Practical Intelligence

Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.[1]
Inferno (Dante), XXVI

Leap of Faith Those who do not grasp the profound role and philosophy of technology are limited to see its wonders and, above all, its faults, which are nothing more than the result of the inability to understand and manage it.

The prejudice of many translators against translation technology is surprising and disheartening, as they are supposed to be perfectly integrated as knowledge workers in the knowledge society where technology is a decisive variable in the process of economic modernization.

We are not victims of the Malthusian trap thanks to the synergy between market and technology that made the availability of new means of production, hence productivity of labor and, finally, the material wealth grow exponentially.

It is true that, in recent years, the incomprehensibility of scientific and technological knowledge has terribly increased. The objects we are surrounded with today are so complex that the basic principles of their operation are beyond the understanding of most of us. On the other hand, most of today’s technologies has not been developed to be understood, but ‘only’ to be used.

As Chris Anderson wrote in Makers: The New Industrial Revolution “What we will see is simply more. More innovation, in more places, from more people, focused on more narrow niches. Collectively, all these new producers will reinvent the industrial economy, often with just a few thousand units at a time — but exactly the right products for an increasingly discriminating consumer.”

This could at least partially explain why the economic crisis hit most the countries — and the industries — with little or no innovation in the last few years, and is enduring there.

Innovation synthesizes high levels of knowledge through thought and understanding. And yet, translators has always diminished technology. Sometimes they disdain it or even defame it, but still use it, maybe reluctantly, possibly forced by outsiders.

On the other hand, Jean-Jacques Rousseau at one time warned his contemporaries “that nature wished to protect [us] from knowledge, just as a mother snatches away a dangerous weapon from the hands of her child, that all the secrets which she keeps hidden from [us] are so many evils she is defending [us] against, and that the difficulty [we] experience in educating [ourselves] is not the least of her benefits. Men are perverse; they would be even worse if they had the misfortune of being born knowledgeable.”

Watts Wacker, Howard B. Means, and Jim Taylor seem addressing the translators community too in The Visionary’s Handbook, when writing that “the closer your vision gets to a provable truth, the more you are simply describing the present.”

In fact, too many translators seem to be trapped in the present, without a vision of the future, disoriented and confused by an apparent lack of sense of history, overwhelmed by an intentional narrow-mindedness, driven by the fear of transformations and by an immature attachment to their own tradition, and “regarding their own desires, tastes, and interests as affording a key to the understanding of the world.

Not surprisingly, the uprising demand for translation is highly controversial. And yet, Google statistics show that the total number of indexed pages was one trillion in 2008 and is expected to reach 30 trillion in 2013. Also, although English remains the most commonly used language among Internet users, 70% of all Internet traffic originates in non-English-speaking countries, with 72% of Internet users spending all or most of their time on sites in their own language and 90% opting for a native language Web site when available.

Machine translation can help the preparation of content for global audiences and the penetration or expansion in global markets. MT can help especially in sentiment analysis, to know what customers are saying about products by region and language and design new products that could more easily meet expectations, adding value to existing offerings, or improving the customer experience. MT can also help in customer support, via global knowledge bases, to present information on products for consumers in multiple languages, multilingual email, to enable support agents to answer inquiries from customers in multiple languages, real-time cross-language chats, or global support forums, thus preventing customers from calls that drive up support costs and/or delay in response.

Unfortunately, to date, LSPs — typically pure middlemen — are using MT mostly to exploit customers and translators in the effort to sustain the devastating price wars that are spoiling the industry. Most of these middlemen lack the necessary skills and understanding of MT and use it to reduce costs and increase margins.

Post-editing of the output of a really good MT system is often better than editing poor fuzzy matches, because they are inherently consistent, while more and more LSP’s ask for discount of up to 66% for 75% fuzzy matches, even though this is below the critical threshold. In fact, fuzzy matches require much effort from the translator, depending precisely on the degree of matching.

It is quite surprising that translation taliban fiercely opposing machine translation make no use of fuzzy matching in their translation environments, although boasting their supposed sanity and refusing to offer discounts. The same could apply for suggestions from MT engines for which integration is being increasingly offered by manufacturers of translation software.

Indeed, even translation taliban know that MT suggestions do make it easier to get the work done faster. Of course, for the full accomplishment of their gnosticism, they can’t definitely admit it, and rather prefer dismissing MT as a failure, and keep being mistaken by measuring MT against human translation. These people are so trapped in their belief of representing a vast majority to insist against any possible evidence that MT and MT-related tasks do not work.

