Tuesday, May 8, 2012

My Dinner with Renato

Is that all there is? Is that all there is?

Esto es lo que hay. Esto es lo que hay.

(It wasn’t actually dinner with Renato but rather lunch with Renato, but you know I can’t resist a meta-reference.) Readers of this blog are aware I have a low opinion of Renato Beninatto’s take on a lot of issues. The problem is that the world is a small place and eventually even he read these snarky posts and started contacting me on Twitter and via this blog. I basically pretended not to notice, because some of the stuff he says is so outrageous that it provides easy fodder for a lot of blog posts. But he insisted. He proposed a grand debate. I humbly begged off. My counter-offer was that he should write a guest post on this blog. He declined, somewhat predictably, excusing himself on the grounds of time constraints and that he does not write that well. It was therefore a stand-off. However, he proposed dinner in Madrid as one way out. I acceded, although as I said, I was very reluctant. I knew that once you see pictures of someone’s kids, you can’t really be as sarcastic as you once were. The problem is that if he did’nt exist, I might have to invent him; he’s just that juicy. Nonetheless, I thought at least I owed him a hearing. I knew that he was going to “sell” me. Sell me what, I was not sure. But if he insisted, I could not in good conscience refuse all personal contact. Nonetheless, I felt less like a berobed Alec Guinness going to meet David Prowse than one of those writers in Po-Mo novels where an uneasy author meets one of his characters.

We met for lunch last Tuesday. He was in Madrid for a localization association’s networking event. The conversation was in Spanish, which he speaks fluently. He is a talker (not a huge shock). He was not there to hear me out so much as to clarify his own views. The main message he wanted to transmit was that he is not a carpetbagger. He is a translator who pivoted by several degrees to the business side of things. He launched into a detailed narration of his professional life, from a business and economics degree, to his first job at a consultancy at which he also did translations, to film subtitler (like me), to independent freelancer (like me), to owner of a budding agency in Brazilian Portuguese and Latin American Spanish, to executive for several large “multi-language vendors.” His career spans a period in which translation transitioned from being a cottage industry dominated by individuals and small companies to a slightly less fragmented cottage industry in which much larger mid-caps provide outsourced language services to multinational blue chips. I think a lot of his views are tied to his participation in that transition.

I don’t dispute that he is an experienced translator. Point taken. He is not a carpetbagger. Okay. Most of his views that I have found questionable have to do with slightly superficial ideas about the transformative power of technology. Surprisingly, that subject was barely mentioned during a lengthy three-hour-long exchange. His attitude is that technology is an adjunct and not as central an issue as many think, at least from a business perspective (I think that is just a step away from my own suspicion that translation technology is commoditized, but he did not go as far as saying that). Another surprise is that he also expressed considerable skepticism about crowdsourcing. Furthermore, when I asked him if he thought that translation was a commodity, he did explicitly and flatly refute the idea.

Beyond personal biography, the message he sought to sell me was that “we are not so different, you and I.” I concede we are both Latin Americans of almost the same generation who drifted into translation. We are both typical of a certain, recognizable middle-class type of South American who comes from No-Place, raised and educated in several countries, with two or three passports, two or more languages, and with grandparents who hail from all over the globe. But I replied several times that our views are indeed sharply different, and probably determined by our contrasting positions within the industry. He is a born entrepreneur. I am not. He has probably gambled his life savings on a wing and prayer a couple of times. I am by nature risk averse. He feels frustrated that criticism of business as a dirty thing is unfair. His view is that we cannot and should not demonize companies. I agree with him on that, but that does not mean that sleazy businesses or shoddy practices should not come in for criticism.

It is not so much the facts on which we are divided. It is on the interpretation of those facts.

For instance, he is very enamored of the argument that a call for all translators to try to get into the high-rate sector is self-defeating. He drew a Gaussian curve on a napkin and told me that if everyone in the overpopulated, hamsterized portion of the bell curve jumps into the higher part of the curve, the better-paid freelancers would face increasing competition. In my view, that is a very simplistic way of looking at things. It assumes a perfect, undifferentiated market. In such a hypothetical (and unlikely) case, I still don’t think other freelancers would be my competition. Neither is Lionbridge, which is too large to be interested in the tiny companies I serve. My concern is competition from junky small agencies that are pure intermediaries for a so-so database, or perhaps a junky larger agency such as Transperfect, which is very aggressive in competing at every price level and for every single loose dollar drifting along out there (anywhere). No. I would welcome more translators emigrating from the middle of the bell curve, because I think a rising tide could well lift all boats.

