Thursday, November 10, 2011

Think Different/Differently: Is Translation a Commodity?

David Grunwald acknowledges my hat tip to his Ortsbo coverage but reiterates that translation is a commodity. His basic argument is that translation does not involve creativity. I half agree with the premise that translation does not imply creativity in the same sense that artistic creation does, but I also reject the corollary. You can’t conclude from this starting point that translation is a commodity. Please allow me to highlight the fact I remain astonished by the sight of the owner of a translation agency publicly stating that he believes translation is a commodity. First of all, translation is a service. If you provide service as a commodity, how do you distinguish yourself from the competition? There are only two ways: fiercer marketing or lower rates. That is the eternal race to the bottom that leads us to the clowns from Lackuna. 

The problem with the “is translation a commodity?” debate is that no easy argument exists to prove that it isn’t a commodity. As in the case of many cultural objects —such as humor or art— you either see its value or you don’t. A joke that needs to be explained and dissected ceases to be a joke. Perhaps you can fall back on easy stereotypes about engineers. "They just don’t get why a Gauguin might be interesting despite the lack of realism." But that is a lazy straw man. The tech industry is not universally blind to the quality of outward presentation or design. The “Low Quality Translation” people are not totally tone deaf. They simply (and willfully) shut out evidence that falsifies their industry-centric world view.

If translation is a commodity, so is copywriting. But listen to Steve Jobs obsessing over the 1990s slogan that led his company to charge back to the top of the worldwide tech industry. This is an excerpt from Malcolm Gladwell’s recent review of Walter Isaacson’s biography:

The famous Apple “Think Different” campaign came from Jobs’s advertising team at TBWA\Chiat\Day. But it was Jobs who agonized over the slogan until it was right:

They debated the grammatical issue: If “different” was supposed to modify the verb “think,” it should be an adverb, as in “think differently.” But Jobs insisted that he wanted “different” to be used as a noun, as in “think victory” or “think beauty.” Also, it echoed colloquial use, as in “think big.” Jobs later explained, “We discussed whether it was correct before we ran it. It’s grammatical, if you think about what we’re trying to say. It’s not think the same, it’s think different. Think a little different, think a lot different, think different. ‘Think differently’ wouldn’t hit the meaning for me.”

This type of process is not much different from the daily process of translation. It is the laborious wordcraft that goes into writing and its sister métier of translating. So then, is translation a commodity? That is an interesting debate that is difficult to resolve. But what is certain is that there is a golden rule: Your degree of conviction that translation is a commodity is inversely correlated with your profit margins.

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, 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 by visiting the profile or follow him on Twitter.


Maria K said...

Miguel, I subscribe to everything you write. Regarding translation not being a commodity, if you have a minute, take a look at some thoughts I wrote here

And you're right, those who claim it is a commodity can see its value, they just don't want to pay it and they want to convince translators to sell it for less. They secretly admire the "painting" and know that others will also appreciate it and need it, so they tell "Gauguin" his work is worthless and try to buy 10 paintings from him for the price of 1 and then sell them at wholesale prices. said...

Interesting post, Miguel, as usual.

Keem them coming!


Anonymous said...

IMHO, translation does imply creativity! You create a text which conveys the sense and the meaning of the original language in another language.

Miguel Llorens M. said...

@Maria,I actually already read your blog entry and it very eloquently expressed some of my same attitude to the message that technology requires you to become the creator of lower quality texts. And note that I eluded generalizing about engineers and relying on lazy stereotypes! I must get brownie points for that.

@Nicolás, thanks for coming back and commenting. I read your blog post on words that occur only once in a corpus. Great stuff!

@Anonymous, thanks for commenting. My point about creativity is more complex than I wanted to get into in a brief blog post. I think the view of creativity as creation out of nothingness is overblown. Even great artists are "translating" the work of the past that inspired them (the "anxiety of influence" and so on).

Rob said...

Here is one way in which translation is like, say, chocolate. There is chocolate that is a commodity: it's churned out on a production line with the priority on keeping costs as low as possible, and sold in standardised form in large quantities. Think M&Ms. At the other end of the scale are hand-made chocolates lovingly crafted by a master chocolatier who pours years of experience and lots of care into each delicious chocolate. While the chocolatier might produce a lot of chocolates that are similar, each one is unique and bears the creative DNA of its maker.

And so it is with translation.