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Reflecting on Industry 01 B

This new post on my blog is not a new one. In fact, it already appeared in two widely read blogs for translators – Kevin Lossner’s and Steve Vitek’s.

However, I think it worthwhile to publish it here again as a kind of reflection on the current state of the so called translation industry. Attila Piróth, an English-French-Hungarian translator with a PhD in theoretical physics, penned this post as a comment on FIT’s (this acronym stands for the “Federation of International Translators”) position statement on crowdsourcing. But there is more to that than mere feedback.

Like in every other paper by Attila Piróth, his conclusions are drawn on the basis of keen observation and ingenious research. As an example, Attila's seminal article on Translators without Borders was conceived based on the results of a large-scale survey about pro bono translation. Like in every other paper, Attila’s insights shed light on specific aspects of today’s industry (e.g. pro bono translation, translation into a non-native language or crowdsourcing in this case), but at the same time provide a critical reflection on wider issues, ethical (or unethical) practices being one of the key ones.

I, for one, have always found it difficult to speak of the translation industry. The divide between translation as a profession and craft and, on the other hand, the so-called translation industry has been widening ever since. This divide has also an ethical dimension. As part (and symptom) of the translation industry, crowdsourced translation is also part of a wider, global issue. Amazon’s Mechanical Turks can serve as an example – both Mechanical Turks and professional journalists belong to the publishing industry, the divide as obvious as it gets.

However, in the translation business the line gets constantly blurred, the FIT’s position paper posing such a striking example of unawareness of this context. That is what makes the comments below all the more valuable.

In case you wonder about the pictures for this post – they were taken early this May in North Rhine-Westphalia (Zeche Zollverein and Zeche Ewald). For some reason, I believe that the German former industrial sites provide a fitting background for these “reflections on the industry”.


Comments about FIT’s position statement on crowdsourcing #[1]

Crowdsourcing is certainly a very effective term; calling some of the practices it enables “digitally distributed sweatshop labor” – for this seems like a much better description of what’s happening on crowdsource-for-money platforms like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk – wouldn’t accomplish half as much.
– Evgeny Morozov#[2]

Digitally connected mobs will perform more and more services in a collective volunteer basis, from medicine to solving crimes, until all jobs are done that way.
–  Jaron Lanier#[3]

In the past few years, crowdsourced translation and machine translation have received a great deal of attention. Both are frequently called “disruptive technologies”, and are claimed to drive growth for businesses. Professional translators are often advised to get used to the idea that machine translation and crowdsourcing are “here to stay” and to adapt “to the changing landscape of the profession”. Machine translation post-editing is frequently cited as a new “niche” for translators.

The topic choice for the two FIT position statements thus reflects important and interesting realities. However, in its stated role as the “voice of translators worldwide”, FIT should not shy away from discussing some crucial issues that go beyond the simple technicalities presented in the paper. And if FIT is to reasonably call its paper a statement of position, it should dare to state one.

Reflecting on Industry 05

Finding a consensus on the more contradictory aspects will not be easy within FIT. The socio-economic issues that lie at the heart of the heated debates around crowdsourcing and machine translation boil down to the conflict between value creation by independent professionals and value extraction by those who own certain technologies (e.g., MT), linguistic resources (e.g., TMs) or platforms. Once again, we are faced with the labor versus capital debate – which is perhaps one reason why the corporate side likes to use the term translation industry. Effectively, crowdsourcing and machine translation aim to ensure the necessary ingredients for the industrialization of an intellectual activity, and (by redefining expectations) to propose alternatives for the scarcity of the required competences. This is precisely why both trends have attracted major capital investments.

 Example: Duolingo is a language-learning website that received 15 million dollars of capital funding at an early stage of its development. The core idea as represented to students was to teach languages through translation exercises. The more advanced the learner, the more difficult the sentences to translate. Peer-to-peer voting provides feedback on the participants’ performance. Courses are free, because the core idea as represented to financial backers is that the company generates its income by selling the translations produced by the crowd. The patchwork translations thus provided were meant to be sold to major content creation hubs – gawker, huffpost, etc. This “disruptive” model would thus enable the translation of a huge amount of text (for which “there would have been no traditional budget”). If one consults individual professionals such as language teachers and journalists, they will also add that this platform creates competition not just for translators but for them too – thereby disrupting several professions at once.

