If I had a hammer

In 1966, in The Psychology of Science, Abraham Maslow wrote, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” This statement is commonly known as the law of the instrument or Maslow’s hammer and describes a cognitive bias involving an over-reliance on a familiar tool, or approach.

Quality as a hammer

The hammer in translation is quality, being the paradigm to approach all traits of the trade. From the common vision of quality, a whole series of beliefs and conducts derives.

From the chronic inability to define quality in its principles and characteristics objectively and uniquely the many distortions also derive that thwart any evolution.

In this case, errors are the nails and the red-pen syndrome is the hammer. Errors are deviations from standards, but the inability to define a unique standard to define, identify, prevent and, ultimately, correct deviations is the mother of all issues. The prevalence of the error-catching approach over the error-prevention approach is a direct consequence because precise standards and strict procedures must be in place to prevent deviations. And strict procedures impede any creativity.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the main effect of the red-pen syndrome is the multiplying of checks, regardless of the obvious consequence of introducing new and possibly graver errors at any additional stage.

This also explains why quality has become the unique selling proposition of the entire industry, a sort of life vest, a magical mystery word that instantly explains everything and forbids further questioning. Unfortunately, for the passengers on a plane, knowing there is a life vest at hand does not mean they could effectively use it in the case of an accident based only on pre-flight demonstrations or the onboard safety card.

Ethics as accomplice

If quality is the life vest, ethics is the seat belt.

A product of ethics is the codification of conduct to address morality issues through a set of guiding principles for determining the right behavior in certain circumstances. In fact, “ethics” is commonly used interchangeably with “morality” to embrace the values of a tradition, culture, institution, community or society for distinguishing proper and improper intentions, decisions and actions. Indeed, most people confuse ethics with behaving in accordance with social conventions, religious beliefs and the law.

As the product of ethics, a code of conduct consists of the social norms and the proper practices for individuals. A code of conduct can be crucial in establishing an inclusive culture, but it is not a comprehensive solution on its own as, for example, with religious rules.

When it comes to the moral principles governing the exercise of a specific profession, the representation of ethics is a deontological code (or code of ethics) setting the rules for determining the inherent rightness or wrongness of actions, thus the duties that a person performing such actions must fulfill.

The essential duty of anyone practicing a profession is to satisfy the legitimate interests of clients to the best of his/her ability.

The very first deontological code in history is the Hippocratic Oath, whose basic principle is: Either help or do not harm (noxamvero et maleficium propulsabo).

The simpler, the better. As usual.

In principles, customers have every right to put forward their demands, possibly collecting them in a specification of requirements, and providers have every right to reject those that, based on their expertise, are not to be fulfilled. A patient may ask a dentist not to use the drill to treat a caries, but the dentist has the duty to inform him/her that s/he cannot cure it without the drill. This is because the choice of the tool is up to the practitioner for the duty to perform his/her job to the best of his/her ability. A dentist may choose to use a foot-powered dental drill, but the duty to assist the patient to the best of his/her abilities inevitably involves the use of a high-speed drill. And it is hard to believe that a patient today may ask a dentist to use a tool that has been retired since the 1950s.

Today, a dentist is expected to be able to use high-speed dental drills and laser ablation systems, so why should a translation service provided not be expected to use machine translation? In the same way, a translation service buyer should be expected to approach a translation project with the very same attention used for any other project, thus detailing any special requirements, including security and confidentiality. And a provider boasting a hefty certification of its quality system should have a clause in its procedures and work instructions detailing the information to be provided to the customer, together with how and when.

Curiously, or maybe not, all the knowledgeable and precious dissertations on ethics and deontology in translation neglect the insignificant duty of transparency, loyalty and fairness towards the client. And so, information asymmetry, a blatant violation of any morality, and yet the industry’s vice, keeps metastasizing, undisturbed.

