crushed by evolving technologies because service companies often are formed around a specific technology, and they’re optimized to configure or deploy or maintain a particular offering on a particular technology,” Cowan says. “It was quite the contrary with Lionbridge. We’ve been able to embrace a number of unique technologies throughout these 25 years.”

Indeed, technology was—and remains—central to Lionbridge’s strategy. Lionbridge actively sought out the best technologies to promote automation; it also staved off threats posed by technological developments by developing expertise and exploiting these technologies to benefit their customers.

Translation Memory technology

Translation Memory (TM) is a database of past translations that a company leverages to reduce the workload of new content. TMs already existed when Lionbridge was formed. Large LSPs routinely used them to reduce costs and deliver translations faster, but some companies looked at TMs with great skepticism. Specialty domains, such as the life sciences and legal sectors, were the biggest holdouts.

These companies worried that TMs would result in generic content no one would want to read. Lionbridge set out to dispel that notion and the idea that small companies delivering pure human translation was superior to the services of large LSPs.

Lionbridge invested in leading Translation Memory technology by acquiring Logoport early on. As a result, it was among the first LSPs to properly manage linguistic assets. Lionbridge differentiated and segmented TMs to work within a company to meet its various needs. That meant that a customer’s marketing TM would differ from its product TM, and both databases would differ from its regulatory TM. Today, Lionbridge manages databases that are upwards of a thousand TMs for its largest customers, mixing and blending lists in many ways. This approach maintains a company’s brand voice for its numerous target audiences, such as buyers, product users or investors.

Customers can localize their content faster, at scale and more cost effectively by using TMs instead of pure human translation. The proper management of TM maintains a company’s brand voice for its various constituents. TMs didn’t hurt Lionbridge. Lionbridge’s became a standout in the industry because of its ability to expertly manage linguistic assets.

Translation Management System technology

Translation Management System (TMS) technology was introduced in the early 2000s. It allowed enterprises to manage and automate their content translation workflows and administer the entirety of their localization operations. The technology was developed with the overt intention to crush large LSPs.

An enterprise could license a TMS, create its own workflows, assign its own translators and disintermediate large LSPs. But it didn’t quite work out that way—at least not without major hurdles for the enterprises.

The sophisticated systems required localization experts to configure, run and tune the technology. Additionally, internal project managers would have to manage an army of freelancers, which was time consuming and difficult. As a result, a number of companies that licensed a TMS didn’t have the budget to run the technology and these costly systems stayed on the shelf unused.

Lionbridge responded to this technological development by offering the key components of a TMS as part of its services, including excellent workflows, portals, production management systems, community management and the ability to track projects and develop reports.

“We tell our customers you get all of the value of a TMS without the cost of actually licensing a TMS, which is several hundred thousand dollars a year,” says Marcus Casal, Lionbridge’s Chief Technology Officer. “It benefits customers because they get the value of world class globalization technology without the additional direct licensing costs, overhead cost or management cost of it.”

Machine Translation technology

Machine Translation (MT) has been around since the 1950s but took decades to progress to a point where the industry used it broadly. The simplistic rules-based approach made way for improved statistical models, which led to more advanced neural models and better—though not perfect—quality.

“The doom-and-gloom prediction was the most over-the-top,” Casal said. I remember in 2013-2014 as the first neural engines came out on the market people said, ‘The language industry is dead. It will be gone in five years.’ Here we are, stronger than ever.”

LSPs, like Lionbridge, recast themselves as post-edit companies. While MT machines might be able to effectively handle 80 percent of the load of a particular project, humans would still be needed to handle the remaining 20 percent of the material to get it to a publishable quality level.

Lionbridge was an enthusiastic adopter of MT and viewed it as a supremely powerful tool that required understanding, respect and confidence. Again, Lionbridge’s strategy was to boldly move forward, embrace MT and become the expert on the technology.

Lionbridge learned when to use machines, when to use people, which MT engine to use, when training is appropriate and cost effective, and what workflow is best. See our assessment tool in action on our MT Translation Tracker webpage.

Lionbridge obtained expertise in:

  • Identifying where humans can add value around deciding, configuring, training and tuning MT engines
  • Understanding cultural nuance
  • Post-editing best practices

Lionbridge also developed real-time translation technology for unattended MT that is more secure than offerings like Google Translate.

MT enables Lionbridge customers to localize content that would otherwise be cost-prohibitive. As a result, they are able to localize more content.

Artificial Intelligence technology

The next major advancement, and the one that Lionbridge is currently addressing, is Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology. Like the three previous waves, AI portends to be a threat to any LSP’s survival if the LSP fails to adopt the technology or it doesn’t have enough data to get a sufficient confidence level in its machine learning algorithms.

