Thursday, June 28, 2012

Did You Hear That? Translation Prices Are Falling!

Is that cannon fire or is that my heart pounding?
--Casablanca (1942)

Is that the thunder of distant guns or is it the sound of translation prices crashing to the ground?

Wait, no. It’s only the gruesome sound of McLSPs biting, kicking and eating each other alive as part of a massive cannibal apocalypse.

And the bloodcurdling squeals of a million hamsters…

What a dreadful sound!

This is how groupthink works. Nonsense Common Sense Advisory CEO Don De Palma decides that translation prices are falling because of the impact of automation and all those nifty forty-year-old technologies. In an e-mail to one agency owner, he writes:
Even though the industry has reported strong growth overall each year, our previous pricing survey showed that rates went down for nearly every language between 2008 and 2010. Have rates decreased even further from 2010 to 2012? Or, are they starting to stabilize for some languages?
His clients in the Cheap Translation sector shout: “That’s true! I get dozens of unsolicited CVs from completely unqualified people every day!” David Grunwald, for instance, goes on to conclude the following:

Workflows involving MT are being used more-and-more by LSPs and translation buyers. This is cutting many translators out of the loop, causing a glut in the supply of human translation resources. At GTS, we receive  hundreds of applications a month from under-employed translators.

Now, please note two things:

1.- De Palma didn’t actually say prices are dropping. He noted that prices dropped in 2008-2010, but that corresponds to the severest portion of the deepest worldwide economic downturn since the Great Depression. He doesn’t actually say that prices have dropped since then, either. He has equivocated on the issue of prices over the past two years, but in most cases he tends not to cite any concrete empirical evidence that tends to confirm his sweeping observations about prices (or about much of anything, for that matter).

2.- Grunwald adds some empirical evidence: the abundance of CVs from under-employed “translators.” (I can safely say that Grunwald’s definition of under-employed translators is different from mine. I may concede the “under-employed” part, although not perhaps the “translator” part.) For my part, even though my website explicitly states that I am not an agency and I carefully cultivate a gruff, grumpy public persona, I get dozens of CVs from clueless translators-cum-spammers regularly (by the way, if you’re reading this, I regularly mark your messages as spam, which further decreases the likelihood that your e-mails will reach any real clients). I do not think that says much about the “market” but rather about current Internet culture, which tends towards cheap communication, a model that Grunwald is probably better acquainted with than me.

Furthermore, despite the fact that Spain is undergoing a deep, secular recession, I just had the busiest month for a long time and one of the best months ever from the point of view of revenue. Does that mean I think that human translation is booming? No. That is only an isolated data point in a sea of data points. Worse, it is just unstructured anecdotal and highly biased evidence, which is the basis for 90% of De Palma and Grunwald’s outlook.

People need to learn to think critically. Even numbers into which society invests a lot of effort are just vague approximations. Few people know that a figure such as the US jobs number has a margin of error of plus or minus 100,000 jobs or that it is revised continuously for several months after it is released. The quarterly and yearly GDP numbers, likewise, are constantly revised for many months and even years after they are announced. And those are two key figures in which millions of dollars are invested and which depend upon the work of thousands of survey takers, economists, and statisticians. One of the reasons why people should study economics is to be less impressed by the “reality” of big-sounding numbers. Most of the numbers bandied about an industry as tiny as translation are little more than fluff on some geezer’s spreadsheet. And often even less than that.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Localization Industry Doesn’t Get the Local Web

I heard ten thousand whispering and nobody listening.

We are so constantly bombarded by the ideology that the “world has been flattened” by the Internet that any contrary evidence gets short shrift. The Economist some months ago carried a short review of a study from the OECD and Boston Consulting Group on the global Internet that will surely not receive any play among the Web 2.0 hypers and l10n ideologues. The main conclusion is that “the global ‘network of networks’ is shaped by local forces.” Instead of homogenization, you have a plurality of cultural approaches and uses of the Internet:

the Internet will continue to become more and more local: cultures are different, so the more people go online, the more the Internet will resemble them. “There will be hundreds of internet flavours,” he says.

I can see that pretty readily in visiting, for example, the Spanish blogosphere. Very few people are using SEO to bring traffic in from search engines. No one that I know of is planning to monetize their blog. Very few companies or individuals use them as a Trojan horse to sell other products. The translation blogosphere is very active and lively. Here in Spain, every single translator has a blog. Even T&I students come out with their blogs and they get dozens of comments. I imagine that Spanish profs at T&I departments are telling their students that it is a good way to make yourself get known prior to graduation, but I don’t think professional advancement is the main motivator for most. However, the function of these blogs is completely different. These blogs are, in my opinion, an adjunct to social media. It could sort of be considered networking, but a type of networking in which the personal and professional are not as distinct as in the U.S. The scene is large and chaotic, but also very dynamic.