Another challenge Renato posed: Do I think all translators should charge homogenous (and high) rates? No, that is certainly not my view either. A market should be stratified and diversified in order to reflect different levels of service, specialization, and experience. I certainly don’t think someone who just graduated should get the same compensation I get. My view, though, is that the current state tends toward a curve that is far more skewed to the left side of the distribution than is warranted. I see a lot of highly qualified specialists struggling to make rent, or people living with roommates well into their thirties. Not a pretty sight. A slight trend toward the right side of the chart would not be a bad thing, in my view.

Another pointed challenge: Do I think there should be an international brotherhood of translation teamsters demanding standard wages? Not really. First of all, I don’t think it’s feasible in the age of the Internet (except perhaps for interpreters), or even desirable. Rent seeking is not a pretty sight. We have to accept the good that globalization brings in with the bad: the former being access to a worldwide market, the latter being Lionbridge and those annoying South Asian agencies who claim to do “native Spanish.” I don’t think homogeneity is something professionals should strive for. (But even if that were to happen, at least homogenous rates would relieve me from the niggling worry [to which I’m sometimes prone] that I’m competing on price. It would allow me to focus on differentiation.)

In response to the undesired homogenization, I challenged him with this question: What is more valuable for a young translator, to toil for years as a cog in a Very Large Translation Agency for pennies a word, or to forego paid work and maybe get into a graduate program, travel, take a course on specialized translation, or learn another language? He saw no problem with spending your apprenticeship years in the commoditized sector. I, on the other hand, don’t think there is much of a future in working for faceless PMs you never meet or agencies who think translation is a commodity. So that is another major difference.

On another issue, I asked him if he sincerely believed that a translator could deliver 10,000 words a day of high-quality, publishable material. He replied in the affirmative, but I was surprised to learn that it turns out technology has little to do with it, in his view. He confided in me that back in the eighties and nineties (when SMT was not even a twinkle in the eye of Phil Ochs and post-editing was a typo), his output was 7,000 words a day (he described his method as dictating into a tape recorder which would then be transcribed by a typist). My interpretation of this is as follows: A few productivity tweaks, whether from MT or TM or whatever, should suffice to push the profession into five-digit daily outputs. In other words, technology is a red herring. Renato countered by asking me what my output was. I answered honestly that 7,000 words a day was a bridge too far for me, but conceded that I had actually pumped out 5,000 words on many days. With the caveat that I couldn’t do it for more than two weeks in a row before being totally burned out. So you see, slight differences of opinion conceal vastly different views of the profession.

Let me provide another example of differing interpretations of the same facts. Renato said he had once been asked at an event what output a translator could achieve in the future. He had replied with typical bullishness that 30,000-35,000 words per day was a feasible number for a translator in the Era of the Jetsons. I gasped (audibly): “That’s absurd! How could you even proofread that output?!” Undaunted, he went on to tell me that the day after he voiced that opinion, he had logged onto his email to find an advertisement from a leading CAT tool designer in which a translator gave a testimonial claiming that the tool had allowed her to translate 32,000 words in a  single day. Once again, I blurted out: “That person doesn’t know what she’s talking about! Thirty thousand or twenty-five thousand 100% matches do not count as words you translated!” That person was completely misreading a technology she didn’t understand (and the company was more than a little dishonest in publishing the testimonial). You see what I mean about differing interpretations? For Beninatto, the incident is a harbinger of a happy future marked by greater productivity. For me, it is a perfect example of how translators are completely incapable of interpreting technological change. Night and day. Day and night.

