Sunday, June 19, 2011

The TV Industry as an Analogy for Translation

A decade ago, in the wake of phenomena such as low-budget box office smash The Blair Witch Project, business “visionaries” assured us that material produced by studios employing thousands of professionals would be eclipsed by user-generated content. You know, cats playing pianos, skateboarders banging their family jewels against hand rails, fat kids doing Sith warlord routines. Classic stuff. You know, the kind of stuff that inspired people such as Sergei Eisenstein and Stanley Kubrick. 

This, in turn, meant that the digital natives would watch most of their TV (or, to be more precise, video content) online.

Of course, that meant quality would suffer somewhat, but you can’t apply outdated, elitist prejudices to the ultra-democratic art of the Web. That is what the “digital Maoists” (the phrase is Jaron Lanier’s) would have us believe.

Well, the future is here and most of the television that I watch is high-quality, hyper-literate stuff. Moreover, the old-fashioned TV set has survived, as well as network behemoths such as the BBC and the Big Three in the U.S. Not only have they survived, they are in rude health and at the cutting edge of innovation. Just last weekend came the news that Salman Rushdie is writing the script for a sci-fi series. He apparently wanted to write for the big screen, but his agents steered him toward TV: “’They said to me that what I should really think about is a TV series, because what has happened in America is that the quality – or the writing quality – of movies has gone down.’” He goes on to compare the scripted TV series to the novel: "‘Matthew Wiener on Mad Men writes the entire series before they start shooting, and if you have that, then what you can do with character and story is not at all unlike what you can do in a novel.’"

When I was growing up, television pretty much sucked. Real quality productions, real drama, great comedy… all of that occasionally popped up on the small screen, but it was the proverbial swallow that a summer did not make. Once every blue moon, quality programming basically wandered in by mistake into television but was quickly smothered by good old fashioned philistinism. Good comedy was always surrounded by network executives too afraid of their shadow. British television gets credit for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but the real story behind the scenes was a constant struggle against censors and the generalized, pessimistic view that the market simply won’t tolerate quality and just wants cheap entertainment. It is always easier to opt for the status quo. Believe it or not, Seinfeld was also considered too edgy for America by some at NBC. Too New York. Too Jewish. Too abstract. The lowest common denominator is always safer.

For the past twenty years, in contrast, television has been going from strength to strength. For me, personally, this shift dates from the second or third season of The Simpsons. Seinfeld is almost contemporaneous, although I didn’t start watching it until much later.

And it just keeps getting better. I was a huge fan of the West Wing, but the psychological subtlety of many scenes in Mad Men can just blow you away in a manner that makes Aaron Sorkin look, well, unnecessarily wordy. Recently, the buzz about Game of Thrones from the twenty-somethings in my Twitter feed made me tune in and I was pretty impressed by the quality of the production. Who knows how much quality stuff I’m missing? I actually didn’t watch The Wire, except for a couple of episodes, but the grittiness and sheer size of the social panorama depicted in the series reminded me a little of Faulkner’s and García Márquez’s and Juan Carlos Onetti’s fictional worlds.

We are living, without fear of hyperbole, in a Golden Age of Television.

And this quality is not the product of amateurs. It is the creation of highly paid professionals who are delivering elaborate, intricate and nuanced little jewels via the small screen.

This goes directly against the narrative that is tediously peddled by the “thinkers” and “dreamers” of the future. If you took these people and shook their heads vigorously, the only things that would come rattling out would be tiresome Web 2.0 memes. The narrative, condensed, is as follows: “Internet, Internet, Internet, everything will be done via the Internet, by amateurs, amateurs, amateurs, through the Cloud, by crowdsourced, unpaid, amateurs working in the Cloud, using free software, Cloud, Cloud, Cloud, Cloud...”

These narratives are so entrenched that, like Goebbelian propaganda, they become true by virtue of repetition. So you have to keep your ears open for the contrarian evidence.

The Friday, May 20, edition of Newsnight Review on BBC 2 was just such an occasion to get inoculated against some omnipresent Web 2.0 memes. Host Kirsty Wark moderated a discussion by four British TV heavyweights, and the main conclusions ran contrary to the received wisdom of the past ten years:

1.- The big networks survived the transition into the digital age.
2.- Not only did they survive, they remain at the forefront of innovation and quality.
3.- Prognostications about the influence of user-generated content proved overblown.
4.- Likewise, reality TV, while important and influential, has not eclipsed quality, “scripted” fare.
5.- The professional television actor, writer, producer and director have if anything acquired an even greater stature.
6.- The shift from the TV set to the PC screen, while partially underway, has not occurred.

Of course, the PC screen is an important venue. In my personal case, for example, 80% of the TV I watch I get from my PC. But I am still the geeky exception. The pundits added that social media are indeed having an impact. But the influence of factors such as YouTube and social media was wildly overestimated. I seem to remember that Al Gore launched an all-amateur TV network. How did that work out? Hmm….

I would suggest that there is a strong analogy here for the translation industry. For better or worse, large companies probably are not destined to disappear. Moreover, the well-paid, uncrowdsourced professional freelancer is not necessarily destined for the anthropological museum. Technology may not be as disruptive and “game-changing” as some would have us believe. The Crowd may not turn out to be as efficient as smaller organized teams of dedicated professionals.

Just a reminder: Don’t accept conventional wisdom. Don’t let others do the thinking for you.

Reality is far more complex (and interesting) than ideology and shallow memes.

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.

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