To take another example, Kaiser Kuo, a spokesman for Baidu who lives in Beijing (and is featured in this week’s episode of This American Life) warns that the hysterical idea of a “Westernization” of Chinese media is erroneous. In his view, Chinese Internet culture takes a lot of Western content and turns it into something completely Chinese (and, by the same token, utterly incomprehensible to foreigners):

A lot of the memes that have become popular in China are sort of indecipherable to Western audiences. And, of course, that is largely because they are irreducibly Chinese. So I think the idea that Chinese culture is becoming westernized is a little misguided. I don’t think there’s a strict dichotomy between Western and Chinese culture.

The idea Kuo is referring to is of an autochthonous Internet culture that is untranslatable. Or—to be more precise (since everything is translatable)—the idea is that Chinese Internet culture does not need translation because it was never meant to be translated in the first place.
The idea of different flavors of Internet culture shouldn’t be such a surprise to an industry that has been banging on (acritically) about localization for well-nigh over a decade. But now, faced with the challenge of the Internet, a lot of the l10n preaching turns out to be a little hollow. The problem is that the Lower Quality Translation Movement runs against the grain of local Internet cultures. This is because, at heart, the type of localization championed by large agencies and its smaller tech competitors is a one-size-fits all model. The ideal is to take any text tailored for an American audience and immediately multiply it into ten thousand languages, like a Gremlin sprinkled with tap water. The concept of one Internet that is localized using cheap translation into every single language on Earth is nothing more than the old model of traditional one-way, Anglo-centric, US-dominated media that produces a standard product which was then “localized” and distributed worldwide.

But perhaps a huge financial crisis and the “Rise of the Rest” open the door for another model. One in which local knowledge is prized above cheap instant translation. In this world, professional translation of commercial texts could be a competitive advantage for smaller players wishing to distinguish themselves from the large multinationals who, on the advice of tech-savvy “localization” providers, just pump out a third-quality translation. The sum total of the expertise provided by l10n players and consultants is little more than “let the Chinglish chips fall where they may” or “let the crowd put a smattering of lipstick on the post-edited pig.” In that world, one company communicates with its local audience in a way the audience recognizes as comprehensible. Simultaneously, ten thousand “localized” websites using MT and crowdsourcing whisper in Chinglish, but no one listens.

I can just hear the ideologue in the background going: “Well, gee, the lack of homogeneity in the ‘global’ Web is actually an opportunity for more homogenization through (subpar) technology and (commoditized) translation.” Please go back to the beginning of this and read it again. (Jesus!) The localization industry simply does not get the local Web.

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.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

How to Be Much Smarter Than Your Dumbest Competitor: Warren Buffett, Commodities, and Translation

On two occasions in which this blog has expanded on Chris Durban’s thesis that translation is not a commodity product, readers have chipped in with analogies from commodity markets. One reader, Rob, brought up the example of chocolate in one comment. Another frequent reader, Gueibor, contributed to the comments by discussing the example of Kobe beef on the meat market. As my readers point out, even these markets tend to break down along relatively complex spectrums. However, to be more precise, when the commodity analogy is invoked, economists generally assume that within the different niches in an overall commodity market, differences within the niche itself are not decisive and the product is undifferentiated. For example, Saudi and Texan crude is much lighter than Venezuelan crude, but within the reduced “light sweet crude” category, a refiner doesn’t care whether he is processing Texan or Saudi crude. And after light and heavy crudes are refined to make, say, diesel, the purchasing manager for a chain of gas stations doesn’t care whether the final product comes from this company or that company. He will only care about the price, since the different products will pretty much function just as well.

The problem with the chocolate or meat analogies is that they take for granted the proposition that is being critiqued. Chiefly, that translation is a commodity. The interesting thing is that even in businesses that are pretty ostensibly commodity businesses, value resides in differentiation.

In general, any player who resigns himself to the idea that he produces a commodity is condemned to compete solely on price. And he will also be condemned to charging very low prices and generating very thin margins. When very unimaginative people run across this criticism, they generally reply with the world-weary wisdom of the businessman that this is how “capitalism” or “reality” works and that anyone who believes the contrary is a doped-up hippie.

