Senthil Nathan

CEO | Langscape

CITLoB | Vice President South Zone

[More about him here]


Growth in the South is my mantra

About me and Langscape

I am a language industry person, obviously!  For most of the people in Tamil Nadu, however, I am a noted journalist, known TV commentator (on current affairs), writer, and publisher. But I would like to choose, though, this as my real identity: First generation entrepreneur. 

Language is my passion since college days. It drove me to the language industry eventually. When ‘what to do with my love for language’ was the question, entrepreneurship was the answer.  There was no language company in Chennai to offer me a job then. So I was forced to create one for me.

The Langscape story

I head Langscape, a LSP with almost two decades of existence now (though changed its name by 2005). Since its beginning in 1999, it offers services to global LSPs for their Indian language needs. However, in the first few years, our specialization was something very unique, as we offered services for ethnic minority languages from around the world. I personally specialized in it. I spend nights and days together to find a translator for, say, the Eskimo language or a language spoken in some pacific islands, deep in Africa, spoken in Central Asian mountains, and so on.  So fifty percent of our projects were for Indian languages and the rest for the ethnic minority languages from around the world. A strange combo for an entrepreneur working out of his small residence in Chennai!  Today’s new normal called WFH thing was an old norm for me (same with most of the language industry people) since the turn of the century.  

I was working as a sub-editor in India Today’s Tamil edition after graduating in Mass Communication and Journalism at the University of Madras in 1994. The job in India Today taught me the skills in translation, editing, DTP, and management. Then I started to work closely with the then-emerging Tamil internet initiatives in India, Singapore, and Malaysia. I was one of the first entrants in Tamil computing and a founding member of organizations like the International Forum for Information Technology in Tamil (INFITT). Adding my journalistic skills with my exposure in the language computing area as a budding entrepreneur, I started my own company in 1999 with a small project from a Ukraine-based client. I won the contract through a marketplace similar to Proz. Then I also launched a monthly magazine in Tamil for computers and the internet.  For a few years in the business, I was working for Indian and global clients like Bowne Global Solutions (then merged with Lionbridge), Lionbridge, TransPerfect etc. However, I was not able to do the business properly as I lacked the most important thing that every startup needed: Money. The market itself was small. Until even after the first decade, I was at the mercy of Proz and similar marketplaces to win the orders. The growth was very slow and we were running a cottage industry unit.  It was after  2015 we are able to change the route and slowly emerging into an SME size company, with considerable investment into marketing and R&D,

I felt at that time that India itself was an unlikely place to do a language business, as the translation was never been seen in the list of needs of Indian corporate. It was actually not existing at all. Banks said a translation agency was not on their list of business entities to work with. More often, when I introduced myself to the business community that I run a translation agency, the business people wanted to confirm that I am indeed in the business of (medical) transcription!  The pain is untranslatable:-)

The translator was esteemed with lesser value both in content and marriage markets. All door-knockings I did with the local companies brought me no good results and the global projects were not regular. The quality of the translators was questionable and the rat race has also begun by then. We literally have no distinction between an agency and a freelancer. Meanwhile, I joined the local office of a well-known global LSP as a project manager for a year. It helped me a lot as I learned the professional way of doing business. Also, the industry started to mature in India. The emergence of mobile computing and eCommerce on the side and the emergence of non-metro markets on the other side led to a local ecosystem to evolve. 

Then the second innings proved successful. Today, we won new contracts from companies like Microsoft and MLSPs like RWS and Venga Global. And surprisingly we got business from the SaaS companies from the home town – Chennai, which I considered the most unlikely place an LSP to survive! I never thought I would be serving the global product companies operating on the next street!  But today Freshworks, Zoho, Kissflow and many other Saas companies are our clients. Meanwhile, we also set up an organization in Singapore as wanted to slowly expand globally.  And we entered into the most happening thing in the industry today: Machine Translation

The entry into MT

I was always fascinated with machine translation since 90s. Believe me, I wasn’t a programmer or linguist by profession but attracted by MT as a ‘language lover’, even before I started the company.  Later, we worked for a few big companies in their corpus cleaning activities. In 2016 we invested our hard-earned money – No VC fund! – in MT to develop a rule-based MT for English to Tamil.  By the time we had started to tame the MT, one year later,  a news, good and bad, came. Google has launched an NMT engine and the results were comparatively great. I tested it by myself and that was all. I read the NMT related tech articles and they declared the rule-based MT was dead, and a new neural revolution started. What was dying, I asked myself. Good old MT or my dreams? I have been shattered. Hard-earned money gone waste again. After a week of sleepless nights and self-cursing, I took a very bold decision. If you can’t beat them, join them. I decided to transform our efforts to develop workflow solutions for implementing MT engines for users! Cool.