This model gives a clear translation-related example to the main thesis of Douglas Rushkoff’s new book, Throwing rocks at the Google bus: how growth became the enemy of prosperity#[4]. Crowdsourcing does not enable a sustainable professional career for those who perform it: crowdsourcing is fundamentally a winner-takes-all scheme, in which the only real winner possible is the entity that owns or controls the platform. As the casino business knows, the house always wins.#[5]

In the introductory quote, Evgeny Morozov calls crowdsourcing “digitally distributed sweatshop labor”. Given that recent reforms to the French labor law have lead to massive protests, this is also an opportune moment to assess the sort of legislative treatment this digitally distributed sweatshop labor receives.

The short answer is: it is entirely overlooked. Crowdsourcing’s diffusely distributed nature – it is literally everywhere and nowhere – seems to cast an impenetrable veil that obscures it to any physical jurisdiction.

Consider a brick-and-mortar bookstore, which, to increase its profit, invites volunteers to unload the delivery trucks, fill the shelves, clean the floor, etc. The volunteers bear their own costs and have no protection with regard to health, safety, work hours and insurance; they contribute because they identify in some way with the company and its products, and may hope to be offered some kind of paid work eventually.#[6] In most countries, that has long been against the law: the company should hire the workforce, pay them at least the minimum wage, pay the various contributions/taxes after the employees, etc. When a company makes a profit, workers are paid, and the state also gets a share in the form of taxes and other contributions.

Over the past several years, many brick-and-mortar bookstores have been driven out of business by a virtual bookstore that has developed one of the most sophisticated platforms in the world: Amazon. As explained in Wikinomics by D. Tapscott and A.D. Williams,#[7] hundreds of thousands of volunteer programmers participated in the “collaborative effort” to build the Amazon platform – which debuted as a bookstore, then added consumer electronics (bankrupting Circuit City and Best Buy), and only continues to grow and diversify.

Since the boom of the digital knowledge economy, numerous volunteer ‘community’ projects have been launched under the banner of “harnessing the unused intellectual capacity of the community (the cognitive surplus#[8]) for the benefit of all”. But who will extract that ’cognitive surplus’? Will the resource extraction models developed in the 20th century for oil, gas, minerals etc. be followed – with notional ‘competitors’ forming close alliances behind the scenes to control ownership of the resources? Cognitive surplus may be even more attractive to mine than physical resources because there is no sovereign owner and there are no cross-border issues requiring negotiations, contracts, royalties or trade agreements. But are nations really OK with having their workers deliver free, untaxable labor to, among others, private foreign interests?#[9]

Reflecting on Industry 02

A typical example is when major IT companies can slash customer support costs because an enthusiastic user community is at their disposal to provide peer-to-peer help for free. IT giants like Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Symantec, etc. all benefit from such volunteer help. For these companies, the potential to use unpaid labor in handsomely paid (or even publicly subsidized) projects is not some kind of unexpected but fortuitous glitch: it is a system feature by design.

A perfect example along these lines is the ACCEPT project, in which crowdsourcing meets machine translation. Through this project, the EU generously offered a million-euro check to US digital media companies Symantec and Acrolinx and French translation company Lexcelera to cover some of their machine translation R&D costs. One of the promises these companies made was to scale up the volunteer operations of Translators without Borders (TwB), a nonprofit organization that they control,#[10] and whose actual work is completed by unpaid contributors sourced from all over the world. Thus, although the charitable efforts of the volunteers constitute the most publicly visible aspect of this apparatus, certain companies represented at the top of the hierarchy also benefit much less visibly by deriving privatized profit from free socialized labor.

In a remarkable article, published over five years ago, the Northern California Translators Association (NCTA) unveiled the real character of crowdsourcing. That analysis – and hopefully the present one, too – shows that the translation profession is not isolated: it is as strongly affected by social (media) trends as any other profession where telework has become the norm. Legislation lags seriously behind technology, and to close that gap, representative bodies of freelancers have to act.

