Innovation Doesn’t Come by Chance


The Emperor’s New Clothes«In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.»

Graham Greene, author of The Third Man, credited Orson Welles for adding these lines to the original screenplay while acting as Harry Lime, the villain.

However historically inaccurate, those lines resonate a distasteful yet compelling idea: creativity can blossom and flourish also in troubled time. Leonardo’s military machines are manifest evidence of this. And the Internet too. And yet, Leonardo’s machines were not casual. They were the result of his passionate and uninterrupted research. Similarly, the Internet and the space race are the daughters of the Cold War, which was not less harsh and gory than other open conflicts and saw the best minds of an entire generation involved in the development of new technologies. The information age we are soaked in is then the Cold War’s granddaughter.

Peace and democracy foster prosperity, which, in turn, should, at least in theory, foster innovation and development. However, wars don’t have to be necessarily overt and gory. In On War, at the turn of the XVIII century, definitely a time of recurrent and bloody wars, Carl von Clausewitz wrote that “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” Today, the great powers no longer need to use firearms to fight their wars, they fight them on the economic front, because economics and politics have become inextricably interconnected, and economies have replaced weapons. For example, in the last twenty years, the Asian titans China and India have been investing in research and development a percentage of their GDPs that is three times as much that of their western counterparts.

Unsurprisingly, patents are the hottest war front today: domination will come from innovation. Incidentally, there is evidence that some form of patent rights was recognized in Ancient Greece, while patent law conventionally dates back to the Venetian Statute of 1474. However, until the 16th century, inventors had to find their own way to protect their developments from potential infringers and this was especially hard when it came to military devices. Indeed, Leonardo is thought to have deliberately arranged the gears in the design of his fighting vehicle in a reversed order as a form of security to make the vehicle unworkable in case the design was stolen and used irresponsibly. Of course, the first patent specification was registered for a military application, a type of rangefinder.

Vision

The key to innovation, then, is research, and any research effort requires a strategy. Any strategy, in turn, requires planning to be implemented and exercise its effects.

Innovation is one of the many buzzwords expended in the sundry marketing efforts within the translation industry. Within, since rarely these efforts extend outside, where ‘innovation’ gets an entirely different appeal and impact, where more astonishing breakthroughs are expected for the next few years although alongside with continuing self-excitement and hyperboles.

Indeed, still many changes, promised or threatened, are going to come along in the translation industry, mostly from ‘AI’, acquiring full domination over business translation.

As always, then, once again, some disruptive innovation coming from outside will upset the way translation is made and, most importantly, traded. As history shows, competition stimulates innovation. Even war is anything but an extremely violent form of competition, nonetheless the only competition that translation industry players know is on price.

In fact, since inception, at least some thirty years ago, they have been desperately seeking leveling to please the wealthiest customers who were and have been looking for comparable services at the lowest price ever since.

The anthology of useless standards that have been issued so far is an indisputable testimony. Pundits have been advocating stiffer and stiffer models rather than flexibility. And where agility is required, things are going awry because processes are blatantly inadequate. Of course, industry events and magazines and journals and podcasts and blogs are all there to sing a paean at unison to the wonders that captains of the industry are capable of. Obviously, no one ever wonders why those captains never find another better placement in any other industry when expunged from the companies they have so brilliantly run or why no prominent figures from some major wealthy customers settles in the translation industry to launch their own companies or run and grow an existing one.

For one thing, some of those captains might have created some R&D departments in their companies and show the way to those who lead or take them as an example. Real innovation might have come from there, rather than being bought out at best. By the way, innovation is not just technological, process innovation is equally important. And is equally absent.

Anyway, the dichotomy between academia and industry might have been solved with the latter urging the former to engage in applied research, and foster research with incentives and awards, for example for the best degree or doctoral thesis. At best, trade organizations and industry players have instead been unrelentingly demanding universities to churn out cannon fodder to be exploited as unpaid interns or underpaid professionals, while incessantly complaining about their poor preparation for the inadequacy of education. Without, of course, ever directly organizing and running lifelong learning initiatives to complement academic education.

For its part, academia has been doing even worse, exasperating its typical self-celebratory, self-referential, navel-gazing approach peaking with the EMT foolishness. As a justification to maintain the ongoing obsolete and useless cast and a means to satisfy their vanity, some noisy trombones conceived it and made it outdated even before it saw the light. To make matters worse, the bureaucrats to who it has been entrusted let its own network members to use it as a cartel, making it the tombstone on the last chance of differentiation and competition.

Change

Many in the translation industry have been advocating a change, but this has somehow become a cliché.

Here are a few things that could be done to really drive a change:

  1. Trade organizations might consolidate and establish a research department, with a statistics unit to collect data, get insights and release industry reports; they might also use these reports to lobby;
  2. Trade organizations might release constantly updated policies and requirements for long-life learning;
  3. Trade organizations might launch some joint initiative representing both LSPs and professionals to identify and award the most innovative academic efforts and achievements.

On the other hand, trade organizations should stay afar from industry standards, since the interferences a few entrepreneurs, barefacedly backed by vain and hardnosed academics, all seeking for better visibility, a moment of glory, or a place in history have only hurt the industry.

