Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The New Alchemy: How To Take the Crap Produced by 1,000 Bilinguals and Turn It into Gold

There seems to be an imperative in the translation industry according to which a description of your business plan needs to be as outrageous and vulgar as possible, perhaps in order to drown out the outrageousness and vulgarity of your competitors. This inevitably leads to an escalation to see who can say the most idiotic thing. Lower standards are the unsurprising outcome. “Quality doesn’t matter!” screams one such guru and proceeds to make basic arithmetical mistakes in his PowerPoint presentation. “It is wrong to think that translators who charge less are not good” bleats another one while proceeding to embarrass herself. This is the level of expert commentary to which the language professional is subjected as he  makes his way through the mist and fog of the early twenty-first century.

And, of course, one is a pedant, or worse, for pointing these things out. However, the race to the bottom that is the Web 2.0 in the language industry has reached a new low.

Then title starts off fairly well. With a bold, provocative statement. “Each time we fire a ‘professional linguist,’ our quality improves.” That’s good stuff. It reminds one of Hermann Göring at his pinnacle: “Every time I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my gun.” Or Khrushchev: “Every time I send an economist to the gulag, our production figures improve.” So our neo-barbarian is in good company, totalitarianism-wise.

However, it is all downhill from there, for in the next sentence we take a brusque detour through the Valley of No Grammar. “Language translation industry is full of controversy.” And in the  blink of an eye we are in those Cold War movies where the bad guys were Scottish actors playing Russians who spoke without using definite articles. You can almost hear some Stakhanovist management consultant saying: “Definite articles inefficient! Bourgeois! Unnecessary! From now on, Soviet people speak without ‘the’.”

Inevitably, it gets worse. To catalog the grammatical innovations in a 1,000-word piece would require several 1,000-word pieces. But, again, don't let my pedantry get the best of me. My old prejudices about writing at a sixth-grade level. Those quaint remnants of the past onto which I mistakenly cling.

Let's analyze the real quid of Mr. Buran’s musings. His thesis is quite simple. He starts out painting a gloomy landscape of the language market that ProZ begat:

Language translation industry is full of controversy. It is unregulated and licenses are not required. Every unemployed individual can create a profile on some of the famous freelance job boards and pretend he/she is a translator. Such people cause harm to the clients whether they are direct employers or translation agencies. These mom and pop self proclaimed individuals promise fast turnarounds, low rates and claim to know all the languages including rare ones.

Which leads me to scream the following question at the top of my lungs: What in blazes is a “mom and pop self-proclaimed individual”? But, no, no, no. Don’t get distracted by the patent absurdity. Dig deeper. Let’s assume this was actually written by a human being and not machine translated by a Reagan-era Atari console. Let’s roll with it.

From there, the author goes on to make an interesting leap:

As a founder of one of the most successful translation agencies in the world: “Translation Services USA” with a headquarters in the heart of New York City, I noticed that it is a very ill [sic] practice to rely on any single, even the most experienced and trustworthy translator. I realized that despite the threat of loosing [sic] language consistency, it is a very risky move to store all your eggs in one basket, especially, when you have absolutely no control over it. You assign the whole project to that single individual and then it’s up to his/her discretion and level of commitment to deliver the result. Many people do deliver, but some of them don’t. When they don’t, you end up in awkward situations when clients complain, curse you, leave negative feedbacks [sic], threaten to sue and so on.

OK, first of all… “Translation Services USA”? Really? To paraphrase Matthew Perry: Could you be more generic? You’re honestly telling me that you’re not a KGB front and this is the name you chose? Who in their right mind would assign their documents to an agency called “Translation Services USA”? Are you sure this isn't another cunning ruse from Wiley E. Coyote to catch the Road Runner? Can you imagine a parent saying: “I just left my kid over at Babysitting Services USA. With a name like that, you can’t go wrong, right?”

