Monday, October 31, 2011

McLocalization: The Answer to a Question Nobody Asked

In all of these discussions about information technology,
you come back to the fact that they are
solving problems that are not really problems.
- Malcolm Gladwell

Even in our age of globalization, if you take a poll of all Fortune 500 CEOs, cheap translation would not rank among the top 10 or even 20 items on their wish list. The problem with McLocalization is it’s designed to do things companies would kinda, sorta want done without actually investing any real money in it. It is a technology for doing things companies want done at the margin. Guess what? Great fortunes have come from making things cheaper that are important priorities. Not the stuff you leave as your last priority and assign to the absolute lowest bidder. To quote an economist: “Markets have a strong incentive to find and develop alternatives to relatively expensive inputs (like pricey labour).” Did you hear that? Relatively expensive inputs. For translation, that boat has long since sailed in the Era of the Internet. But even aside from the Internet, the highest earning translator in the world earns less than the average assistant of a chief executive officer (translation is  not scalable, in the sense discussed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb; the heirs of Roberto Bolaño can become millionaires another time over with zero input of labor, while Bolaño's translator gets exactly the same fee whether a translated novel sells ten copies or one hundred thousand copies). Translation-tech companies struggle mightily to climb the Kilimanjaro of cheap translation only to reach the summit and find Lionbridge already there, having a picnic with

Is it any wonder that the giants of McLocalization are burdened with anorexic profit margins and, defying belief, fail to turn in attractive earnings despite paying dirt-poor rates and having huge corporate clients? Put it another way: How many McLSP billionaires are there out there? When was the last you saw one of those CEOs dining out with Zuck and Steve and Larry and Sergey?

And, remember, every penny sunk into research and development (if any is actually being done outside of Google) is a penny added to the cost of translating a bunch of stuff no one really needed to read in the first place.

This suggests that any business model based exclusively around cheap translation is dubious in the long term.

Moreover, this suggests that, from the point of view of the post-editor, translation automation and low wages are inextricably linked. You ask: Why won’t I be able to charge a premium rate for post-editing these manuals no one ever reads anyway? Why? The answer is kind of in the question, don’t you think? Your boss is struggling to turn a dime for himself and only needs you to apply a little lipstick to the crowdsourced, post-edited pig.

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.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Lisa and the Hamster: Some Thoughts on Non-Literary Texts and Style

Over at the Intralingo blog, Lisa Carter is very diplomatically sparring with one reader who relentlessly insists that he cranks out 10,000 publication-ready words a day on a regular basis. (“I’ve often translated well in excess of 10,000 words a day, and working overtime (sic) I’ve translated up to 18,000 words (sic!) over a 15 hour period (sick, yo!), and I would rate my quality as high, if not higher, than my contemporaries (contemporaries?).”) Lisa is very tactfully brandishing argument after argument that this is not possible, but our man, undeterred, blithely charges back after every rebuff. Bless her heart, she is soooooo polite. I, on the other hand, (for good or ill) was not bequeathed the gift of suffering fools lightly. Ms. Carter is wasting her time, though. Let’s face it, there simply isn’t a polite way to, you know, tell someone to his face that he is a hack.

Appreciation for language is hard to teach if your student simply doesn’t have it. It is a sense. Just like you cannot explain to a blind person what makes one of Monet’s water lilies special, Lisa cannot raise her voice sufficiently and explain to our 18,000-word-per-day Wunderkind that his output is most assuredly a stomach-churning bucket of bat guano. Even tone-deaf people who talk about translation but have never translated a single word in their lives are smart enough to sidestep the “literary” argument quickly. So they just, Sheldon-Cooper-like, bracket literature in a special mental category (“stuff that other people care a lot about—for some unfathomable reason—but I don’t”) and blissfully go about their business because literature isn’t applicable to commercial translation. “Ah, but that is literature,” the McLocalization theorist ruminates with a knowing smile, “I have heard of it, hmmm, yes… Wikipedia tells me it is something from back in the Age of the Codex. But I am here to discuss repetitive technical texts…”

The literary/non-literary dichotomy is not that ancient. As is the case of a lot of stupid stuff (nationalism, Mesmerism, Gothic novels), it only dates back to the Romantics. It is slowly being placed into question by the genre-disrupting culture of the present. Think about Ali G and reality TV, and then try to retain the old comforting distinctions of fact and fiction snugly in your head. The idea that we bring a set of conventions (the phrase “suspension of disbelief” was coined by Wordsworth) to one set of texts and another—completely different—set of decoding tools to non-fiction simply does not resist serious critical scrutiny. Does that mean that Ben Bernanke’s press conferences should be rendered by the financial translator with the same appreciation for the mot juste that Lisa Carter lavishes on her novels? Well, yes and no. “Yes” in the sense that you should weigh every word carefully (because every central banker does and their words can cause a lot of devastation) and “no” in the sense that you shouldn’t waste too much time waiting for the right adverb to strike you like the Pacific struck Keats’s “stout Cortez.” Because, aside from being slightly foolish, it will get you fired in the end.