The hardest part is awards. The translation industry is based on an intricate intertwinement of relationships between businesses, players, publishers, analysts, and consultants governing its economy, where your success depends on how large your network is and how good you are to leverage it.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong, unethical or immoral in this, but if awards, accolades, and attention always go to the usual suspects of some inner circle, you will never go beyond self-celebration, hype, baloney, and bullshitting, even though this might possibly be just everything everyone wants to hear.

To be credited also where the industry is seen as lesser and worthless, we should stop pretending that the emperor’s new clothes are invisible to those who are unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent, because the others might simply not believe that those clothes are extraordinary.

Rankings

Let’s take rankings for example, a much-liked fad. Presenting the growth of the industry just as the effect of persuading buyers to spend more on language services is misleading. In fact, organic growth has been getting harder and harder everyday as the long wave of M&A shows, and revenues are not the right indicator for growth. Profits, volumes or EBITDA are much better indicators, at least for people who are really interested in knowing how much the industry and its players are worth.

True, some industry players think that knowing who’s in with the industry they are in, their line of work, size, and market is important. However, everyone knows how much the car industry, the oil industry, or the dairy industry are worth. A few years ago, the translation industry was said to worth the same as the bicycle industry, but one reason for legitimately doubting some estimates is the lack of solid feedback. For example, do you know that Italy has just outpaced Portugal as the first exporting producer of bicycles with 1.758.768 units versus 1.730.457 in 2017? That the Netherlands is only third with 1.621.774 units? Or that each of them exported almost twice as the fourth (Germany) and the fifth (Romania)? These are numbers shaping an industry. Do you know that new car registrations are dropping but the car industry is growing by revenues? Can you tell why? One thing tells nothing without the other.

Apparently, bicycle and car manufacturers have no problem with making the sales figures known unlike translation industry players. A research department at a trade organization would most possibly have much easier access to official data than a private company that would inevitably be forced to guess, if only to save money. Also, voluntary responses to a questionnaire are never reliable, not only because everybody lies, but because arranging validation could be very hard and costly. On the contrary, members of a trade organization would more possibly trust it and provide more reliable answers.

That’s why rankings make little sense per se, except for people who see their company listed and may think of using it as a marketing tool. In fact, rankings are an effective promotional tool for the consulting firms arranging them, even though the data might look phony to anyone who’s been working in this industry for some time.

Technology

Innovation does not necessarily come from technology, although this could play a major role. Seeing technology as a panacea is much more common than anyone might think. For this very reason, though, every time you think of implementing a new technology, a thorough use-case analysis is necessary more than just helpful.

A typical example is blockchain. Since it has been taken on a path other than cryptocurrency, it has been travelling a bumpy road, and it’s now a decade that it has been still hotly tipped as a potentially transforming technology, not only for business but for day-to-day life.

The difficulty of defining and outlining realistic use cases makes blockchain perfect for snake-oil salesman. And when an analysis is commissioned to demonstrate the benefits of a controversial technology and its smoky application, even the most benevolent author cannot but admit that “blockchain technology is still very much in its early stages and any large-scale deployment of blockchains to L10n workflows is premature”, that “blockchain technology is new and to say embryonic would be an understatement”, and that “even if the blockchain technology is ready to be deployed, companies and LSPs would have to invest financially to integrate the blockchain technology within their organizations”.

This is due to the fact that there is probably no use case other than cryptocurrency that cannot be fulfilled with a simple (distributed) SQL database. Therefore, there would be no reason for any company, and especially LSPs, to heavily invest and integrate a technology that is not yet mature a decade after its launch despite—or maybe because of—all the hype. Except, of course, throwing smoke into one’s eyes.

Incidentally, to quote again the author of the analysis above, “tokens will not buy groceries or pay rent. The last hurdle for the community for these L10n tokens is being able to convert them to fiat currency such as Euros or US Dollars. That is one more hurdle for the community to overcome before this model could succeed”.

2018 tells an entirely different story for NMT, as it’s been being integrated across different industries beyond the translation industry, where it seems not yet fully understood and its application is widely debated.

In most industries, NMT is just a branch of what is simply labeled as artificial intelligence (AI). AI’s—and NMT’s—transformative potential is exactly what scares most translation industry players, not just translators or the smaller LSPs. Because they have no business strategy in place to cope with it and don’t even know where to start. Indeed, NMT could transform—and it is transforming—the translation industry as much and possibly more as the Internet has done. And yet, this would be the primary reason for a strategy.

On the other hand, the anxiety and agitation pervading the industry emerge at events and in fora where NMT has been added on top of rates and quality. It won’t take long for AI to become the main topic and the center of any discussion, everywhere.

What industry players seem to have not fully understood yet is that, to get the most out of AI, it must be tied to business strategy and goals. That’s why a series of use cases is essential here too.

This is another area where a research department at some trade organization might help, by detecting the spot where AI would impact thus helping members identify short-term pictures to optimize processes, in a quick and relatively inexpensive way, and the technology required. And this department would be authentically independent.

It is no wonder that this role is currently played by consulting companies, raising more than a few concerns in some cases.

Finally, this research department might help members manage the change process and the shift to a different culture.

The translation industry is more and more like the transport industry where trucks transport only 0.00000000009% of all objects on earth each day. Many items, few things actually worth transporting. Is any bell ringing?

The next big challenge for any translation industry player will be in sustaining the demand for a fading business and meeting its unraveling expectations, through a different and richer mix of services and the exploitation of the underpinning systems.

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Author: Luigi Muzii

Luigi Muzii