Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Financial Translator's Bookshelf: How 2 Be a Frielance Transalator (Thorugh not a Very Goode Proof-reader)

We live in a world in which the amount of information is expanding exponentially. Or at least that is what our translationl10n pundits tell us. We are also told that this Content Big Bang overwhelms the current capacity of the translation industry. 

I, for one, keep harping on the counterpoint. For one thing, the idea that more content necessarily requires more translation is a non sequitur if ever I saw one. Just because a piece of text exists doesn’t mean it has to be translated into a gazillion languages. Ah, the McLocalization theorists tell us, but think about the benefit to humanity of increased communication. Call me a skeptic (yes, please call me a skeptic), but an increase in the amount of garbage communicated into other languages will benefit humanity how, exactly?

My intuition is that a lot of the Content Big Bang is either of very low quality (content farms) or very low importance (social media) or both, and a good part of it is produced in industrial quantities by companies seeking to game search engines (some MT “localization”, AOL’s content “creation” efforts). Over the past few months, I have noticed that there is increasingly a tension between the Web 2.0 and the sheer amount of garbage it creates. Web companies are constantly faced with the challenge of sifting through mountains of data to provide cybernauts quality information. This urgency is implicit in Google’s rejiggering of its algorithm, the restrictions imposed on the Translation API, and the growing awareness that cyberspace is getting about as cluttered as the giant garbage compactor in Star Wars: Episode IV.

And now there is a new front in this deluge of useless, low-quality content to which L10N entrepreneurs point as a stellar business opportunity. Amazon’s Kindle store is apparently being flooded by a veritable tidal wave of cheapo, software-generated titles:
Spam has hit the Kindle, clogging the online bookstore of the top-selling eReader with material that is far from being book worthy and threatening to undermine Amazon.com Inc's publishing foray.
Thousands of digital books, called ebooks, are being published through Amazon's self-publishing system each month. Many are not written in the traditional sense.
Instead, they are built using something known as Private Label Rights, or PLR content, which is information that can be bought very cheaply online then reformatted into a digital book.
These ebooks are listed for sale -- often at 99 cents -- alongside more traditional books on Amazon's website, forcing readers to plow through many more titles to find what they want.
You see how it doesn’t make a lot of sense to get erotically aroused by all that new content? Listen to this: “Aspiring spammers can even buy a DVD box set called Autopilot Kindle Cash that claims to teach people how to publish 10 to 20 new Kindle books a day without writing a word.” Yes, pollute the Kindle store with a dozen crap titles a day without writing a single word! Brrrr… This is surely Charles Babbage’s dream come true.

This is because low reproduction costs and absence of a gatekeeper (publishers, record companies) almost irresistibly lead to spam, low quality and piracy. This is the economics of the Web 2.0. Therefore, as in many other areas, the challenge of the future for Web companies is how to balance curation with the freedom that the Internet enables. Already, the seeds are being planted: “Amazon is curating submissions to its new Kindle Singles business, which offers short stories, long-form journalism and opinion pieces, ‘after seeing how quickly the self-published side degenerated,’ McQuivey noted.”

I read this article a couple of weeks ago, and by sheer serendipity I came across the following gem on Amazon this weekend: How to Be a Freelance Transalator: Your Step-By-Step Guide to Freelance Translating Success. Can you spot the typo? (Hint: it’s in the title.) (Can you spot the name of the author, for that matter?)

For a couple of laughs, I bought the dang thing and read it on my old Kindle. First of all, it is readily apparent that the friendly folks at HowExpert Press are ambitious spammers. While most self-published titles price themselves toward the lower end of the spectrum (from $0.99 to $3.99), this spunky little magnum opus proudly retails for the suggested Amazon Kindle price of $9.99.  However, my bibliophilic hormones were already set ablaze by “transalators,” so I decided not to quibble and went for it. So I plunked down my $9.99 and downloaded the thing.

First rude shock: it’s tiny! I guess it’s about 4,000 words, perhaps 15 or 16 pages of a traditional book. I did a double take, but, nope, there it is in cold hard bits. The ebook file is a paltry 36 KB. A lot or a little, perhaps you ask? Compare it to another ebook dealing with the same topic: Douglas Robinson’s Becoming a Translator, which in the print version boasts 320 pages and has a Kindle file size of 1230 KB. Okay, How To Be a Freelance Transalator fits a whopping 34 times into Robinson’s book. That’s a little worrisome. But think about it this way: if it condenses the same amount of information into that file size, they are roughly equivalent. Moreover, Robinson’s publisher doesn’t offer any discount to Kindle buyers: his tome’s electronic version retails at a very snooty $31.90, comparable to any old-media hardcover. But, again, think about it this way: if every line of Transalator costs 34 times as much as Robinson’s writing and costs a third, then the folks at HowExpert have an unbeatable value proposition that will be the envy of any hard-working machine translation entrepreneur. Cheaper and a time saver! The mind boggles.