Of course, the idea that a “translator is a writer” sounds hyper-pretentious if you think capital “W” Writer: a Luther-throwing-the-inkpot-at-the-Devil Writer, or a Flaubert-spending-eighteen-years-working-on-Madame-Bovary Writer. But small caps “w” writer in the sense that you write. And you should try to do it as well as you can in the service of the original author, who may or may not be a capital “W” Writer, but nonetheless deserves a hearing (or at least is paying for it).

I was reminded of that recently while reading Bruce Catton’s trilogy on the Army of the Potomac ( translators should be keen readers). While Catton’s books are not really works of academic history, they do provide a lot of technical details on military affairs, from the movement of armies during campaigns to minutiae such as the types of weapons used and just what the heck hardtack actually was. But his works are also quite opaque as texts. The influence of William Faulkner is felt on every page, even though it is a very Northern book—an attempt to write Yankee history. The jumps forward and backward in time are also unimaginable without the precedent of literary Modernism. One small example. When Catton is describing the sequence of the Second Battle of Manassas/Bull Run, the 12th Massachusetts regiment is left facing a colossal flanking movement from the Confederates. The author abruptly breaks off for one entire page, in the middle of the battle, to tell the story of the regiment. Its members were responsible for writing the marching song John Brown’s Body, dedicated to the abolitionist guerrilla whose raid on Harper’s Ferry partly triggered the Civil War ( “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave/ And we go matching on!”). This song was the source for Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic, which is still a staple of American military marching bands (and tactfully suppresses references to rotting corpses). That takes Catton a page and a half. After such as lengthy digression, Catton equally abruptly returns to the two tiny brigades facing a Rebel onslaught:
But the dandy 12th was a long way from the ladies of Boston now, and Colonel Webster was killed, and the 12th was finally forced back, along with the rest of Ricketts’s men and the Germans. (p.40)
You see what the author did there? Try rewriting that sentence according to the rules of “proper” grammar (leaving aside the fact that he started a paragraph with a negative conjunction, a huge no-no according to the provincial school marms who teach “proper” English):
However, the dandy 12th was a long way from the ladies of Boston. Colonel Webster was (had been?) killed. The regiment (Note: the reiteration of the name probably wouldn't pass muster with most proofreaders) was finally forced back, along with the rest of Ricketts’s men and the Germans.
Blink and you miss it. Try to translate this sentence without trying to recreate the confusion and terror of the Massachusetts soldiers and you might as well translate 18,000 words a day.

But perhaps that is a rare case of non-fiction that is suffused with literary technique. After all, the Civil War as a historical subject has always been more the preserve of belles lettres because of Whitman, Sandburg and Faulkner. The lyrical undertone to a lot of writing on the conflict stretches all the way to the present, as anyone who has seen Ken Burns’s documentaries on the conflict will easily perceive.

So how about a less high-falutin’ example? This is an example of something I come across very often (the highlight is mine):
After Papandreou's election win, Mršnik wrote, in a confidential letter to Standard & Poor's customers, that in light of the repeated budgetary lapses of the various Greek governments, it remained to be seen whether the new administration had the will to implement a credible budget strategy. This sounded diplomatic, but it was pure sarcasm. Investors got the message, namely that the decline of Greek bonds from secure investments to casino chips was accelerating.,1518,790333-2,00.html
In a lot of financial research, what you put down on paper is purposefully bland, because some day you may have to answer to a wider audience (or an angry politician or, gulp, a judge) for anything that is more controversial than a spiceless platitude. That is why you have to be attuned to the sarcasm. Once again, blink and you miss it. Mršnik was trading a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” moment with his readers. His real opinion was reserved for the very privileged clients who get him on the telephone or the board room, as any good analyst’s opinion should be. That is why inexperienced translators often chuckle and say: “Wait, is he serious?” Duh! Of course not! The unspoken byword here is “ldl,” which is what investment bankers write for “let’s discuss live” (i.e., where no written or taped evidence is left).

