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

Saturday, 27 June 2015

On Growing Some Scales

By accident, on Saturday, when alternating between serious reading and just chilling out with a bottle of amber ale after a long, hard week, I found a new marketing blog that seemed worth reading because of its no-nonsense approach with useful ideas, no trumpet-blowing and no padding. One of the first to capture my attention was a guest post by a young copywriter called Stephanie O'Brien, titled thus: Why Athletes Get Paid More Than You And How to Steal Their Strategies (and nothing less).

It'll be easier if you read it before we go on. Don't worry, it's short. Shorter than the economy reading that might be in order later.

In short, she describes it from a marketing point of view, but what she's talking about is the economies of scale (if you're German or Polish, you be thinking of it as 'effect of scale').

In some lines of business, the larger your operations are, the lower the costs of an individual operation or individual product or service can be. This is used by companies that compete on the price, often to the detriment of quality. Translation agencies can benefit from it, processing millions of orders in all sorts of languages and fields, while translators can't really, because they only have this much time to sell.

Or can they?

This is the question.

After all, athletes — and singers, and actors, and authors — are also time-limited, just like anyone else who essentially is selling his own time.

We can only earn this much when getting paid by a couple of agencies or a couple of direct clients, or a mix of both.

Seemingly. Because the larger picture is that:

  1. Our work is still used by more people than just the one person signing the PO. Only perhaps we no longer own the translation in any way after completing and returning it and cashing in the fees. But it's still out there, getting read by many people — who often rely on it in their own work for even more people — and the one guy who procured it certainly didn't make it. His company didn't translate, either.
  2. In a direct sense, athletes, singers, actors etc. still get most of their income from a handful of sources, they aren't having millions of invoices paid directly by crowds of fans. Even if they had an arrangement in places that gives them a certain percentage of every sale of something (e.g. a ticker or a copy), that money still comes from one source.

Thus, the difference is rather that they get credited for serving the masses and we don't. That part is monopolized by middlemen — agencies — and, to some extent, clients themselves. By clients themselves I mean people who act like the author who doesn't want the translator's name in the credits (it usually doesn't make it to the cover, anyway).

But imagine middlemen in sports and music trying to act like they — their companies, rather — are kicking the ball. It ain't gonna fly. But in translation it's quite viable.

(Lawyers are somewhere in the middle. The firms control the cake, but the names and faces of the individual lawyers are indispensable to the system, at least the way it is now. To some extent the same is true of sworn translators and other translators whose names must appear on the documents.)

In the end result, we aren't getting any sort of commission fees. Rather, the guys between us and the reader reduce us to the role of a wage earner, whose typically doesn't even reflect the scale of the enterprise. This is cool and dandy when our per-word or per-page fees multiplied by the number of such units add up to like one third of the transaction's worth, but not so cool when, let's say, the realtors and the lawyers are getting a percentage cut out of a couple million bucks, while the translators will have to content themselves with, say, a couple thousand words times a dozen cents per word, yielding a result in the hundreds.

The reasons are many, and I can't purport to know them all, but one thing is quite clear: the other guys either have a stronger position or face less opposition when charging in regions that are more proportional to the scale of the transaction.

When 'value pricing' is mentioned in the context of translation, the first thing that comes to mind is large texts at low prices because their subjective value to the client is low. For example because the client is intellectually lazy enough not to realize that his accounting or HR or licensing arrangements are all vital to his business despite being non-core. In plainer word, this means some people won't think in terms broader than the one or two direct steps where the money comes in, as their horizons are too tight to think in a broader picture. Except perhaps if they're talking about your responsibility rather than your pay.

So, we have two options:

  1. We could do some work that really can be sold to multiple purchasers, for example write books to which we retain the rights, of which more copies can always be made, and which will grow in value as we succeed, become more widely known, our ideas and concepts are proved by life etc. But remember, for example, that consultants who sell materials apart from advice don't necessarily make a fortune and neither necessarily do non-fiction authors.
  2. 'Leverage' the fact that we really do have large audiences quite a lot of time, at least in business and marketing translation. In other cases we act in a supportive role for something that has that kind of reach. We could remind our clients and agencies of this fact, as well as being tougher in negotiations in general.
#2 essentially means the scale is there but we need to claim it more assertively.

Other applications of scale include:

specializing and focusing — yes, it may be the antithesis of low-cost translation, but it does actually allow you to cut your costs, or, rather, use them more efficiently
CAT software — it sometimes pays for itself already on the trial licence simply because of opening access to more work
education, hardware, software, anything else that's purchased once (or at least only every once in a while) but used daily

However, it doesn't end there. There are multiple other ways in which you can tap into entire networks and make those networks work for you — starting from the fact that every happy client is likely to recommend you to other people. Thus your effective reach grows. You can compare it to the number of friends of friends or 2nd or 3rd tier connections you have on social media. Often what it takes is to just do your job well and perhaps just a little extra.

