Monday, April 30, 2012

Dispatches from the Content Tsunami

Last week, TV writer and broadcaster Tom Scharpling tweeted exciting news:
I can now reveal the Big Announcement: Michael Lewis is writing his next book about me. It's gonna be called RADIO MAN. Very exciting!!/scharpling/statuses/190124529006292992
Two hours later, however, the big news had soured slightly:
Bad news. It turns out that the Michael Lewis writing a book about me was a spambot. Beyond disappointed.!/scharpling/statuses/190156016103600129

Yes, it appears that the Low Quality Content Tsunami is slowly seeping into popular consciousness. We are staring into the black abyss of low quality texts, to which translators must add a multilingual layer of Low Quality Translations to complete the Literary Sandwich of the Future.

Picture yourself, for instance, relaxing next to a Caribbean beach while using your smartphone to post-edit a masterpiece by Israeli Nobel-Prize-winning pyscologist Daniel Kahneman, Fast and Slow Thinking. Life is easy. The sun is shining. Solicitous waiters bring you a healthy lunch silently, so as not to disturb you.

Wait, no. Rewind. It turns out that Daniel Kahneman’s best seller is called Thinking, Fast and Slow. What you are post-editing is a deceptively similar tome written by an entity called “Karl Daniels”. See what the scumbag Conent Tsunami-ers did there by choosing a fake name that sounds sneakily like Kahneman’s? Unfortunately, the book is no longer available from Amazon (I could KICK myself! However, Google Books managed to at least salvage some memory of this oeuvre in its vast Babelian library). The non-Nobel book, according to Geoffrey Pullum of the Language Log, is:
a compilation of snippets from Wikipedia articles and the like, dressed up like a book. Edited by robots for you to buy by mistake. It's a spam book, part of the "gigantic, unstoppable tsunami of what can only be described as bookspam"
Yes, the world has been enriched by this book by about the same degree as it has been by all those Nigerian scam emails.

But wait, Hal Karl Daniels isn’t the only binary brain that has been busily recycling low quality content to add to the giant tidal wave of information that is going to make us all rich and enlightened. Perhaps you can apply your post-editing chops to the little reports produced by a company called ICON Publishing in San Diego founded by a computer science professor called Philip Parker (Is automated publishing the future?):
Parker's production costs are only 23 cents per book because they're made by computers. Algorithms search through incredible amounts of data from published research and government reports. That info is then plugged into a book format. It's kind of like a very high tech form of Mad Libs. Parker came up with the idea in the '90s when he was writing economic reports.
Oh, wait, the book cost 23 cents to make. Not per word. I mean the WHOLE ENTIRE book cost 23 cents to make. It is highly unlikely that anyone will pay even $0.01 per word to translate it, which is close to below subsistence level in most countries on Earth. So scratch that opportunity. On to the next thing.

Heard about the recent spate of flash crashes driven by stock trading algorithms? Well, it seems that the computer programs that feed on news and use them as signals for buying and selling might be taking their cues from other computers. Which is always reassuring when you mention computers and gynormous amounts of money. Ever heard of the phrase feedback loop? This is from a recent article by Evgeny Morozov ("A Robot Stole my Pulitzer"):
Forbes—one of financial journalism’s most venerable institutions—now employs a company called Narrative Science to automatically generate online articles about what to expect from upcoming corporate earnings statements. Just feed it some statistics and, within seconds, the clever software produces highly readable stories. Or, as Forbes puts it, “Narrative Science, through its proprietary artificial intelligence platform, transforms data into stories and insights.”Don't miss the irony here: Automated platforms are now “writing” news reports about companies that make their money from automated trading. These reports are eventually fed back into the financial system, helping the algorithms to spot even more lucrative deals. Essentially, this is journalism done by robots and for robots. The only upside here is that humans get to keep all the cash.
Maybe Narrative Science needs a couple of financial translators moonlighting as post-editors? Once again, though, the production cost of the source text is so negligible as to make out-and-out raw MT the likeliest candidate for translation.