A “position statement” by an international federation of professional associations can be a good step in that direction – but as noted at the outset, such a paper will accomplish little if it fails to take a clear position.

Professional associations whose member base is comprised solely of individual professionals are in a much clearer situation than those associations in the FIT family that also admit corporate members. The former should accordingly step forward and raise the issues that are omitted from the FIT paper and negatively affect their membership base. Raising these critical questions may ultimately mean that no FIT-wide consensus can be reached about crowdsourcing (or machine translation). But that is a much healthier outcome than remaining a silent signatory to the current position statement – and hence tacitly agreeing that there is nothing to see here and we should all move along.

Reflecting on Industry 04

Acknowledgement: Some ideas presented above have emerged or crystallized in conversations with colleagues, in particular with Vivian J. Stevenson, who also read the manuscript.

[1] FIT Position Statement on Crowdsourcing of Translation, Interpreting and Terminology Services.

[2] Evgeny Morozov, To save everything, click here. Penguin, 2013. ISBN: 978-0241957707.

[3] Jaron Lanier, You are not a gadget. Vintage, 2011. ISBN: 978-0307389978.

[4] Douglas Rushkoff, Throwing rocks at the Google bus: how growth became the enemy of prosperity. Portfolio, 2016. ISBN: 978-1617230172.

[5] “The bigger, centralized solutions offered by corporations with traditional, extractive, and monopolistic strategies are more attractive to investors, who are themselves betting on winner-takes-all outcomes.” D. Rushkoff, ibid.

[6] Interestingly, this kind of effort looks similar to sweat equity. According to Investopedia,sweat equity is contribution to a project or enterprise in the form of effort and toil. Sweat equity is the ownership interest, or increase in value, that is created as a direct result of hard work by the owner(s)…” The difference is that with unpaid crowdsourcing, the owners get the equity increase while the crowd contributes the sweat for free with no guaranteed return. Appearing on Stephen Colbert’s talk show in March 2014, Jaron Lanier gave a brief overview of his book, Who owns the future (Simon & Schuster, 2013, ISBN: 978-1451654967), and noted that “…we talked ourselves into this weird double economy, where if it’s about stuff, we believe in markets, if it’s about information, then we think it should be shared, it should be open…”. He also outlined a possibility of how those who contribute to the improvement of Google Translate could be rewarded through a micropayment system that logs the reuse of individual contributions.

[7] Don Tapscott, Anthony D. Williams, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. Portfolio, 2006. ISBN: 978-1591841380.

[8] See for example Shirky, Clay, Cognitive Surplus. Penguin, 2010. ISBN: 978-1594202537.

[9] This is especially interesting in view of the various tax minimization strategies that have also proliferated with globalism. Many of the same corporations that stand to benefit from a given nation’s cognitive surplus can sell back into the same population while enjoying minimal exposure to the domestic tax system. While all this is legal, it nonetheless poses a clear potential strain on any national economy.

[10] For a detailed criticism of the ACCEPT project and the conflict of interest in Translators without Borders’ board, see http://www.translationtribulations.com/2014/11/translators-without-borders-accept.html.

Reflecting on Industry 03

Wines of Bordeaux - IAPTI Translation conference

TRAFFIC POLICE OFFICER: Sir, would you mind taking an alcohol test?
DRIVER: Thank you! What drinks do you have on the menu, officer?


When thousands over thousands of people (including myself) hear of Bordeaux, the very first idea that comes to their mind is wine.

Those who associate Bordeaux with translation might be a few dozens, perhaps a hundred-plus people, but there are some. As a participant in the IAPTI's Third International conference that was held last September in Bordeaux (and was absolutely great!), I surely belong to this numerically insignificant group. Yet I have no idea how many in these two statistical sets, if asked about the ideal conference venue, would come to think of Bordeaux.

I started thinking of the largely untapped potential of this region for conferences yet to come after I went to La Winery, a few days after the conference closed. Set in a lovely location some 25 kilometers from Bordeaux, La Winery is a modern oenology tourism center for those who are eager to learn about viticulture, do some wine tasting and, hopefully, buy wine. La Winery houses a showroom, sales areas, conference and seminar rooms, all in cool modern premises of wood, concrete and glass, surrounded by a green park with ponds and orange and maroon chaise-longue chairs.