Back to Stephanie's article, though:

You could at least consider associating with people and businesses whose services are mutually complementary with yours rather than competing against them. That's a powerful combination which is hard to beat, and it also bears some resemblance to the strategies actually used by the most economically successful translators. Those strategies tend to involve a lot of mingling in the clients' world. This is a no-brainer for translators who come from other fields in their middle age and later (e.g. lawyers, doctors and engineers making a 'lateral move' for one reason or the other), but it's also worth considering as a path for the younger guys for whom translation is their first real job. But the stress here — unlike the mingling with clients and potential clients that the gurus talk about — would fall on mingling with all those people whose clients might need your services, rather than themselves.

Where's the 'scale' here? You can't reach all those people alone. But you can reach them through people and businesses that it's humanly possible for you to keep in touch with. This is essentially what networking is about.

This is also similar to controlling the entire value chain, as cost leaders (companies that sell on the price and build their business model around it) sometimes try to do, which includes the way in which translation agencies increasingly try to control you and make you their property. Except here nobody owns anybody, you're working with friends.

Last but — definitely! — not least, let's look at some really smart thing she said:

Professional athletes don’t make the stadium snacks. They don’t hold the cameras, tend the grass, or manufacture the equipment. If they did, they wouldn’t have enough time and energy to practice and stay on top of their game.
Print it and hang it above your monitor. Engrave in gold. Whatever. But defeat the urge — drilled into you by translation teachers, translation marketers, translation business coaches and even trusted translator friends — to think that you must be a 'one-stop shop' for everything that relates to a client's computer files. Or anything else like that.

You don't have to — while specialize in only 1-2 fields of knowledge to make yourself more efficient — learn the ins and outs of dozens of software suites and low-level, low-skill office tasks that bottom-feeding agencies and sometimes clients are increasingly confident about asking translators to do. Do world-class experts, high-octane consultants etc. also sweep the floors in their clients offices and carry the client's suitcase?

You won't have the time to become a really great translator if you spend time becoming a really good office gopher. Something which you should decidedly leave to people for whom it is the only choice of work or the best one (or those who are sufficiently trained in it to take it to a whole new level).

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Don't Be Too Hard On Clients Who Ask To Cancel

I don't normally post about ethical issues much, but I'll make an exception for this one. I don't aspire to the role of an ethical expert of moral authority, I just want to share my opinion as a colleague.

Sometimes clients contact you to cancel your work before it's finished.

In some cases they don't want to pay anything for the work you've already done, because they no longer need it, and they don't think they should have to pay for something they don't need.

Well, that's their perspective, which is only one side of the story. Your perspective, which is the other side of the story, is that you've given them your time and skill, and you have a right to be compensated for it. My opinion is that you'd be in your right to charge them for that work (minus polishing if it goes straight to the bin and won't be used)[1] unless you can easily sell the same translation to someone else[2].

But what I really wanted to post about is when you consider charging them for the 100% anyway.

I believe it would be unethical to not do the remaining part of the work but still charge them for it — unless with their consent.

Simply put they have paid for our time. We have sold it to them. It now belongs to them. We can't keep it to ourselves or sell it to someone else any more. One doesn't own what one has already sold. One can't sell more than one actually has. One can't sell the same thing twice — for example we can't just charge that one client for a full day's worth of work the client will not actually receive and then spend that day working for a different client to get paid for it and profit from the cancellation by doubling our earnings for that day.

We could offer to translate something else for the same client within the limits of volume or time already paid for by that client. Or we could credit the time or volume against future projects.

But not charge two different clients for the same time.

Example: Suppose you're paid on a per-day basis for 10 days. The client cancels on the 8th day. It's easy to see that charging the client for all 10 days but spending the last 2 days working for a different client and getting paid for it means getting paid for 12 days after working only 10. This would be ethically sound with the first client's freely given consent, but not as the translator's dictate. Without the client's consent it would be like having one's car stolen and then returned but still claiming compensation from the insurer for the full value of the car (rather than lost enjoyment for some time, cost of checkup, repairs, cleaning etc.).

It isn't really different when the billable unit is word or page — only harder to visualize.

However, even if we simply take an improvised holiday, do completely nothing but just rest and regenerate our strength, then we're still keeping that time to ourselves. It isn't really fair to still charge the client for it and make the unexpected holiday our gain. That would be an unduly translator-centric perspective — just like it was unduly client-centric perspective to pay 0% after cancelling the work midway through as no longer needed.

We could also spend such time doing all sorts of things that need to be done anyway. Invoicing, taxes, administration, marketing, CPD, chores, even house chores — as we need to do those some time or other anyway. In fact, we'll probably end up doing something like this.

