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! 

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?

MT3-2

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.

MT4-2

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?

MT5-2

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…

Translating Jurisprudence: How a Bad Translator Killed Law’s Empire

killing laws empire

I have two great intellectual passions: law and philosophy. When you put them together you get what is known as jurisprudence or theory of law. I have taken countless courses and seminars on jurisprudence in several languages and read many authors in their original languages as well as a lot of others translated into either Spanish or English from French or German, yet I have never encountered a worst translation than the one I am going to discuss here today.

In one of my current jurisprudence seminars, we studied, among other great works, Law’s Empire by Ronald Dworkin. Because Dworkin was an American thinker, Law’s Empire was written in my language, so I would never have even looked at a Spanish translation were it not for the fact that the seminar I am attending is in Spanish and three of the other participants (all lawyers) read the same Spanish translation, which apparently was so awful, that they spent at least 40 minutes from a two hour session discussing how the translator had killed Law’s Empire. Curiosity, of course, got the best of me and I just had to check out the translation for myself. Here are my thoughts:

Lack of Background Knowledge

This is not the first time I mention lack of background knowledge on this blog, but this translation is a perfect example of what I mean. The translator was completely clueless about philosophy in general and jurisprudence in particular, and it showed! In jurisprudence, like all other areas of philosophy, authors often build their thoughts on the groundwork laid out by prior thinkers in a sort dialogical form. When referring to very well-known works, ideas or theories, they assume the reader is also familiar with them and, therefore, will not explicitly clarify to whom or what they are referring every single time they make reference to it. So, for example, when referring to the categorical imperative an author will assume you know he’s referring to Kant, and if you don’t, you should not be translating philosophy (seriously!). The same happens with jurisprudence. In this case, the translator’s overall ignorance led entire references to be lost in translation by rendering word-for-word interpretations of very well-known philosophical and jurisprudential concepts to the point to which they became unrecognizable.

Using Non-Interchangeable Terms Interchangeably

Although it’s true that concepts such as “fairness” and “justice” can, in certain contexts, be translated interchangeably into Spanish, which has only one word for both concepts, in the case of jurisprudence, this simply does not hold. Interpretation is an essential part of jurisprudence and great thinkers –especially those heavily influenced by Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language or who pay special attention to logical accuracy– are extremely careful about using accurate and consistent terminology.

Inconsistencies

Building on the idea expressed above, it is not OK to translate terms inconsistently, which is something this translator clearly ignored. With some thinkers, a single change in terminology can affect the entire logical flow of their arguments, thus weakening the argument itself.

Lack of Comprehension

This was directly related to all of the above items. The translator clearly understood the words but not the ideas in Dworkin’s work. I have to admit, Dworkin is not a particularly easy thinker to understand, but many of his ideas were incomprehensible after being re-interpreted and re-signified by an utterly incompetent translator –to the point to which several PhD students and a renowned Professor of Jurisprudence were unable to follow the logic in the translated version not only in entire sentences, but entire paragraphs, and not for lack of capacity on their part.

Closing thoughts

I know that most of what I have identified as the main flaws in a certain Spanish translation of Law’s Empire is applicable to translation in general. These four weaknesses can affect any translation, even extremely simple ones. But I think when accepting the honor of translating the ideas of some of the greatest minds in jurisprudence, one is especially obliged to remain as faithful as possible to the original meaning of the source text, and if a large part of what the author wrote rests on his or her ability to accurately follow logical propositions to their most significant conclusions, then the least a translator can do is humbly evaluate whether he or she has the proper training and experience for the task. Most of the translators in my network would be up to the challenge and would do an excellent job. Yet, ironically, when asked about this, they agreed they would also think it through before accepting a job of these characteristics and many, with different training or areas of specialization, said they would turn it down. And that level of introspection and awareness of their own limitations is what sets them apart as real pros in my book! So to the translator that killed Law’s Empire, please, learn from the pros, and think twice before embarking in such complex tasks.

Part 2 of Organization Matters: Four Easy Steps to Better Time Management for Translators

traductor ordenado y feliz

Last week, we began to discuss why organizational skills matter when it comes to translation. We looked at three aspects of organization: physical, mental and time management and concluded that organizational skills lead to success via many paths. Being organized not only increases quality and productivity, but when combined with a solid business plan, it can help freelance businesses or small companies grow and evolve. We took a little peak at Aristotle’s philosophy of virtue and found that excellence is not an act, but a habit. Therefore, to lead to positive results, organization has to become a habit in our daily work routine. Now the question is, how do we do develop this habit? The first thing we need to do is learn how to get organized. In my experience, organization starts with effective time management and this can be achieved with four simple steps.

