How a Certain Translation Agency’s Marketing Strategy Reeks of BS

NO BS

An agency (which shall have to remain nameless to spare myself the burden of dealing with fellow lawyers) claims, in what is by far one of the dumbest marketing strategies I have ever seen, to have 6 solutions to 3 common problems that clients face when seeking translation services. Their document, which reads like an infomercial nightmare, claims the 3 “problems” are: price (notice, they are conceiving payment for work as a “problem”), time, and inconveniences. Though their failed marketing whatever-the-heck-it-is does not seem to be under copyright, they did include a pseudo disclaimer. So just to be on the safe side, I won’t quote them directly, but I will give you the gist of their quasi logic.

1. Price

Because the agency cannot differentiate a problem from a solution (not sure if their problem is linguistic or analytical, but either way, I would not trust them with any translation work that involves any kind of thinking skills whatsoever), “solution” #1 goes something like this:

Translators are terrible at explaining what the translation process involves. Translation entails a bunch of steps, some of which you may not need (like editing, because if you keep it in company, it doesn’t really have to be accurate).  Thus, the solution consists of asking translators to break down every part of their process and its price. That way, if there is a part you don’t need, you can just get it taken off the price.

Awesome solution! Provided you are a widget factory. I will never support any strategy that drags down price. Translation is a professional intellectual service and should be paid as such. The end. That said, when reading their document, I could not help but wonder how exactly one “breaks down” an intellectual process to a point that makes any real impact on price. And how many parts can you break it into? Suppose the process is already somewhat poor and consists only of three parts: translation, editing, and final proofreading. Are they seriously suggesting just one step to make it cheaper? Are they encouraging translators to deliver first drafts with no revision whatsoever? Have they SEEN first drafts? And what about spell check or other silly nuances? Maybe we can do without those too while we’re at it. Who cares if things are misspelled and illegible if we can bump a whole buck or two off the final price, right? This seems “iffy,” at best.

Ask your translator to drop their price by using machine translation.

I am not anti-machine, but translation technologies should be used in benefit of translators to make our work easier and more efficient and in benefit of clients to ensure faster delivery times (to a reasonable extent) and higher quality (provided such technologies are used wisely); using translation technology as a cheap strategy to artificially equate the product of our intellectual service to a commodity good is ultimately bad business for everyone. If these people had a better understanding of market economics, they would know how detrimental their strategy is when you look at the business of translation as a whole and in the long run. Now, I admit that in their little strategy, it’s not clear what sort of machine translation they are encouraging. So for the sake of not repeating myself over and over again on the potential ethical implications of some (not all) uses of MT, I recommend reading a prior post on the issue. Comments to my post by Shai Navé are extremely insightful and well worth the read. That being said, there’s another little issue in their PDF: in their first “solution” they suggested cutting out what quality-oriented professionals will argue is a key part of the process (yes, I mean editing!); now they’re encouraging MT in what can easily be read as human edited machine pseudo-translation. If that interpretation is correct, then wouldn’t it make more sense to encourage editing in both solutions? Need these people be reminded of the ontological principle of contradiction?

2. Time

Have a project manager communicate with you at all parts of the process to make sure you’re updated regularly and the project is on track.

Ok, this one actually makes sense. I’ve really oversimplified it, but it’s not a bad solution, except for one thing: it only contemplates project managers, as if translators didn’t exist. Regardless of how much not-even-human-edited-machine-translated-bull-poop this agency is planning on delivering to its “customers,” how strategic is it  to cut translators out the translation process in your marketing strategy?

Then they blab on about how client reviews can hold up processes, and proceed to give clients several directions as to what mechanisms they (clients) will need to have in place for quickly reviewing the final document(s).

