Monday, August 13, 2012

What is Professional Translation?: The Quality of Smartling's Spanish Website

Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.
― Joseph Heller, Catch-22

And, sure, he is an honourable man.

Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2

If you recall, a couple of months back I had a curious experience when Pinterest called for its users to crowdsource the Spanish version of the site. The thing was that the blog post the company used to energize its crowd was not so much in Spanish but rather in what becomes of Spanish after a bloodthirsty psychopath chops it up into itty bitty pieces, stuffs the remains into the trunk of his car and drives away. The Pinterest employee behind this monstrosity insisted it was perpetrated by a professional translator. I countered by saying: “No uh.” And she finally relented and admitted that her mother had done the translations (although she was careful to delete the smoking gun tweet in which she attributed the work to her mom). Anyway, my narration of this ridiculous affair was crowned by a recollection of a similar incident when a crowdsourced “t9n” company called Smartling proudly announced the launch of its Spanish-language website. The funny thing is that what Smartling calls “Spanish” is not so much strongly influenced by the tongue that emerged when the Angles met the Saxons met the Normans. No, it actually is the tongue that emerged when the Angles met the Saxons met the Normans. I tweeted the fact that Smartling’s “Spanish” website was actually in “English” (which is, like, a whole other language). This prompted frantic tweets from an employee asking what the problem was. After I informed her, she equally frantically rushed to put up some sort of Spanish version online.

As I described elsewhere, this two-sentence comparison between Pinterest and Smartling prompted a backlash from the very irate chief executive officer of the latter company, Jack Welde. In his rebuttal of my criticism of crowdsourcing, he stated that “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; we respect their craft and the high quality work they do.” Earlier, he had noted that “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...).” Anyway, trollish comments aside, I did promise that I would publish a slightly more detailed appraisal of 1) Smartling’s own Spanish language website, (which I suppose would have been assigned to these “professional translators” Welde claims to work with) and 2) a sampling of the websites of Smartling’s own clients.

Let us begin by recalling the main highlights of the Welde Translation Philosophy. He is quick to stress that for technical materials, crowdsourcing is not appropriate:

Would we recommend crowdsourcing the translation of legal content, highly technical materials, or financial content? Nope, we would recommend professional translation from translators skilled in that vertical -- perhaps someone like you... But for companies with a passionate community of users who know the product or service intimately, crowdsourcing translation using high-quality tools to manage the translation process among a large group of participants can be a terrific way to increase community engagement -- and typically with much faster turnaround.

In his view, crowdsourcing is ideal for social media purposes. The other main pillar of his pitch (and also heard often) is that crowdsourcing is not done to save money, but rather to enhance users’ engagement with the platform:

It's generally not about "the money". I'm pretty sure Pinterest can afford to pay for professional translation, but I suspect they are looking to incorporate their existing passionate community into the translation process as a means of increasing engagement -- while moving at the speed of Web 2.0 businesses.

The general message is that Smartling’s platform is agnostic and neutral. You can localize your website using an agency, in-house translators or your website’s users. I assume that Smartling’s own website was translated using these much-vaunted professionals. Listen to the CEO extolling the output of the professionals he employs: “Smartling is delighted to work with some of the best translators in the business; we respect their craft and the high quality work they do.” Now look back at the quotes from the Smartling boss and see how many times the highlighted phrase "professional translators" pops up. It is obviously an important part of his pitch. It is reasonable to expect that proof of the high quality provided by these translators can be found in the face that Smartling presents to its Spanish visitors, I imagine. So let’s return to the scene of the original crime. Let’s click on the language tab of Smartling’s home page and go through the looking-glass.

In my view, translation is something that can be done by any bilingual, with differing levels of success. Professional translation, in contrast, is the product of thought applied to the everyday task of translation. Viewed under that light, it is readily evident that Smartling does not employ professionals even for its own website, since very little real thought has gone into the work. It is not so much that Smartling’s bilinguals are incompetent, but rather that they do not have any experience in the difficult task of laboring over a message in one language and then coming up with an equivalent in another one. And that is why the translations Smartling facilitates for itself and its clients sound a little like the end-of-year project completed by heavily stoned middle schoolers for their Spanish 101 required credit.

