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.

1 comment:

Bodi Jelen said...

This column of yours is better than reading the Financial Times, man. New York Times.