Again, this one is pretty reasonable. However, my first observation is that the “solution” reads like a set of orders and seems a bit condescending. Then they go on to add that some translation companies fail to alert clients of the need for client review and, immediately after that, they move on to a painfully convoluted description of the review process that would probably scare off any potential client. This brings me to my second observation, I understand that someone in their marketing department probably read some post somewhere that said that differentiating yourself from your competitors is a good marketing strategy, but making things seems excessively complicated is not! Also, negativity has been shown in several studies to be a terrible selling technique. If you want to differentiate yourself, you need to focus on what you do right, not on what other people do wrong, and you need to do it in way that is easy to understand. I’ve been in the business for over a decade, and even I found their description confusing. Imagine how clients would feel with such complicated explanations, provided they did not get bored and stop reading altogether. It is, after all, a very long, wordy, and reader unfriendly document.

3. Too many inconveniences 

Most issues that hold up or affect translation can be predicted and your service provider should be able to see these coming and prepare accordingly.

Perfectly reasonable. However, through advice on multiple file versions and terminology, they again make the whole process read like a hassle. Then they ask clients to hand over terminologies, if applicable, opening a whole Pandora’s box of potential issues that make you wonder how on Earth anyone thought this complicated document could constitute a selling solution at all. In addition, at this point they reveal way too much information about what market segment they cater too in a way that is absolutely inconsistent with what they advertise on their site, proving once again their difficulty in grasping the principle of contradiction.

Lastly they move on to claim that if surprises are found during the client review part, it might be because certain parts of the process failed. They blame it on terminology and try to sell terminology set up (at an additional cost) as something that ultimately saves clients money.

 

So what they are basically telling clients is that if they don’t set up terminology for an additional cost, they (agency) will probably mess up the translation and delivery low quality work. Really smart! Especially considering that only five solutions ago they told clients to ask for a breakdown of each and every step of the process to see where costs could be cut…

My Beef

I tried to be as fair as possible when analyzing this little strategy, but could not help concluding it’s a load of BS. Low price directly leads to low quality in translation, and if you read the agency’s strategy carefully enough, you’ll see that’s exactly what they are accidentally telling their clients. Firstly, they offer a breakdown of the process to see where they can help the client “save money” without explaining that, unlike widget manufacturing, translation is an intellectual service. Secondly, they suggest cutting out fundamental quality-assuring parts of the process (like editing). Thirdly, they admit that many mishaps and mistakes will occur and that the client will have to dedicate a lot of time and resources into fixing them. Lastly, they try to sell “terminology set up” as an independent service to prevent and/or fix all the mistakes and inconsistencies that will arise because they cut out editing, reviewing, and/or quality control in the first place. Now, wouldn’t it be much simpler for clients to just hire a quality-driven professional translator, highly specialized boutique agency, and/or specialized team in the first place? You know, the kind who may cost a little more but will not stick the client with inefficient processes or mess up their translation to begin with… just saying! 

What Translators Can Learn from Darwinism

evolution

If you’ve read my post on Why Translators Should Think like Scientists or my Matrix series you’ve probably figured something out about me: I have a nerdy fascination with all things science and numbers. And why not? The computer on which I write my little posts every week is the product of scientific thought and engineering; my home, the product of architectural design (more math, more science, more numbers!); the food I’m going to eat tonight was brought to me by countless natural and human-made phenomena from photosynthesis to a farmer’s market to my kitchen, all of which can be explained by science and numbers! We are surrounded by science and pretty much every little thing we take for granted in our daily lives is, to some extent, cognoscible thanks to science.

So today, I would like to celebrate the birthday of Charles Darwin, one of the most influential thinkers of the modern scientific paradigm in life sciences, by thinking about what we, as translators, can learn from his theory. Though I realize the father of evolutionary theory could easily have been Alfred Russell Wallace (a.k.a. “the other guy that discovered evolution”), it’s Darwin who went down in history and who changed the course of human thought in his day. So, what can Darwin’s theory of evolution teach us about translation? Lot’s, actually; but since this is just a blog post, I’m only going to focus on one: adapt or die.

In the theory of evolution, adaptation to the environment is one of the keys to the survival of a particular species. However, that does not mean that members of the species will necessarily aggressively and immediately alter their form and behavior to their environment. Change occurs over time, from generation to generation, in a sort of natural trial and error (a.k.a. natural selection) where the weakest die out so that their genetic material does not make it to the next generation; while the strongest and better adapted reproduce and pass their awesomeness onto their offspring. Thus, each surviving generation is stronger and better adapted than the next.

