Sink or swim

Good times for a change
See, the luck I’ve had can make a good man turn bad
So please let me get what I want this time

During a panel discussion at the first Hackers Conference in 1984, the influential publisher, editor, and writer Stewart Brand was recorded telling Steve Wozniak, “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time.”

Over the years, Brand’s articulated nuanced modern conundrum has been amputated as “Information wants to be free,” thus distorting the original concept. Indeed, in this way, Brand’s originally value-neutral statement can be used ambiguously to argue the benefits of propertied information, of free and open information, or of both.

Truth is that people should be able to access information freely and that information should be independent, transparent, and honest. Unfortunately, the pages of the mainstream press, especially the economic ones, are the least “free” of all, filled as they are with the successes of companies possibly filling expensive advertising spaces in the same media, nearly without a critical or at least skeptical comment. Maybe, later, it turns out that those very same companies have been in crisis for some time. This same shameful habit can be found in trade media, especially the translation industry media, most often hosting docilely promotional articles. Nothing, however, indicates their peculiar nature next to them. This might not figure a problem of “freedom of information” but certainly one of “quality of information”.

Recently, Joseph E. Stiglitz, a recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2001, has warned against the risk of a short-sighted outlook. True, John Maynard Keynes said, “long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead,” but any “sugar high” is going to vanish when the same unsolved problems fire back. And a major one is exactly the lack of transparency.

In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Kurt Vonnegut recalls the free enterprise system as having “the sink-or-swim justice of Caesar Augustus built into it,” and hence the need for “a nation of swimmers, with the sinkers quietly disposing of themselves.”

The “translation industry” is aggressively competing on prices and volumes, so boasting a growth in revenues and volumes, but not in profits and compensations, and even greater expectations for the next year is not really a smart prospect. In fact, the larger translation companies may be collecting revenues in the short term in many ways, and a short-sighted outlook is the fastest lane to the grave of the whole industry. On the other hand, despite the paeans sung to the alleged smartness of the so-called champions of this industry, greed seems to be what has been driving them more than entrepreneurial and innovation spirit. Simply put, can anyone name the Elon Musk of the translation industry? And, to be totally clear, leveraging public funding to build a platform and exploit cheap labor may be cunning, but it is no entrepreneurship.

Unfortunately, these “champions” have managed to make a business trend prevail to make the industry and its products and services irrelevant, so not even learning how to swim with sharks could be enough. The whole industry keeps chanting the same old litany, with the same people telling the same old stories in the same old places to the same people who are still surprisingly eager to listen.

On the other hand, there is also the same old vox clamantis in deserto, while the landscape keeps changing.

Blockchain again

Take blockchain for example. Blockchain is largely considered still an immature technology. The market is less than embryonic with no clear recipe for implementation and very few unstructured experimental solutions. Despite many publications, no clear and undisputed strategic evaluation of blockchain has emerged yet and many companies are reconsidering their investments. However, the hype has infected the translation industry through a breath of wind that has traveled the seas and industry events and media.

As many experts, analysts and observers noticed, blockchain is not as efficient as traditional databases: It’s much hungrier of energy use, processing power and even storage. Also, a blockchain is only as good as the information that is put in it. In other words, the data in a blockchain is not checked in any way.

The translation industry and the translation profession positively need to be modernized and solve perennial problems, but blockchain can hardly be seen as the eventual technology solution and used as a banner in this respect. People who do so are just cynically try and use blockchain purely for its reputational value, to draw some attention, prove how innovative they are, and eventually attract investments. They even start some implementation, though rather a proof of concept, while they possibly know they would not benefit from it in any way.

As a matter of fact, if and when some future practical applications will show possible, the only way those very people might most possibly benefit from their significant investments will be a highly volatile lead, a nonpaying competitive advantage.

At the moment, there seem to be six different categories of business applications addressing two major needs. It remains to be seen where industry players might find their applications: Storing reference data, with a view on ownership? Smart contracts? Maybe this might be a major application, but it is not among those that are being figured out at the moment. What about payment? It is the most interesting application, but it is not being figured out either.

Blockchain might be used to verify the identity of the person(s) with writing privilege, but as long as no control exists over the information being written, and the information itself remains unchecked, this feature will prove useless as it would always be possible to write fraudulent data to blockchain. Therefore, a mechanism should be devised to stamp the digital signature of the legitimate owner of each digital item as a unique code that stays with it all the way through the supply chain.

IP is another issue here. As long as no mechanism is available to unmistakably identify the owner of content, investments in blockchain for content transactions would be highly capricious. And an open blockchain to store this information and help integrating different organizations and systems still seems a long way off given the absence of standards and of any ongoing attempts to identify one.

Blockchain could support a validated register of qualified practitioners with proven experience in a specific field, whose credentials would be validated to allow customers to quickly find qualified workforce. However, one of the many things that can never be provided is “trust” in transactions. Will ever a sticker on items be valid and enough? What about the corporate and personal integrity of the people behind the processes in place? After all, Bitcoin success is mostly due to anonymity and the use of it by criminals.

Blockchain is not going to be disruptive to the translation industry. Once mature it will allow certain things to be done better and more efficiently, but it will not do to the translation industry what digital photography did to Kodak.

More with less

What does transparent, honest and independent information have to do with blockchain? And with the translation industry? As for the blockchain, the trade press, even more than the business or the mainstream press, should help debunk hypes rather than fuel the frenzy on which they thrive by helping, more or less explicitly, the club of the usual suspects. Also, with their production, those industry sources that should be taken as authoritative end up looking generally unreliable and this creates a general climate of distrust. As a result, the mainstream media do not turn to these sources to gather the information to process for their audiences. Eventually, the translation industry is being devalued even more than it already is.

