This is not a news blog or an advice blog or any sort of company blog. It's more of an opinion blog.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Put Tech In Perspective

Reading, against my good anti-procrastination sense, some comments far down under Lord Lossner's blog post from 2013, and among them Kevin Hendzel's in particular, has reminded me about something I used speak more about: the prominence of technology in translator and translation agency profiles.

Before we move on I want to say one thing: CAT tools have legitimate uses. I'm probably addicted to tabular layout myself and use a CAT tool for almost every job that doesn't involve a PDF file the source original text arriving in a PDF file, I even charge direct clients less when they recycle the same old contractual clauses. I'm not a CAT opponent, nor a tech opponent. I grew up coding. I was the fat nerd kid in glasses. Not sure the past tense is justified. Anyway.

I do realize, and do not deny, that achieving mastery and certification in a CAT tool can open the door to gainful employment for many individual translators, more so in some paths than the others inside the profession, and especially those who aren't too heavy into marketing. In such cases even a CAT developer's logo displayed as a badge on a translator's website makes sense, adding some authority and credibility, and forging a cognitive link to a well-known name in the 'industry'. The translator may not be an artist, nor an artisan, but at least the CAT maker or trainer lends its credit to the translator's claim of being a qualified worker.

On the other hand, just like Kevin says, the translation world seems to suffer from a 'hysterical obsession over technology'. I'm just not sure whether it's really an obsession or despair and not knowing what else to do, as the tech does seem to me to be a desperate attempt at value proposal.

The tech may be the single last thread on which the marketing hangs for some companies and freelancers. The impression of a concrete and almost tangible something, which can justify the price.

The exaggerated claim to 'state-of-the-art technology' (running on Visual Basic runtimes) helps drive at least some enthusiasm and perhaps, for a while, create the illusion that the given translator or agency is the only place you can find that, a unique entity, a thought leader. Until you've cycled through most of them and know better.

Next, irresponsible and short-sighted use of CATs by people who don't know or care much about translation — perhaps due to a lack of emotional investment resulting from a lack of connection, resulting from not actually being a translator — leads to situations in which 'consistency', client-approved settings and QA routines override common sense. For a different but ultimately related reason the same may be taking place in connection with the could-care-less attitude of those disillusioned to the point of embracing the GIGO principle, as is the case with quite some small agencies and freelancers who know how to make good stuff but no longer even try to argue with their clients. Some of whose ideas challenge all laws of reason.

Not only the foregoing, but in some cases the monolingual underlying nature of CATs and related QA tools shows through, and their inability to take account of conventions applicable to languages other than a version of English, e.g. in match calculating algorithms, QA checks etc. So then you end up receiving a massive complaint about 'inconsistencies', which are essentially inflectional suffixes, punctuation rules and such like. 'There is an issue with your translation,' and they expect a 50% discount, and you should, 'respond to the client's feedback,' overnight.

I want to stress that this is not necessarily something CAT designers had in mind. In fact, at least one CAT manufacturer has noted publicly that agencies are putting too much of the technological burden on translators' shoulders. It is also possible that in introducing certain now-institutions such as matches, QA routines etc., the IT companies did not actually intend to redefine translation. (In fact, I find it hard to imagine anyone would have conceived of a quest like that, without the benefit of foreknowledge.)

Rather, it's about the attitudes with which people reach for technology and use it. An attitude which needs fixing.

A notable example I'd like to bring up is how some companies insist on OCR-ing and CAT processing even hard-copy documents complete with signatures, logos etc. So not only is the translation effectively being delivered on the company stationery of someone who doesn't even know about its being used, people's signatures are actually scanned, copied and pasted over.

Why? What for? Possibly to give the client the brain-killing comfort of imagining that he received his correspondence in that exact form in the first place (radically eliminating any hint of foreignness other than such inevitables as postal addresses in foreign countries), or perhaps to satisfy a 'client requirement', as in a client requirement to OCR the heck out of everything and lose nothing in translation — but in the sense of formatting rather than the meaning.