La Winery in Bordeaux - Translators Conference 2015

I drove to La Winery in the evening. The sunset glow flooded the road and made the scenery look like a beautiful French val. Unfortunately for me, when I think val I automatically think of the German Wahl, as in Qual der Wahl, rather than of gently sloping hills and curvy roads. Because Qual de Wahl, the German for agony of choice, describes pretty accurately how I feel in a French wine shop-cum-exhibition boasting “1001 wines from all over the world”: having a hard time to choose.

I am sure, though, that the difficulty applies to both sides: the huge variety makes it hard both for a customer to identify the “right” product and for wine producers to make their products shine among hundreds of other, similar specimens. The park around La Winery covers more than 20 hectares, but both for customers, and especially for producers, it might still feel like a cluttered space.

Or so I imagine. A participant of a professional conference would relate to a professional in another area rather than to a consumer client, no matter how important the client’s perspective may be, for every industry or field. A customer visiting La Winery can choose from hundreds of wines, all fine Bordeaux vintages. If you are a winemaker, I wonder how you feel in this giant showcase, alongside your competitors and colleagues. How do you make your product stand out?

Translators tend to stick together, all the more so in virtual places. "In a profession where so many of us are self-employed, I believe it is critical to have a forum where ideas can be exchanged," as my colleague Lisa Simpson wrote the other day on her blog. The problem is that too many translators cling to their sheltered concepts and don’t step outside their comfort zone.

Bordeaux Translators and Interpreters in La Winery

There is no arguing that, for many of us, it would be much more profitable and maybe healthier to hang out on different forums, above all those of our clients, provided there are such, both with a view to find new business prospects and hone our specialty knowledge and skills. Perhaps it would make things easier to bring together a whole lot of translators in a dialogue meeting with experts from a completely different domain. Unusual as such an out-of-the-box dialogue can be, isn't it likely to open new perspectives and perceptions?

It is true that translation and the wine business don’t have much in common. B2B and B2C don’t mix together well, but I don’t think that is so relevant.

Mondovino, a highly-acclaimed 2004 documentary about the impact of globalization, industrialization and corporatization on single-estate, quality-driven, boutique-type wineries, has a message that is meaningful to any freelance business. But regardless all the parallels, controversies and ideological debates, I am simply curious to learn more from other industries. When in Bordeaux, it might just as well be the wine business.

Do winemakers flock together in online communities to say things about wine merchants they would otherwise keep to themselves (it happens to translators in regard to translation agencies, for example)? Do winemakers (or any other professionals, save novice translators) seriously think that lumping together in a blogging community would increase their SEO visibility and help them get more translation jobs? Do winemakers outsource to other winemakers? Does Mouton Rotschild ask them to sign NDAs?

But seriously, I think even a strictly B2B, ultra-specialized technical or legal translator can learn a few new insights from someone from a quite different domain, in terms of market approach and customer focus. Or value propositions and mastering your skills.

For some reason I believe that viniculturalists have definitely something to share e.g. on the topic of Deep Work. And hearing them talk about quality, productivity and “focused success in a distracted world” can be quite an inspiring experience, provided the talk is held in a feel-good environment, rather than via a CPD webinar.

La Winery Interior in Bordeaux

I thought it was a great idea to have a wine tasting at the IAPTI pre-conference party. After visiting La Winery I started thinking that it would have been perhaps an even better idea to have a Bordeaux winemaker (or any other wine business professional) among the conference presenters.

Lisa is right. “In a profession where so many of us are self-employed”, online forums are critical. But sometimes, online places "for translators only" strike me not only as essentially monocultural places of disagreements (with the world outside in general or other fellow translators), but also places of repetitive discussions, as topics reproduce themselves over time. Cross-pollination or, in plain terms, listening to someone outside your field might be a welcome antidote to a tunnel vision and inbred ideas. A different monoculture has its benefits, especially when it helps reframe problems and connect non-obvious dots.

Bordeaux looks like a monoculture to outsiders only. It doesn’t matter. You can swap Bordeaux with any other seemingly monocultural space. Luxemburg, for instance, could make a perfect conference venue, if translators get a chance to talk to, say, a few open-minded investment bankers. Though a niche conference for financial translators on the Isle of Islay would have its benefits, too.