If you truly expect binary recursiveness to feed you, perhaps you can write to the company that published Computer Game Bot Turing Test and propose your services as a post-editor into Spanish or French for this instant classic. Computer engineer Carlos Bueno describes the book as follows (I am indebted to Spanish IT translation über-geek @jordibal for this anecdote):
Let me tell you about another book, “Computer Game Bot Turing Test”. It's one of over 100,000 “books” “written” by a Markov chain running over random Wikipedia articles, bundled up and sold online for a ridiculous price. The publisher, Betascript, is notorious for this kind of thing.
It gets better. There are whole species of other bots that infest the Amazon Marketplace, pretending to have used copies of books, fighting epic price wars no one ever sees. So with “Turing Test” we have a delightful futuristic absurdity: a computer program, pretending to be human, hawking a book about computers pretending to be human, while other computer programs pretend to have used copies of it. A book that was never actually written, much less printed and read.
But take heart, not all low quality content is attributable to computers. Last week it was reported that China had censored the sex scene in the 3-D version of Titanic. Many online news outlets (Daily Mail, MSNBC, Entertainment Weekly, E Online…) included a statement from the Chinese Ministry justifying the move thusly:
"Considering the vivid 3D effects, we fear that viewers may reach out their hands for a touch and thus interrupt other people's viewing. To avoid potential conflicts between viewers and out of consideration of building a harmonious ethical social environment, we've decided to cut off the nudity scenes."
Too good to be true… and it was. Gawker reports that the quote came from a satirical website:
Tons of English-language news outlets are running with this quote even though, guys, it's obviously not real. The rumor probably originated with this blog post, which fails to mention the joke aspect. 
The Chinese state news agency Xinhua reports that "there is no official response to the roll-back of the censorship policy concerning the 3D film." 
Also, the Chinese movie-going public are not medieval villagers; they understand how 3D works.
And, in closing, a widely circulated article estimates that a good chunk of the Content Tsunami is actually sex videos:
It’s probably not unrealistic to say that porn makes up 30% of the total data transferred across the internet.
Humorist Stephen Colbert paraphrased the finding thusly: “Thirty percent of all internet traffic is porn, according to a new report by the New England Journal of Underestimating Everything.”

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. To contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. Feel free to join his LinkedIn network or to follow him on Twitter.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Translating from Spanish to Castellano, or Bridging the Gap between a Localization PM and a Horse’s Ass

Danny: No, venti is twenty. Large is large. In fact, tall is large and grande is Spanish for large. Venti is the only one that doesn't mean large. It's also the only one that's Italian. Congratulations, you're stupid in three languages.
Barista: A venti is a large coffee.
Danny: Really? Says who? Fellini? Do you accept lira or is it all euros now?
—Role Model (2010)

The State of McLocalization 2012. Exhibit A: I see an Internet job ad entitled: "Spanish translators with Catalan and Castellano dialects are needed ASAP." An ad calling for a Spanish translator who speaks Castellano of course piques my curiosity. Greater delights awaited me. I kid you not, this is what the ad said: "We have text in English and Spanish that should be translated into Catalan and Castellano." Spanish to Castellano. The wonders of the Web 2.0. The person who posted the ad helpfully adds a couple of linguistic notes taken from the Monty Python Book of Flying Dialectology: "Castellano is a kind of Spanish which includes dialects at the central and north part of Spain (the area from Cantabria to Cuenca)." I omit the notes on Catalan because it describes the language as a “dialect” and I don't want the comments setion inundated with people making threatening comments.

Let me start to unpack this monstrosity by beginning with the familiar term of “Castilian Spanish.” Most people who use “Castilian Spanish” probably think it sounds a little more fancy or scientific than “European Spanish” or “Iberian Spanish” or the clunky “Spanish from Spain.” But steer clear from the jackass who uses this phrase, gentle reader, because an agency that uses it to recruit translators may also have trouble figuring out the complexities of international wire transfers, whether willfully or not. That person/agency/spambot is affecting an erudition that he/she/it does not really possess.

But, wait, “Castilian Spanish” is endorsed by a source as eminent as Wikipedia. Read this page:
Castilian Spanish is a term related to the Spanish language, but its exact meaning can vary even in that language. In English Castilian Spanish usually refers to the variety of European Spanish spoken in north and central Spain or as the language standard for radio and TV speakers.[1][2][3][4] The region where this variety of Spanish is spoken corresponds more or less to the Castilian historical region.
No, no, no, no. Bad Wikipedia! Bad Wikipedia! Naughty, naughty Wikipedia! You went and urinated on the living room rug of knowledge again! The exact meaning of “Castilian Spanish” does NOT “vary even in that language.” No one uses the term “español castellano.” Why? Because he would be branded a jackass.  Okay, I’m only going to say this once. Saying “Castilian Spanish” is just an economic way of proclaiming that a grandfather or great-grandfather deflowered a cousin somewhere in the adjacent branches of your family tree. It is the same as using the term “Tuscan Italian” or “Anglican English” or “Gallic French” or “Sino-Chinese” or “Nippon Japanese” or “Teutonic German.” It is a nonsense term used by Scientologists, Pataphysicists, conspiracy theorists, and sundry varieties of idiot who believe in the Singularity. Think of the funny made-up Roman names used in the Life of Brian, such as “Maximus Minimus”.

Castilian is the language spoken in the north-central region of Spain that spread via the Reconquista and the political ascendancy of Castile to the whole of the Iberian Peninsula, thus becoming the primary language of literature and government in what would eventually become Spain (sometimes in an uneasy and fraught cohabitation with other languages [careful: not dialects] such as Basque and Catalan). Later on, it also spread to the Americas and even the Philippines through the, er, free Spanish courses taught by those stabby, trigger-happy language tutors known as conquistadores. Castilian is just an old name for standard Spanish, whether spoken in Buenos Aires or Mexico City or Barcelona (or even Copenhagen, for that matter). The Castilian dialect, on the other hand, refers to the peculiarities of the Spanish spoken in rural areas of Castile, where this entire story started.