Notably, by shuffling our schedule around a bit — moving things to different days or hours — we're making ourselves more available for any future assignments, for which we'll be paid. This means no actual loss is suffered, only the inconvenience of having to adjust the schedule.

Perhaps the inconvenience of having to change our plans should be compensable, but it simply is not the same as actually losing the time we were expecting to sell. This isn't fresh meat or fish rotting because the buyer balked.

Thus, if we also forced the client to pay for our time, we'd effectively be profiting from the same time twice, which is little different from selling the same time to two different buyers.

Back to the insurance example: If we had insurance against cancelled contracts or other loss of work, the insurer would expect us to mitigate the damage by at least looking for different work, or, as an absolute minimum, not turning down viable offers. The insurer would only make up the difference.

The core principle of compensation is that one isn't supposed to profit from accidents. It isn't free lunch for the victim.

Bottom line: Having a PO or a signed contract is not a licence to be unproductive, or to sell the same time to two different clients.

However, I would also add to this that it's not okay to just go ahead and finish the work and force the client to pay for it, either, for very similar reasons.

We can find different work. We can rearrange our schedules. We can do some CPD, marketing or admin, or chores, or take an evening off today rather than tomorrow. This doesn't inconvenience us in any serious way.

Hence, let's not use POs and contracts as weapons of extortion.

Exception: The situation is different where at the same time:

  1. we had to forego alternative work in order to accommodate that client's work; and
  2. we needed work to pay the bills, can't find other work on short notice and can't really accommodate a holiday etc.
— in which case we shouldn't have the choice made for us by a random circumstance to have a holiday instead of working (for example). That would make me see it in a different light, ethically.

But normally it would be better to charge only moderate cancellation fees beyond payment for work actually done.

One also needs to remember that ruthlessly profiting at the client's expense is not compatible with the ethics of learned professions such as doctors, lawyers and other advisors.

Would you be happy if your lawyer or doctor charged you for previously agreed work you no longer needed, if he could easily take on another client or patient or spend the time managing his own affairs to free up more time for paid work tomorrow or later this week?

[1] After finishing the translation in the normal course you would proofread and revise it on your own, then apply some edits etc., which is a time-consuming process. Hence, 50% of translation alone is not 50% of the whole job when you apply 0% of the final polish that was normally expected. In other words, the percentage you are at in translation alone is not the percentage you are at in your whole work.
[2] In some cases, which will typically be translations of published works, you may be in a position to finish the same work for a different client, for example a different publishing house. An argument could be made that you should give it a try before charging a cancelling client.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Will Machine Translation Displace Only Those Humans Who Translate Like Machines?

Here is the text of the popular Internet meme, coined by dr Arle Richard Lommel of the German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence, himself a freelance translator:

Machine translation will displace only those humans who translate like machines

There is also a less known second sentence, which I don't see in those memes, and which reads:

Humans will focus on tasks that require intelligence.

I'm not sure if I actually disagree with dr Lommel, but I disagree with what I think the meme is likely to be typically understood to mean. Which is that only low-skill unimaginative human translators will be displaced by MT.

In the world around you, do you or do you not see MT used in the wrong place, for the wrong purpose or reasons or both?

In real life MT is used where it's not up to the task and where a human translator would do a better job.

The longer explanation is that people don't really know how translation works, human, machine or otherwise. They aren't necessarily motivated to learn, either, or even capable.

But what everybody can see — and what they are guided by in their decision-making — is that MT is cheap or free of charge, fast, or rather instantaneous, and readily available.

Choices made by clients in real life are not made the way the meme seems to imply that they are, i.e. objective reality + poetic justice. Objective reality is something they may or may not be aware of, and poetic justice is, well, poetic. So don't allow sentiments to get in the way of your logic.

Clients makes their decisions rather on the basis of what they know and what they want to do and what they ultimately do do with that knowledge.

Hence, rather, MT can displace human translators:

(i) for those clients who:

  • can't afford the higher cost of human translation (if it is higher), or
  • don't know the difference and don't have some other reason to stick with human translation (whatever that might be), or
  • know the difference but don't see it as worth paying for, or
  • know the difference, see the value but still go for MT for other reasons (whatever those might be) 

(ii) in that type of translation in which:

  • MT produces results that are fit for the purpose, and
  • human translation doesn't offer any benefit the client is interested in (or, more precisely, willing to pay for), whether that's more-than-fit quality or something else

This could be understood to mean that in at least some of those cases we all translate like machines. But that's not necessarily true — it only means we achieve the same results that a machine can achieve.

And machines can do amazing things with enough processing power and the ingenuity of, surprise, surprise, human engineers.

Next, 'even' structurally bound rule-based translation that relies on substitution as a method is not necessarily a task that doesn't require intelligence. It's only a task where artificial intelligence may be sufficient and in some cases superior. Just because Kasparov lost to Deep Blue doesn't mean chess doesn't require intelligence, does it?

