Monday, September 12, 2011

What You Won’t Hear in the ‘Great’ ProZ-TAUS Debate

(Robot arm places soy sauce on Penny’s palm)
Penny: Oh ha-ha. That’s amazing!
Sheldon: I wouldn’t say amazing. At best,
it’s a modest leap forward from the basic technology that gave us Country Bear Jamboree.
—The Big Bang Theory (2010)

I see that and TAUS are organizing a virtual conference about technology. For those who don’t know what TAUS is, it is an organization set up by several large translation sellers and buyers to enhance the sharing of translation memories, either for use as TMs or as raw material for training machine translation software.  It is billed as “The Great Translation Debate” about technology and localization. Which I find utterly endearing for its absolute lack of self-awareness. Hello? The irony warehouse called (they’re kind of running out). It is sort of like the Schutzstaffel and the Sturmabteilung getting together in 1930s Berlin to organize a conference on “The Future of Judaism in Europe.”

But seriously, folks. Before the great debate occurs, I can pretty much sum up the message from the same four gurus and hamster apostles who will preach soothingly to the crowd: “Translators won’t be replaced by computers,” they will coo, “but professionals should nonetheless stay up to date with the latest technology.” These are shallow platitudes, both of which I agree with, for whatever that is worth.

But lost in the mass of shibboleths and condescending denunciations of Ludditism will be a more interesting point, which I will now try to summarize as succinctly as possible. Crowdsourced post-editing (CPE) isn’t really “technology” in the sense we usually use it. A lawnmower is technology. You can use it either as an individual to mow your own lawn or as a professional gardener to serve a neighborhood. A Blackberry or an iPhone is technology. You purchase it off the shelf and use it as either a substitute for old land lines, or as a calculator, or as an app downloader or to surf the Web. You can use it to text your friends or to stay in touch with your office.

CPE is different. It is a business model. Yes, it uses some of our crude, early 21st-century translation technology. But the technology by itself is not conducive to isolated use by the independent professional. Rather than a lawnmower, CPE is more akin to the assembly line designed by Henry Ford to build automobiles on a mass scale in the early 20th century. Even today, despite massive advances in robotics, people are still needed in car making plants (which makes my analogy even stronger). Of course, Ford created a great company that most blue-collar workers in the United States back then would have wanted to work for. Unfortunately, the evidence for the same paternalistic benevolence among the large translation companies that will lead the push into CPE is more mixed (and if you want some palpable evidence, go talk to some of the Polish computer programmers employed by a certain mega-LSP whose name rhymes with Xionbridge).

But that is not my point. The laborers who built cars for Ford provided a commodity: raw manual labor. Even those higher up the scale with some technical knowledge could be easily replaced in the case of a downturn, as in the Depression, or labor unrest, which occurred from time to time. Even the best workers were cogs and could not differentiate themselves (except on the basis of earnestness, punctuality or dependability). That is my point. And that point is a little more complex than a lot of the acritical chestnuts that will be doled out during the soi-disant “Great Debate.”

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, several small-and-medium-sized brokerages, asset management institutions based in Spain, and H.B.O. International. To contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. You can also join his LinkedIn network or follow him on Twitter.


Lorena said...

Have you seen the program? "Translation automation is good for the translation profession". Says who? Oh, I see:
"Moderated by Henry Dotterer with Renato Beninatto, Kirti Vashee(head of Asia Online), Mirko Plitt(Autodesk) and Donald A. DePalma (Common Sense Advisory)".

Miguel E. Llorens Musso said...

Yes. very diverse. Reminds of a Stephen Colbert joke that Fox News reflects both sides of the story: the President's and the Vice-President's.

Rahzeb Choudhury said...


Happy to invite you to join the panel. We imagine that there will be many people with reservations among participants. What do you think?


Claudiabrauer said...

Hello, I for one am in that snubbed-at group advocating translators and interpreters to EMBRACE technology. Odd, of course, as I myself have decided to distance myself from MT and CAT tools (can't stand them) and have for all commercial purposes stopped bidding for translations (other than my nowadays very few loyal quality-oriented customers). But, I was able to make a decision of this nature because I have other alternatives, interpreting (still a valid profession for the next 15 years I guess) and now training. But, was I still head of my household and in charge of bringing in the mortgage money, I don't see a way out of CAT and MT. Really. If you need to secure sources of income as a professional translator, CAT and MT are in almost every requisition. So, my point is, those individuals who at the beginning of the industrial revolution decided NOT to adapt, either became obsolete or became master artisans or artists. Of course you can become a master artisan or artist of translation. That sure is at least my option. But as an artisan or artist, I am pretty aware that my market is extraordinarily small and absolutely not sufficient to make a living (unless you are a Japanese-English translator of patents or something of that nature, where the competition is not as much as it is for plain simple English-Spanish translators). My point. Yes, I agree, it is mass production. But if you want to remain in the profession (and earn a living in it), you must, I repeat, MUST, embrace technology. Therefore, I believe, If you cannot fight them, join them.

Miguel Llorens M. said...

You write: “those individuals who at the beginning of the industrial revolution decided NOT to adapt, either became obsolete or became master artisans or artists.” This made me think of an interesting thing about the Industrial Revolution. The people who went into artisanship actually secured better outcomes for themselves and their descendants than the men and women who went to work for the factories. Even to this day, who earns more: a bespoke tailor or a worker in a factory that makes mens’ suits? Their industrial brethren of the artisans faced a tough century and a half of worsening living standards, overcrowding and terrible working conditions. Yes, technological change brings greater wealth to everyone (I do believe that)… in the long run. But in the short run, there are winners and losers. You have very eloquently chosen to be a loser.

Jordi Balcells said...

Small correction: TAUS is not an organisation set up "to enhance the sharing of translation memories, either for use as TMs or as raw material for training machine translation software". That would be TDA, which is an initiative within, or parallel to, TAUS. TAUS is just a think-tank for more automation and the sharing of knowledge.

Full disclosure: I used to work in a company partner to TAUS / TDA and represented my previous employer in one of their meetings. And yes, such small fry should never have been there.

Miguel Llorens M. said...

Correction duly noted, as always. Cheers.