Visit these (correct) definitions to get a sense of what I’m talking about:
Definition of CASTILIAN 
1: a native or inhabitant of Castile; broadly : Spaniard 
2 a : the dialect of Castileb : the official and literary language of Spain based on this dialect
Or this one:
Cas·til·ian   [ka-stil-yuhn]  noun 1. the dialect of Spanish spoken in Castile. 2. the official standard form of the Spanish language as spoken in Spain, based on this dialect. 3. a native or inhabitant of Castile.
Or this one:
1 a native of Castile. 2 the dialect of Spanish spoken in Castile, which is standard Spanish.adjectiveof or relating to Castile, Castilians, or the Castilian form of Spanish.
Therefore, if you insist on using the term “Castilian Spanish”, it can only refer to the Spanish spoken in the Castile region, which by the same token will exclude the Spanish spoken in other regions of Spain, which doesn’t make any sense when you are recruiting translators (who localizes only for Castile?). To sum it up, if you stress the “Castilian” in “Castilian Spanish”, you exclude the rest of Spain. And if you stress the “Spanish” in “Castilian Spanish” (to distinguish it from Latin American Spanish), you get to the insane situation whereby Latin Americans speak Castilian and Spanish, but not Castilian Spanish. In any case, the conceptual difficulties you can get into by simply raising the term “Castilian” are thorny. Better to simply avoid using it and stick to safer terms such as “Iberian Spanish” or “European Spanish,” neither of which requires a doctorate in comparative philology. Yeah, I know “Castilian” sounds fancy, but everybody hurts sometime.

Now, the job ad quoted at the beginning takes the “Castilian/Spanish/Castilian Spanish” idiocy one step further and totally dissociates español from castellano and asks for a translator to work a text from one to the other. That is the equivalent of asking someone to translate from Quebecois to Canadian French or from English into “American.” This marks a step further in the divorce between Spanish and Castilian, similar to a fight between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or between Bruce Banner and the Hulk. Which is an extreme, relatively unstudied phase of multiple personality disorder.

The agency posting this is Ukrainian (the ad, sadly, was erased before I managed to save it). An autopsy of the way in which a project from English to Spanish came to be handled by an agency in that region of the world would perhaps provide an interesting radiography of why there are so many poor translations out there.

Rant over. (Whew, it felt good to get that off my chest.)

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, as well as several small brokerages and asset management companies. 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.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Counterintuitive Twenty-First Century Hipster Luddism

I love vinyl. I'm an Edison man. Everything
after 'Mary had a little lamb' was kind of derivative.
Stephen Colbert

Last week, two articles on highly successful musicians provided contrasting glimpses into the technology behind music production in our times. First up was an interesting piece from The New Yorker on what we might call the new Brill Building or the new Tinpan Alley: the dozen or so teams of song producers and writers that are responsible for the vast majority of the hits that dominate the American pop music scene. Fifty years ago, popular musicians didn’t write their own stuff. Their managers simply had them sing songs that professional songwriters churned out like sausages in places like the Brill in New York. Look at the first Beatles and Rolling Stones albums: not a single original composition. That is the world that Bob Dylan blew away. Carole King is the sole survivor of that bygone era. She began as a gun for hire with her husband and later successfully made the transition into the singer-songwriter era of the sixties and seventies who sang her own material.

Now, in the era of the Content Tsunami, "the times they are a-changin' back." A tiny group of twenty or so professional songwriters is once again churning out the Top 40 hits that account for the bulk of music sales. They use very simple formulas:’s Top Forty is almost always machine-made: lush sonic landscapes of beats, loops, and synths in which all the sounds have square edges and shiny surfaces, the voices are Auto-Tuned for pitch, and there are no mistakes. The music sounds sort of like this: thump thooka whompa whomp pish pish pish thumpaty wompah pah pah pah.

The songs are written according to a template that relies heavily on so-called “hooks,” the repetitive parts that captivate the listener—who apparently has the attention span of a fruit fly. As if older pop music was not repetitive or catchy enough. (Seriously, how much more catchy will pop have to get in the future? I imagine a couple of hands reaching out from a smartphone screen, grabbing you by the lapels and shaking you while a voice shouts: “Dance, bitch!”):

The producers compose the chord progressions, program the beats, and arrange the “synths,” or computer-made instrumental sounds; the top-liners come up with primary melodies, lyrics, and the all-important hooks, the ear-friendly musical phrases that lock you into the song.

