Wednesday, January 11, 2012

$#*! My Localization Guru Says (‘Crowd’ Translation Means Nothing)

Do words mean whatever you want them to? That’s what Humpty Dumpty claims in Through the Looking Glass and it seems that the localization pundits who pop up in every single translationl10n conference also believe this. And when called on it, they fall back on half-digested relativistic mumbo-jumbo about sociolinguistics. Who knows? Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps their words can mean anything they want them to. So, instead of listening to a localization pundit, maybe it is more useful (and, BTW, cheaper) to stay home and read the instructions on the back of an aspirin bottle to learn about internationalization of business processes in a multilingual context. Because if words mean anything, the aspirin bottle can tell you how to manage large-scale multilingual projects.

To illustrate this little piece of wisdom, let me tell you a little story (identities have been concealed to protect the guilty):

A l10n guru tweets this:
"Crowd" xl8 of a medieval mss (link)

Like the fair-minded skeptic I am, I click on to the article in question. It is from the Chronicle of Higher Education. A 12th century manuscript was discovered by chance in an American university library. The professor decided to involve her graduate students and a few undergrads in the process of transcribing, describing and translating the text. Here is the description on the project’s homepage:

In January 2011, Professor Marie-Claire Beaulieu and her Medieval Latin students, in collaboration with Alexander May and Christopher Barbour, set out to learn more about the Tisch Miscellany. Each student chose to work on a leaf according to his/her personal interests. As each student progressed in learning to decipher the hand or print of their leaf, interesting and surprising discoveries were made… These discoveries required patience and hard work. Since each leaf is unique in the collection, each student had to get used to a different set of idiosyncrasies such as inconsistent abbreviations, non-standard letter-forms, and scribal errors. Furthermore, working with unedited or unknown texts implies complete self-reliance on the part of the editor. Students had to make educated guesses to resolve abbreviations, decipher difficult hands, or fill lacunae in their leaves without referring to other scholars’ work.

So far, so good. But note this: nary a mention of a “crowd” so far. Incidentally, a lot of academic research is actually done by graduate students. Do you think an academic showman like historian Niall Ferguson actually writes the mega-bricks he publishes under his own name? Translator, please. Ferguson is the Stephen King of academic history. He should really be called “the committee called Niall Ferguson.” Just in the past three years he has regurgitated three 500-plus-page behemoths on Sigmund Warburg and far broader topics, such as why the West dominated the world, not to mention a little tome on the history of world finance (an adulatory biography of Henry Kissinger is due to come out this year). He also flits around the globe teaching everyone why the budget deficit will sink the American Empire, pops up on Bloomberg with alarming frequency to flash his perfect coiffure, AND, in his spare time, hosts documentary miniseries for British television. Again: please. Look in his acknowledgements to see the underpaid Harvard grad students who never see the light of day while they scribble the professor’s latest magnum opus by candlelight. Niall Ferguson himself is an instance of “crowd” scholarship.

But I digress. The author of the Chronicle piece interviews Professor Beaulieu and breathlessly inserts the buzzword: "Do you think such "crowd" translation, in which the participants aren't experts but just students interested in the subject, is the future in your field?" The professor being interviewed pushes back a little, resisting the imposition of the buzzword:

Someone doesn't need to be an absolute expert on a manuscript to translate it. If you give an undergraduate the proper tools, they can do a fantastic job. This is something my colleagues in the sciences have realized for a very long time. Undergraduates frequently work in labs on major projects.

Now notice that the professor says that the future is that undergraduates can work on graduate projects. But that is a far cry from saying that we are going to learn oodles about the Middle Ages once we mobilize a mob of slacked-jawed yokels to pore over books of hours and Carolingian chronicles. No, perhaps those kids aren’t absolute experts, but they do need a smattering of slightly arcane knowledge (uhm, ecclesiastical Latin and paleography) to carry the process through successfully. Let me stress this point: Getting undergraduates who have studied ancient languages and codicology isn’t exactly the same thing as posting digital images of a manuscript on the library’s website and asking every unemployed Joe Schmoe with two semesters of community college to provide his two cents on an 800-year-old text. This is hardly the crowdsourcing Nirvana where you make a cattle call and thousands of amateurs comb over British parliamentarian’s expenses, Wikileaks’s document dumps or Sarah Palin’s emails.

No, this was fifteen handpicked undergrads and grad students who were chosen by the professor to work in a closely supervised environment on a highly technical project. This use of “crowd” is a clear instance of how buzzwords become so omnipresent that they cease to have any meaning at all. They become ethereal fluff. Like oxygen, we never notice it because it is so abundant. If a word means anything, it means nothing. File it under “synergy,” “proactivity” and a thousand other business memes collected by Unsuck It. Perhaps that will teach your mind to drift off in the middle of an l10n conference when you hear this buzzword, because it has the same function as the “ohm” in transcendental meditation: a meaningless incantation designed to set your conscious mind at rest and dull your critical faculties.

Being the skeptical gadfly that I am, I called out the pundit on her acritical retweeting of pablum:

Me: The headline has nothing to do with the text. They are often chosen so they will be RTd by people who don't read the article.
Pundit: I'm happy to let them define "crowd" as they wish for their context -- it's an interesting exercise
Me: Interesting, perhaps, but not very valid from an intellectual standpoint. Meaningless terms beget meaningless thoughts.
Pundit: Most sociolinguists would beg to differ. People get to choose how they use language. That's how it evolves.
Me: Lazy relativism. Only the insane give any meaning they want to words. Or poets. Meaning is defined by rule-based convention.
Pundit: We owe a lot of words to linguistic creativity. Thanks, Shakespeare! The people trump language purism every time.

(A language purist? Me? By the way, if you're reading this and wondering when exactly I decided to kick your ass, it was at "language purist".) In summary, a classic case of terminological sloppiness being concealed behind a tornado of relativistic mumbo-jumbo. I leave you with another, more illustrious, case:

'There's glory for you!'

'I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't — till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. 'They've a temper, some of them — particularly verbs: they're the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That's what I say!'

'Would you tell me please,' said Alice, 'what that means?'

'Now you talk like a reasonable child,' said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. 'I meant by "impenetrability" that we've had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don't mean to stop here all the rest of your life.'

'That's a great deal to make one word mean,' Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
(Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6)
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.


Helena said...

Estupenda entrada, enhorabuena.
Tal como yo lo veo, un ejemplo perfecto de adónde se puede llegar manipulando el significado de las palabras (que cuando pierden su significado, pueden significar lo que más nos interese en cada momento). En este caso, a hacer creer a la gente que un grupo de voluntarios cualesquiera puede traducir a la perfección un complejísimo manuscrito del siglo XII. Claaaaro.

Anonymous said...

Nice one. Humpty Dumpty quote happens to be one of my all-time favourites, right next to "I just want my cat to be happy."

Jordi Balcells Antón said...

Saying crowd when you do not really mean it is perfectly OK as long as you put it between quotation marks. Quotation marks let you get away with pretty much anything.