Monday, June 13, 2011

Redefining Quality in the “Translation” Industry: A Response to Jost’s Comment

A reader called Jost left the following comment on “The Hamster Who Translated 10,000 Words a Day (and Other Urban Legends)”:

I read your blog post earlier this afternoon and I've been thinking about it since. I think we need to be careful not to be too dismissive of each other's work. Our "industry" is made up of a lot of different kinds of jobs and interests and, I'm going to say it: quality standards. And someone who prepares text for mere usefulness rather than other quality criteria can still have a happy life. Jost

I am thankful that the comment was made because it allows me to write about a subject that had been rattling around in my brain for several months. The thing is that Jost zeroed in on the crux of the problem: “Our ‘industry’ is made up of a lot of different kinds of jobs and interests and, I'm going to say it: quality standards.” The issue, then, is quality and recent attempts to redefine it in order to create a more inclusive concept of the translation business, one that comprises both the hamsters and the non-hamsters.

The author of the comment warns against dismissiveness of another colleague’s work. I sincerely believe that this is not what I did. And if you pump out 10,000 words a day at a decent rate and make 800 or 1,000 or 1,500 euros a day, more power to you. However, if you were to claim that you can produce triple my output with the same quality, I would become very apprehensive about your honesty. I feel I was dismissive of the business model that boasts about five-cent rates and demands 10K words a day from the hapless hamster. That is the real target of the dismissiveness. That it is, of course, a real human being who has to endure that sort of work rate is unfortunate, but no one forced this translator to do that. I am not anyone’s personal Jesus or César Chávez. As Charles Barkley once said memorably: “Parents should raise their own kids.” Just as these people accept a low rate, they should also accept a lower level of esteem or, to be more precise, less reputational capital (because we are talking about money, aren’t we?).

In any case, what is so wrong about dismissiveness? I believe that what is described as “dismissiveness” is a valid commercial strategy. Because I believe the following “dismissive” core beliefs will become the foundations of any successful small and medium-sized translation business in the Age of McLocalization:

1.- Quality is not redefinable or negotiable (i.e., a job is done with the highest quality or it isn’t). In other words, it goes without saying that if you are interested in hiring me, you want high quality. It is implicit in our economic negotiation.
2.- Income—whether measured per word, hour, day, line, or otherwise—will be correlated to an individual’s commitment to the notion of quality described in point 1.
3.- A certain amount of unquantifiable reputational capital attaches to the professional who holds out for the highest pay in exchange for the highest degree of quality.

In my view, if one consents relativistically to the existence of hamster farms and to the idea that they do exactly the same thing you do, you are relinquishing part of the reputational capital that will allow you to command higher prices. My intuition is that the future for the individual freelancer and the small agency is as niche players in cottage industries, not being a one man orchestra that is specialized in “everything” and provides services including localization, globalization assessment, back translation, MT, terminological downsizing or whatever trendy buzzword is next year’s flavor of the month.

What does this mean in practical terms? The usual suspects routinely claim that hamsterization can be parallel to a better economic outcome for the freelancer: lower rates + higher output = $500 a day in hamster feed. However, as you well know, current technology does not allow anyone in 2011 to generate a good quality output of 10,000 words a day. Although there is no systematic study, I am relatively confident that any honest review will soon come to the conclusion that there is a cause-and-effect correlation between lower absolute wages and post-editing. (There may be outliers. You may be one of them. I don’t dispute that, but one data point does not refute my argument.)

To put it another way: I am a snob. I’m a HUGE snob. I do not want to be confused with a hamster. The greater the perceptual gulf between me and the hamster, the more I can charge. I would call for smelling salts like the stuffiest old gout-ridden duchess in Downton Abbey if anyone had the temerity to suggest that the hamster and I are equals (!). And even if I weren’t a snob, it would perhaps be in my economic self-interest to be a snooty elitist. There isn’t anything to be gained from amiable, wishy-washy, middle-of-the-road consensualism. Because the McLocalization Brigade is large, hairy, hungry, ruthless and predatory, and it is desperately looking for a straw to drink your milkshake.