There is a growing group of translators who are being left behind and a smaller group struggling to adapt for existence. A leap of faith is exactly what translation taliban ask to that supposedly vast majority they claim to represent. Most likely, they simply took for good the garbage they were fed with and that now uncritically recycle. On the other hand, a popular Charles Darwin misquotations[2] was prominently placed in the stone floor of the headquarters of the California Academy of Sciences and recently revived on the website of the Italian Encyclopedia of Science, Letters, and Arts, generally regarded as the most authoritative Italian knowledge institution.

Robert Sternberg defined practical intelligence as the ability to adapt to everyday life by drawing on existing knowledge and skills. In this view, practical intelligence enables an individual to understand what needs to be done in a specific setting and then do it. It includes things like knowing what to say to whom, when and how, to maximize its effect.

Conversely, analytical intelligence consists in the ability to complete problem-solving tasks.

Therefore, one can have analytical intelligence and no practical intelligence or vice versa. Rarely does anyone have both.

In other words, knowing how to do something does not necessarily imply being able to do it or explain it, and social savvy is not necessarily knowledge, but an aspect of practical intelligence.

People with practical intelligence can take advantage of the circumstances that come their way, even though imagination, hard work and repeated efforts are needed to act on opportunities that may be hidden and not so obvious.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde depicted the perfect motivation for translation taliban using practical intelligence to push through in social media: “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

Unfortunately, there is no use in the gnosticism of translation taliban other than gaining some visibility, but strictly within the translation industry, not with end customers. Also, translation taliban forget they do not rule the industry nor the market, money rules. And, like it or not, money is in the hand of large customers who typically go to large LSP’s. And if not enough, large customers preferably put their money in innovation and technology.

Not surprisingly again, most translation taliban talk brilliantly upon a subject they outwardly know nothing about, by unscrupulously using any rhetorical weapon, with the willing support of other coryphaei of a common ideology of fear.

How can one be surprised that, at the TriKonf 2013, Philip Koehn after attending three presentations fell asleep?

Translation taliban could use their practical intelligence on behalf of the whole industry, by serving their professional organizations without requiring that they conform to their dictates nor that the whole industry do.

The translation industry is at the dawn of a new era. Web site translation and localization platform Dakwak has launched a new freemium model to attract small- to medium-sized businesses. According to Dakwak’s founder, the freemium model is meant to be an attractive alternative for SMB’s that want something more powerful than Google Translate’s Website Translator widgets, which allows site visitors to instantly translate text into different languages, but don’t want to invest in Smartlink’s enterprise translation software.

Guess who talked about freemium back in 2009, while SMB’s are exactly the customers translation taliban claim to address four years later!

Where would you place translation in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? The lower the layer, the higher the demand, the lower the price.

Most customers cannot even figure out how the translation industry works. Even linguists that do not work routinely in this industry do not know either, even though they claim to. All of them know a little about the industry when they get involved, and yet translation taliban claim to educate customers and newcomers to outdated conducts and practices that cannot make sense to most of them.

Differentiation cannot be just a word for a book title or a fancy blog post. Distinguishing a service from others is not just renaming it. And, finally, it’s definitely hard to explore one’s own core competencies for any new idea for a service to keep exploiting them. Possibly, developing new skills and competencies may be easier. Anyway, post-editing of machine translation could be a new service to offer from the bunch of the typical core competencies of a translation service provider. Just like articulating services, articulating fees could also be a way to differentiation. Beware of not misinterpreting the customer’s goals. A finalized product for distribution to consumers must always be of excellent quality, in all its components, but end users measure quality against price and expectations, that is, quality is relative. It’s called perception of value.

If a vendor can’t point out what makes the difference, justify it, and tell the customer how that is measurable, price will make the difference. To meet the customer’s perception of value, it must be caught and understood first, by investigating the customer’s value assessment criteria, uncovering what is needed to increase the perception of value.


[1] Consider well the seed that gave you birth:
you were not made to live as brutes,
but to follow virtue and knowledge.

[2] “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survive, it is the one that is most adaptable to change.” The Darwin Correspondence Project has identified the source in the writings of Leon C. Megginson, Professor of Management and Marketing at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge.