Never stop bullshitting

Or being popular in the translation industry

Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.
Eric Ambler

Jiminy CricketAccording to Evgeny Morozov, bullshit is the new oil, everything derives from that. Way years earlier, Harry Frankfurt opened his best-selling essay with “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share.”

It is worrisome that most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. As Frankfurt noticed, the bullshitter is, by his very nature, a mindless slob. And a presumptuous snob, too. The bullshitter’s arguments and use of language are both meant to support a kind of bluff, misrepresentation or deception. Indeed, his ultimate goal is to convey a plain falsehood.

Marketing is the typical realm for bullshitters. Not surprisingly, storytelling is the new black in written communication.

Unfortunately, marketing, especially social-media marketing, as it’s virtually free, is the new mantra of translation people.

Whether a translator, an LSP, or an advisor, a bullshitter is always there, mouth breathing, his/her words like mere vapor.

Invariably, bullshitting in the translation industry revolves around three terms: innovation, technology, quality. They may be presented differently, but they are always inter-connected. Invariably, the most active bullshitters are always the very same people. They champion innovation, without having introduced any, ever; they champion technology, especially when related to automation, without having automated anything, unless, sometimes, forced by customers; they provide premium quality, only work for premium customers, receive premium fees, even though they won’t substantiate any of their statements.

The quality myth

When LSPs, these people are obviously always technology-savvy, localization technology developers, and positive users of the most amazing KPIs—which they accurately forget to enumerate. They consistently boast (unmistakably) seasoned linguists and localization and globalization experts in their (unquestionably) great teams, known for—guess—outstanding quality of delivery and service, and famous for their technical and technological capabilities. More and more often, the icing on the cake is a set of wonderful tools available for free.

When translators, the mantra becomes perfect, absolute quality. The bravest bullshitters venture intrepidly into dispensing with full hands their futile directions to navigate out of the wild and stormy bulk market up to the bright and warm oasis of the premium market, a mirage if not a hoax as most believers would discover at their own expenses. Indeed, if there ever were a premium market, it would rather be a segment, otherwise it would be so large to welcome everyone, and it wouldn’t be premium anymore. There are certainly premium clients, but everyone can tell they are hard to reach, win, and retain. To penetrate the fabulous ‘premium market’, bullshitters all have the same strategy and advice for peers and newcomers: specialize, brand and market yourself, raise your rates, educate your prospects and customers. However trivial, it is worth reminding that studying (to specialize) and networking (for branding and marketing) are costly activities that consume time and incorporate the work of others, although their costs might be indirect, hidden, postponed, redistributed, or transferred elsewhere. Not surprisingly, these bullshitters never produce a single piece of evidence of the effectiveness of their advice, and never talk about how much money they get from implementing the strategies they advocate and where their money comes from.

When bullshitters are advisors their marks are faddy and fancy words: simship, continuous delivery, KPIs, agile, lights-out project management, augmented translation, and the inexorable big data and disruption. And if you manage to use blockchain and smart contract in the same paragraph, then you’ve really authored a masterpiece. That’s marketing, baby. Marketing! And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing! It’s a basic truth of the human condition that everybody lies. The only variable is about what. And you don’t need to be Seth Stephens-Davidowitz to know. On the other hand, why lying when storytelling can be equally effective?

The innovation myth

Even innovation is a casualty of this mouth-breathing hype. Bullshitters from all categories battles on the innovation field. Although the translation industry has not seen real innovation coming from its players for years, they have always been talking grandly as they were competing for ranting the loudest and shooting further. Indeed, the translation industry is overcrowded with futurists, visionaries and wishful thinkers, with the latter being largely more numerous. They can all be found in any localization conference around the world. The narrative/storytelling frenzy virtually affects every LSP. Every LSP has a brilliant ambitious idea, an innovative process or some new technology that is going to disrupt or revolutionize the industry. And this does not happen maybe once in a year, but recurrently, whatever the event. Badly, to quote Renato Beninatto and Tucker Johnson from their recent feat, “the language services industry has proven itself to be horribly equipped to actually innovate in any meaningful way.” This deluge of bombastic bullshit is anything but the effect of a self-breeding epidemic of ‘delusions of grandeur.’ In fact, most LSPs do not have the spirit, the capability and the resources to innovate, they simply cannot afford it, let alone become the driving force for innovation. The bigger they are and the more they are focused on basic financial indicators, making profits and possibly growing their business, and are unresponsive to invest in innovation.