Every single sentence contains dozens of tiny little decisions. If you translate 18,000 words a day, that means you make over 100,000 tiny decisions in a single day. But that is no problem because you are working on a non-literary, repetitive text, right? We can just hope that none of your tiny decisions is dangerous. Or the subject of future litigation.

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.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Future of Crowdsourced Post-Editing is Here

Wolowitz: Raj, did you ever tell your sister about the time Sheldon got punched by Bill Gates?
Priya: Oh, God! You're kidding?
Raj: Nope. Gates gave a speech at the university. Sheldon went up to him afterward and said, "Maybe if you weren't so distracted by sick children in Africa, you could've put a little more thought into Windows Vista."
Leonard: Bam! Right in the nose. Made me proud to own a PC.
--The Big Bang Theory

On a blog, one of the theorists of the “Low Quality Translation” movement enumerates several successful crowdsourcing projects that, in his view, point toward the future. They are all touted as good examples of how unpaid crowds of non-professionals can undertake “community” translation (the euphemism du jour for crowdsourcing). One thing immediately jumps to my attention after perusing the list. The projects can be clearly divided into three distinct categories.

The first category is made up of non-profit or not-directly-for-profit projects that probably do not have the budget to fund a large translation effort. This category includes Yeeyan, Asia Online’s CPE (crowdsourced post-editing) of Wikipedia and the TED Conference subtitlers. The other characteristic of this first group is the ability to garner sufficient enthusiasm from their community of users to get them to contribute their work for free. Millions watch the TED conferences and probably feel sufficiently identified with the project to invest the time needed to subtitle these videos for free. The Asia Online experiment attempts to leverage the crowd in order to generate more raw material for an underserved language such as Thai and probably appeals to nationalism at some level. Yeeyan appeals to Chinese web surfers who are interested in gaining access to more content that is free from censorship and who also contribute their time in order to let other fellow non-English-speaking Chinese citizens to read this material. You can safely say that this category is more akin to phenomena such as fansubbing.

The second category is made up of large corporations (Adobe and Microsoft) who are clearly wading into the crowdsourcing waters as a way to cut down on costs and gain greater efficiency while making a half-hearted attempt (in my biased opinion) at expanding their meager customer support to their hapless victims in other languages.

Facebook and Twitter occupy a third category that is a hybrid in between the first two subsets. They are rich companies that can afford to pay for large-scale translation efforts from one or another outsourcer but choose not to. However, Facebook and Twitter generate sufficient enthusiasm from users so that they can coax them into doing the work of translating the site and still not see it as work (it is, after all, just another way to spend leisure time in a depressed economy). My hunch is these companies do not use crowdsourcing to save money but because that is just the way these companies do things. It is part of the Silicon Valley ideology, that mix of idealistic libertarianism, fanatical devotion to core competencies and trust in the depersonalized hive mind that Jaron Lanier describes as “digital Maoism.” Despite its cultural omnipresence, Facebook famously employs only 2,500 people. The localization of Facebook and Twitter are clear examples of projects which could have gone to engross the revenue of a large translation agency like Lionbridge or SDL (the non-existence of such projects may be a clue to their dismal stock market performance). What happened, on the contrary, was that Twitter and Facebook leveraged their own obsessive users and saved a bucketload of money. As such, their localization projects using CPE are a textbook example of Tyler Cowen’s Great Stagnation, which posits that the rate of technological progress is slowing down and that the few advances being made create less and less wealth.

But what I wanted to discuss was the second category, i.e., large companies such as Microsoft and Adobe without fanatical users who could pay for professional translation projects but choose not to do so. Clearly, the incentives are what draw the crowd in to work for free. The problem is that getting users to work for free can be quite a challenge for large corporations whose products simply do not generate that much loyalty or excitement.

So what can Adobe and Microsoft do? They are well-known megacorporations with products used by millions, albeit without much enthusiasm or affection (in some cases, the users are openly hostile). [Two side notes: 1.- It is very telling that the set of companies dabbling in CPE does not include Apple. We all know Apple is a cult. You may be a part of it, you may not. But it is highly indicative that Steve Jobs’s company chooses not to go down the path of crowdsourcing despite the ease with which it could mobilize its fanboys and fangirls to do so. Just think about the values we generally associate with Apple and mull that over for a few seconds… My guess is that the company has concluded that crowdsourcing clashes with its walled-garden, high-end image. 2.- If you are not a techie, the proposition that “Microsoft is a leader in innovation” in any field whatsoever may not sound that preposterous. But if you are a techie, the very idea makes you break out in spams of bitter, derisive laughter.]

