According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, pivot is “a fixed point supporting something which turns or balances, or a person or thing on which something else depends”. If we imagine for a moment the localization process as a mechanism, the source material will have the function of the pivot, because in every possible scenario, from AI-powered machine translation with post-editing to the good old translation and proofreading, the quality of the source material is the factor that will always dictate both the process efficiency and the ultimate quality of the localized materials, regardless of all the technical magic and linguistic knowledge involved.
However, the term pivot language (or bridge language) refers to the intermediary language that enables integrated translation/localization process from only one source language to any required number of target languages in cases of multilingual localization when the source materials are not available in a single language for any reason.
Choosing the Pivot Language
In most cases, the main factor for the pivot language choice is essentially the availability of human and other resources (such as data or translation assets) for a particular language or language pairs, and this generally depends on the language size. Language services get more expensive and the availability of digital and human resources gets more limited as the sheer number of native speakers descends. For example, there will always be fewer resources available for localization from Dutch to Japanese than from Dutch to English or from Japanese to English.
This is the reason why, in most cases, English will be the preferred pivot language, followed by other relatively large languages such as Spanish, German or French.
In certain cases, depending on the project requirements and the specific language pairs required, the purely linguistic features of languages such as their structure, shared vocabulary and genetic relationships can be leveraged to shorten the turnaround time and improve the cost-effectiveness of localization process by choosing one among the mutually intelligible languages or dialects as the pivot language for localization within certain clusters of languages and locales (such as South Slavic).
Concerns and Solutions
The main and only concern of pivoting is quality.
There is no doubt that this approach provides an opportunity to exchange not only the translated information, but also any errors, false friends and awkward or vague lexical and structural solutions among the language pairs.
Luckily, quality is also one of the main reasons why the pivot language approach is deployed in the first place.
The importance of the source material quality can never be emphasized enough, and it is essential to remember that any vagueness in terms of clarity, context or the intended purpose of the source materials is likely to reflect on the localized versions. With the pivoting approach, these issues are resolved during the preparatory stages because the materials are developed/translated to the pivot language with the clearly set purpose of localization to other languages, which is usually not the case when corporate materials are composed.
At the same time, pivoting enables development of centralized quality assurance programs, centralized development of translation assets such as multilingual terminology bases , and reduced administration as any communication between the linguist and technical teams and the client can be smoothly performed through a single point of contact, i.e. the project manager.
When it Works
The pivoting approach can be used in virtually all areas of language services – in machine translation with AI, professional human translation, even in interpreting – but its main strength is always in numbers – either in the number of target languages, or in the volume of the materials for localization.
While it may make little sense to apply it on localization projects involving an odd number of language pairs, it will make perfect sense to use it when the language pairs are numbered in dozens .
When done right (i.e, when the source materials are given all due attention), it is an excellent tool that enables centralized management of multilingual projects and, consequently, optimization of costs and time required for localization.