Now, I think we can pretty much agree that Warren Buffett is a successful capitalist, perhaps the most successful capitalist of all time. He tends to trade places with Bill Gates and Carlos Slim every year in the competition to see who the richest man in the world is. I think he is far more interesting that the other two. Buffett outshines the other two because he is an interesting thinker and also an excellent writer. He is also a lower-case “t” tech skeptic. All throughout the nineties Internet bubble, Buffett was making little jibes about and everybody dismissed him as an anachronism of the “Old Economy.” Yet the successive investment bubbles of the past fifteen years have popped and Berkshire Hathaway is still there, making money for its shareholders while a lot of very bad online investment ideas fell by the wayside.

Buffett has devoted a lot of thinking to the task of identifying a good business. Listen to this little nugget of wisdom from the Sage of Omaha, from a recent compilation of his writings on business: “In a business selling a commodity-type product, it’s impossible to be a lot smarter than your dumbest competitor.”

Buffett, as many know, did not build a fortune by creating businesses from scratch. He made it by buying already successful businesses and making them even more successful. One of the tenets of his philosophy is to shy away from businesses that manufacture commodity products and have low barriers to entry. The previous two characteristics also mean that these industries are subject to fierce competition. What would Buffett say if he heard David Grunwald, the owner of a machine translation company, state the following?:
But I still maintain that translation is a commodity. If there are 10,000 professional English to Spanish translators in the world that are native Spanish speakers, that have a CAT tool, and are subject-matter experts, then one translator is easily replaceable with another. The price for this service is set and is within a specific, well-defined range. And that makes it a commodity. Commodities, like pork bellies, gold and corn are traded in the same manner. And just like in translation, prices go up or down based on availability and demand.
(I once took a course on Saint Thomas Aquinas in which the lecturer discussed a two-paragraph quaestio for several months. I could blog for several months just on this paragraph alone.) Note how Grunwald unconsciously conflates the entire English-Spanish market to the profiles on ProZ. That in itself is very telling. The problem is that his pool of potential translators is not really the 10,000 Spanish profiles on ProZ. It is actually much, much smaller. Grunwald’s pool of potential collaborators is actually people who have profiles on ProZ and look for work by bidding on ProZ projects. If I were Grunwald, I would find it hard to sleep at night. From his constant bitching about translators recruited over ProZ, I suspect he does suffer from a touch of insomnia. Listen to this:
One of the bad things about ProZ is that since basic membership is free, and since no credentials of any kind are required to join, it attracts many incompetent and unreliable translators. An outsourcer can easily get burned on ProZ.
Any person (or animal for that matter, if they can work the Internet) can sign up to and claim they are an expert translator or translation vendor. This means that the job poster needs to perform extensive due diligence before selecting the translator/vendor; and even then I can tell you from my own experience that you can get burned with poor quality and/or missed deadlines. And what recourse do you have? Zilch. You may get an apology from but nothing more.
All in all, Grunwald’s tone is pretty critical. (I have nothing personal against him and I hope he doesn’t take any of this personally. He has said very generous things about my blog and I confess I find his blog interesting, albeit in the same way you find those Fox shows about animals attacking human beings impossible to not watch.)

Translators who accept a project and never turn in anything? Really? How frequent is that? If that happened to me even once, I would seriously seek another way to recruit my translators, preferably offline. Why would an entrepreneur persist in using this unreliable channel? Answer: because he targets the low-rate area of the industry. Why not pay translators more? Or at least invest in a more careful method of recruitment that requires a higher investment in terms of time and money than the ProZ membership fee? The answer, I suspect, is that the “market” is too competitive and that snooty translators who demand higher rates are living in Cloud Cuckoo Land. To which my response would be: live by the sword, get ready to have your ribcage tickled by a sword once in a while.

Buffett would say that the business philosophy condensed in the quotes above would be rational if the product is indeed a commodity. However, he would also 1) not invest in a business like this, or, 2) if forced to invest in it, he would try to find some avenue for differentiation. (He would also, perhaps, express some surprise that a service is being described as a commodity.) If it isn’t a commodity but you are treating it as if it is a commodity, you are mistakenly condemning yourself to being little more than a roach motel landlord.

In response, the MT Crowd would slap a thick layer of l10n mumbo-jumbo on Buffett, crammed with catchphrases like “crowdsourcing” and “disruptiveness.” I imagine he would chuckle his little Buffett chuckle and go about his business while the cheap providers fight over the meager scraps of the multilingual Web 2.0. And he would be right. Because if technology-driven translation is a commodity service, then you are wasting your time by going to l10n conferences and making polite little comments insinuating to your competitors that they are idiots barking up the wrong engineering tree.