Look, for instance, at the website’s menu. “Traducción de la comunidad” as an option for “Community translation” is wrong. To give you an idea of how wrong it is, when you back translate it, you get “Translation of the community.” “Traducción comunitaria” would be a better option. “Kit de medios” as an option for “Media kit” is just embarrassing. 

A site menu is an object to which you devote a lot of thinking, because it determines how visitors surf your web page. It may be just 20-25 words, which usually can be translated in a few minutes. But you should devote several hours to choosing the words carefully in order to keep those fickle Internet visitors from being instantly turned off by a stilted and clumsy Spanglish roadmap.

“Factoid” was localized as “factoide,” which is a hallmark of the professionals who graduate from the Taco Bell School for Spanish Translation. Their methodology consists in basically adding an “e” or an “o” to any English word to make it sound like Spanish. The content of the “factoides” themselves are somewhat difficult to figure out. Check out number 1:

¡Con una población de unos 32 millones en 2010, los mexicano-estadounidenses comprenden el 63% de todos los hispanos de EE.UU. y el 10% de toda la población de EE.UU.!

First of all, why the exclamation marks? The idea that a dry statistical fact is worthy of opening with an exclamation mark in Spanish is dumbfounding. Answer: the exclamation marks are there because the original English has one, which is precisely how non-professional translators tend to work. 

Everything in these sentences is clunky, from word choice to the grammatical sequence. The structure of the sentence transcribed above is a carbon copy of the original ("At nearly 32 million in 2010, Mexican-Americans comprise 63% of the U.S. Hispanic population and 10% of the total U.S. population!"). But it is the use of “comprender” for “comprise” that just kills any hope of reading comprehension. There is a bouquet of other word choices that would make a lot more sense and would help the reader more (incidentally, this tends to heighten the suspicion that this text is the product of a cursory post-editing by an inexperienced linguist, but Jack claims emphatically that he doesn’t do post-editing, “and Brutus is an honorable man”). A sentence such as this is the product of either a machine translator or a very unskilled human one, which for all intents and purposes come to be pretty much the same thing.

The same amateurish handiwork is evident in Mr.Welde’s profile page. The literal translation "hombre del renacimiento" as an option for "Renaissance man" is meaningless in Spanish. A professional translator would tell you that. Raw machine translation won't. Neither will a crowd of hamsters. They will also fail to tell you that acronyms as frequent as CEO and MBA have very nifty equivalents in Spanish. 

In the following sentence, the somewhat chaotic profusion of capital letters is once again the product of acritical copying from the English original:

Es licenciado en Ingeniería Informática por la Universidad de Pensilvania, donde también estudió Lingüística e hizo prácticas con el Profesor William Labov, y tiene un MBA de la Universidad de Cameron (Alemania).

And now observe this complete and utter failure to even approximate the English original (He lives outside of NYC with his wife and children and can usually be found writing product specs at midnight, discovering new music or flying light aircraft):

Vive en las afueras de Nueva York con su esposa e hijos, y es fácil verlo escribiendo especificaciones de productos a medianoche, descubriendo nueva música o pilotando aviones ligeros.

Es fácil verlo escribiendo...” That, my friends, is the sound of the post-editor throwing his arms up in despair and screaming: “Screw this! I’m only getting five dollars an hour! Let the proofreader take care of this!” Either way, Welde has some gall to tout his collaboration with professional translators when he, defying belief, doesn’t even use them when his own image is at stake. Here is the back translation:

He lives outside of NYC with his wife and children and it is easy to see him writing product specs at midnight, discovering new music or flying light aircraft.

Why is it so easy to see Jack writing product specs at midnight? Hasn't he heard of walls? Does he do a Big-Brother type webcast of his home life? 

And so on and so on.

A reader called Juliana reported in a comment that the quality of the Portuguese version of Smartling’s site is equally poor:

By the way, I'm from Brazil and decided to check out Smartling's "how it works" section in Portuguese. Of course people will understand what's being said there, but the writing is awkward, clearly unprofessional, garbled even. I don't understand how people can extol the virtues of Web 2.0 and at the same time not give a rat's ass about the quality of their content, since it's all about ENGAGING PEOPLE THROUGH WORDS ON THE SCREEN.