Unfortunately, quoting again Beninatto and Johnson, “critical thinking and skepticism are often thrown out the window in favor of recycled ‘headlines’ and flattering commentary.” In fact, there are no contrarians in this industry, while one may just occasionally stumble in a talking cricket.

This is a reason for not discrediting the unreliable surveys that have been circulated to constantly feed a reassuring echo and lead people in the industry to believe everything they hear.

However, when you need the hype, it usually means you’re in trouble. Once the hype starts, it often continues on and on, and the longer the hype, the bigger the problem, and capturing the attention of the public is not the same as revolutionizing an industry or a market.

Hype does not affect technology only; it also affects market analyses, branding, sales and marketing policies. The essence of marketing is narrowing the focus. Too many in the translation industry translate this fundamental principle in a self-defeating approach, using quality as a magic wand. No wonder if it works no wizardry. “Focus on the high end of the market!”, the (in)famous premium segment as if anyone is interested in the low end, where the emphasis is on price only. “Raise your rate, quality is worth a higher price!” The problem is that no one proclaims itself as the “unquality” player, everybody stands for quality and, as a result, nobody does. You cannot narrow the focus with quality or any other idea that doesn’t have proponents for the opposite point of view. Especially if “quality” is the only way to prove you are better than your competitors.

The “educate-the-customer” myth

Most people want to believe they can get to the top by being better, but actually the best if not the only way to get there is by being first. It is the first one of the 22 immutable laws of marketing enumerated and illustrated by Al Riesand and Jack Trout in their 1993 book. Riesand and Trout also wrote that many people believe that the basic issue in marketing is convincing prospects that you have a better product or service, despite people tend to stick with what they got. It is a common belief among industry players that educating the client is an absolute necessity when, on the other hand, the idea is equally widespread that salespeople fail because they don’t understand the customer needs, as they are trained on the company processes, not on client issues. In fact, most LSPs are still in the nuance-specifics-of-translation-industry state of mind, and simply discard people who are not from the translation industry as to be ‘educated.’

Educating customers is not a cost-effective marketing strategy for most small business like most LSP’s, especially towards first-time buyers who probably doesn’t know very much about translation. Translation industry players who may be tempted to approach their customers this way possibly do this from an illusory superiority. They offer their products/services (solution) to people who don’t recognize that they have a demand (problem) by assuming a sort of functional illiteracy and an interest in features rather than in benefits, thus failing to understand and quantify their client’s needs, thus showing inattention for their customer’s business.

Rarely are customers willing to be instructed by someone who does not belong to the same class of business, especially if they understand the issue behind their demand and are searching for answers. On the contrary, the “I have no questions” attitude is fairly common in customers who are not concerned in disentangling the intricacies of an extraneous and unimportant business. So, what word should a translation business own in the minds of prospects? Tip: customers want to see instant results.

All this to say that educating the client is bullshit too.

The growth myth

But how is bullshitting affecting market analyses? In the way news is presented.

According to Aiman Copty, Vice President of International Product Solutions for Oracle Corporation, since translation is now increasingly at utility stage, “people should not need to think about it,” and “the industry is rich with translation and subject matter expertise,” the keyword is no longer cost, or quality, but efficiency. According to the “captain of the translation industry” Adolfo Hernandez, “localization is far too labor-intensive” and “for the foreseeable future, the best results in localization will come from the best humans using the best machines.” Luckily, SDL is creating ‘islands of stability’, whatever that means. Another captain, Rory Cowan, invites readers to observe patterns across other industries and get the pace right. No matter if the financial results of his company in two decades could hardly be labeled as astonishing in spite of “the growing opportunity” H.I.G. Capital is supposed to have seen, according to Lionbridge’s chief sales officer Paula Shannon “in the company’s business and the value in the long-term relationships that Lionbridge has with customers in verticals such as IT and financial services”. Smith Yewell, founder and CEO of Welocalize, is strongly convinced that the value-add won’t definitely be in technology but in the strength of the service.