We are told that Adobe is using CPE to provide information for the Chinese users of Adobe products. Microsoft, for its part, is a "trailblazer" (sic) in the field.

And here is where I start to get skeptical about how bright (or even feasible) a future dominated by CPE will be. The thing is I am one of the hapless victims who are subjected on a regular basis to Microsoft’s crowdsourced “knowledge base.” By virtue of the language settings in my operating system, I routinely have to take a walk on the wild side of  translated support documents, frantically clicking with mounting irritation through page after page of low-quality translations trying to get to the English original (which nine times out of ten turns out to be completely useless anyway). Yes, the managers of the hamster crowd in their infinite wisdom and absolute reluctance to provide decent customer support regularly make me sweat blood in order to fix the latest glitch from their products.  And it stokes my contempt just that little bit more.

The future, of course, is unknowable. But I’m just here to tell you the future of CPE is already here. And it pretty much sucks. If tech monopolies are opting for it, to me it sounds like: 1) just another way to squeeze more productivity out of their overworked personnel and external providers, who are worried about hanging onto their jobs in a desperately dark economy, and 2) just one more avenue to screw over their long-suffering users.

So what does the future look like? Remember this little guy? Yes, just imagine Clippy the Paper Clip annoying you in mangled Spanish, Urdu, Mandarin…

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.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tips from Goldman Sachs on Prospecting for Leads

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am reading William Cohan’s book on Goldman Sachs and I stumbled across the story of Josh Birnbaum, one of the quants on the mortgage desk who set up the “Big Short" and eventually got hauled before Congress for his troubles. Though far from an exemplary figure, keep in mind that even the protagonists of picaresque can teach us something. Birnbaum had traded stocks since childhood and by the time he got into business school he was obviously willing to kill to get an internship in Wall Street. Devoid of contacts, he resorted to creativity:

Monday, October 10, 2011

Translation and the Slowdown in Technological Innovation

Leo: My generation never got the future it was promised... Thirty-five years later, cars, air travel is exactly the same. We don't even have the Concorde anymore. Technology stopped.
Josh: The personal computer...
Leo: A more efficient delivery system for gossip and pornography? Where's my jet pack, my colonies on the Moon?
--The West Wing, “The Warfare of Genghis Khan”

We live in a time of crisis. In periods such as this, long-held beliefs begin to be questioned. I am reading the heartbreaking stories from the “We Are the 99%” tumblr and I see over and over how many young people say that the “American Dream” was a lie. That sort of pessimism among Americans was previously unthinkable. That same corrosive questioning is spreading to a lot of other acritical beliefs that seemed to be ingrained into the collective psyche. To cite a few examples, there used to be the belief that owning a home was absolutely a must (and that it was the best investment an individual could make). A previously unimaginable five-year-long (!) slump in home prices has put paid to that idea. Blogger James Altucher and others are campaigning against the idea that going to college is necessary or even advisable to ensure a better economic outcome. The conviction that the stock market always rises in the long run is slowly being relegated to the same back closet occupied by flat Earthism, epicycles and spontaneous generation. It is a shame that a prolonged period of economic crisis was necessary for people to question acritical dogma, but at least that is one positive side effect of the present troubles.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

David Mitchell on the Age of McLocalization

I am a big fan of David Mitchell, a British comedian who, along with Robert Webb, is the brains behind the TV sketch-comedy series That Mitchell and Webb Look. His comedy style is both slightly bookish (bordering on the pedantic) and heavily infused with pop culture. A typical sketch involves Admiral Karl Dönitz finding out that he has just been named Führer in the wake of Hitler's suicide. After some initial euphoria in which he cries he has "great plans for Germany" and calls his wife to tell her the big news, Dönitz is crushed to discover that his totalitarian reign will be rather short-lived because his only task as Leader is to surrender to the Allies ("you wouldn't mind just giving me a quick 'Heil Dönitz?'").

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Was the ‘Big Short’ Moral?

I am reading Bill Cohan’s book on Goldman Sachs (yes, despite the ridiculous title—Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World—and the gaudy cover art in which some silly gilded “Moneybags” font sits astride a slightly flattened and cowering satellite image of the Earth). Sorry to report the book is really quite bad, but then I should have known, because Cohan’s previous book about Bear Stearns was really mediocre. It was very obviously rushed out to capitalize on the morbid fascination with the financial crisis (“disaster porn,” perhaps as something to read for “disaster tourists” a la Michael Lewis). Every paragraph of the Bear book was the same: a short introductory sentence followed by six or seven lines of unedited interview transcripts. You can just imagine Cohan and his assistants running around with scissors and glue to make that monstrosity.