Because if you want to be the King of Cheap Translation, the only road for you is monopoly with a capital “M.” Your only strategy is to get big fast, charge as little as possible, and then buy out all your competitors or drive them out of business by any means, fair or foul. You basically have a to buy a biography of John J. Rockefeller and then hire some mean-looking guys from the ´hood to leave boiling rabbits in your holdouts’ kitchens or hide in bowls of rice in case Butch goes to Indochina. (Incidentally, in commodity markets, technological superiority is irrelevant. Size matters, big time. The biggest competitor, even using worse technology, ends up winning, so it won't be the quality of your R&D and your engineering nerds that will help you win that race.)

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.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Smartling Can’t Translate its Own Website, but its CEO Questions My Use of English Plurals

First, some background: Many moons ago, I ran across a tweet by a translation company called Smartling proudly announcing the launch of its website in Spanish. I visited said Spanish website and was mildly surprised to discover that it was actually in English (“English” is technical jargon we translation geeks use for “not in Spanish”). This little vignette came to mind this past week when I detailed my hilarious encounter with a Pinterest employee who insisted that a mangled blog post in Spanish announcing its crowdsourced translation effort was written by “professional translators.” When given evidence to the contrary, she finally confessed that she had used her mother to translate the text. This rollicking anecdote closed with a two-sentence comparison between this incident and the aforementioned “Case of the Smartling Website that was in Spanish Except that it was in English.” There the incident would have ended, except that Smartling’s CEO—a Yeti with the whitest, most translucent mane I have ever spied on an earthly creature a pale, blond chap by the name of Jack Welde—decided to correct me in a jargony comment. His main arguments were that: 1) his company does not do crowdsourced post-editing and 2) that crowdsourcing gives him gigantic brain boners. To which I replied that 1) his company most certainly does do crowdsourced post-editing and 2) crowdsourced translation makes me a sad panda because of the abundant evidence that it provides subpar results.

This is Jack Welde, struggling to stand
out against the background
This prompted another onslaught by the now very frenzied and irate woodland creature. I now reproduce it with snide interstitial remarks written by yours truly (because it’s my blog and I do what I want):
Nope, incorrect again. I'll try to keep my response less "jargon-filled", so you can follow.
Douchy and passive-aggressive, but I’ll let it slide. Go on, Johannes.
1) I've never said we do "post-editing". As a professional translator, you certainly know that the term "post-editing" generally means human editing over machine translation, which is not what we do. You've chosen "jargon" that you hope will be provocative with your readers, even if 100% incorrect.
The following quotes are taken from Smartling’s website, Jack-O’-Lantern. You add caveats that machine translation is not as good as human translation (to which I must parenthetically add: “DUH!”) but then proceed to gush to your clients that “MT is a great way to see the power of your new language site, and might jump-start your professional or crowdsourced translation effort. You can choose specific parts of your site / app to be machine translated… MT can be a valid choice for some organizations.” In the previous paragraph, you state that “our platform integrates with several popular MT services, so you can create a fully SEO compatible site in minutes.” I don’t know, Jackie-Chan, but that sounds a lot like you’re enabling crowdsourced post-editing to me.
2) We didn't fail to translate our own website.
Beg to differ, Jackeroo. A company that does website translations and is not capable of translating its own website can be accurately described as a “web-translation company that failed to translate its own website.” I think this is irrefutable. However, I suspect you have taken too many Tony Robbins courses and now you think you can play mind tricks on inferior minds. Well, you have forgotten that to play Jedi mind tricks, YOU HAVE TO BE A FLIPPING JEDI!

If you announce to the world that you have published the Spanish-language version of your website and it turns out to be in English, you have failed. The Big “F.” FUBAR. Fracasado. Finito. Something in German that is bad and starts with “f”.  
You were clever enough to snap a screenshot almost a year ago that showed some English on our Spanish home page. We had made some last minute changes to our English copy, and the Spanish translation was not yet complete. So we had a choice of 1) delaying the launch, 2) using poor quality MT, temporarily, or 3) leaving it in English for the short period of time before it was fully translated by the professional translators. We chose to launch, and I would make the same decision today. It wasn't a big deal, and the translation was completed quickly and professionally, and was deployed via or software immediately upon completion. Most importantly, this "incident" certainly has not hurt our growth as a company.
Beg to differ again. Your analysis of your own brilliant decision making is deceptive, Jack-in-the-Box. My recollection of the incident is slightly different: I followed a link to your homepage announcing a Spanish-language version, I saw what a piece of crap it was, and then I tweeted a snarky tweet about it, as is my wont. Since all you tech start-ups spend more time monitoring Twitter than actually working on your core competencies, one of your employees asked what the problem was and then immediately fixed it on the run.