Speaking of which, there is no concrete reason not only why the details of formatting should need to be handled personally by highly trained specialists with degrees and accreditations in translation, which is a different field from printing, typography and copy-shop services, in which an entry level qualification would often have sufficed. Putting translators on entry-level technical tasks is the translation equivalent of overlawyering, use of overqualified personnel and multiplication of trivial tasks taken to absurd levels of importance. Let's revisit the Bitter Lawyer clip from three posts ago:

Simply put, OCR with manual connections, and manual reconstruction of formatting from PDF files in general by white-collar workforce can't replace a professional typesetting/publishing process that should be used for real publications. Not much more than Paint-edited graphs and charts could hope to replace the real thing in a glossy brochure, as much as we do that sometimes for the client's convenience and to spare the graphics guy the need to go through a wall of text to figure out what goes where.

Essentially, this seems to be pointless work, generated to just have some work to do, to give or receive some semblance of value. Or to cater to some sort of non-rational (or outright irrational) requirement somewhere, in a hope that such unconditional and full obedience would please the client (Stockholm syndrome?). Or perhaps there really is so much corner-cutting these days even in publishing that this is actually done for a real purpose, especially if translators can be tricked into free gophering.

And, for the record, the general fasctination with PDF files and OCR-ing them is ridiculous. There is almost no real need these days (barring some niche applications) to use non-editable formats in normal textual translation, and the use of PDF files no longer should impress anybody because these days literally anybody can save his own PDF files using free software.

Note how all those .doc files that have been lost (really?) are found miraculously when you quote a PDF surcharge.

It almost seems like there's a morbid appeal in sculpting the exact same format in a .doc as there was in a (sometimes even non-editable) PDF file.

Or, in other words, there is played a pointless game of creating obstacles and overcoming them. To achieve what? To prove one's dedication to the client? To mark territory and show the supplier who's the boss? To project status? Meh to all three.

Well, unless it's an effort to put everything in a large TM and never pay for the full word count any more on similar segments, but there just seems to be too much accompanying focus on formatting preservation and sculpting for this alone to be the case.

In short, excessive reliance on technology, especially connected with a lack of due reflection, dumbs our work down, piles up red tape and shuts down rational thinking, creativity and everything else that marks human translation as human. It also dehumanizes our work and makes its conditions sometimes dreadful and depressogenic.

Obviously, reducing translators to gears in a world wide word mill whose job is not to think or create, who are vendors with numbers and 'dear translators/dear linguists' rather than people with names, can't be good for the profile and respect enjoyed by the profession. If there is any enjoyment of anything left in it.

I should probably mention, at least in passing, custom CATs and custom online translation management systems. In short, they're unwieldy, worse than the alternative, and compound the unhuman nature of translation these days. Will you stay logged into 20 different agencies' dedicated systems, keep a tab on things all the time, jump at jobs and click your way through auctions and confirmations all day long... ugh.

If you, Dear Reader, by chance, are a translation agency owner or employee, know that it does not make you unique and remarkable from a translator's perspective, at least in a sense other than unique and remarkable pain to work with. Which — I still hope — is something you actually give a dime (or shilling) about.

Next, technology is not what defines you as a translator or 'professional translator'. In connection with what I said earlier on, I understand that it may be a sound idea to focus on it much on your presentation, but still perhaps exercise some care and do not let it get out of hand. Technology is a huge aid and in many cases the be or not be of a professional translator, but not in the sense that owning a CAT-tool licence makes you 1) a translator, 2) a professional translator, or 3) a great translator. Your intelligence, knowledge, creativity, imagination, intuition, research aptitude and work ethic do that.

So perhaps don't emphasize it more than necessary in your profile — unless you can confirm that it works for you.

I can imagine and accept that in some specific situations it does work and it turns out well for the translator. Probably more so in the localization subsector than elsewhere, though I wouldn't like to judge by appearances here. Or in those long-term assignments where large volumes of text are translated for a utilitarian purpose.

But for that you need a working environment in which the translator is respected as a fully valuable professional and not regarded as a low-ranking menial member of the workforce several grades below a technician or engineer with real, useful skills. Or at least where the knowledge of all those substantive tools and all the attendant gadgetry at least finds appreciation and validates you. And where the processes are not degrading and soul-destroying, at least in the subjective experience of the translator involved.