Couldn’t have said it better myself. I hope I have provided enough evidence to prove that if Smartling does indeed use professional translators, it does not use very good ones.

Now, Mr. Welde is free to promote his business as he sees fit. However, his repetitive claim that Smartling employs professional translators should not go unchallenged, because a cursory inspection of his and his clients’ websites clearly demonstrates that he doesn’t. My fear is that Mr. Welde probably does not have any acquaintance with the non-English-speaking world aside from that time in the mid-nineties when he spent a summer bombing Serbia from his laptop. 

His profile claims that he holds “a [sic] M.B.A. from Cameron University (Germany)”. Curiously, the Internet reveals that there is no Cameron University in Germany. There is a Cameron University in Oklahoma, though.

Jon Voight as Milo Minderbinder in the movie version.
Oklahoma. Germany. Different places, in my view. “Same difference,” in Welde’s world view. I shudder to think that this same dude was picking targets during a NATO bombing campaign. If he employed the same geographical acumen in that task that he uses in describing his alma mater, we may have a post-modern version of Catch-22 on our hands.

And, to tell the truth, Welde does remind me a lot of the Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder immortalized by Joseph Heller in his classic satire about World War II. Minderbinder is a red-blooded, blond and blue-eyed officer who runs an illegal bartering operation using matériel he stole from the Air Force. He justifies all his actions by blithely stating that “what's good for M&M Enterprises will be good for the country.” The M in M&M stands for Milo, of course (he added the “&M” so people wouldn’t think it was a one-man operation). In one climactic scene, Yossarian’s plane is going down and he opens his parachute to discover an I.O.U. from Minderbinder, who “borrowed” the parachutes’ silk to make stockings for prostitutes.

Why is Cameron University suddenly transported from the arid badlands of Oklahoma to the lush, green fields of Germany? Is it perhaps because Welde earned an M.B.A. online from Cameron University while living in Germany? That would be my guess. Is this, then, perhaps the case of a slightly unworldly American businessman trying to puff up the international aspects of his CV because he runs a translation company but doesn’t know any other languages? Possibly. Is it insane to point out that this little obfuscation might be somehow related to the low quality of the translations on his own site? Who knows? 

The world is a mysterious place (albeit endlessly fascinating in its sheer absurdity).

(In a future post, I will publish a review of the localized websites of Smartling’s clients to determine the degree of success with which these companies, in Welde’s breathless prose, have incorporated “their existing passionate community into the translation process as a means of increasing engagement -- while moving at the speed of Web 2.0 businesses.”)

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.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

‘Reach Down, God, Give Me a High Five’: Low Quality Translation and Low Quality SEO

This guy thought up Death Bed: The Bed That Eats People and f****ng finished it! That means one of two things happened. He either he never had a moment’s doubt. He hit that typewriter every day. "And then the pillow starts to smother… Ohhh! This is awesome! Reach down, God! Give me a high five! Boom!” Here’s what’s worse. What if he had moments of doubt, AND THEN F***ING WORKED THROUGH THEM? That’s so much worse for me. What if he was going: “And then the pillow starts… What the f**k am I writing? I’m putting my name on this piece of… No! I will finish this!” He looked at his poster of the little kitten hanging from the tree saying “Just hang in there, baby.” And he said: “Yes, I will hang in there, kitten.”
—Patton Oswalt, Werewolves and Lollipops

You know one of my bugbears (or perhaps hobby horses) is the Content Tsunami. It is the main pillar of the flimsy business case for Low Quality Translation. It goes a little something like this: “Since the amount of content is exploding, we need low quality translation to translate this flood of (low quality) information.” I want to use this opportunity to highlight one tiny little molecule in the endlessly expanding ocean of the Information Big Bang.

The piece is published in the blog of a Very, Very Large Translation Agency that does a lot of Spanish post-editing at $0.02 per word and constantly badgers qualified professionals to join its ranks of underpaid drones. In the immortal words of Forrest Gump, “stupid is as stupid does.” The blog post I am discussing here is, perhaps uncharacteristically, not the product of a computerized copywriting program. I can safely say it was actually produced by a human being. But, as Low Quality theorists are fond of reminding us, human authorship is no guarantee of quality:

Financial documents can be produced in a variety of file formats. Keeping this in mind, Trusted Translations is prepared to accept all types of files, and can deliver them as ready-to-publish files if so required by the client.

