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.

1 comment:

Rob said...

Love that last sentence. Says it all.