In this age of alleged media diversification, a handful of individuals are responsible for the listening pleasures of millions. In fact, so tiny and influential is this elite that one song written for Beyoncé, “Halo,” ended up being used by Kelly Clarkson (“Already Gone”) before the duplication was noticed… and both became hits!

The process of writing cookie-cutter songs, unsurprisingly, relies heavily on high technology:

Eriksen worked “the box”—the computer—using Avid’s Pro Tools editing program, while Hermansen critiqued the playbacks. Small colored rectangles, representing bits of Dean’s vocal, glowed on the computer screen, and Eriksen chopped and rearranged them, his fingers flying over the keys, frequently punching the space bar to listen to a playback, then rearranging some more. The studio’s sixty-four-channel professional mixing board, with its vast array of knobs and lights, which was installed when Roc the Mic Studios was constructed, only five years ago, sat idle, a relic of another age.

For a contrast, last week also saw the publication of a New York Times feature on Jack White, formerly of the White Stripes, a major figure in the rock’n’roll that was displaced by this resurgence of the Top 40s hit machine.

White sounds like a post-industrial romantic who is knee-deep into the resurgence of vinyl. His record company’s slogan is that “Your Turntable’s not Dead”:

“It’s a really beautiful process,” White said. At the labeling station, an employee handed him a pressing of an old Robert Johnson LP that was being rereleased, and he weighed it in his hand. “That’s killer,” he said. “It’s not as heavy as mine, though. I’ve got the real one.” White calls LPs “the pinnacle of musical expression.” “I was talking to Robert Altman before he died,” he said, “and I asked him about an interview where he said that he would never switch to videotape, that he would always stay in film. He said: ‘I know what that is. It has a negative. It has a positive. With videotape or digital, I have no idea what’s going on.’ That’s how I feel about vinyl. The left wall is the left channel, the right wall is the right channel, and you’re just dragging that rock through the groove. Watching it spin, you get a real mechanical sense of music being reproduced. I think there’s a romance to that.”

Later on, the author of the piece describes White’s radically retro style of song production:

White thinks of computer programs like Pro Tools as “cheating.” He records only in analog, never digital, and edits his tape with a razor blade. “It’s sort of like I can’t be proud of it unless I know we overcame some kind of struggle,” he said. “The funny thing is, even musicians and producers, my peers, don’t care. Like, ‘Wow, that’s great, Jack.’ Big deal.”It’s easy to overlook amid the stylistic trappings, but White is a virtuoso — possibly the greatest guitarist of his generation. His best songs, like “Seven Nation Army,” are firmly rooted in the American folk vernacular, yet catchy and durable enough to be chanted in sports arenas worldwide. That he does it with such self-imposed constraints — for instance, his favorite guitar in the White Stripes was made of plastic and came from Montgomery Ward — makes it all the more impressive.

I will not attempt to drive a ten-ton truck through this stylistic difference or to construct some facile analogy about highbrow hipster retro and mass-market, tech-driven commercialism. I am perhaps a snob, but not at least in musical terms. My tastes are pretty Catholic insofar as pop is concerned. A peek at my iPod reveals a catalogue that ranges from the artsiness of a Tom Waits to the morose dirges of an Iron & Wine to the sugar-coated superficiality of an Abba. Obviously, someone like White, who says his three spiritual dads are “his biological father, God and Bob Dylan” will be closer to my heart. But I downloaded several of the songs mentioned in the New Yorker piece by Rihanna and Nicki Minaj. While not my cup of tea, I can see the attraction. These artists are obviously the direct descendants of the Motown sound that was organized under very similar lines, with manufactured pop groups who didn’t write their own music. This artificial and commercial system nonetheless produced gems such as "You Can't Hurry Love," "Tracks of My Tears," and “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch.”

Both White and the Norwegian producer duo known as “Stargate” belong to elites that produce popular music for the masses. The only difference is that Stargate’s masses are way more massive. But there is also a second difference. White's musical experiments are much less dependent upon the hit machine. Some of his albums can flop and others will do better, but he still has the independence and freedom to fail. The Stargate duo are much more dependent upon the fickle tastes of the mass public. Their flavor of music can fall out of fashion at the drop of a hat. In fact, it already happened to them once, back in the United Kingdom: "In 2004, things suddenly slowed down for Stargate in the U.K. 'People got fed up with Stargate’s sound—things change fast in the music business—and there was no work,' Eriksen told me."

The New Yorker feature of the Top 40 wizards ends with a poignant moment when Adele's sweep of the Grammys is discussed:

But with the mention of Adele the air pressure in the control room seemed to change. Stargate knew well from their experience in London how quickly fads come and go in the pop business; a massive smash such as Adele’s “Someone Like You,” with its heartfelt lyrics, accompanied by simple piano arpeggios—no arpeggiator required—could be the beginning of the end of urban pop.