Ailaysa is born. Ailaysa is the MTPE service now and will be a MTPE platform tomorrow where you will complete your translation tasks. For Ailaysa, the market is global, no longer Indic. Ailaysa’s mission to bring the AI-powered language tech to the end-users.  The word Ailaysa is an interesting one. It has no meaning at all! It is a rhyming word occurring in the last position of every utterance (line) of the work songs of South Indian fishermen. It helps to reduce the burden of hard work and sync the tasks of the fishermen together.

South Indian space

Except some what in Bengalore, the southern cities have no clusters of LSPs, unlike New Delhi or Pune. However, as the Indian languages market is expanding, the opportunities are more.  First, after Hindi, some of the most sought after languages for Indian market expansion for any client would be Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam. All the four South Indian languages have thus markets of their own. The adoption of South Indian languages on the internet is far greater in many aspects according to the Google KPMG report 2017.  Hindi’s sway is less in the South and so the companies need to localize into the four major southern languages if they truly need to go national. And, the South as a whole is a developed region, for both B2B and B2C segments. Going national means going regional, and it is more pronounced in the South.  

As the VP of Citlob for the South, my focus will be making the South count. ‘Growth in the South‘ will be the mantra.  Helping the Southern agencies to grow fast and healthy, and get maturity in professional aspects.  The agencies in the South, I feel, should first develop strong capabilities in their local languages. India is one but it is a multi-centered economy. 

We lack professional training, we lack local patronage from the governments.  We have low access to happening in the industry. Our translators have less professional prestige compare to their IT or bank peers. How to change these? That’s the question and we need to work through. I think the solutions come from the top. More corporate buyers (particularly global ones) can change the dynamics but not on their own. 

We need to build the industry still: A corporate-style agency offering jobs to freelancers with a good rate and hiring employees with a good salary.  This requires a multi-dimensional engagement from the companies, government, and corporate buyers. 

South or elsewhere in India, this is the situation. We need to graduate out of our own garages and set up world-class language companies. Keeping things low is not an option anymore. Millennials and after, we can’t afford to be an old style agency if you need to hire good employees. If you are not attracting a final year student to your company as intern, you are not in the business. A journalist-turned-translator-turned-entrepreneur story is an unusual story and cliche. Now we need serious startups in this field, with lot of money and energy built-in. It is already an AI industry belongs to the Industrial Revolution 4. 

Every aspect of the business needs to be transformed.  The rise of Citlob is timely in this sense. I appreciate Sandip and others for the ground and ground-breaking work for a much-needed industry body.

In the next two years, as a VP of CITLoB in the South, this is my wish-list:  For agencies, bringing global good practices. For freelancers, good professional training and earning, For buyers, enlightening them on why translation or localization is a part and parcel of their business. Through business events and partnerships, courses, and webinars, we can bring this to the needy. Let me repeat the mantra: Growth in the South. 

Meanwhile, I am also an active founding member and secretary of a civil society organization called Campaign for Language Equality and Rights (CLEAR). The mandate for CLEAR is to get constitutional and government support for Indian languages to flourish. We urge governments to make policies to support all languages in India.  I need to find a synergy to work with two different bodies, but will eventually do.

Finally

I believe India can be a leading destination in the global language industry. We used to say that the global language market value is 40 or 50 billion dollars. But it is not. Nobody knows how to factor-in the impact of business of the latest entrants in this segment: Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, etc!  Through their MT and NLP technologies, they have mainstreamed the translation business now. So, when calculating the market size, you may be adding a zero to the number! Whatever be the change, the change is phenomenal. Like in infotech, I believe India can be the solution provider for the global language industry. India itself a big market, too.  We have a China sort of thing here.

And it is a challenge that all the LSPs need to transform, and all the freelancers need to transform. We must realize that the exciting days are ahead.