If you can help it, please do not be indifferent to the tech madness, and try to guide your clients and agencies back onto the track of common sense when they steer off it.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Nominalization Leads To Commoditization

One of the causes of the huge problem with rates in translation is the commoditization of our work.

We are no longer authors, we are more akin to factory-line workers in word mills. Credit is rescinded, rates are reduced, contracts get uglier by the minute, as does the manner of address in ads and inquiries.

... And yet translators embrace commodity-market routine willingly, as if following construction industry's habit and custom validated them and infused with new vigor.

Even freelancers pose as 'Doe Translations', as though they were each a small agency, ever ready to outsource, to let a million-page deal across twenty languages in and parcel it out.

LSP, Vendor, TEP, what the heck?

But even the word 'translation' is commoditizing when used as a noun unnecessarily. I'm no fan of 'Peggy Translates' kind of wacky verb use, but nominalization breeds commoditization. Because you stop talking about translating and you start talking about translations. Or marketing translation, legal translation, business translation and more of the same noun with a qualifying adjective. Nouns make products, and nouns make commodities.

A product stylization might actually be better to your PR/marketing/branding than pure service-sector placement, but it's relatively hard to build a satisfactory brand on them when they're sold by the kilogram, or by the container ex factory.

(There is a chance you don't get commoditized when your product is a commodity — unlike with commoditized services.)

You still need to tell clients what you do, but load up a couple of law websites and you'll see practice areas, client industries and more, but not Services => Title Checking, Document Review, Will Writing and other things lawyers with higher aspirations hate to do.

For a translation agency such a method of presentation makes perfect sense. They do offer defined services and products like that, generally removed and cut off from the identity of their authors. But you won't win against agencies if you compete in their field.

For a translator it may be a better idea to quit designing packages that compete sometimes on features and usually on price and instead use the translator's personality to win clients and find work.

In any case, it's easier to use a translator's existing personality than to give personality to generic products or services.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Once More Unto The Breach: About Rates Again

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. For Harry, for IAPTI and for fair trade. I'm come here straight from reading a post at Audra's about setting your rates and about why that's important, on a quest to add my own two farthings as I'm always wont to do. Without further ado, here's some maths (and some facts) and some reassurance. First the numbers:

With an average salary of $53,410 per year, interpreters and translators earn less money than other social services professionals, such as clinical social workers ($51,460), middle school teachers ($56,280) and school psychologists ($72,220). However, the average salary of interpreters and translators is higher than that of exterminators ($32,190) and garbage collectors ($35,230).

Source: Check out median hourly wage too. Buried somewhere in the archives of this blog is a post with more such data, including how translators in Western Europe make far less than the average for their education level, perhaps another referencing how translators earn less and less despite how demand for their work keeps increasing, and more. (Unless I forgot to write them. That sometimes happens.)

See, translators are already being impoverished as a result of the constant pressure on rates and a couple of other factors, such as the specific structure of our sector, and the way so many jobs get reverse-auctioned off by dominant buyers (even despite suppliers being in high demand, despite the good ones). This is what happens when a whole group of people massively gives in to nibbling demands and sometimes outright frog's leap bluff offers, which seemingly succeed through sheer insolence.

Whatever may seem okay right now — to survive as a graduate, to survive a job change, to do whatever — will it suffice to feed and clothe a family, send the children to college, keep some savings in the bank, do all sorts of things middle-class people are supposed to be able to do?

If you take $0.04 a word, you'll need to translate 1,335,250 words to make $53,410 p.a. That means 121,386 words a month if we take one month off due to holidays and sick leave (21-23 business days on both accounts is actually not that much). Supposing you don't work on weekends, let's divide this figure by 22 (the number of business days in a month). This results in 5518 words per day. How do you feel about translating that, every day? Supposing you work traditional 8-hour days, this also means 690 words an hour, consistently over 8 hours. A figure quite unrealistic in the case of most translators.

Things get better at six cents, but obviously still firmly in the unspectacular range as you can guess by now.

Bottom line: do some maths.