But stop judging covers and cut to the nitty-gritty. The proof is in the pudding. The quality is in the reading. And, certainly, when you open your ebook, there is a lot that resembles pudding splattered over every electronic page. As Descartes did in a Flemish, man-sized oven so many centuries ago, the anonymous writer of the book is a stickler for first principles: “Apart from being fluent in a foreign language, a translator must also have a very good command of his native language.” Yes, command of your native language is definitely a plus, for a variety of things that go far beyond translation, from graduating pre-school to communicating with your parents (you know, those people who claim to have made you and also feed and clothe you for the first few years of your life, when you are in no condition to make an independent living as a “transalator”).

But then we dive into the rough-and-tumble world of professional translation, where it doesn’t really matter what you know (or even what you do), but rather who you know: “The first order of business for a freelance translator is to cultivate positive feedback.” To which I say: really? I would have thought a bit of, you know, actual translation would be in order before cultivating all that positive feedback…

Other advice is more practical (i.e., not directly contrary to the laws of reality). One section is entitled: “Keep track of all the translation gigs you make.” Translation gigs? Groovy, baby. Then the author delves into territory I had never even heard about before: the (seemingly) dreaded “translator’s block.” Translator’s block? I had heard of writer’s block, but translator’s block? I mean, a writer has trouble starting an article or continuing with a book because, after all, the millions of decisions that go into making the text require a lot of thinking and hard work. Translation also requires a lot of creativity and tiny decisions, but fortunately the pain of creation ab nihilo is not one of them (for pretty basic reasons). “Translator’s block”? Seriously, if anyone ever comes to you and says they’re suffering from that, you should give them a swift kick in the kiester. You need inspiration, little grasshopper? How about next month’s utility bills? Or is that not enough of a muse for you?

Then comes a little pearl of wisdom that is worth $9.99 all on its own. If you have a large project, do this:
A large assignment can be very stressful; it can make you nervous and prevent you from concentrating. As soon as you break your work down into pieces it won’t seem so big and scary anymore, and you’ll be able to relax and start working easily.
Yes, that sounds like sane advice. If you have a 50,000-word text to deliver by Monday, just break it down into pieces. Let’s say, oh… 50,000 words? Start with “the.” That’s not so scary, is it? Translate it.

Choose the next word.


Do it 49,998 more times and you’re ‘round third and headed for home. (Of course, I can’t guarantee the quality of your translation if you work like that, but at least you’ll make your deadline, also an important objective, as the Transalator usefully informs us.)

All in all, Anonymous’s How To Be a Freelance Transalator is an eye-opening treasure trove of experience. I truly and really hope someone “transalates” it soon into a gazillion languages using the same software that wrote it, because denying this to the millions of non-English-speaking masses would truly be a shame. Furthermore, I can’t wait for the upcoming companion titles: How To Be a Perfessional Proofe-reader and How To be a Freelance Riter.

(If you liked this post, I am going to place it as a one-star review on Amazon. Please feel free to click on the link to the book’s page, scroll down to my review and click that it was useful for you. I’m sure the friendly folks at HowExpert will be thrilled.)

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 Spain.


Joan Parra said...

You skeptic!

Financial Translator said...

Than you! (Smiley face. Skeptics don't use emoticons.)

Kevin Lossner said...

You definitely got my click, Miguel. It's depressing to see yet another channel for spam here.

Your instincts with regard to the "content tsunami" are accurate enough as I see it. I see this "wealth" of content as a big masturbatory feedback loop of content farm trash thrown into the MT Wonderworx Engine, burying all sense in its toxic output.

Surely there is a greater perceived need today as international trade and travel increase, but no sane organization should put itself at risk by relying on MT for important communications. I wouldn't even trust the post-edited crap. There will be those that go down this path, of course, but every business has a right to choose its own means of suicide.

Wanderjenn said...

Oh yes, please post this as a review. At least you read the book unlike many of the shameless review bots that prowl the internet.

Doug Lawrence said...

You Skeptic!

Great post - thank you.

Someone I know paid USD 100 for a similar book!

I've added to your growing list of Amazon 'useful' clickers!


Catharine Cellier-Smart said...

You obviously got a good deal - it's now selling for $11.99 on Amazon!