That is different from your version, Jack-a-rino. You didn’t make a conscious decision to publish a crappy website. You pushed out a crappy website translation because that is what your company basically does. Because translation for you is an afterthought. It is the excuse for vacuuming up all that yummy venture capitalist cash and buying your little toys. Your company’s mission could just as easily be copywriting or raising pet rocks or teaching math to Austrian midget horses. People and companies like you work in reverse to inventors. Innovators see a problem and engineer a solution. Edison saw darkness and dreamed a light bulb. You see a fad for crowdsourcing and say: “How can I get the Jack-Dog some of that action? Woof!” As long as the business plan has “social media” and “website” and “crowdsourcing” somewhere on page one, you get a foot in the door. The core mission of the matter is what you solve (or make up) after you have the funding in your bank account.

Of course, the “incident” as you describe it (why use scare quotes?) is not the end of the world. However, allow me to break down your decision flowchart as follows: a) I run a company that translates websites; b) I launch my own company’s website in another language; c) the version of my website in Spanish is actually in English.

Faced with this daunting challenge, your options, as you describe them, were as follows: “1) delaying the launch, 2) using poor quality MT, temporarily, or 3) leaving it in English for the short period of time before it was fully translated by the professional translators.”

Seriously, what would Henry Ford do? Let’s imagine that the prototype of the Model-T lacked wheels. Imagine Ford’s decision tree looked like this: 1) delay the launch of the Model-T; 2) replace it temporarily with a horse; or 3) leave it without wheels for a short period of time hoping the customers won’t notice. And then imagine that Ford decided to choose option 3 and tell potential customers that if the car had wheels, they would be driving through the countryside. Finally, imagine that some schmuck on the street walked by and said: “Ha! Old Man Ford’s mechanical carriages don’t have wheels!” And then imagine that Ford berated the slack-jawed yokel who had the gall to point out something that obvious.

What would you do if you were Ford’s investor and he described his options the way you just described yours. Would you: 1) give him a Chuck Norris roundhouse kick to the nuts?; 2) knock his teeth out with a baseball bat?; or 3) suspend all future injections of cash into a failed business?

I am sure that 1 and 2 would be tempting, but on the whole— given the polite customs of the early 20th century—the investor would choose 3 and swiftly fly away.

Dude, you run a company that translates websites and yet your own Spanish website isn’t in bleeping Spanish! And then you claim that unprofessional crowds can do it just as well! By what possible measurement? By your own? By the criterion of a company that translates websites and isn’t capable of translating its own website?

My melanin-deprived homey, do you really fail to grasp the beautiful, tender irony of the entire anecdote? Do you really want to engage in a flame war with a random blogger when the evidence of incompetence would make most responsible businessmen run into a corner to cry like a 12-year-old girl?
3) As I said in my prior comment, many of our customers use professional translators to perform translation -- translators like yourself (although you seem pretty angry, and not much fun to work with...)
Does that mean you’re not going to hire me, Jackie-O? My dream was always to work for a fly-by-night tech start-up that probably won’t be around six months from now… (Sob!)

Seriously, Jumping-Jack-Flash, I’m a barrelful of laughs. And you, my Polar-bear-colored friend, are hilarious too. If we could only hook up, we would create a rocking comedy duo: The Translator Who Stared at Websites and The Crowdsourcing Snowman (did I mention that Jack is disturbingly, almost supernaturally, white? I swear to God that if I didn’t believe in goblins I would have trouble sleeping after incurring the anger of this elfin woodland creature).

My chromatically challenged friend is, after all, a garden variety sociopath. A sane man would have realized that the “Spanish website that was actually in English” is just an embarrassing episode and would have let sleeping dogs lie, suppressing the memory with alcohol. A sociopath, in contrast, decides to engage in an angry polemic with the passerby who pointed out that English and Spanish are, when all is said and done, not the same language. But there is not even a hint of embarrassment in Jack’s discussion of his company’s goof. The L10N Web 2.0 companies are so divorced from reality that a CEO seizes upon overwhelming evidence of his own incompetence as an opportunity to teach the world the beauties of crowdsourcing.