1. Tracking Tasks

Tracking tasks is simple; your goal is to gather as much information as possible about where your time is going. For a few days, simply jot down everything you do and how long it takes. Don’t leave any part of your routine out: include breaks, meals, leisure time, communication with clients, even things you do to procrastinate! The more information you have, the easier it will be to identify potential room for improvement.

2. Establishing Priorities

Now that you know where your time is actually going, the next thing you need to figure out is what can be cut down to optimize your time and how to redirect your effort to more important or more time consuming tasks. To do this, you will need to have a very clear picture of what your priorities are.

3. Planning

Once you know how your time can be optimized, the next thing you need to do is develop a plan that is consistent with both your priorities and the actual time you have for each. Most of our work is centered on projects that need to be completed by a specific deadline. As translators, we are used to planning on the basis of translated words per day. But, as you probably realized when doing steps one and two, focusing on how many words you can translate per day as if you lived in a vacuum is not effective because your day is filled with dozens of other tasks that are much more time consuming than you probably originally thought. When planning, keep all this mind and try to develop a realistic plan based on all the new information you have acquired.

4. Scheduling

Once you’ve set priorities and developed a plan, draw out a schedule for materializing that plan and then stick to it. Personally, I’m old fashioned and like to pencil things into my eco-friendly non-techy agenda. More modern types use techy or online tools for managing their agendas. It doesn’t really matter what kind of schedule you keep, just as long as it’s clear, consistent with steps 1-3, and neat enough to be easy to use and understand.

Of course, there’s a lot more to organization than just time management. This is just the beginning, so visit us again soon for more tips for getting organized!

Part 1 of Organization Matters: Why Being Organized is Important for Translators

traductor desordenado y triste

According to Aristotle, “You are what you repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Both as an Ethics professor at the School of Law where I teach part-time and as a lawyer-linguist, I cannot begin to tell you how many practical applications I’ve found to this one little phrase. Of course, this phrase does not stand alone, it is part of a much more complex line of thought in Aristotle’s philosophy of virtue, but even out of context, it contains a vast universe of meanings and interpretations that, with the help of self-awareness, values development, and good business skills can enrich and improve countless aspects of our professional lives. Today, I’ve decided to apply it to the business of translation, particularly, the development of good organizational skills. The concept of “good organizational skills” has an internal and external aspect that encompasses both physical and mental organization as well as time management abilities. As far as translation, I interpret each of these aspects as follows.

  1. Physical Organization: Not just eliminating clutter from your work area (unnecessary papers, invoices, dictionaries you’re not using, etc.), but also keeping neat, well-organized, well-maintained and updated technology. Outdated or otherwise less-then-optimal technology will lead to translation blunders, sloppy work and missed deadlines. One wastes a lot of time troubleshooting when things go wrong and this can be easily prevented with organized physical maintenance of our work area and tools.

  2. Mental Organization: Keeping our minds organized can be challenging when meeting multiple deadlines or juggling many clients. Poor mental organization leads to stress, stress leads to mistakes, mistakes lead to low quality work. Not all techniques work for everyone. Personally, I resort to running as a way of clearing my mind, de-stressing, thinking matters through and coming back reloaded. The important thing isn’t so much how you do it, but just that you do it. And this means making clearing your head and organizing your thoughts a habit.

  3. Time Management: In a prior post, I talked about what to factor in when organizing your agenda. However, since time management is tricky, we will discuss it further in Part 2. All I’ll add here is that being organized will decrease the amount of time you spend looking for things, solving problems, uncovering important information, troubleshooting, etc. In my experience, the main secret is understanding where your time goes, what can be cut down, what needs to be prioritized, how to eliminate distractions, and how to optimize your time.

The BIG Picture

Organizational skills matter beyond whatever translation you are working on right now. A well-organized translator is usually an efficient translator. Being organized will not only increase quality and productivity, but when combined with a solid business plan, it will help your freelance business or company grow and evolve. Organization leads to success via many paths, the most obvious of which is that time is money, being organized helps manage your time effectively and will translate into earnings. But that’s not the only way in which it matters, good organization improves your relationship with your clients and, if you outsource or have an in-house team, with your linguists. Because excellence is, as Aristotle tells us, a habit, in my next post, I will discuss a few tips for developing that habit. So stay tuned in! There’s more to come on this subject.