Regarding the “quality is dead” issue, he explained that it is related to his view that quality as mere error detection was the wrong view. He complained that the bandying about of his now infamous title was unfortunate (which made me think to myself that perhaps a less “provocative” title would have been in order; you can’t place a huge target on your back, take a leisurely stroll through the Amazon jungle, and then complain that the natives are aiming poisoned darts at you). I agree insofar as it means that the TEP model in which proofreaders add a myriad of useless tweaks (and often typos) is not efficient. However, my view is that such a model can work well in small groups of professionals who work with each other. But scaling up that model to larger and larger collectives or companies was a recipe for a lot of trouble. And, incidentally, for hamsterization, a term that he criticizes as impolite (I would reply that it is far more uncouth to deprofessionalize people, but there you go).

No, our opinions are completely different. I asked him point blank if he thought a translator should compete on price. He said flatly no, that competing on price is suicidal. But I think where he contradicts himself is that he often voiced the parallel message that not everyone can aspire to the higher echelons of the market (which is self-evident and not insightful) and that the lower-rate competitors will ultimately eat your lunch.

To sum it up, I think his career represents an example of the undeniable triumph of the drive to Cheap and Big. However, I think Cheap as a pricing model might not be as successful over the next two decades as it has been over the past two. Cheap is already running into headwinds as the middle class in China gets larger and larger. Look at Latin American currencies. They are appreciating at breakneck pace while the industrialized world deleverages. Of course, the commodities boom will eventually go bust, that is inherent to cycles. But take a look at Brazil’s or Colombia’s international reserves. Dutch disease is deadly for cheap labor. Asians and Latin Americans learned the painful lessons of the nineties (the Tequila Effect, the Samba Effect, and those little episodes known as the Russian debt default and the Asian financial crisis). They learned them rather well.

To illustrate the point, I mentioned the anecdote about the late Steve Jobs and Obama at a dinner party held last year. Obama asked the Apple CEO how the U.S. can bring back those factory jobs making iPads. Jobs replied bluntly that those jobs are gone forever. Beninatto knew the anecdote. His eyes brightened when I mentioned it, but I’m sure that it’s because he misreads the anecdote. He thinks it confirms the superiority of Cheap. But the founder of Apple wasn’t saying those jobs are gone forever because Chinese salaries are dirt poor. His point was far more subtle. Listen to why those salaries will never come back to the U.S.:
Another critical advantage for Apple was that China provided engineers at a scale the United States could not match. Apple’s executives had estimated that about 8,700 industrial engineers were needed to oversee and guide the 200,000 assembly-line workers eventually involved in manufacturing iPhones. The company’s analysts had forecast it would take as long as nine months to find that many qualified engineers in the United States. 
In China, it took 15 days. 
Companies like Apple “say the challenge in setting up U.S. plants is finding a technical work force,” said Martin Schmidt, associate provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In particular, companies say they need engineers with more than high school, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree. Americans at that skill level are hard to find, executives contend. “They’re good jobs, but the country doesn’t have enough to feed the demand,” Mr. Schmidt said.
If the FoxConn jobs are fated to remain in China, it is not because those engineers are cheap. They may earn less than American engineers, but their country’s real advantage is ease of sourcing and abundance. And that means skilled labor. It is a dramatic indication that China is climbing up the value chain, just as Japan, Korea, and Chile did earlier. That is something a member of a hamsterized work force is not doing. The anecdote does, unfortunately, also spell the end of the highly paid American blue collar worker, whose elegy is pictured in Michael Moore’s films. But it also spells the rise of something equally revolutionary: the better-paid blue collar Chinese worker and the well-paid, thrifty, and hyper-educated Chinese middle class. More significantly, it also spells the end of something else: the demise of Cheap as the main pillar of international business models. China’s edge is now both volume-based AND strategic. An alert player should pick up his ears, because the times they are a-changin’. That is the real significance of the Jobs-Obama story.

As I assured him over and over, I do not think he is an evil person, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t find a lot of his opinions completely erroneous, if not downright objectionable. Every time I said that, he assured me with a little twinkle in his eye that, deep down, we actually agree on more than I think. I could see readily that he is a born salesman. Perhaps even too good. The dirty little secret about investment banking is that, at heart, it is just sales. A trader, a VP, a guru-economist, even a nerdy quant is really just a salesperson. But at Goldman Sachs, the capital sin was to be “salesy,” which means being slightly too slick for your own good.