What bright future translation and translators have ahead! And forget about the Bodo Dilemma.

This is just a part of the problem. Another major issue comes from how even figures are presented.

For example, the growth of the translation industry over the last decade or more is usually presented as linear, steady and unceasing, but it is expressed with revenues only. If even the same trend is displayed on a combined graph together with percentages, things look a little bit different.

Revenues v. growth

If profits or volumes are taken into account, things might be even less exciting. In fact, while volumes have been possibly—undoubtedly, if we should trust the same sources—growing as much as revenues—indeed they should have been much higher according to the same sources—we might discover that profits have not been growing at the same pace. Any real industry ‘veteran’ with an ungarbled memory can tell that, in the last twenty-five years, prices have been undergoing an increasing pressure and compensations, at best, have remained unchanged, i.e. in real terms they have halved. On the contrary, it does not take a genius to figure out that, over the same period, IT has made volumes increase by at least a 10x factor while productivity has, at most, tripled. In other words, revenues are not the best metric to measure growth. Also, the translation industry is notoriously made up of very ‘light’ players, who rely almost exclusively on outsourcing. Therefore, even the average revenue per employee and the average revenue per salesperson are not reliable metrics. A volumes/revenue ratio would be more suitable, but the two figures might be very hard to get from players (remember, everybody lies.) EBITDA (i.e. earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) might be a good metric to evaluate profitability, even though it has its drawbacks too. In fact, it is often used as an accounting gimmick to dress up a company’s earnings. More properly, it is good to meet the original purpose to indicate the ability of a company to service debt.

The noise around the recent acquisitions or the interest in a few translation businesses by some private equity firms is just more wood for the hype fire.

The recent deal for the acquisition of Moravia by RWS is a purely industrial (i.e. not just financial) transaction. Incidentally, Moravia has been entirely held by a private equity since 2015. Clarion Capital Partners sold Moravia to RWS for twice the company’s revenues, 11.8 times the 2016 EBITDA. H.I.G. bought Lionbridge for a fraction (64%) of the company’s revenues. RWS acquisition of Moravia will be a typical LBO, through a combination of equity (60%) and debt (40%.) RWS exposure is therefore expected to be substantial (roughly USD 400 million in total) corresponding to the combined pro-forma annual revenues.

After a bitter—to say the least—three-year war to win control of the company, the forced sale of TransPerfect might hardly be near to the projected USD 1B.

In essence, organic growth in the translation industry has long been left to small businesses. Even medium-size businesses are now relying to M&A to expand. See Arancho Doc’s M&A history with the acquisition of the fellow Italian, 40-year-old LSP Soget in April to be subsequently acquired by Technicis.

Technology is not the primary interest of private equity funds looking for investments, nor is it the service, however profitable. In an industry where growth increasingly happens through M&A, mid- and large-sized translation businesses are easy preys and vehicles for easy money. Also, the size of translation companies is considerably lower than that of other companies with comparable performance in other industries and this makes them even more appealing.

Why the hullabaloo, then, around the alleged interest of private equity funds for translation businesses? What do you expect from an intelligence channel with a boasted base of a few thousand readers releasing the results of casual surveys run through its main outlet with a rate of response of 0.9%? Tertium non datur: either the released news is just gossip, or industry players are dancing on the Titanic.

Chasing the hype ends up with getting lost. In 2016, the eight fastest growing industries to invest in were 3-D printing, drones, marijuana, virtual reality, AI, food e-commerce, wind energy, and green building. In 2017, they grew to eleven, virtual reality, video games, elderly healthcare services, physical therapy, translation and interpretation services, biotechnology, VoIP, drones, green energy, water and water treatment, and marijuana.

Maybe marijuana is the one secure investment, judging by certain analyzes and those who supports them. Incidentally, BLS expects a 29 percent increase in the number of jobs in the translation and interpretation service industry by 2024.

After The No Asshole Rule and The Asshole Survival Guide, do we need a No Bullshit Rule or a Bullshit Survival Guide?

Author: Luigi Muzii

Luigi Muzii