Lionbridge is currently using its AI work to increasingly automate the creation and optimization of workflows. For instance, instead of humans making decisions about which translator to use, the idea is to use the body of data Lionbridge has already amassed about translators—with respect to their on-time delivery records, service quality and Language Quality Inspection (LQI) results—to pinpoint the best translator for the job.

Lionbridge has already started using applied AI to select translators and is in the process of developing other ways the technology can be used to automate localization processes, such as executing file prep or leveraging a particular set of content against a particular TM.

Furthermore, Lionbridge uses its big data to understand global content performance and global content effectiveness. For instance, within India, Lionbridge knows how a Tamil user reacts differently from a Hindi-speaking user. Having this knowledge enables Lionbridge to be their customers’ global partner in navigating global conversations.

“Every piece of content exists for a reason, whether it supports a marketing campaign, click or regulatory need. How well we help our customers support those needs globally is the next frontier. And how we use machine learning to achieve that and leverage all the data that we already have—not just for linguistic purposes, but also for content performance and workflow optimization purposes—that’s the next frontier,” Casal says.

What Other Challenges Did Lionbridge Overcome?

In addition to technology challenges, Lionbridge—like all companies operating in the beginning of the 21st century—would confront the dotcom bubble burst in 2000, the Global Financial Crisis of 2007–2008 and the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to present societal challenges.

Lionbridge responded by looking for ways to further strengthen existing partner relationships. Lionbridge offered creative, cost-saving measures to help customers get through hardships. In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, Lionbridge quickly moved to a remote model without interruption to operations as lockdowns further underscored the need for digital transformation and global e-commerce.

Lionbridge has encountered many obstacles during the past 25 years. It has met each challenge and proven to be steady and secure.

How Did Lionbridge’s Acquisition Strategy Strengthen the Company?

Lionbridge acquired numerous companies over the years to enhance its services and technical capabilities. The following acquisitions are among its most notable:

  • Logoport in 2005—Lionbridge’s first major technology acquisition, Logoport was a pioneer in managing translation memories effectively. The technology—renamed Translation Workspace—remains central to Lionbridge’s linguistic asset management capability.
  • Bowne Global Solutions, a division of Bowne & Co., Inc. in 2005—Bowne Global Solutions was a leading company in the language services space. The deal enhanced Lionbridge’s geographic reach, specifically in Europe, and greatly bolstered its workforce.
  • Clay Tablet Technologies in 2014—Clay Tablet was the industry’s premier connector provider at the time of the acquisition and enabled Lionbridge to jumpstart its connector initiatives.
  • Gengo in 2019—This deal enhanced Lionbridge’s self-serve platform and now enables customers to quickly translate large quantities of lower-level content via an easy-to-use interface portal.
  • Exequo in 2017, Quasu in 2020 and Rocket Sound in 2021—The acquisitions of these three games-related companies were strategic steps in deepening Lionbridge’s ability to bolster the global customer experience as it relates to games.

Mark Kelly, a Dublin-based account director who joined Lionbridge as part of the Bowne Global Solutions acquisition, described the 2005 deal as a way for Lionbridge to demonstrate its strength in depth to its larger customers.

“Some of the customers we deal with are multibillion-dollar industries. They need to understand that they are working with strong, stable partners,” Kelly says. “When they see a very big player with a global presence working with all these international organizations, it gives them confidence to be working with a company like that.”

The Lions: How Have Global Misfits Been Critical for Success?

Cowan credits a lot of Lionbridge’s success to its culture and the intentional assembly of what he reverently refers to as “global misfits". They’re Lions who embrace contradictions. An American who speaks Chinese? Yes, that’s a global misfit. So is a German who has studied anthropology. But it’s more than that, according to Cowan.

“These global misfits are unusual beings. They possess a personal discipline and an EQ which really allows them to overcome the rapid transition of our industry,” Cowan says. “This sense of capability is really what contributes to the culture.”

Indeed, Lions possess quantitative skills and qualitative skills, creativity and discipline, the ability to think locally and globally. They use their diverse talents to co-exist in two conflicting localization universes—one that involves IT and its rigid structure and the other that involves language with all its complexity and cultural differences. Their like-minded sensibility contributes to their ability to work together no matter where they are from.

When Poland-based Kajetan Malinowski first joined Lionbridge 14 years ago, he was struck by the global nature of the work as he routinely talked to colleagues in South Africa and India.

“It’s in our DNA to attract talent that knows how to work across geographies,” Malinowski says. “It may seem trivial, but it’s vitally important.”

What Are Lionbridge’s Major Accomplishments?

