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

Translation agency - new management structure

I was reading a blog article about photography, when I stumbled upon this sentence: "[The photographer] uses strong colors, ambient light, and emotion to capture beautifully complex images".

Whereas I understand and can explain in technical terms what strong colors and ambient light mean, "emotion" sounds a bit too abstract for my taste. You may know it at first sight, but how exactly do you use emotion? Is it just another ingredient to put into your photography product?

The way I feel about "emotion" in the above statement is similar to how I feel when I read about "skills" in translators' blogs or social media posts. Especially of late.

It is difficult to keep up with the relentless flow of posts on the subject of "what does it take to be a successful translator". However, there are increasingly two trends that dominate the discourse.

The first, and more recent, focuses on being an entrepreneur and developing the right attitude that is seen, more and more, as a prerequisite for success. In its most constructive form, it is about marketing and sales. Today, though, CPD courses and anything offered as "marketing for translators" has a tendency to turn into "marketing to translators", with a surprisingly high number of translators happy at being discovered as a new target group.

The opposite trend is about professional competence. Some may call it “pro skills”, and that is exactly what reminds me of a photographer using "emotion to capture images", again and again.

What exactly are our skills? To be a successful translator reads to me as to be successful as translator, not as an entrepreneur in the field of translation. However, most of us work in a market environment where only few have in-house positions, and for some, the word “entrepreneur” seems to sound more flattering than “small business” or “sole proprietor” even if it is not exactly the same*.

I cannot say that I am happy with such terms as “enterprise” or “company”, but any of them offers a certain advantage over “entrepreneur”: they assume a structure, a set of responsibilities divided between functions, persons and departments.

Indivisible as a sole proprietor is, it doesn’t mean that an individual translator should ignore the multi-function structure of a company. A typical organization chart won’t trigger a multiple personality disorder when applied to a one-person business. In fact, I believe it can be rather helpful. Especially when we are talking about skills.

Freelance translator - organizational chart

Whenever the subject of translators’ skills comes up, we can ask the question: Who in a typical company structure needs the skills or would benefit from them. In a typical company structure, we would have a CEO (that would be our “entrepreneur”), a strategy or business development department (somehow entrepreneurial too), an HR department (looking after the staff with the right attitude – and skills), a planning department, an accounting department etc. Those are management and administrative functions that drive the overheads. But the revenues that fund them come from a triad: purchasing – production – sales.

Whereas the two functions on both ends of this triad – purchasing and sales – make up the core of many a typical translation agency’s business, an individual translator’s doesn’t have much to do with purchasing (I consider it the Biggest Mistake That Freelance Translators Make, though this is an entirely different matter).

Sales is a different story, too. Knowing how to sell is crucial, no doubt. If you treat yourself as a business, it makes no sense to produce anything before you make sure you can market it properly.

Having said that, it is worthwhile to remember that essentially we are translators, not salespersons. We are what we are, and most of us will be never able to beat those who were trained and hired as salespeople. Especially those with a natural talent and corporate resources. Those whose core skill is to sell.

So each time I hear that the difference between success and failure in translation lies with sales, I don’t only think it is a simplistic and slightly anachronistic statement. I think it actually might do more harm than good in terms of what concepts and skills need to be prioritized for freelance translators.

It is slightly anachronistic because “the balance of power has well and truly shifted from seller to buyer in recent years”. Not only has the perception of sales and salespeople become more negative, creatively disruptive websites, platforms and apps make the idea of a traditional salesperson obsolete.

And it is rather harmful, too, since it brings us back to the discussion about lemons and used-car salesmen. If the difference in translators’ rates stems from the differences in the quality of selling, as recently stated by a poster in “The League of Extraordinary Translators” on Facebook, it implies that the quality of product fails to be a prime differentiator. Hence, brush up your sales skills, colleagues. Become entrepreneurs!

I for one think that if you treat yourself as a business, it makes sense to map yourself as a business with a functional organizational chart. I see the core function of our profession in production. As for skills, I think that translators need the skills to provide the quality of their products (and services) first. And then learn to communicate it instead of simply “go out and sell”, as the commenter put it on Facebook.

Translation companies - translators and managers

So what are our core production skills? I was used to think that these are mastery of subject and writing excellence. However, the first is specialist knowledge rather than skills. It can be learned, not necessarily through training, but through knowing how to research and communicate with the client. Doing research may indeed be one of the most essential methodological skills.

What about other core skills? A couple of weeks ago I received one of the best compliments from a colleague. I outsourced to her a translation into a language that I can only read and understand, but would never translate into on my own. However, I read the translations that I outsource and, if need be, do some changes. This time, after I emailed the slightly revised version to my colleague, she told me that she “learned a lot from the revision”. Given the circumstances, I believe that it may be partially true.

Those rather minor changes I did were not about terminology or style – I cannot write well in that language, so writing excellence was completely out of place. My usual focus is rather on the audience and the message to bring across. Sometimes you can adjust the theme-rheme relationship or shift the focus on the main idea just by adding a logical link.

Interpreters who learn to take notes know how to insert the so called “transitions” or “link word” like “if…then”, “tho”, “cos”, “to” (for “in order to”) etc. to achieve coherence and make the speaker’s ideas more memorable. I think translators, too, can learn a lot from their techniques.

So many translators learn to translate words, sentences and segments instead of learning how to make their words, sentences and segments make sense. Perhaps the one skill they need to focus on is simply thinking while translating.

You don’t have to find a translator to teach you all kinds of support and auxiliary skills. E.g. touch typing or using CAT tools. The same is true of many administrative, business or entrepreneurial skills.

But the only way to learn your core skills is to learn from other translators. There are lessons best learned in an apprenticeship. Or in a network of experienced and knowledgeable colleagues. Or together with the client who does the revision of your translation. Or in the Catskills.

Again, conference interpreters who work in teams and consecutive interpreters in direct contact with their clients are in a better position. They learn from one another, from the audience, from the source.

That is another difference between how you learn core professional skills and everything else.

But of course, we need to learn business skills and how to sell. Otherwise we risk finding ourselves rather low on our industry’s organizational chart.

Translation industry - top and bottom

Remember what George W. Bush said about the French: They don’t have a word for entrepreneur. Translators seem to be in love with this word. They are taught more and more to develop “entrepreneurial skills” and “get out and sell”. It is all very well but perhaps they’d need to learn – and upgrade – their core professional skills, too.


* See Wikipedia: The term "entrepreneur" is often conflated with the term “small business”. While most entrepreneurial ventures start out as a small business, not all small businesses are entrepreneurial in the strict sense of the term. Many small businesses are sole proprietor operations consisting solely of the owner, or they have a small number of employees, and many of these small businesses offer an existing product, process or service, and they do not aim at growth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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