Jokes aside, and whatever you choose, there are places (or terroirs, as they might call them in Bordeaux) you’d never associate with the translation business. “The more you look the more you discover”. Since it is exactly such places that are worth a look.

Bordeau La Winery Chaise-Longues Outside

P.S. The Wine of Bordeaux retro-style ad campaign hinges on a combination of wine bottle silhouettes and unlikely environments, e.g. a wine bottle forming the tube of a telescope pointed up at a night sky. I find the idea quite cool.

Standing Out

I started travelling before the Internet was born. To book a flight ticket or a hotel room, you had to go to a travel agency; to learn about a country, to a bookshop. As the Germans say, “Vorfreude ist die schönste Freude” and a thrill of anticipation (“better than the real thing”) materialized in front of shelves with travel guides arranged alphabetically.

In line with the saying, the “real thing” usually turned out to be far less colourful than the pictures in the travel books. The pictures reframed the reality so that most of the “real thing” remained outside the frame. Usually, it was the less thrilling part.

At that time, I discovered that travel books fall into two categories. The predominant type was books that described an ideal world or dealt with the country’s heroic history, extant monuments and age-old culture. Books offering practical advice were few and far between, with only a handful standing out like a sore thumb due to their no-bullshit attitude and deliberate understatement or mildly ironic undertones. I developed an immediate liking for Let’s Go, The Rough Guide and The Lonely Planet, which seemed to celebrate the bright side of travel for easy-going, positive-thinking and low-cost backpackers.

Today, I can understand the criticism of the “lonely planet-ization of travel”, though I still prefer no-frills, feet-on-the-ground paperbacks over all the academic, glossy or kitsch panegyrics so popular during those pre-Internet travel days.

It was the “lonely planet-ization of travel” that became the object of a parody in 2003 when a book by three Australians was published. The book became a huge success in Australia and a cult classic elsewhere provided that Monty Python had already become part of the national cultural DNA.

The guide’s three authors made up an entire country – and wrote a seriously hilarious travel guide about it. After the collapse of the Eastern bloc, Molvanîa opened to foreign tourists, though the risk of visa denial for vegetarians was still high, as was the risk of leaving the country with only one kidney. The Great Wall of Lutenblag, Molvanîa’s ancient capital and home of the bubonic plague, fell down (due to inferior construction materials), meaning backpackers can now follow in the footsteps of invaders from the past: Molvanîa was previously conquered by Goths, Tatars, Huns and militant Spanish nuns. The Romans were scared off by a description of Molvanian women and the taste of the national beverage – a mixture of garlic brandy and beetroot juice.

If you have never heard of Molvanîa, you will now have an idea of this country. You may also guess how the sequels to “Molvanîa” unfold – mock travel guides for Phaic Tăn (a country that went through many political changes from Enlightened Feudalism to Post-Communist Yoga and Pilates) and the Democratic Free People’s United Republic of San Sombrèro (where you can get arrested without a warrant for calling the country just “San Sombrèro” as an abbreviated form).

From a linguist’s point of view, all three countries are quite interesting. In Molvanian, for example, articles change their form depending on whether a noun is masculine, feminine, neuter, or a type of cheese. Phaic Tănese is a tonal language with quite a few unusual sounds (the use of certain tones is governmentally restricted) and an average speed of 192 syllables per minute, whereas San Sombrèran is a fascinating dialect of Spanish that is spoken really, really fast (it is considered impolite to take a breath during a sentence).

However, it is not linguistic idiosyncrasies that motivate me to recall these books. My memory of Molvanîa is tied to a number of bookstores where “Molvanîa: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry” (Jetlag Travel Publishing, 2003) landed on the shelf alongside travel guides for Mongolia and Montenegro or among other books in the “Balkans” section.

Yet, my brightest memory of Molvanîa goes back to a further education academy in Germany where I used to work as an interpreter for foreign students. One day, the Head of the Eastern European Department discovered the book in the staffroom. Why didn’t we mention Molvanîa in our image brochure, he asked the teachers who were grading their students’ papers or drinking coffee in front of their computers. “Actually, the Molvanian students I met at the reception ceremony a month ago would make for a perfect cover picture if we want to update our booklet next time,” he added.

