Monday, May 28, 2012

Future Schlock: Common Sense, Nonsense, and the Law of Supply and Demand

Things seem so random all of a sudden, and time feels like it’s speeding up.
Mad Men, Season 5, “Signal 30”

The ideological arm of Lower Quality Translation, also known as the Common Sense Advisory (CSA), has published yet another dubious white paper on the translation market, enticingly entitled “Translation Demand-Supply Mismatch.” Thankfully, the organization charges a lot for its full-length reports, so peasants such as the writer of this humble blog are left to peruse only the public summaries. This allows us to devote the precious few moments left on this Earth to more profitable pursuits, such as the latest slutty exploits of those crazy Kardashians or that never-ending cliff dive known as the Spanish equity market. The CSA does push the low quality envelope a little aggressively, though, but, after all, their audience certainly is not little old yours truly. Their stuff is aimed more at the larger translation agencies that disguise themselves as technology companies and perhaps the odd middling sort of agency that dreams of making it to The Show.

Anyhow, in the fragmented age of the Internet, some of its stuff winds up on my iPad and the ease of blog publishing allows me to kick the tires a little bit. The first surprising takeaway of “Translation Supply-Demand Mismatch” is pretty breathtaking: The law of supply and demand isn’t applicable to the translation industry.

To start off, the author cites three factors that are constraining supply.

The first one is that old chestnut (say it with me) known as the Content Tsunami. I have played enough with this faulty concept to trot it out and flog it again. Let sleeping, defunct horses lie.

The second factor is a shrinking supply of translators. Really? Based on what evidence? Hmmm, “executives at language service providers (LSPs) regularly tell us…” That is called hearsay evidence in a court of law.

Thirdly, “translator productivity has stagnated.” This is a very strange way to put it that reveals an entire underlying agenda:

In the survey we conducted for this report, we found that individual translators averaged just 2,684 words every day. This number hasn’t changed much for decades, if not centuries.

Okay, De Palma has proven that supply is constrained (I guess…). Let’s take that as a given. The expectation would be that translation prices are soaring at a rate that zips past Zimbabwean inflation rates (cha-ching!). But no (crushing disappointment):

With such a classic case of high demand and inadequate supply [please note this elegant example of question begging], prices would rise, much to the delight of LSPs and freelance translators… However, we don’t see widespread rate increases any time soon, given the price sensitivity of the language sector and tight budgets at companies stockpiling cash.
What? The laws of supply and demand don’t apply to the translation sector? Really? That’s fascinating! You could get a Nobel Prize by demonstrating why that happens! Do, please, tell me more!

But Mr. De Palma has other more pressing business to take care of than the teensy weensy little detail that one of the most basic laws of the social sciences just doesn’t have any relevance to the area of the economy he analyzes. Because he is, after all, too busy frying other fish. McFishsticks, to be more precise. Yes, the lack of pertinence of one of the most basic laws that describe economic reality merits less than a passing mention, because now we are into the nitty gritty of where we wanted to go: “Some informed companies and specialists intelligently apply MT and other translation automation to the problem.” A clunky sentence? Perhaps. Completely misguided? Possibly. A ringing endorsement of cheap translation? You bet your ass! This is followed by a reference to a discarded guru from the 1970s who mistakenly thought that by now we would be colonizing Jupiter. All of this crowned with an admonition that the world is changing way too fast and that he who doesn’t adapt risks being left behind by the dizzying rate of innovation at companies such as Trados and Lionbridge:
we expect that many buyers and suppliers will merely react to the changes rather than permanently change their behaviors. If they can step back from their day-to-day issues, though, they will see that the market for language services market has fundamentally changed. Once a cottage industry, language has become a core business process and critical enabler for a range of economic, political, and humanitarian activities – and subject to all the attendant macroeconomic pressures. Some participants will be unnerved by so many changes in such as a short time, leading to the displacement that sociologists labeled “future shock.“ To survive, they will have to adapt to the new realities and economics of language services.
So, please, translators, take a step back. Please. I beg you. Be careful. You might get some of this future schlock on your shoes. Yuck.

Some of you may be familiarized with Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock idea. The latest season of Mad Men plays a lot with the unease that Americans felt in the mid-sixties. The fear was that the world was changing a lot faster than the speed at which an individual could assimilate it. In Mad Men’s case, it is not so much because of technology, admittedly; the vertigo felt by the characters is punctuated mostly by famous crimes, such as the U of T at Austin sniper and the nurse massacre in Chicago. Half a decade after Pete Campbell was having sexy fantasies about the daughter from The Gilmore Girls, Toffler put the finger on that unease, called it future shock, and made a bundle of money explaining this anxiety to the general public. Anyone who is around forty has found that book lying somewhere in the bookshelves of every household he visits. However, what Mad Men is pointing at is social change. As the United States becomes more fragmented socially, racially, generationally and sexually, the world begins to look a lot scarier and less integrated. That is the subject of a lot of pre-post-modernist literature. Things fall apart. The center cannot hold. But technological determinists take another, slightly different, view: chiefly, that it is technology that is driving everything. And technological determinism, as I have pointed out often, is our sad, secular religion.

