Thursday, April 28, 2011

Most Localization “Consulting” Is Sloppy Fluff

Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make their meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set together by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”
George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

“Go West, young man” was the recommendation in the nineteenth century for the ambitious twentysomething in the overcrowded cities of the East coast. “Just one word… plastics” was the disheartening tip given by a half-drunk grown-up to the kidult Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. “Become a localization consultant” is the mantra now for the freelance translator worried about being washed away by the alleged tidal wave of language technology.

The problem is it’s far harder to actually gain some real honest-to-goodness knowledge about relatively difficult topics like macroeconomics and international business than to spout a few buzzwords and sound like the CEO of the Kwik-e-Mart, who lives on the summit of a mountain and answers only three questions per visit.

What does it take to become a “localization” guru? Not much, apparently. To become a big thinker in the translation l10n industry, take two completely unrelated statistics, pad them with a few vacuous platitudes and then close with a meaningless generalization.

Take, for instance, this blog entry by a “globalization specialist” called Renato Beninatto. He drops the statistic that “three-quarters of sales for 28 of the 30 companies [in the DAX] come from outside Germany.” Now, let’s parse this for a second. First of all, what do you mean exactly when you say that a “sale” comes from outside of Germany? How can a sale go or come anywhere? Do you mean the good that was sold? The place where the sale was made? The place where the good was made? Right from the start, we are in a world of dimly understood terms and poorly managed concepts.

Beninatto proceeds to connect this datum to (emphasis added) “last year's S&P 500 analysis of 250 American companies in which 46.6% of all sales in 2009 were produced and sold outside of the United States.First of all, the S&P 500 doesn’t analyze one single solitary thing. The S&P 500 is an index of the 500 largest companies in the United States ranked according to market cap. Our business expert is probably referring to Standard & Poor’s, a ratings agency that among other things publishes the S&P 500.

But let’s leave this factual sloppiness to one side for a moment and let’s sink our hands further in the mushy conceptual sloppiness of this brief text. According to the blog post, “46.6% of all sales in 2009 were produced and sold outside of the United States.” What does this phrase mean, exactly? How can “sales” be “produced and sold”? How can you sell a sale, for Chrissake? Much less produce it…

When someone says he is struggling to find the right words to express a thought, that person is mistaken. If he doesn’t have the right words, then his thinking process is faulty. Words aren’t transparent vessels that convey thoughts. They are the utensils with which we think. Muddled expression is muddled thinking.

In this specific case, apples and oranges are being compared and the comparison is passed off as some sort of profound insight about the world economy. However, the German and American economies are two completely different animals. Whereas the United States outsourced the bulk of its manufacturing processes overseas (both low-wage, labor-intensive tasks and medium-wage, specialized factory jobs), Germany followed a different route, outsourcing all low-skilled processes and retaining at home as much high-end, high-value-added manufacturing as possible. Therefore, when 28 out of 30 DAX companies report that their sales abroad amounted to so-and-so percentage, they mean the dollar or euro value of finished products actually made in Germany and exported to European neighbors and the rest of the world. By contrast, when American companies report sales abroad, what they really mean is goods produced in Vietnam and China and sold by, say, Coca-Cola France in France.

That is, of course, a much more nuanced analysis than our self-styled “visionary” and “agent provocateur” has in mind. After all, what the blog post really boils down to is bland statements along the lines of “there is a lot of foreign trade” and “a lot of foreign trade requires a lot of translation” (ka-ching!), both of which have actually been truisms since the mid-seventeenth century, when the first Dutch and British schooners started kidnapping people off the coast of West Africa. But one must not forget that a shibboleth is designed to have no meaning. Its real meaning is its meta-meaning.

Although it is still healthy to point out from time to time that the Emperor is prancing around in the nude.

Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. He has worked as a translator for Goldman Sachs, the US Government's Open Source Center and H.B.O. International, as well as many small-and-medium-sized brokerages and asset management companies operating in SpainTo contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. Feel free to join his LinkedIn network or to follow him on Twitter.


Jordi Balcells said...

Well, it's good to see that Mr. Beninatto is getting more and more fans every day. :D

The difference between selling consulting and selling translation is that, if you can pull it off, consulting is less work for more money. Good for them.

Financial Translator said...

Well, selling consulting is leverageable. In general, you can only sell one unit of translation to one client, while you can sell the same unit of consulting to several clients. More power to them. However, if someone peddles lazily concocted fluff and, moreover, posts it on the Internet, he is kind of asking for it.