Finally, MT with human post-editing (PEMTing) is not the same as MT without it, in terms of risks. Human-assisted MT is more of a threat than pure MT.

Make no mistake:

  • Just because you don't see yourself as a low-skill translator, or just because you objectively aren't one, doesn't mean that rules-based MT with good input data, good rules, a lot of processing power (millions of operations per minute etc.) and especially human assistance (PEMTing or otherwise) can't produce results that are x% as good as yours in x% of cases, for example 80% as good in 80% of the cases. Don't kid yourself, not everybody wants or even needs[1] the double 100% figure, nor can you actually achieve it (it's humanly impossible). It may be helpful to read up on bounded rationality, i.e. full optimization versus satisficing, and maximizers versus satisficers. As a translator, you are probably more likely to be a maximizer than a satisficer (100% pure maximizers probably don't exist, so it's not a 0/1 matter, more like, say, 0.9/0.1). An economist, business manager or IT person — or PM for that matter — is more likely to be a satisficer than you are (there are exceptions, some of them notably quite annoying, e.g. in the literal reading of some translation agency contracts only 100% of the best theoretically possible result will do, else they'll reject your translation; how does that feel?). Most people use simplified heuristics in their decision-making. This means they make 'approximate decisions' and accept certain risks in exchange for time and cost savings. You aren't immune to the 'like machine' just because you're good, let alone if you should be merely not too bad at what you do.
  • In real life MT displaces human translation just like bad human translators displace good human translators. Read Paul Sulzberger's interview with Luigi Muzii to get a better understanding why (Gresham's law: bad money drives out good), though it's not just the price. Some of the people who would otherwise be your clients will go for MT just like some of them go for cheaper translators or DIY translation, for all sorts of reasons.

Get proper context. You're only immune if a machine can't translate like you. And if you can convince your clients that the difference is worth paying for.

[1] It's important to note that fit-for-purpose quality — one of the core concepts behind MT, or at least behind its more responsible incarnation — is not fundamentally flawed. Simply put, it's not true that nothing is good enough unless it's absolute best. We can argue how good is good enough, or how beneficial it would be to go beyond the enough. We can — and should — protest when the bar is set too low. But we can't pretend that only the absolute best is ever good enough. Reductio ad absurdum: Most of us would be unemployed if only the best translators and translations were good enough for any client and any job. And most of us would be spending n times more time editing and QA'ing.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Translation Is Not A Shameful Secret

One would think that most of such theoretical considerations: 'foreignization' (I maintain it's not a valid word) versus 'domestication', should the translation read like an original or like a translation (no, there is no one and only pre-ordained answer to this), should you cover your tracks as a translator or not — belong to the word of literal translation only.

Heck no. That's not true. Only, they are seen and judged through the perspective of literary translation, which is what probably 90% of practicing translators are not doing.

Maintaining that full-on domestication is the only right way of translating is a hoax, along with the resulting sentiment that it is good to disguise your translation even at the expense of sacrificing accuracy with no corresponding gain in beauty or quality, just to make your text farther removed from the original, less traceable to it. Like that's even a legitimate goal!

(Which it is not, it's hoax.)

The translator's job is to translate, not to validate and promote phobias (including xenophobia) and superstitutions, and a lot of modern translation creed is superstition that has little basis in real science. It just gets repeated over and over and dressed in the trappings of ethical precepts That Must Not Be Questioned. They just get repeated over and over.

This collection of attitudes is harmful to us. It reinforces our clients' beliefs that were shameful, best not mentioned, best swept under the carpet, you know, like in that Bismarck quote:

Laws are like sausages — it is best not to see them being made.

Seriously? Why should one willingly allow one's profession, one's calling, one's job, often one's hobby or passion, to be held in that sort of prejudiced regard?

It is also consistent with the business model and business interests of translation agencies. Think about it: To whose benefit is when translators are nameless, invisible, tucked in the shadow, swept under the rug, in short: they supposedly don't exist?

And which kind of client is being wooed when appeasing and actively catering to and feeding xenophobic feelings is the value proposal? — Parochialism would be the most charitable description of that sort of thing.

Just like you don't need to be ashamed of your core service and core value in your value proposal and price justification, you don't need to be shamed of your work in, well, your work.

Translation Is Worth Charging For!

Dear Reader, what I'm saying to you tonight is at variance with what most translation speakers and writers and gurus say — all of them more experienced, more economically knowledgeable and economically and professionally successful than I am. You have more reason to listen to them than to me. But I still say it. I can't not say it:

Translation is the core value of what you do, the service you provide to your clients. Don't advertise and build your brand and USP on 'more than translation'. Don't justify your prices with additional services or added value.

If your value proposal and your proposal in general is based on additional services or added value, you are sending the message that your core value and core services are not valuable, not worth charging for.

By contrast, translation is a prestigious professional service.