Are Google Translate and Microsoft’s Star Treck Tech Taking Translation Jobs?

star treck 2

In 2006, Google came out with Google Translate and people went nuts arguing over whether or not that would mean job losses for translators. At the time, while sustaining that it takes a human to understand and convey language nuances and expressions of uniquely human abilities like sarcasm or humor, most translators agreed Google Translate was rubbish and there was no way a machine could ever really replace us. Back then, I argued that Google Translate would evolve, it would get better and some jobs would indeed be lost, and what’s more, they should be! Before you bite my head off for that last bit, please read on, I can explain.

Microsoft has announced the launch of its new Star Trek translation technology that renders real time translation of spoken language. Like its predecessor, Google Translate, it sparked the debate all over again. So again, here’s what I have to say: eventually some jobs will be lost. I’ve been following Google Translate since its inception and guess what? It was designed to learn and evolve –and it did. We’re talking about a program that in 2006 could not translate sentences with plural subjects or subjective clauses and now it can. In some languages, it even does so pretty well. The reason is that for the past 8 years users have been feeding Google Translate with the necessary corrections and information for it to evolve. But what can Google Translate get relatively right? Grammatically correct source sentences with basic language structures, particularly, simple instructions, like those found in manuals, mostly in Western languages being translated to and from English. If the source is grammatically incorrect, Google Translate will probably fail; but when the source is well-written and simple, then Google Translate can do the job about as well as a one or two-cent-per-word translator (yes, those exist!).

Recently, Microsoft embarked on a mission to create “even better” translation technology and we’d be lying to ourselves as translators if we failed to admit that a lot of what some translators do (again I mean one or two-cent-per-word translators) is really uncomplicated enough to easily be replaced by machine translation and then merely tweaked a bit by a human. Many argue that this doesn’t mean jobs will be lost; instead, the role of translators will simply change. Though the second premise is true, the first is mathematically unsustainable. Some translators will experience this change from linguist to editor, but it is not cost-effective for all translators to survive the cut. So while some cling to the editing raft, others will inevitably sink.

But is this really such a big deal, anyway? Even though technical manuals and similar texts constitute a large part of what actually gets translated, there is also a myriad of texts that are not that simple and still fall under the category of things containing uniquely human expressions and nuances that simply cannot be captured by a machine. In fact, sometimes, they can’t even be captured by another human with a lesser command of language, lower cultural level than the author of the source, or unsuitable background knowledge for the task at hand! Sometimes, even humans fail to convey the essence of a complex source text, and in my area of specialization, that includes legal translators, for lack of familiarity with either jurisprudence or nuances (not of legalese, but of legal systems altogether). So while I think good legal translators (like translators working in many other complex areas of translation) are nowhere near threatened by machine translation, I’m afraid I can’t say the same for those two-cent translators out there.

A lifetime went by, and translators are still overworked (and possibly underpaid)!

traductor estresado sin red bull (1)

Another lifetime ago, back when I was practically a full-time external quality manager for a large multinational translation company, I complained when a linguist submitted a translation for quality management about a day and a half late and during very odd business hours (nearly 2 am the day after her deadline). My email said something like, “this translation was submitted outside regular working hours in my time zone,” to which the linguist –who had not only delivered late but had also rendered very low-quality work– replied something in the lines of, “well, in my time zone, we work 24/7.” The obvious answer from me would have been, “well that explains your low-quality work.” Instead, I chose to drop the conversation with the linguist altogether and focus on convincing the PM to: a) extend the deadline and b) have another linguist edit and proofread the job before quality management.

Like I said, that was a million years ago, but I could never get over that conversation, not because I cared much about the linguist or her “witty” comeback, but because of what I thought that said about how a lot of translators worked at the time: too much, too quickly, too irresponsibly, too (insert adverb of choice here!). The question is why? Why do so many translators work 24/7 only to set themselves up for missed deadlines and quality complaints? Many say rates, which makes sense: the lower your rates, the more work you need to accept in order to earn, at least, a living wage, the more work you accept, the more words you need to translate per day, and you can imagine how the story goes from there. The thing is that I’ve been off the grid for years (literally). During the whole time I was in law school (which was five years, because I studied in Argentina), plus some time I took off after law school and the first few years of my PhD studies, I did not blog, participate in discussions, join groups, or otherwise engage in fluid communication with fellow translators (at least not regularly). But now I’m back, and guess what? This is still an issue! How can this still be an issue? I will explore this further in this blog, but something tells me it still has a lot to do with rates!