It comes as no surprise that the “do-more-with-less” mantra has been unquestioningly borrowed by the translation industry in the past few years, together with many other baloneys such as agile, lights-out, augmented, etc. when the many marketing geniuses crowding the industry could have invented something better than a flabby ‘transcreation.’ Of course, they should have done their homework first, and this would have spared them the poor figure of using wrong quotes and attributing them to the wrong people.

But no. Most industry players still believe the same old little fairy tale they have been told for years that the more companies expand globally, the more they need to pay attention to local language expectations in the new markets they are trying to enter, the more they need to pay close attention to the linguistic, cultural, and even socio-economic nuances of these markets, and that this makes translation a major part of a company’s global growth strategy.

Beyond futility

The greatest damage to the industry as a whole has been the explosion of true ‘religion wars’ pervading the industry with the abandonment of any objective, accurate and unemotional approach to problems.

This prevents the understanding of some otherwise simple and obvious phenomena. Globalization, for example, has been underway for almost three decades now while the growth of international trades started soon after the end of WWII. So, why is the industry still waiting for global companies “to pay close attention to the linguistic, cultural, and even socio-economic nuances” of international markets?

Also, content growth is exponential, while revenue growth in the translation industry is linear and the slope below 10°. Why, then, are revenues still that important to measure? How does translation demand correlate with content growth? What is the correlation between 99,99% of content being machine translated and the supposedly growing revenues of the industry’s major players?

Wait! Making effective translation a major part of a company’s global growth strategy is “a daunting task that is near impossible without technological leverage and momentum.” Now everything’s clear: this is what happens when you try to bullshit the bullshitter. And they buy it.

This is a fairy tale, and it is where the gig economy comes into play. In fact, it is being peddled in industry events and media by the very same CEOs who are not used to do their homework and would misquote Henry Ford. Maybe they don’t even know that he did not invent either the assembly line, or interchangeable parts, or the automobile. Anyhow…

These very same people have no credible answer when they are asked why the translation industry has been familiar with the gig economy from inception, and yet still talks about innovation. And all laugh? Not really, indeed. As Marion McGovern, author of the otherwise forgettable Thriving in the Gig Economy, points out, “The advent of the digital platform world has altered the talent supply chain.” And rather than pushing out traditional staffing agencies, “digital platforms are becoming sourcing engines for them. Big companies may use both the staffing firm and then for urgent or unforeseen projects, turn to the platforms for options.”

Beyond blockchain and baloneys, the translation industry is stuck with obsolete models. Companies in other industry have been measuring performance for years as a way of adding value to their organizations; LSPs, no matter the size, are still at error-catching quality management.

Content flood

Given the inability of industry players to keep up with customer expectations for technological and process innovation, taking translation in the pipeline has been having the effect of further commoditizing translation. And commodification will continue, with expectations going up, and costs—and value—going further down.

The case of Amazon’s Chinese-branch employees leaking data for bribes is emblematic of the risks underpaid workforces might be emboldened to take. And with translation being more and more automated by ever better neural machine translation engines things might get a little dicey even in the translation industry.

Many of the larger translation buyers have been developing, managing and delivering multilingual content in different formats and devices for years now. The next step will be fitting everything together into a single workflow. Emerging technology will finally fully enable Sir Berners-Lee’s dream of a semantic Web. In fact, for more than a decade, a significant fraction of Web domains has been generated from structured databases. Today, many Web domains contain Semantic Web (i.e. schema.org) markups.

New models are being devised for content enrichment or augmentation (i.e. integrating different content aspects and simple resources with semantic and knowledge.) This mainly consists of metadata processing to exploit information and allow end users to navigate on semantic annotations. Content enrichment is a very expensive task typically performed for valuable content. Today, it can be done automatically by combining the analytics of multiple data sources. In document enrichment pipelines, each document is enriched, analyzed and/or linked with additional data to improve navigation and filtering for further analyses.

Also, to date, content generators are already available that take existing content and rewrite and shuffle it around to create new content, while many companies are working on Natural Language Generation, an AI sub-discipline to convert data into text used in customer service to generate reports and market summaries. It is being investigated for creating content for websites or blogs from a variety of sources including answers from questions on social media and forums.

With text analytics to understand the structure of sentences, as well as their meaning and intention and NLP to process unstructured data, full-blown computer-only-generated content will soon be a reality.

When these technologies are fully implemented, the Semantic Web will lead to a further upsurge in content production.

Translation redefined

This will forcedly lead to redefine the nature of translation and the role of linguists to leverage the value in enriched (intelligent) content. It’s time for applied linguists (e.g. translators) to re-think their role in the language industry. Tim Berners Lee’s idea was a bit futuristic (if not actually visionaire) when he launched it two decades ago.

The coming future will see ‘applied linguists’ mostly employed as post-processors. Machine translation will do all the jobs, even in creative tasks and those who are still called translators today will have to confirm or, at worst, polish automatic output for cultural appropriateness. Some will re-engineer and re-organize content, more or less as digital indexers and curators, and others will clean and polish data to feed machines. Creativity will no longer exist by definition, it will depend on each one’s ability to exploit his/her knowledge and skills.

So, it is really a good time for a change. Blockchain is no change, it may possibly be improvement, but it will keep us doing things the way they have been done so far, in a different shape. You might reclaim the things we believe have been taken away from you, but this will never happen. You can stick to obsolete models and expect to keep the same old stances, advance the same old claims, and work in the same old way you have been used to, but this won’t take you anywhere. You can only try to get new ones, and now it’s the time to find a way to get them.

So, is the translation industry attracting more investments than in burgeoning heyday? And where is the money being made? In the meantime, you better row and learn to swim.

Author: Luigi Muzii

Luigi Muzii