Now regarding the reassurance I promised you. I want to be crystal clear on one thing: While it's admirable to be the best at what you do, or try to get there, and always strive to improve, you still shouldn't need to be the best-in-class sort of  overachiever only in order to hope for reasonable, fair, sustainable wage commensurate with your education, experience and the value of your work.

Just because silver is not gold and gold is not platinum it doesn't stop being valuable and commanding a good price. On the other hand, if you really are there, you shouldn't have to struggle in the six-cent pool. Not six, not twelve, not thirty. Gold and platinum aren't priced in pennies.

A lot will be said about how market value does not coincide with emotions and feelings, and how market value should supposedly guide all things. Also about how translation needs to bring money on the table in order to justify serious money being paid for it.

The thing is, though, that translators are not actually being paid the real market value of their work, and that translation does bring money to translation buyers and users, and to resellers and intermediaries, it's only that at this day and age people don't see it fit to attribute that value to the translator's effort — for example because some other translator could produce the same value — or at least reward the translation financially in due proportion, because translation is supposedly an inherently low-value task. Both of which are silly propositions.

In truth interchangeability applies to everyone in business: plumbers, car mechanics, lawyers, accountants, marketers, consultants, executives, MBAs and everyone else, including the same people who use interchangeability as an argument to pay you peanuts. Plus, interchangeability does not cancel the value of your work, anyway, precisely because someone else would still have to do it.

Neither is a client or intermediary's perception of translation as a low-value sort of thing the sort of solid economic justification that they would demand of you (figuratively) in order to justify your pay.

The perception of translation deserving any more that pittance pay regardless of the whatever value it brings — that is something which goes against healthy principles of economy and even logic. That is a nonsense wish grounded in emotions rather than facts or principles.

The only thing about it which is consistent with the laws of economy is that in a buyer-controlled market buyers will be able to pull off that sort thing despite the irrationality of it. And especially in a market like the modern translation market, where the roles are reversed and translators are effectively buying their jobs rather than selling their services.

Not reassuring much, perhaps, but let's get the pseudoeconomic nonsense out of the way and be clear on who's trying to defy the laws of physics (economy, but anyway).

And just for the record, just in case, if someone claims that piecemeal work is to far removed from the final product or service to be priced in direct reference to it, then in such a case your costs of living, remuneration consistent with your education and the level of your contribution to the final product or service — those should all serve as referene in determining your pay, as long as the business sustains itself and brings profit. Not however little someone thinks he should be able to pay you. That's more like laws of the jungle than healthy laws of economy.

(And this even before we consider the damage done by low rates to the quality of translation and the resulting damage to clients, and all the promises made and broken on which the clients relied in paying for the service, which prevent supply-demand mechanics from working properly due to the misinformation.)

Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Third Way: Increase Awareness

Some minutes ago I read an article from Jim's Marketing Blog from two months ago, linked by Frau Newell somewhere on Facebook. It's worth reading in whole, but without further ado, according to the author's powerful opening statement (sort of):

To get that price / value balance right, we have 2 options:
  1. We can pump more value into the product or service.
  2. We can lower the price.

In the context of translation, I immediately thought of the third way, probably as a result of thoughts crossing my mind of late, perhaps since April or May:

Increase awareness.

Strictly speaking there is no contradiction here, as the value needs to be in before you can raise awareness about it. But it's worth noting that:

  1. Once you put the premium value in, you'll need to communicate it or chances are it won't catch, which the author notes in saying: we are fooling ourselves if we expect prospective clients or customers to pay a premium, for something that’s average or close to average.
  2. Chances are the premium value is already in, so you need not to add it but to communicate it, right now. Which is also in the text but requires some reading into it, preferably with an open mind.

My proposition is that translation does not need any more value pumped into it, it needs better communication of its existing value. Any communication of its value would be a good start.

Actually, it would be false to say that no value communication exists, but it rests on the wrong premises:

  1. Added services of a kind which is really copy-shop services, or office assistance or entry-level technical assistance, which puts the profile of the profession below what translators' education and credentials would suggest.