Now, note that to state that the rate of social change is speeding up is not exactly a world-changing perception. We can all pretty much agree on that. However, the prediction that this rate is only set to speed up to a point where we all go insane (i.e., that it is exponential) is quite another thing. As a recent reporter who visited Toffler writes:
Still, the accelerating change doesn't seem to be driving people crazy, as was predicted by Future Shock. Alvin Toffler says it may be that younger generations have simply become more adapted to change, that it is their culture. Academic futurist Stuart Candy says the Tofflers were wrong to predict widespread "future shock," as a form of societal illness or breakdown.
So, let me see… Future 1-Toffler 0. Shocker! (Schlocker?) And yet, forty years on, sub-gurus are still peddling this as a diagnosis for people trudging through the Great Stagnation. (Which prompts one question: Why, if the world is changing so quickly, is a book from four decades ago still relevant? After all, Adam Smith apparently isn’t relevant, since demand and supply is obsolete. Why should Toffler remain pertinent to our madcap era of flying cars and weekend trips to Mars?)

But all of this is deceptive. We have arrived at this point by conceding the premises of Mr. De Palma’s faulty analysis. Let’s go back to some of his more eyebrow-raising observations. Chiefly, that the dynamics of supply and demand don’t apply to translation. If true, that should blow you away like a tornado. But, as noted, the author glides blithely by.

Imagine a naturalist who passes by an elephant with a giraffe neck and says: “Wow! That’s kind of weird! It contradicts everything we know about evolution and the animal kingdom. But, wait, look over there! Is that a new Krispy Kreme? Wow! In the middle of the bush? That’s even more awesome!”

Or imagine your friend giving you a tour of his new five-bedroom house. “And this is the guest room. However, the law of gravity doesn’t apply here, for whatever reason.” You peer inside and see a bed, a dresser and a cocker spaniel floating around in zero gravity. What would you do? Would you follow your friend out to the garden to have cocktails as the furniture and the dog float round and round? Or would you devote your entire life to finding out why the law of gravity doesn’t hold in your friend’s guest bedroom?

I wonder. Is it possible that a lot of the “empirical” observations about supply constraint are not really based on any concrete studies? Maybe. Is it possible that the translation market is incredibly inefficient, as I have often preached from this digital pulpit? Hmmmm, perhaps. Is it possible that the enormous spectrum in which translation prices float is due to massive information gaps? You know, that’s possible. Or is it perhaps also the influence of the commodity thesis that is explicitly or implicitly held by a lot of buyers and sellers of translation? You know what, now that you mention it, that might be part of it. That surely does not mean that supply and demand doesn’t apply. Only that a slightly more informed analysis is needed that employs the tools of very traditional microeconomics. Also, a consultation of slightly less outdated gurus might come in handy. Unfortunately, none of these avenues of inquiry would help Mr. De Palma sell more reports. 

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.


patenttranslator said...

"You peer inside and see a bed, a dresser and a cocker spaniel floating around in zero gravity. What would you do?"

I would quickly exit the room and close the door before the cocker spaniel start peeing and the yellow swirl starts moving in my direction.

I just wanted to say that I really enjoy your style.

Gueibor said...

Maybe I'm being subjective, or maybe I'm just a lucky bastard, but the red in my eyes and the excess of caffeine in my bloodstream don't know nothing 'bout no friggin' stagnation.

Could it be that the law of supply and demand does apply to our tiny little corner of the universe? You know - for some reason?

Could it be that the assembly line approach to the language industry hasn't turned out to be the quick and easy buck that its enlightened champions envisioned?

Do I smell a whiff of Eau de Desperation?

In any case, as long as their ramblings bring out your Snarkosaur in such beautiful ways, let's hope they keep beeting that drum.
That noisy, hollow, cheap tin drum.

Steevie said...


Thank you once again for the excellent insights and fine writing.

Miguel Llorens M. said...

Thanks, Steven, Gueibor and Steve, for your comments.

Charles Ek said...

"Maybe I'm being subjective, or maybe I'm just a lucky bastard, but the red in my eyes and the excess of caffeine in my bloodstream don't know nothing 'bout no friggin' stagnation."

Yeah, what he said.

Steevie said...

Charles Ek,

All forms of human performance obey statistical distributions, in our case ranging from the people who dictate or TenT 50 or more pages a day to transcreators who struggle to produce 1,000 words/day.

I've seldom done anything but adaptations and re-writes of technical journalism. When I started out 30 years ago the top-end target was 3,000 words/day and, for me, it hasn't changed and indeed I seldom achieve it. The claim is thus true for me personally and, I believe, of output averaged over large numbers of translators.