Surviving the crap(s)

Crap gameThe translation industry consists mostly of microbusiness. Technology is often said to be helpful for small businesses more than for larger ones.

In fact, especially in times of “retail apocalypse,” businesses selling immaterial goods and services might benefit from a possibly early, and anyway extensive use of technology.

Disruptive (technological) innovations have always affected every industry. If brick-and-mortar retailers have been affected heavily, translation shops has been impacted less and has not been suffering as much as retail shops because their traditional business model is genuinely rudimentary and quite lean. Also, financial exposure is very limited, with virtually no material assets and solid cash flow. Business risks are close to zero as operational risks are shared with/dumped to vendors—who hopefully get paid when their LSP customer gets paid. Finally, any strategic risks, especially those associated with the operations of the translation industry, especially when related to the introduction of technologies, can be absorbed quickly, thus making bankruptcy a rare event in the translation industry. In this respect, Renato Beninatto’s and Tucker Johnson’s book The General Theory of the Translation Company contains far more than a clue on the popularity of this model.

This model, however, is heavily challenged every time a translation business grows beyond the mom-and-pop business. In fact, a sustainable growth rate can be very hard to attain and maintain for the huge variety of customers. To meet the expectations and demands of very large, possibly high-tech customers, it is virtually impossible to dodge investing in technology, that could prove heavy for the usual cashflow, thus requiring to expand financial leverage or look for outside financing. And this requires a clear strategy with well-defined financial frame conditions and limitations.

This explains the never-ending M&A frenzy with small business being ingurgitated to avoid disappearing and mid-sized businesses merging to afford growing.

If, as some claim, technology companies suck at language and LSPs suck at technology, then small and mid-sized LSPs have to embark in a wide-ranging technological innovation, going well beyond TMs, TMSs, and MT. On the other hand, when looking for the core competencies of LSPs, it is easy to find out that they are in what they do not outsource. And it is not much. In fact, today, over 99% of all translations is done outside the translation industry and instant always-available translation services are every day increasingly practicable. This means that disintermediation must be forthcoming excluding any project management involvement that today is essential, adding up to a sizeable share of LSP business while it should be tiny.

Conversely, most technological implementations today are done to improve project management functions rather than actual translation and data-driven tasks, thus adding little or no value. In this scenario, things will get harder and harder for any newcomers to endure competition while incumbents will exhaust the resources for any meaningful scale and slowly fade away.

It is time for LSPs to start leveraging technology to enhance their services and really customize them.

This has not happened yet and will not be happening any time soon because LSPs seemingly don’t see the threat or don’t take it seriously. After all, people tend to imagine the future in metaphorical terms that pertain to the present and those in the translation industry are not different. Why should they?

Translation industry players have traditionally spent most time and energy to leverage as many resources as they could to maximize profits, hardly have they been focusing on processes and innovation.

Technology is used as necessary, not explored or fostered. The only technology receiving the same attention and application as other extensive core technologies in other industries is translation memory management. It is almost thirty years old and mostly ill-implemented, at least considering the mess in which most translation memories are left. The scale and extension of workflow automation is not even slightly comparable with that in other industries, and the same goes for KPIs. And yet, quality is still the magical mystery word that instantly explains everything and forbids further questioning, although the very same people will unmistakably fog you with the immeasurability of translation quality and how it is such a problematic challenge.

Industry events are also functional to this approach. In the best case, barely a tenth of presenters boasting technological and process innovations have implemented any, and less than a fifth of presentations can be encountered in the real life. Many acclaimed speakers hardly really know what they talk about and are able to illustrate fully and competently their topics, e.g. blockchain. These events are rather reconnaissance and surveillance events, like cycling races with front-runners checking each other to allow no one go on the run.

It is not surprising then that NMT is considered a disruptive technology. This is just another manifest proof that most industry players—and pundits—have no understanding of how things are going outside their world of little fancy words.

By the way, yet another academic volume claiming to be the first on this topic “that brings together research and practice from academic and industry settings” to fill “a clear gap in the literature” has been released through “insights that are critical to the successful integration of translation technologies in the industry today.” Old-fashioned, traditional approach? Don’t be silly: It is “a unique set of complementary perspectives.”

Any brave ideas? Well, rather than complaining about price pressure, unfair competition, and technological stagnation, why not trying to understand where that pressure and unfairness are coming from?

Author: Luigi Muzii

Luigi Muzii