According to Dr. Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, this basically means that change occurs over time and is “programmed” into the genes. When a certain trait is beneficial, those who do not have it, will not make it; while those that do have it, thrive in the natural world, breeding stronger offspring… and the species goes on for as long as it can adapt quickly and efficiently enough to survive. Thus, every animal alive today (including modern humans) carry the best traits acquired over time of their genetic lineage. How cool is that?

Humor me for a minute and imagine us, translators, as a species. We are currently experiencing sharp changes in our environment, a decreasing tendency in rates (despite increased investment in translation on a global level), Machine Translation (and its hype!), scammers, bottom feeders, asymmetrical and abusive contractual terms from LSPs, and more. All these trends and changes challenge us collectively. Survival no longer depends on knowledge and qualifications alone. We need to develop new traits and skills. But which ones? That is a question time may answer as some of us die out and others thrive in our new environment.

Man vs. Machine: The Direction of Machine Translation and Questions on Its Implications

MT1-2

Machine translation (MT) is not the new kid on the block. It dates back to to about ~1950. But though translators have (somewhat hopelessly) been arguing about the pros and cons of MT for quite some time, it wasn’t until recently (when literally millions were poured into MT by Microsoft and other IT giants) that the general public also joined in the debate and marketing turned MT into the greatest human invention after the wheel.

Meanwhile, for quite some time, linguists have been observing a trend: more and more agencies are selling human edited MT to end clients, which means more and more linguists are shifting from translators to “MT post-editors” or other colorful terms used to describe them. The human vs. machine debate is fascinating from a linguistic point of view; and humans win every single time. But money speaks louder than words and MT saves millions; therefore, despite well-founded warnings from the bleeding hearts of the translation world, the market continues to shift toward MT with human post-editors. However, the fact that we can’t stop this train, doesn’t necessarily mean we have to hop aboard without at least asking ourselves where it’s going.

MT2

THE CONFIDENTIALITY ISSUE

Confidentiality suits cost the world millions every year, especially in the developed world. The potential legal implications of MT in regards to confidentiality have been analyzed in several papers and blogs. However, Matthew Blake summarizes it best in layman’s terms: “According to many legal experts, the actual sensitivity of confidential information and the ongoing efforts to keep it undisclosed are necessary to keeping information confidential. If the owner of the confidential information is reckless with the information, is it truly confidential?” What I would add to Matthew’s question is what happens when the person being reckless with the information is the translator or agency entrusted with it?

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THE INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY ISSUE

When using MT, such as Google Translate or similar technologies, you may find things like this in your service agreement:

“When you upload, submit, store, send or receive content to or through our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.”

This obviously does not play well with intellectual property rights; and because this is a huge issue, I will address it in a separate post.

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THE ETHICAL ISSUE

MT raises an array of ethical questions from several different perspectives.

1) Affecting clients: Are clients being told that MT is used? If so, are clients aware of the confidentiality issue? Are they aware of the intellectual property issue? Is the rate they are paying consistent with the translation quality they are receiving? Do they fully comprehend the implications of machine vs. human translation? In other words, are clients giving informed consent to the use of MT or are key potential issues being withheld or concealed behind pricing strategies?

2) Affecting agencies: Who is ultimately responsible for any breaches to confidentiality or intellectual property? Can agencies keep their client’s information safe? What does that duty imply and to what extent are agencies expected to take measures to ensure such rights? How far can agencies go to control their translators? What is a legitimate business practice in the MT framework and what borders on abusive? What are the implications of having inexperienced or unprofessional translators post-edit what is already low quality MT language?

3) Affecting translators: What about translators’ intellectual property rights? How much are translators willing to waive? Are they actually required to do so? How does the new MT-based business model affect their income? What happens to translators in developing parts of the world that are already more vulnerable to abusive practices and have limited access to necessary tools for competing in the current market?

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These are just some questions off the top of my head that I believe we should probably think about before submitting anything to MT. Needless to say, these are not easy questions and it may take us some time to find the answers. In the meantime, I wonder what my readers think…