And then he nimbly shifts from defense and boldly goes on the offense.
Are you saying that you are a better translator than every other professional translator? I guess the citizens of Web 2.0 only deserve the quality you personally can provide?
This is what is known as a non sequitur, Hit-the-Road-Jack. Look it up. It is also a tried-and-true rhetorical trick lifted straight from the playbook of a five-year-old child. When someone lands a verbal zinger, you scrunch up your nose like a snot-head and go: “I know what you are, but what am I?” It is a classic, though.
Your argument is tired, Miguel.
It is not an argument, Action Jack-Son. It is a piece of empirical evidence. Empirical evidence is the basis for an argument, but it is not an argument in itself. An argument is something akin to “you are an albino cretin because of A, B and C.” The merits of the argument would depend upon the way in which A, B and C prove the proposition that you are, indeed, an albino cretin. Empirical evidence, on the contrary, can only be refuted by denying that the evidence is real or that it actually happened, which you have not done. You have just fabricated a counter-fairy tale, cast a few aspersions, mumbled some conspiracy theories about the UN and Microsoft, and called it a refutation of an argument.
You are the equivalent of the Microsoft software engineer who claimed that open-source software wouldn't work because only professional software developers working at Microsoft could produce high quality software.
And you, Jack-o’-nine-tails, are the translation world’s equivalent of the Bush Administration. It’s like we’re still living in 2007. Why is the “Mission Accomplished” sign so outrageous? Because the mission wasn’t accomplished and thousands of people were still going to die! It was, in fact, the opposite of accomplished. It was like… not accomplished! Just like your Spanish homepage wasn’t in Spanish, but in English, which is a whole other language from Spanish.

Why is the “heckuva a job, Brownie” so outrageous? Because Brownie wasn’t doing a heck of a job and thousands of people were going to suffer!
The fact is there is plenty of work for professional translators, especially the good ones. And Smartling is delighted to work with some of the best translators in the business;
Really? Because the quality of your website’s translation indicates otherwise (but that will be the topic of another blog post I’m writing). Your website is a literal translation that does not sound very much like Spanish, but rather like a bad transcription of corporate jargon dictated through a bad cell phone connection.
we respect their craft and the high quality work they do.
Yes, every one of your comments drips respect. This takes us to the next paragraph, your Nessun Dorma of dill-holiness:
PS: Since you love to point out errors in other people's work, your headline on this blog is inaccurate. From your own narrative above, it sounds like only one employee's mother may have been asked to assist with translation. And yet your headline says "Pinterest Uses Employees' Moms" -- in English, the use of the word "Moms", as well as the the apostrophe after the "s", means that more than one employee's mother was used for translation. But that seems to be inaccurate, from your own story. Were you just trying to be provocative with your headline? Or do you lack the basic understanding of plurals in English (which would make me question your ability as a professional translator)? Should I take a screen shot?
Tsk, tsk, tsk, Hugh Jack-Man. (If you had edited out this paragraph, you would have saved yourself this public response. I even gave you a chance to rewrite the comment, remember? But you insisted. So here you go.) Sticks and stones, my man. Sticks and stones… Passive aggressiveness is not an attractive trait, especially in a man.

This really is the non plus ultra of entitlement. Faced with undeniable evidence of your own incompetence, your decide to go on the attack and question another professional’s competence. But no defense is better than a good offense.
Miguel, anytime you want to have a real, honest, non-sensational discussion about the merits of professional translation vs. crowd translation (and even MT in limited cases) -- and the best ways to manage the translation process -- I'd be happy to have that discussion. In the meantime, try to be cool.
If this is a morsel of this serious dialog, you can store it, Jack-meister (OK, I admit it, I ran out of “Jacks”). I can get more stimulating debate from the homeless dude panhandling on my corner who constantly warns me that the Queen of England has bad “joo joo.”

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, June 6, 2012

Pinterest Uses Employees’ Moms for Spanish Translations

Only two weeks have passed since the official death of the social media bubble, when Facebook’s IPO floated on the wide open market seas and proceeded to sink like a nylon bag filled with a late Mafia informant and a bunch of rocks. However, its ethos of deprofessionalizing translation lives on. The latest shooting star in the social media space, Pinterest, recently unveiled the exciting announcement that, following in the heels of Facebook and Twitter, it also wanted free low quality translations from its user base. In an attempt to be coherent, it decided to announce it with a poorly written blog entry in Macaronic Spanish. This a print screen of the original version:

That prompted a lot of grumbling by Spanish translators on Twitter. For example, aside from the faulty punctuation, a phrase like “Llamando a los favoritos bloggers hispanohablantes!” is just awful.

Seeing the growing outcry, I tweeted (in English) that Pinterest has apparently “done a LinkedIn” (this is a reference to the firestorm occasioned when LinkedIn called for translator members to translate the site for free, a curious request for a social media site that is supposedly designed for establishing professional connections.) As occurs quite frequently on Twitter, my 140-character message prompted a query from a stranger who turned out to be the very Pinterest employee who either wrote or was responsible for the blog post. The ensuing exchange, in all its endearing innocence, is copied in extenso:

 SP text poorly punctuated and written. Text stilted. Hint of crowdsourcing. Social media synonymous with low quality.
 As noted, the style is wooden. "Soporte técnico multilingüe" is a halllmark of not very professional linguists, etc., etc.