The two styles of production inhabit the same moment in time. I would also suggest that White’s last-man-standing posture of cutting physical strands of tape with a knife might not be simply the anachronism of an eccentric weirdo. Think more along the lines of Apple versus Google or locavorism versus molecular gastronomy. A Luddite retro hipster living in Tennessee like White might just be the flip side of the two Norwegians hunched over their seventeen-inch screens in midtown Manhattan. In a post-historicist society, the line between retro and futurist blurs as the past recurs over and over, and our visions of the future age faster than our furniture. They are simply two different ways of inserting yourself into the present and the future.

But, still, I am beginning to wonder whether, in some fields, technological savvy and sophistication might begin to be correlated with replaceability, and perhaps even lower wages and lower profit margins. Instead of a sine qua non for avoiding obsolescence, technological sophistication might be the tax you constantly have to pay to maintain your status as a cog in a mass-production machine. A cog that is progressively paid less and whose output becomes increasingly commoditized.

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. To contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. Feel free to join his LinkedIn network or to follow him on Twitter.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Machine-Translated Investment Research and the Spanish Debt Crisis

I am not going to make the case that Spain is or isn’t on the brink. My opinion on investment in Spanish public debt is worth exactly a hill of beans in this crazy world, as well it should be. But as a language specialist, I would like to point out a few ways in which this crisis is based on very bad translations that, in practice, could lead to very flawed investment theses.

Spain might or might not default on its debt, I don’t know. I just know that when markets were saying that Spanish debt was almost as good as German debt they were mispricing it. Now, when they say it is worse than Zimbabwean debt, they might be mispricing it again. Focusing a lot on emotional images of pandemonium of Greeks or Spaniards throwing paving stones around is gripping, emotional, and targeted toward the more primitive parts of our brains that are easily moved by that sort of thing. 

Let me provide an example. The general strike in Spain a couple of weeks ago was widely followed. The unions are obviously strong and command a lot of following from even people who are not unionized. But the country is far from close to chaos. The violent incidents in Barcelona were pretty isolated. The strike in Madrid was a very tranquil day, with the streets mostly occupied by German tourists in town to support Hannover against Atlético.

Madrid looks pretty normal and boring, as the weather warms up and springtime is in the air. It is full of tourists doing touristy things and, in the evening, reveling drunks doing drunky things. On Wednesday I was coming back from lunch and I bumped into the vice president of the Spanish government, Soraya Sáenz, chatting with some colleagues outside a restaurant. There was not a bodyguard in sight. 

This is hardly the picture of a country on the verge of the largest sovereign debt defaults in history and massive street battles. Of course, my personal observations are purely anecdotal and worthless as investment intelligence. The bottom line is that the bonfires in Plaza de Catalunya are equally devoid of value for a real investor in a rational market.

Except we know people aren’t rational and markets aren’t always efficient. And right now there are a lot of people fueling the fires of instability to profit on credit default swap bets. And even some of the less emotional gasoline being poured on the fire--which masquerades as cold, analytical number-crunching--is based on appallingly poor translations. Take the example of a PowerPoint presentation that has circulated heavily through the Internet over the past week. It was drawn up by an investment company called Carmel Asset Management. 

The .ppt document was loudly endorsed by ZeroHedgea very popular “investment” blog that has a distinctly nihilistic attitude very typical of the trader mentality: the world is insane; politicians always lie; markets are rigged by Goldman Sachs; there is a huge conspiracy against the little investor; Armageddon is just around the corner; the same guys who killed Kennedy control Apple stock; you have to have a bomb shelter in your backyard; and you basically have to be a paranoid sociopath to make an honest buck in the markets. The main author’s handle is “Tyler Durden,” the co-protagonist of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Look at his Twitter account. It features a picture of Brad Pitt with a bare midriff playing Durden. The odds are, of course, that the author is a pale, overweight bald dude called Louie who trades stocks from his living room in “Joysie”. The thing is that, in addition to very analytical blurbs on the problems facing the Spanish economy, ZeroHedge also loves to show images of rioting (viz. “The Spanish RiotCam Has Arrived”). And also of making the parallels between any sort of mayhem in the streets of Madrid or Barcelona with the scenes at Syntagma Square in Athens.

The .ppt makes the bear case for Spain, the absolute worst-case scenario in which the country simply defaults on its debt. It points out factors that are undeniable: high unemployment (23%); unfinished housing crash (perhaps only half over); spendthrift regional governments; and shaky cajas overexposed to the housing bubble. 

One of the key claims in the presentation is that Spanish debt is actually much higher than many realize. The consensus is that Spanish debt is equivalent to 60% of GDP, which is manageable (sixty percent is actually lower than the debt-to-GDP ratio of “serious” countries like Germany [83%], the U.S. [100%], France [87%], the United Kingdom [81%], and Japan [233%]).