Thank GOD for Trusted Translations! Where would we be without an unscrupulous, faceless corporation and its semi-anonymous ten-dollar-an-hour blogger reminding us that financial documents come in a variety of file formats? Thank GOD for the Internet! To think that as recently as 1993 you couldn’t drive your PC on the information superhighway and come across this banal piece of drivel.

But, as Jon Stewart says, “Wait, there’s more”:

Finance departments, along with financial institutions themselves, are a key area in managing any type of business. Producing documents that hold very important and specialized information, these departments often require accurate translations of these documents in order to communicate financial information to a business’s own offices in another country, or to other companies. Trusted Translations has experience quickly and accurately translating a range of financial documents and has access to resources such as proprietary financial dictionaries, translations memories and expert industry-specific translators.

"Trusted Translations has experience quickly and accurately translating a range of financial documents..." Can you just imagine the anonymous blogger writing this sentence and crying out to God for a high five? Let’s parse this. Proprietary financial dictionaries. Yeah. If you place the search phrase “financial translation” in Google, your first result is a bilingual glossary that purports to be specialized in finance, courtesy of… you guessed it! Trusted Translations, the finest purveyor of Low Quality Translation. The glossary bears the distinguished title of “English Spanish Dictionary of Financial Terms.” And, obviously, it was crafted by a bevy of “expert industry-specific translators” (?), who, I am guessing, are the ultimate arbiters of the text after it has been processed by Trusted’s machine translators, Roombas, C3-POs, Wall*Es, and sundry translation memories. What do these “expert industry-specific translators” consider worthy of including in a financial glossary? Let’s see. “Go-go fund.” Yes, that comes up very often in financial documents… written in 1965. So, if you are ever swallowed up by a worm hole and deposited in the year when I Dream of Jeannie was number one in the Nielsen ratings and Vietnam was a distant place where a handful of Marines were spending the nastiest summer vacation ever, well, golly, Sarge, Trusted Translations just saved you a lot of time!

TT’s contribution to the Content Tsunami is, of course, nothing more than cheap SEO-gaming without bothering to actually contribute anything of any value to the Internet. My thesis is that this opportunistic online marketing ethos is indicative of its overall business philosophy (cheap, cheap, cheap...). Allow me to provide a sampling of the blog post’s internal hyperlinks. The phrase “financial translation” leads the accidental cyber-tourist to a cluster of articles (of similar quality) on issues as diverse as “financial translation teams”, “financial translation languages”, “financial document translations” (and, let’s face it, who hasn’t googled those Boolean phrases in the wee morning hours of some desperate, lonely Saturday night?) 

And so on and so on. The thing that gets me is that TT positively RULES the search rankings. Not only does it broadcast its low quality content in every single localization conference, it also dominates the online search world with the same iron fist with which Ivan the Terrible ruled early modern Russia.

“Stupid is as stupid does.” If your translation provider uses Low Quality search engine optimization, what are the odds that it doesn’t use Low Quality Translation? And passes it off as the work of “expert industry-specific translators”? Hmmmm…

Trusted Translation’s SEO strategy is just the same adolescent hacker ethos that underlies Low Quality Translation, made even more grotesque by the fact that it is espoused not by teenage computer nerds who don’t know any better but middle-aged gurus who should. Which leads to an interesting observation. When they talk to translators, lower quality translation providers preach the necessity of low quality translation (and, implicitly, correspondingly low rates). But when they talk to clients, these same companies masquerade as high quality translation providers. They mumble in their clumsy corporate prose about “expert industry-specific translators.” They bloviate about their knowledgeable post-editors. Meanwhile, these selfsame post-editors are in a nearby supermarket check-out line trying to pay for baby formula with food stamps, praying to Yahweh and Harry Reid that the Republican Congress will extend welfare benefits for another six months. 

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 his profile or you can follow him on Twitter.