Lionbridge’s Chief Marketing Officer Jaime Punishill measures the company’s success, in part, by the extensive service offerings it has amassed.

“Lionbridge provides more services, in more verticals, in more markets than anyone else. That breadth of experience and its capabilities are among its key differentiators,” he says.

Punishill points to Lionbridge’s expertise in verticals that include life sciences, games, legal services, retail, automotive and travel & hospitality, among others. He highlights content services, translation services and testing services, as well as an array of offerings that includes eLearning, interpretation, content optimization, video localization, multicultural marketing and global digital experience assessments.

Longtime Lion Anja Schaefer highlights the caliber of Lionbridge’s customers as evidence of its prominence and superior service.

“We’re so proud of our portfolio of customers and the work we do with the world’s leading brands,” Schaefer says. “We partner with some of the biggest names; they are some of the most challenging and demanding customers that you can think of. There aren’t a lot of companies that could make these partnerships work successfully.”

Lionbridge has also garnered recognition from third-party sources, including being named to:

While Lions are stoked by the company’s inclusion in these prestigious lists, it comes as no surprise.

“Being a great employer for diversity is not something we switched on during the last two years. We’ve always been at that level. It’s very important, and there are opportunities within the organization no matter what a person’s gender or ethnicity is. There have always been great opportunities for every employee of Lionbridge,” says Kelly.

What Will the Next 25 Years Bring?

Insights Success magazine included Lionbridge in its 2021 list of The 10 Fastest-Growing E-Commerce Solution Providers for good reason. Lionbridge’s ability to leverage the latest technological advancements will enable its customers to achieve global expansion faster and more cost effectively than ever before.

For the next 25 years, Lionbridge will further exploit MT technology to enable companies to localize everything within the same—or even smaller—budget. By localizing everything, companies will profoundly accelerate their ability to expand globally and strengthen customer interactions.

How can companies localize everything without an unlimited budget? It will happen through a mind shift. Localization and marketing teams must no longer think in terms of localizing all their content flawlessly. They must recognize that much of their content merely requires “good enough” localization. MT—with its low cost, fast processing speed and less-than-perfect quality—will help them achieve good enough localization for suitable content, thereby enabling them to localize all their content.

When companies become open-minded about using MT for applications like user-generated content or large-volume text translations, they will be able to meet the need to localize an ever-growing volume of content and get that content to global markets quickly.

Lionbridge offers a variety of service levels to help companies localize everything. Services include:

  • Translation that is fully automated
  • Localization that is partially handled by machines and partially executed by humans
  • Localization that is fully executed by humans

Lionbridge helps its customers apply the appropriate service levels to various types of content and determine the best Machine Translation engines to generate the best possible content ROI.

As Lionbridge’s Enterprise Director for GLT, Jamie Dickson, puts it, “We build strong relationships with leading global brands by becoming their trusted advisors. We do not sell; we solve.”

For the foreseeable future, localization will be at the core of every successful company’s business strategy that involves globalization. Lionbridge will be there to guide the way.

Get in touch

Want to join us as we set out to translate and localize all the content in the world during the next 25 years? Capitalize on a quarter-century of localization experience, our global workforce and cutting-edge technology by reaching out to us today.

Lionbridge Highlights Through the Years

  • 1996—Founded by Rory Cowan
  • 2005—Acquired Bowne Global Solutions, then the largest localization provider worldwide
  • 2015—Made GMI Ratings' list of 100 Most Trustworthy Companies in America.
  • 2017—H.I.G. Capital acquired Lionbridge and it was delisted from Nasdaq
  • 2017—John Fennelly named as Chief Executive Officer
  • 2018, 2019 & 2021—Included in Forbes' list of America's Best Large Employers
  • 2020 & 2021—Included in Forbes' list of America's Best Employers For Diversity
  • 2021—Included in Insights Success magazine’s list of “The 10 Fastest-Growing E-Commerce Solution Providers”

Lionbridge Then and Now

Categories 1996 2021
Number of employees <10 5,900
Number of offices 1 42
Offices located in number of countries 1 23
Number of translators/global experts ~2,500 ~30,000
Number of languages supported <30 350+
Method of source language delivery Manual Automated
Number of translated words/year 1 million 2 billion

Categories 1996
Number of employees <10
Number of offices 1
Offices located in number of countries 1
Number of translators/global experts ~2,500
Number of languages supported <30
Method of source language delivery Manual
Number of translated words/year 1 million

Categories 2021
Number of employees 5,900
Number of offices 42
Offices located in number of countries 23
Number of translators/global experts ~30,000
Number of languages supported 350+
Method of source language delivery Automated
Number of translated words/year 2 billion
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Janette Mandell
Janette Mandell