“Aha,” reply the ZeroHedgers and Carmels, “but that 60% is deceptive, because it does not include the debt owed by the comunidades autónomas, the regional governments.” The PPT tells us that: “Spain’s national debt is 50% greater than the headline numbers. Spain’s debt-to-GDP balloons from 60% to 90% of GDP with regional and other debts (Slide 2).” When you factor that in, the figure, they claim, is 90%, which is a lot scarier.

Well, it turns out that this is not actually true. The lower consensus 60% figure is accurate, because it includes both the money owed by the central government and all the goodies on which regional authorities splurged throughout the boom of the past decade. Listen to Luis Garicano, a leading Spanish economist, responding in comments on his blog from a reader who is freaking out after visiting ZeroHedge:
Zero HEdge se hace un pequeno lio. La deuda de las CCAA esta incluida YA en el total de la deuda publica. Otra cosa es la deuda bancaria con aval del estado y la “otra deuda avalada”
Which I translate as follows:
ZeroHedge is tying himself into knots. The debt owed by the autonomous regions is ALREADY included in the public debt total. Banking debt guaranteed by the government and “other guaranteed debt” is another issue.
So, who you gonna call? The economics professor who does this for a living (and, incidentally, is not a Spain bull), or the anonymous blogger who masquerades as the Nietzschean, psychopathic alter-ego of an alienated insomniac suffering from multiple personality disorder? I have my answer, but then again I’m an elitist, as some sock puppets mutter under their breath when they read this blog.

And then you start to probe the detail of the .ppt document, and the picture shifts a little more. A Wall Street Journal blog carried a very useful portrait of Carmel, the company making the bearish Spain call. First of all, Carmel manages $50 million. That makes it a very, very tiny player. Second of all, Jonathan Carmel, the head of the asset manager, reveals that he writes his own investment research and that his Spanish is very poor:
While Mr. Carmel has yet to visit Spain for his research, he says he has spent much of the past year combing through as many numbers as he can dig up, speaking with as many people as he can find and reading as much as he can with what he calls “my pretty bad Spanish.” “I’ve been using a lot of Google Translate,” he confesses.
 So, basically, we have a manager from a tiny boutique firm who has never visited Spain and who supplements mediocre language skills with Google Translate. And this is the research that moves the gigantic bond market that decides the rates that govern the lives of millions of people. I am not saying that any of this is evil. After all, Carmel’s PowerPoint very transparently reveals his firm’s interest in the matter:
We began buying Spain CDS in Q4 2011 because the country has significant structural problems within its economy, a debt load that is higher than the headline number, and a banking system with unrealized losses (Slide no. 10)
This means he is betting on a Spanish default (probably using massive leverage). Spain doesn’t have to actually go broke for him to make money. The CDSs only have to go up and his bet will pay off (if he cashes out in time):
Should the Spanish crisis flare up in 2012 as we expect, we can generate a 300% return on the annual premium (Slide no. 10)
Simply put, some of the financial mayhem is being fed by second-rate research based on machine translation. Markets are increasingly fueled by this ever-greater mass of information that is easily available. According to the data worshippers, this will only end up being to our benefit. And language automation will only make the world an even better place by providing approximate translations of this data. But that is a stupid illusion. Seeing grown men spout that silliness is the equivalent of watching those creepy middle-aged men at comic book conventions who still play with Star Wars figures. Because in investment, "close-enough" translation is actually "wrong" translation.

In financial markets, it is increasingly evident that greater information is not providing more rational markets that are better fed with accurate information. On the contrary, what we have is more noise. Noise like the one currently being generated by ZeroHedge and Carmel for their own selfish ends using low quality translations (anonymous blogs don’t have to disclose their positions in the markets, by the way). The Google translations used by Carmel are not capable of providing the fine points of financial data that can be better conveyed by a human translation.

As such, the reams of Spanish-language data translated into mediocre English and consumed by Carmel’s analysts are the equivalent of the stock-trading algorithms that are producing more and more frequent flash crashes.

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, as well as many small-and-medium-sized brokerages and asset management companies operating in SpainTo contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. Feel free to join his LinkedIn network or to follow him on Twitter.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Prosperous Post-Editor: Interesting Testimony on PE Rates

If you grew up with holes in ya zapatos
You'd be celebrating the minute you was havin' dough

The following message was posted this week to an old item from a few months back on the ProZ-TAUS debate, in which the Holy Trinity of L10N Automation was convened to recite the by now stale message that translators will not be replaced by computers (only degraded). It is an interesting testimony because it is a counter to my thesis that post-editing will be accompanied by lower absolute rates (i.e., both per word and per day, month, and year). Check it:

Hi guys,
I realize this comment is really late, but speaking of PE payment, I just finished a 2 year PE project that actually put some decent bucks in my coffers and was so incredibly easy for someone with my experience and education in translation. (10 yrs. experience, MA translation).
At the volume I could do on it (paid at discounted word rate), I earned about 100 bucks per hour. However, I agreed to it only because of the major concession on quality. This stuff was all internal and would not be published, so they didn't care about the quality. They asked for "understandable" and "good enough" quality.
"Good enough" and "understandable" are subjective. I often found many of the garbled, yet decipherable, sentences simply "good enough." ;-)
No complaints from them.
However, I have had agencies approach me with projects that need to be publishing quality--and they want a discount for MT--my response is usually to look at the MT version, find it unusable and needing of complete re-translation and offer them 2 options:
1) inflated word rate by 50% if they insist on use of the MT.
2) regular rate if they want it translated from scratch.
Needless to say, I don't normally get chosen for these kinds of ridiculous proposals. ;-)
MT can be used well on the type of project I described, which I just finished doing. It all depends on the content and the purpose of the target text.
I personally think that MT has no place in publishing quality work--not yet at least. No matter how many strides they make in MT, they are a loooooooooooong way off from replacing humans.
Whether PE becomes a viable market strategy will be up to us translators. I did it for a bunch of easy, repetitive internal garbage that is of interest only to the C suits of a particular company--and made very decent dough. (I also did not lose my style--I can still translate at proper quality too.)
If it becomes the standard for publishing quality work, well, I'll be looking for another profession.
Sorry for the anonymous post, I don't want this client to make a guess at who I am if they happen to stumble on this.
Great blog!

I don’t doubt this testimony is genuine. However, I doubt that $100-per-hour of post-editing is in the cards for many individual translators in the future. Two observations are in order:

1.- The market for translations is very inefficient. I won’t go into the theoretical meaning of economic inefficiency, but I will only point out a symptom of that inefficiency. Any translator can confirm this: Rates offered vary insanely from one job offer to another, by factors of 100% or more. Not even websites such as ProZ have managed to constrain the spectrum of translation prices. I already hear some ninny raising his hand to say: “Of course rates vary. That is true of any market. Rates will vary according to language pair, experience, difficulty, specialization, volume, regularity, etc., etc.” As usual, this is a truism that papers over the fact that a variation of one or two orders of magnitude is way too large for a rational market.

2.- In an inefficient market, there will be huge outliers. Our anonymous poster is just such an outlier. My bet is that, in the future, competition among cheap translation providers will tend to reduce the occurrence of such outliers. This $100-per-hour rate is an inefficiency that will be gradually scraped away as one or two or three low quality players become slightly more dominant in their niche. (Incidentally, the fact that the author of the message maintains his contribution anonymous confirms this. His suspicion is that if his clients discovered that the same tweaking of MT output can be obtained at a much, much lower price, they would turn to another provider… because the service is a commodity.)

I agree with the anonymous author that there is not a place for MT in material for publication… yet. There would be, perhaps, if the MT people got serious about quality metrics. That way, when I came into the office in the morning, with my Starbucks venti and munching on a croissant, and read 57% accuracy, I would simply eject the refuse into hyperspace and greedily keep the 95% matches. But since some MT specialists have claimed on this very blog that any Google Translate match is equivalent to a 95% Trados match, you will forgive me if I remain a skeptic.

I wish I were wrong. If I am, and I end up as a post-editor making $100 an hour, I’ll be right there with you, oh anonymous contributor, filling up jacuzzis with Cristal, raising the roof, and lighting Cuban cigars with one-hundred-euro bills while Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” blares in the background. I will gladly sell my soul, sans sales tax, if any such there is to sell.

But I truly, truly doubt that this will happen. The impetus behind cheap translation is precisely to lower quality expectations and make the entire process as cheap as possible. You might think that this is irrational, but the business model simply depends on volume, which is why these companies are trying to convince Fortune 500 corporations to translate Facebook status updates.

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, as well as many small-and-medium-sized brokerages and asset management companies operating in SpainTo contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. Feel free to join his LinkedIn network or to follow him on Twitter.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Anonymous Sock Puppet Steps Up to Defend ALS: The Ethics of Cheap Translation

I’m not a big fan of anonymity in general. I take it for granted that you are not really putting yourself in any danger by expressing your opinions about something as wimpy as translation. And if you feel that expressing an opinion might endanger your career, you should simply abstain from expressing that opinion. You shouldn’t have it both ways, because the quality of someone’s opinion is related to the degree to which you are willing to stand by it with your real name. Moreover, I feel that, unless you are the employee of a company that might retaliate against you, you are being cowardly. There is clearly a link between anonymity and troll-like behavior, a major problem in current Internet culture.