    A lawyer will naturally end up gophering quite a lot in his initial years at the firm, even brew a couple of cuppas while at it, but no firm ever advertises lawyer-made coffee and lawyer-made copies as the added value that sweatens the deal, let alone its unique sales position. And this even though some lawyers are really conscious about courtesy, hospitality and warm and cosy client care. Plus, if a lawyer drove a truck, it would still be pilled at the same hourly rate as legal advice.

    (Or real consulting but without real qualifications. I recall a European translation agency contract where one of the attachments, an ethical code actually, required translators to check the correctness of source code while localizing software. I also recall a smart client who ordered legal advice 'localized', with a translation price tag and not legal advice price tag. Many translators probably have tales of expectations of typesetting, DTP, graphical editing and all sorts of checks in addition to just translating well.)

  2. Making translators look like that cleaning person with hidden talents, who is probably inreality a good fairy and who will quietly fix and polish a corporate manager's reports, filings and sales mail while sweeping and mopping his office at night. That, and Captain-Obvious-style consulting, telling clients things any twelve year old should know.
  3. Silly, unnecessary, outright dumb kinds of forcibly peddled added value such as preserving the intact layout of... incoming mail, down to copying the sender's signatures and logos over to the translation. I would question the soundness of mind of any client who really wanted to have his incoming mail translated like that as opposed to having it inadvertently peddled to himself by a translation agency or even translator anxious to furnish something, anything remunerable.
  4. Distasteful manifestations of ready obedience, submission and flattery, comparable to falling prostrate before the client and begging for scraps that fall from his table. 'Your wish is my command' is a real translation tag line I've seen, but by far not the only one in the same vein. You don't win respect that way. And you get scraps, bones, not serious compensation for your services.
Much of it is probably due to the situation translators and agencies currently live in, having their self-esteem constantly undermined and even sometimes functioning in circumstances in which self-esteem is a luxury some just can't afford.

The one thing is, if you don't have faith in yourself, it's hard to expect that others will. I'm not encouraging you to embrace the vice of pride but rather to take honest inventory of your skills and qualifications, their worth, their value, the path that led you to achieving them, the effort, the emotional reward. See the good things, the valuable, the unique. If translation represents no real value to you, then something is going wrong.

The other thing is that unlike what many (but not all!) marketing writers and speakers currently preach, it's not exclusively about defined benefits, or wants, or exclusively things that pertain to your client's business and not you. And it certainly is not about worshipping the ground the client walks on and wagging your tail hoping he'll throw a bone, which is as poor a strategy for winning clients as it is for winning girlfriends. To get a client hooked — and turning clients into hardcore fans is an idea I first heard from a law blogger — you need to tell story. It always is about a story. There are places in this world where stories are currency and the sum of $1, $10 and $100 is 3 colourful paper trinkets, not 111 dolars.

Tell a personal story. There is a reason lawyers use bios on their websites. About 60% of their traffic goes to the bios. Personal does not mean TMI, so skip the laundry of your multilingual home (unless you really are a good writer), but do tell a story about your academic studies and your professional path and the work you do these days. Don't be daft and presume that it would be of no interest to your client, like many people say. How do they know? Besides, I believe I've already covered the nonsense of treating your client like an alcoholic father (who must not be upset in the slightest, not made to listen to even a hint of something that's of no immediate relevance to him and his current situation).

Everybody loves to hear stories, you just need to find a way to tell them without driving people off or putting them to sleep. If you perceive yourself as a 'cultural mediator' (two individuals are also two cultures, on some level), a 'builder of bridges' or whatever else translation propaganda currently bills us as being, it would be a good test of the skills you supposedly rely on for a living.

By way of illustration, I never studied languages or translation myself at a university level because back at the time I'd thought it would teach me nothing new. (Edit: Oh wait, I did for a year in 2010-2011.) However, a couple of months ago, I was mining the faculty website for terminology and buzz words when translating a colleague's transcripts, and I got hooked on the narrative. It sucked me in and wouldn't let me go. Why oh why can't translators put similar narrative on their own websites? If it worked on a cormudgeonly skeptic like yours truly...

In short, believe in the value of what you do. Communicate that belief. Make it contagious. Show, not tell, even using words for the purpose. Give your prospective clients a chance to appreciate the value. They can't if you won't let them.