But, once again, the sheer absurdity of the presentation has led me astray. Back to the argument. Remember the premise: Translators who register for freelance portals suck. Now, to go from there to the statement that “Individual translators are unreliable” is a massive non sequitur (look it up). Yes, any individual can be hit by lightning, impeding them from delivering work on time. But surely the sourcing of reliable individuals is part of the added value you provide as an agency. Otherwise, what distinguishes you, “one of the [self-proclaimed?] most successful agencies in the world,” from thousands of fly-by-night outfits traveling under fishy names like “World Translation Services” or “Language Translation Agency” or “American Translation Agency”? (All three of which actually exist, incidentally.)

Recall the paradox in which a Cretan philosopher gets up and says: “All Cretans are liars. I am a Cretan. Therefore, everything I say is a lie.” In this case, Buran the Sophist seems to reason: “All translators suck. This guy is a translator (and sucks). Therefore, I will hire 1,000 translators and produce high-quality translations.” In the case of the philosopher, you have a Cretan paradox. In the case of the agency owner, you just have a cretin (not a paradox).

Imagine you run a company whose 100 employees are all drunks and drug addicts. Nothing gets done, or if it gets done it is handed in late and the quality is appalling. But it so happens that you live in a region where everyone is an alcoholic or has addiction problems. So you fire the 100 drunks and re-hire them on a part-time basis along with another 900 homeless druggies. You split up your old tasks into tiny pieces. Voilà: the magic of crowdsourcing explained in two shakes of a tail. My thesis is that in all possible worlds, your delivery time will be faster but your quality will be comparable to considerably worse. Our linguistically challenged entrepreneur claims otherwise:

We fire our translators! Yes, instead of assigning the whole project to a single translator or several, we decided to build a modern system which would allow us to utilize all our available linguists at the same moment. This way, we don’t rely on anyone. There is a huge redundancy built-in and this also results in huge turnaround improvements. If a single linguist can translate at a rate of 2,000 words per day, the new approach lets us to [sic] reach a 10 times faster turnaround. Even the 100 time faster turnaround is feasible for some of the most common languages such as Spanish, Russian or Portuguese. To put it into perspective, that’s roughly 800 pages per day!

I know what you’re thinking. This guy is an imbecile. Devoting a blog entry to this is about as useful as barking at passers-by. And, yes, there is some truth to that view. However, I justify this on the basis that Mr. Buran’s delusion is actually an extreme example of business models that are being posited as the future of the translation industry. Mr. Buran’s only virtue is greater clarity than the one employed by other omnipresent gurus.

And this catastrophe (Mr. Buran, hire a copywriter, or have one of your drug-addled English natives proofread your stuff) helps clarify something that I had never realized previously.

Adam Smith’s simple yet profound analytical insight was the identification of the division of labor as the secret to higher levels of production. The division of labor has indeed been the key to the great multiplication of humanity’s wealth during the past centuries. However, during the 250 years that separate us from Smith, the process of translation never profited from the division of labor. And don’t tell me that the technology wasn’t there. Because, despite the tsunami of corporate agitprop to which we are constantly subjected, translation remains a low-tech endeavor.

What could have kept a clever industrialist in eighteenth-century Britain from taking a heap of bilinguals, shutting them up in a big warehouse and having each of them translate a paragraph from Hume’s Essays? Absolutely nothing. Why, that way you could translate an 800-page brick in a single day!

What indeed would have kept our industrious entrepreneur from doing that?

Oh, I know! Common sense.

What was stupid in 1776 remains just as stupid in 2011.

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.


bonnjill said...

This is comedy gold. Thanks for the chuckle! I'm off to Google Mr. Buran to make sure I never work for him or any company he is associated with...

Mago said...

Actually I wasn’t thinking the guy is an imbecile. After the several readings it took me to make some sense out of his post, I was thinking that if it made us indignant, we’ve been had.d If we didn’t recognize Mr. Buran’s post as sarcasm, it’s because, sadly, it’s all too plausible that people would be sincere in thinking this. The evidence is out there, after all.

Miguel Llorens M. said...

Thanks for visiting, Jill. The company is apparently very real and has a good track record on payments lists. However, other potential downsides to working with the company may be less obvious.

Miguel Llorens M. said...


Yes, it is definitely so bad that people think it is sarcastic. The problem is that the author is using these posts to market his crowdsourcing technology. So, yeah, unbelievable as it may sound, he is in deadly earnest.