Allow me to provide an example. I received the following anonymous comment this week to a post on Gavin Wheeldon, the chief executive officer of Applied Language Solutions, a company currently embroiled in controversy because of its inept provision of judicial interpreters to the courts in England and Wales (the grammar and spelling have not been corrected):

As with everyone else, I'm equally appalled by the way in which this contract has been handled to ALS - who are clearly incapable of managing it and who are trying to pay peanuts to qualified staff. 
I disagree however with the vindictive way in which Gavin has been portrayed. The issue is with the MOJ who have awarded this contract to a company incapable of managing. MOJ have clearly sanctioned a huge drop in payments to our interpreters who do a fantastic job - assuming they had done their research (which maybe they hadn't) then their cost analysis would clearly dictate the drop that the interpreters would need to take in order for the arrangement to be viable. Why is there such an attack on the small guy? He's running a business - there are thousands of agencies out there - (most of whom however work fantastically with the linguists and pay them well) and he's won a lucrative deal. The issue is not with him but with the MOJ for ever selling off such an important service. 
You will get no where personnally attacking Gary Wheeldon - you need to aim your criticisms at those who count and make the decisions.
There are several things to observe about this message right off the bat, but I would like to highlight a key sentence. The author of the message (remember: cowering behind a wall of anonymity) says that no animus should be directed at ALS boss Gavin Wheeldon because he is just one more entrepreneur that was lucky enough to snag a nice little contract for his company:

He's running a business - there are thousands of agencies out there - (most of whom however work fantastically with the linguists and pay them well) and he's won a lucrative deal. The issue is not with him but with the MOJ for ever selling off such an important service.

In a nutshell, that is the problem with the Cheap Translation model. Nowadays, an agency is often just a sales team (of monolingual English speakers) and a stable of project managers (usually located in Eastern Europe). The sales people hook the bait (at any price), reel in the customer, and then turn the whole project over to the PMs, who look up a random name on the database and then try to arm wrestle the lowest possible rate from the bumbling “vendor.”

The ALS debacle is the same dubious model multiplied by a factor of 3,000. The author of the anonymous message seems to imply that, even though ALS didn’t actually have a parallel database of qualified interpreters, it was fully entitled to go out and snag the mega-contract from the Ministry of Justice. Here is where I differ from the contributor's complacent view of McLocalization.

An ethical businessperson would have told the MoJ that undertaking a responsibility as large as providing thousands of interpreters would take years. Moreover, to cut people’s wages in half overnight was not realistic. The system should have been phased in over a period of at least five years, if not more.

The decision to jump at the MoJ contract at any cost and under any circumstance clearly was a case of a tiny, ravenous amoeba trying to bite off more than it could possibly chew in a million years (in this case, a morsel of food approximately the size of a killer whale).

My point is that this was both bad business and bad ethics. However, people like Mr. Wheeldon, who first get the contract and then worry about how to meet the service (by his own admission to the Times), are totally devoid of ethics. E-T-H-I-C-S. Business is not just about closing the deal. It is also about being qualified to provide the best possible service for a reasonable rate. The prevalence of people such as Mr. Wheeldon (and their chummy tolerance by people such as my sock puppet) is symptomatic of what is wrong with the l10n industry: shady businesspeople who think translation is a commodity service that simply consists in matching a project from a faceless online customer to an online translator profile cribbed from I am guessing the author of the message is the head of such a pirate outfit, perhaps looking to intercept an unsuspecting container ship somewhere close to the Horn of Africa.

True, the MoJ’s flying civil servants do not come in for a drubbing from me, but on the other hand they do not parade around on reality shows to flaunt their raging sociopathic tendencies. Yes, the civil servants should have done more due diligence. Simply auditing ALS’s database of interpreters and doing a dry run of the system in one or two regions would perhaps have alerted them to the feasibility of doing all of this. So, in that sense, they are equally responsible for this mess. Perhaps they did so due to the pressure from their political masters. When I hear the comments from the entity called “Crispin Blunt” about the whole mess, it becomes quite apparent that there was acute pressure from the Cabinet to make a transparently awful decision due to the urgency of making budget cuts.

Yes, Mr. Wheeldon is not the only culprit in this mess, but the moral instincts he reveals in the media are a major factor in this entire tragic catastrophe. And the reigning professional standards among the many “thousands of agencies” cited by the anonymous contributor, who see nothing wrong with Wheeldon’s modus operandi, should be a matter for concern.

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, as well as many small-and-medium-sized brokerages and asset management companies operating in SpainTo contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. Feel free to join his LinkedIn network or to follow him on Twitter.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Is Any Translation Better than no Translation?

It is if you’re the Russian Mafia, perhaps, and you need to send a scam letter to millions of people in different languages. Or if you market under-the-counter Viagra. Or if you are the widow of an African dictator who was executed by a firing squad and you need someone abroad to set up a wire transfer. However, if your business model is even marginally dependent on brand image, you should think twice about going down the road of cheap translation providers.

The Low Quality Translation movement’s slogan that “any translation is better than no translation” is tantamount to claiming that if you can’t afford house paint, you might as well smear dog poop on your walls. 

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, as well as many small-and-medium-sized brokerages and asset management companies operating in SpainTo contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. Feel free to join his LinkedIn network or to follow him on Twitter.