In essence, ther’s no ethics in technology, but in human behavior, there’s no ethics in machine translation or in data other than compliance with the transparency, loyalty and fairness towards the client.

The quality of thinking

The favorite topics of the industry have always been rates and quality, but in the last few years, machine translation has been following closely. On any of these topics, nearly every conversation still ends up in shouting matches, partisan vitriol, and ideological food fights, especially in virtual communities.

Although none of these topics goes beyond human understanding, people in the translation community deal with them based essentially on convictions and passions, sometimes unjustified prejudices, rather than a factual body of knowledge according to a rational approach.

The stall this attitude causes is the main reason for many major customers to ask loudly for a rethinking of the translation business, to make it faster and simpler and, guess, more user-driven. Well, actually buyer-driven, apt for a global gig economy.

There’s no wrongness in asking, as well as no rightness in demanding, no wrongness in refusal and no rightness in raging.

There’s much hypocrisy and bigotry in pretending that disintermediation, data and dashboards are part of the translation pipeline, as well as in assuming that professional linguists feel a constant need to stay updated and understand and acknowledge the actual doom of being replaced by machines.

Unfortunately, when too many people believe too deeply, too stridently in their own convictions, they end up wriggling to impose them on everyone else.

Therefore, when most of what is really important and worth translating, at least from a business point of view, could be or possibly already is machine translated there’s no point in scrutinizing the legalese of ToS agreements to find a reason for not using (free) online machine translation engines. It’s like trying to drain the ocean with a bucket.

Is the “safety” of machine translation a real issue? Only as long as all discussions in this regard help increase awareness and transparency between customers and suppliers.

And what distinguishes a professional from an amateur? Savvy in the use of tools.

In this respect, the people responsible for the Statoil massive privacy breach could hardly be regarded as translation professionals, while it is reasonable to assume that Statoil had its own code of conduct in place for employees to abide for. At the same time, the information leaked was clearly not meant for the public and, as such, it was hardly part of an unprotected translation contract.

Protecting data integrity, confidentiality, and intellectual property is a legitimate expectation that must be fulfilled when represented. So, it must be made explicit in the specifications of requirements, in agreements and contracts, and in the statements of work or checklists (if any).

Everything’s alright

The marginal utility of translation has been getting lower and lower for thirty years or more. This makes the claim for educating the client look ever more senseless, especially when the idea is widespread that salespeople fail because they don’t understand the customer needs as they are not trained on client issues.

In this respect, a consultant should always be a talking cricket rather than a social chameleon who tells his/her clients what they want to hear. But it is inconvenient, it attracts dislikes, it does not provide invitations to conferences, or requests for selfies.

Stating that the market for translation quality evaluation is “underserved” is a mystification: It is just another effect of the law of the instrument, as well as the assumed disconnect between existing and desired functionality, and the low awareness of what the market can offer. The world is going fast towards Industry 4.0, while the translation industry is striving to enter Industry 3.0, i.e. fully exploiting computing power.

Unfortunately, the same translation buyers who ask loudly the translation industry to rethink its business model and its processes are wasting tons of money on multi-step workflows including in-house reviews and LQA with error marking.

“Data-driven” still seems just another marketing catchphrase to use at events. Nevertheless, every day a new statement is released of a tech provider announcing a new, “unique” platform to deal with data in an appropriate way.

And yet, no platform still provides an automatic quality score to help customers know how they are spending their money, although LEPOR shows it is possible, with full inspection becoming a thing of the past.

Maybe all those pundits debating of ethics, and machine translation, and data, and ToS agreements, and quality, and processes also scrutinize all these platforms for security, third party audits, uptime and failover, connectors, etc.

Wait a minute: Are they the same people who predicted the end of TMSs, of translation memories, who warned other people from trusting their translations to the cloud, etc.? Yes, they mostly are.

Unfortunately, the level of bullshit coming from these people is disgraceful and noxious. Especially for their own customers.


Author: Luigi Muzii

Luigi Muzii