At this point, the flustered woman told me that her mom had helped her translate it. However, when she saw my incredulous response, she decided to erase this tweet in which she indicated she had hired a relative for a defective translation (which I think is more than just a little dishonest):

 "You mom helped you translate it"? Are you for real? A serious company should invest a little more than a call to a relative.
 Just for the blog post. I will fix.
 OK, but hire a couple of professionals. I'm sure it wouldn't kill Pinterest to invest a couple of bucks in its corporate image.

Yep, you read right. The Pinterest employee told me that the translations should be fine, since they were done in collaboration with her mom, who is from Argentina (whew! I was worried there for a minute!). Anyway, a few hours later the blog entry had been improved after some input from several colleagues who contributed their time for free (personally I would not donate my time pro bono to a company that is going to crowdsource its translation work and also plans to float for a bilion dollars; investment banks are in low esteem right now, but at least they pay their outsourced suppliers):

This reminds me of the case of Smartling, a start-up that provides crowdsourced post-editing of websites. The problem is that its home page couldn’t decide whether it was in Spanish or English.  After a few snarky Twitter messages, the company corrected the mistake. Pinterest’s case is only slightly less depressing, since after all its core mission is not translation. Just another vignette of the 300-car pile-up that is the translated social Interspace. 

Anyway, I sure hope that Sarah's mom was compensated for her work, regardless of what I may think about its quality. But somehow, I doubt it.

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.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Attack of the Killer Cucumbers: More on the Spanish Debt Crisis and Lower Quality Translation

Barbarino: That thing about the Great French Fry Phantom?
Kotter: You mean the Irish Potato Famine?
—Welcome Back Kotter

The need for speed in financial markets and the deceptive cornucopia of free information create the sensation that everything is available immediately. A parallel phenomenon is occurring in stock trading. As more and more trades are initiated by algorithms at greater speed and greater volume, more and more market breakdowns are occurring. Although no one can say for certain what is happening, at least part of the problem seems to be that computer systems can sometimes be overwhelmed by the amount of data that humans are trying to push through them. What lies in the future is no mystery: more and more speed bumps are going to be put in place by regulators on algorithmic trading to prevent crazy fluctuations. We already have automatic stops in many stock markets when a stock rises or falls too much. The referees turn off the system, suspend the stock, open the engine, and take a look to see what is wrong with the machine.

In translation, such technical fixes are not available. Our capacity to generate the linguistic equivalent of crazy stock prices is limited only by our common sense (always scarce) and the cost of fast machine translation (essentially zero).

In the age of the Content Tsunami, there is still too little information of decent quality available for investors who are interested in a foreign situation. The Internet and machine translation, though, create the deadly illusion that a savvy investor can go beyond the tiny amount of analysis produced by the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal. Voilà. If you’re an analyst in a tiny boutique investment firm with two years of high-school French and you dated a Mexican girl from Amarillo in college, maybe you can use Google Translate to do the gisting of a few Spanish reports by the Bank of Spain or to parse one of Prime Minister Rajoy’s depressing statements (Machine-Translated Investment Research and the Spanish Debt Crisis). After all, any tiny bit of information (whether accurate or not) is necessary to get ahead of the crowd.

As in many other instances of how the Internet supposedly closes the gap between the tiny boutique firm and JP Morgan, this is a mirage. The big investment bank has a group of 20 or 30 Spanish analysts who speak very good English and are able to provide verbal or written summaries of information that often isn’t even written down. Moreover, these analysts are part of the local old boys' networks that communicate a lot faster and secretively than through the Internet. So when you see a blog such as ZeroHedge trying to beat the market using machine translation, you have to smile a little. 

As I have noted, ZeroHedge is very much invested in the whole foul-mouthed, white-collar macho Wall Street ethos of the cynical tough guy fighting alone in a Darwinian world. With all of ZeroHedge’s gleeful references to regular investors as Muppets diving over the Facebook IPO cliff, you have to wonder how their positions fare when they are caught out by some central bank decision or some European bailout plan because they don’t have access to off-the-record conversations with this Greek minister or that Spanish lawmaker (or even something as pedestrian as decent translations). I am betting that many a bloody Muppet massacre occurs behind the scenes that no one writes about. Maybe some of them are due to cheapo translation. 

