Tackling Long-Tail Languages

Posted by Ashleigh Chretien


Being in the translation business, once in a while you will come across rare languages that customers need translated. These languages are learning experiences because they take a lot more hard work and effort than your standard languages that are readily available. From sourcing the linguists who can translate to figuring out a deadline and everything in between… these are all things one must consider when handling long tail languages.


It’s estimated that there are up to 7,000 different languages spoken around the world today.  With some of those languages only having 1,000 or so linguists who can actually speak the language.

With so many languages out there, it makes translation difficult.

These rare and difficult languages can make the translation process a little tricky, and are known as long-tail languages. Handling such languages automatically is not possible due to the fact that there is just far too many of them with too many constraints and challenges to deal with, to have stand by capacity.

They prove to be difficult and demand more attention but are doable! They just require more steps. When sourcing resources for such languages there are some important considerations to keep in mind:

  • Many of these languages are spoken by a few thousand people. Furthermore, the availability of literate, English speaking, computer literate people with aptitude could be extremely low.
  • Some of the language speaking groups are located in remote areas with little to no electricity or internet connection, meaning we would have to work offline and have messengers travel long distances to send us files for translation.
  • In many regions where rare languages are spoken, telecommunication infrastructure and power grids are poor. This may impact the ability to communicate with translators in a timely fashion.
  • Many of these languages are not really well defined in terms of linguistic rules and terminology. Many of those have numerous dialects i.e. Quechua has up to 42 dialects.
  • Local communities can have longer holidays, festivals or periodical activities that impact availability. For example Inuktitut people, indigenous people living in north of Canada have seal hunting season starting November and lasting until January which makes translators unavailable during that period of year.
  • Many of these rare languages are ancient languages and do not have modern terminology. Concepts like airplane or computer are very difficult to translate and will require creation of words and might require engagement with local language authority to consult things. This might require collaboration from client as well.
  • Significant cultural differences might impact feasibility of the project. Indigenous people of Peru and Bolivia have different way of perceiving time and do not know concept of hours and minutes and there is no terminology to describe it.
  • This is also a challenge form the schedule point of view – many of these communities do not understand time people of western civilization do. Deadlines are difficult to impose and there sort of fluid. Tomorrow easily means ANY day in the future rather than next day.

With that being said, Lionbridge onDemand has the capability to handle rare languages, but will require a more concerted sourcing effort in the beginning of the project with no particular deadline or the possibility of deadline extension. The reason simply being we currently do not have any resources for those languages.

In order to accommodate requests, we would need to conduct research to find those who can translate the particular language. This research step could take weeks to even months, but if there is open communication and enough planning ahead of a deadline, we can deliver.

This is a long process, but if it is planned out ahead of time can be successfully accomplished. We will work with you to figure out a strategy to best handle these long tail languages.

Planning ahead is KEY with long-tail languages!


To learn more, visit ondemand.lionbridge.com or email us at ondemand@lionbridge.com.