The only rational strategy for quality providers is to state unequivocally (and LOUDLY) that there is only one type of quality you provide: the good kind. Anything else is beyond your perceptual field vision. Like the color blind, you don’t really know what lesser quality is. And if a client insists on lower quality and “lean” pricing, walk with him to the window, point out the Golden Arches in the distance of McLionbridge, McSDL and McTransperfect and give him a handwritten map to get there. Pat him amiably on the back, bid him a fond fare-thee-well and warn him against getting mugged in that side of town (because, you know, those people… brrrr).

Why, indeed, is the translation profession in general being so accommodating to the Orwellian redefinition of quality? The only reason I can fathom is this deer-in-the-headlights terror of technological change, which is overblown. This childish fear of being left behind. Or of growing old. Why are the three apostles of hamsterization invited to every single conference so that they can give a lecture about how lower quality is actually the same quality? Jost, why don’t you call out the MT salesman out when he says that FIGS (sorry, that’s McLocalization speak for French, Italian, German and Spanish) already have fully functional MT, so anyone who charges more than a penny a word for 3,000 words a day is an inefficient laggard? Or why don’t you challenge the recurrent claim that you can post-edit 10,000 words a day using current technology at the same level of quality as a professional translator? That is simply a lie. I welcome your comment, but I confess I would also like to see some pushback against the business cases peddled by the McLocalization people, especially by more tech-literate translators who know better. Otherwise, the task falls upon me, someone who is not a tech expert and, moreover, tends to be “dismissive” (or, as one reader so delicately put it, a “total f***ing ignorant pr**k”).

To recap, you think the term translation industry is too Platonic and abstract. You lay the stress of skepticism on the second member of the pair: translation “industry”. On the contrary, I think the stress of skepticism should be on the first member: “translation” industry. I propose that what I do be called translation and what the McLocalization Crowd does be called something else, perhaps #$&‡₩ion. And never the twain shall meet. While what I do is called translation, McLocalization is a good option if you want your text #$&‡₩ed (the “‡” is silent, by the way). The two have a family resemblance, except one costs more and delivers better quality.

And with that I bid you adieu and remain forever and anon your very devoted subscriber and reader.

Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. 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.


Kevin Lossner said...

Miguel, there's nothing elitist about calling the traffickers like Lionbridge and TransPerfect what they are: prominent pimps in translation's red light district, who have neither quality nor the interests of their clients nor the interests of their happy hamsters in mind. And when the pimps and hamsters with cheeks stuffed full of peanuts claim to offer quality on par with what a good freelancer or boutique agency team can produce, there is no rational response but to dismiss them as fools or liars or both :-)

They inhabit a different world, and they seldom clutter my thoughts. But once in a while they work their magic on a colleague or client I like, and I get the distasteful feeling that the time is overdue for someone to take out the garbage.

Financial Translator said...

Thank you, Kevin. Have you seen LIOX's performance on the market recently? It is circling the drain like crazy. You have to wonder why...

Anonymous said...

"To put it another way: I am a snob. I’m a HUGE snob. I do not want to be confused with a hamster. The greater the perceptual gulf between me and the hamster, the more I can charge."

I loved this passage!

Freelance translators are afraid to ask for higher rates because it is a scary world out there when you are a freelancer.

I know that even after almost 25 years, every morning on January 1st when I come to my office to check my e-mail, I have the same thought:"What if they stop sending me work this year?"

But then I perk up a bit when the first job of the year lands on my plate.

Financial Translator said...

Asking for higher rates I guess is daunting. I've taken to making it clear that any rates quoted now are valid for this year or the next 12 months or so. That way, it is not a surprise if next year I apply a little cost of living adjustment.

Karl Hansen said...

There's nothing wrong with being elitist. It just means you recognize that there are different standards, that all standards are NOT equally good, and that you would rather produce high-standard work (and be paid accordingly) than low-standard McLocalization and be paid peanuts.

Feeling pride in the translation profession is what distinguishes translators from the Big Macs and their hamsters.