In the markets, as in poker, the savvy player knows how to spot the sucker. The saying goes that if you can’t spot him, the sucker is probably you. And if you are using Google Translate for your investment research, the sucker is definitely you.

Now, mind you, even half-responsible people who honestly promote the virtues of automation usually add the caveat three-fourths into their PowerPoint presentation that technology should not be used to handle messages in which nuance is important. In my opinion, investment is one of those fields in which nuance matters (although I always wonder: in how many linguistic messages is nuance not important?)

An investment thesis is not data, after all. It may be based on data, but it is mostly a linguistic and conceptual construct. Allow me to use a very concrete example. Paul Kedrosky is a venture capitalist based in California who writes a popular blog called Infectious Greed. He is a very smart and successful investor who is well-read and writes interesting and funny stuff. But even he is prone to what we might call a naïve application of Lower Quality Translation.  

You may recall that around late May of last year, an outbreak of E. coli was detected in a shipment of Spanish cucumbers shipped to Germany. Normally, this would have been a rather typical spat in which a few borders are closed, European agriculture ministers mutter passive-aggressive insults, and everything is amicably resolved in some summit in which rather more caviar than cucumber is consumed. However, given the sensitivity over the Spanish debt problem, the cucumber problem suddenly popped up in the financial press.

Kedrosky went rooting around Spanish newspapers to see if he could get ahead of the market:
Germany and much of Europe are blocking Spanish cucumber exports on fear of the agricultural product’s connection to the outbreak of a virulent and dangerous form of E. coli. The variant has caused multiple deaths, and worries are increasing, particularly in Germany. 
What are the consequences? From a Spanish paper this morning: 
Spanish agrictultural [sic] trade is 3.8 billion euros, and the cucumber is 10 percent of total exports.
Ninety percent of production is exported.
The source cited is ABC, the more conservative of Spain’s three main broadsheets. The link (which is gone from the Bloomberg archive version I hyperlinked above but which I retrieved from my Google Reader) pointed to a Google Translate version of the Spanish article (the original non-translated version is here). Did Kedrosky link to the MT version because he wanted to be helpful to the reader or because he used the translated version to write his blog post? I really can’t tell you for certain. But one small detail suggests that he might have relied on the machine to formulate an investment thesis.

This is where Kedrosky gets in trouble: “Spanish agrictultural trade is 3.8 billion euros, and the cucumber is 10 percent of total exports.” That is a little ambiguous. If you don’t know the first thing about Spain, is 3.8 billion euros a lot or a little? Moreover, does “10 percent of total exports” mean: A) “10 percent of all the stuff Spain exports” (i.e., a lot) or B) “10 percent of all agricultural exports” (i.e., still a lot, but considerably less than A)? The translation doesn’t really provide any firm answer. But look at the subheading. It states the following in the MT version: “90% of production is exported and cucumber sales abroad suppose 10% of total vegetable.” Which is a mangled (Google Translate) version of this statement: “El 90% de la producción se exporta y las ventas de pepino en el exterior supon [sic] el 10% del total de legumbres y hortalizas.” Aha. So it's 10% not of all exports. Not even 10% of agricultural exports. It is 10% of exports of vegetables (!). But because the unambiguous sentence was mangled in the MT version, Kedrosky fixated on the more badly written--but better translated sentence--that contained a fantastic claim (Note the typo in the Spanish sub-headline and the brevity of the ABC item: this was obviously written at high speed in order to make some deadline or to put something up on the newspaper’s homepage; the figures may have been slapped together haphazardly at the last minute or may have been taken from outdated sources; a bilingual analyzing all of this non-linguistic information might have warned a researcher to dig further.) 

It was actually much ado about nothing. Sales of Spanish cucumber outside of Spain only account for 10 percent of total vegetable sales abroad. That is only 380 million euros, which is a paltry 0.15% of total Spanish exports. That is far from a decisive tipping point in a trillion-euro crisis. 

That little mistake marks the difference that drags you down from being the investor hero that makes a winning cucumber call to being the blogger zero who raises the alarm about a cucumber-fueled financial panic.  

To go from 10% of total exports by one of the largest economies in the world to little over a tenth of one percent of total exports is nothing more than a little nuance. So then: is this use of Lower Quality Translation for gisting justified? Well, I guess it is justified if you get it right. But that is a mighty big “if.” The problem is the frequency with which amateur users (and please note that Kedrosky is a highly sophisticated observer of both technology and the markets) mess up using the technology should highlight the fact that proselytizing in favor of cheap and quick translation can often be tantamount to placing razor-sharp blades in the hands of hyperactive, over-caffeinated chimpanzees. 

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.