So, does the man have horns and a tail? No. Does he smell of brimstone? No. He is a charming, affable person with a big personality. However, if he gets flak from random bloggers, it is probably due to his lack of awareness about the heterogeneity of the audiences you reach now on the Internet. A message on a blog or a video uploaded to YouTube is pushed out to an audience that is difficult to predict, much less control. That will be the case until the Internet becomes a more textured place broken down into apps or dominated by more regulated spaces unreachable via the flatness of the search engine. I told him that. Once again, he completely brushed off this suggestion. However, I reiterate my belief that if you venture out into the Internet, you have to be prepared to be misunderstood. I write a niche blog read by a tiny audience of 200 people, and the variety of reactions always runs the gamut from utterly fascinating to completely baffling. We have to learn to live with that.

So, in closing, I thank him for the invitation to lunch. He was also gracious enough to invite me to the ELIA networking event free of charge a couple of days later, an invitation I accepted. But differences of opinion remain and don’t necessarily have to be drowned in bonhomie and red wine, since they can be insightful. My two main messages, which I would like to reiterate, is first of all that translation will probably come to be dominated by a barbell, with large agencies on one end of the barbell and cottage providers on the other. The contrasting views and philosophies of the two extremes will become increasingly more divergent, a divergence which will on occasion sound rather bitter. That is unavoidable. Secondly, there is an emerging sleaze problem as some unethical companies scale up.

About both of these opinions he was unsurprisingly dismissive. He cheerfully waved them off, like the eternal optimist he probably is. I accept these as very real, like the over-analytical pessimist I am.

We must, therefore, agree to disagree and hope for the best, because—to answer Peggy Lee’s melancholy question with a refrain from funk-salsameisters Los amigos invisibles—that’s really all there is.

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.


Renato Beninatto said...

Thank you Miguel, for the account of our enjoyable lunch. I would have peppered the description with the delicacies that were served and the very amiable waiter who was nice enough to suggest her preferred dishes to us. And the two bottles of wine were not bad either.

I still insist that we our positions are very close. The only difference might be exposure to large final clients and to large global LSPs. My favorite quote from Blade Runner might describe the differences in perspective: I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain... Time to die.

I believe we had a fair intellectual exchange and I hope that what sometimes appeared to be salesy is just a reflection of my passion for these topics. Thanks for the compliments for my Spanish skills and for acknowledging that I am not a carpetbagger, which makes our conversation smoother and meaningful. I guess this meeting was good to establish our credentials and to make our debate less ad hominem and more ad rem.

thetranslationgenotype.com said...

Great post, Miguel!

I love when the Internet personas actually become real people who meet and eat. :D

Miguel Llorens M. said...

Nico, long time no hear from you. I hope you update your blog soon. I remember reading your first posts and they were good. I'll try to re-read them this week. Cheers.

Diane McCartney said...

Hi Miguel,

I enjoyed reading about your lunch with Renato, and was pleased to read that I'm not alone in thinking that Renato is not a carpetbagger. He has a lot of interesting, and actually smart things to say, albeit that he has a strange way of packing them. And it's this packaging that I think justifies his provocative title. There are days when you can add your knowledge of the industry to what he says and actually come up with some pretty amazing, and even realistic, results. And no, I have not jumped on the Renato bandwagon, but I do think that he is someone to watch.

thetranslationgenotype.com said...

@Miguel: Thanks for the kind words!

I, too, would like to be able to update The Translation Genotype soon. But I've been living a kind of nomadic freelancing style for the past couple of months and that ended up spurring some sort of Spanish traveler blog for family and friends.

It's hard to keep both blogs active!

If you fancy to know a bit how I manage to actually translate in the middle of the Caribbean, stop by www.traslacionestacionaria.wordpress.com.

I'll try and write something about translation at some point, though.



Leon Hunter said...

He's not just an ordinary Joe translator like you and me, he's the prototypical bling, bling translator!

Thanks for the inspiration, Renato!

Dierk Seeburg said...

Make that an "audience of 201 people"! Thank you for an entertaining as well as enlightening blog post!
Greetings from Arizona,