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.

1 comment:

Bodi Jelen said...

Excellent analysis!