I have no remembrance of the reaction of the faculty members in the staff room. Quite probably, there was none. The Boss may be wrong or even embarrassingly wrong, but he is still the Boss. Perhaps, you had better keep a serious poker face if your boss seems to take this or that seriously. Or sit on the fence and wait until someone else spots the bluff.

Molvanîa is a very clear-cut case, though. A clearing in the jungle of far more intricate cases and borderline stories. Today, you never know if the emperor truly puts on his new clothes or puts on an act and plays an haute couture spoof.

Similar to "Vorfreude" ("joyful anticipation that comes from imagining future pleasures"), another German word that you have to describe verbosely in English is "Fremdschämen”. According to the Wictionary it means “to be embarrassed because someone else has embarrassed himself (and doesn't notice)”. It was certainly embarrassing to take Molvanîa for a country somewhere in the Balkans, but far more embarrassing to witness your boss praising the Molvanian emerging market. My feeling of “Fremdschämen” would have probably been most acute, if someone had tried to sell tickets to Molvanîa. Or if I had happened to encounter people willing to buy some.

No industry is immune to selling and buying into the Molvanian stuff. Ittakestwototango, like they say in San Sombrèro. Regardless the industry, it takes both sellers AND buyers to make it happen, preferably more buyers than sellers. In the translation business, for example, a rough how-to guide for selling tickets could be like this.

Start up a forum for freelancers, welcome your visitors as friends and colleagues. A community of colleagues is great for recruiting customers. But first, you should show that you can teach them a few things.

Your fellow translators might not realise that teaching something may be easier than practicing something. Contrary to what they may think, teaching is possible with no expertise in the subject. You don’t have to talk about the nuts and bolts of translation, you can craft your pitch like a translation guru with any translation-unrelated, general, positive and uplifting insights. Cues like "invisible energy" or "secret toolkit/mindset" won't impress those who are way too familiar with motivation teachers (or esoteric book shops). But to tap into a new, unspoiled Molvanian market, they will be the real thing. Call it personal development.

Personal development works much the same for aspiring real estate agents, amateur traders of the E-Mini S&P futures or freelance translators just starting out. Start teaching your colleagues (now hopefully followers). Teach them Attitude. Teach Authenticity. Throw in a couple more “A”s (but avoid “Amateurishness” or “Agency”). Now you have a philosophy with a nice combination of the “A” characters in place.

You can never be too generic or hollow. Turn your style, your mood, your pitch up to 11. If your followers are willing to stand out, they should stand more. Feed them truisms about a life-enriching freelancing lifestyle (with or without dabbling in translation). Keep the advice to hug trees to become better translators for later, though.

Use images, ignore what professional photographers and graphic designers tell you about Terrible Photography Clichés Like That One Full Color Item In a B&W Photo and other no-nos. Kitsch works. Share some of the Molvanian art.

Use videos. Some people might take them for a parody of psychobabble. Others, more impressionable, will take them at face value. Add some easy-listening sounds – someone will find them Zen or phaic-tan-tonic. Compile reviews and testimonials. Still better, essays. Your followers would be happy to contribute: when you are done with coaching translators you can start teaching feel-good copywriting instead. Or wholesome typesetting. Or Traveling through the Seven Circles of the Freelance Mandala. Above all, capitalize the opportunity to sell books and webinars. Later, you can think of diversifying into therapeutic gardening. Or growing olives and making goat's milk cheese at home instead.

Now you are all set and ready for the journey. Tell your followers (now hopefully your clients) that your journey will be a fascinating one. Say: “I want you to come with me to Molvanîa. We will travel through your Inner World first. Then we will go to Phaic Tăn. I think that Phaic Tăn is a really good place for us to travel together.”

You can add, as an afterthought: “By the way, did you know that the country’s name means “fruitful ground deep beneath the waterline” in Molvanian? Actually, they grow nice olives there. Be sure to taste some. In Phaic Tăn they grow papaya. Green AND black. We should try both.”

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