Just another missed chance

USB Type-CISO, the International Organization for Standardization, defines a standard as a document, established by a consensus of subject matter experts and approved by a recognized body that provides guidelines on the design, use or performance of materials, products, processes, services, systems or persons.

Standards establish specifications for materials, products, and services. They also establish protocols of implementation and fuel compatibility and interoperability.

Furthermore, standards provide a shared reference framework helping partners have common expectations on each other’s performances and products.

Standardization of components has led to mass production.

Ultimately, standards help cutting costs.

The battlefield

Standardization cannot keep pace with technological evolution. De facto (market-driven) standards prevail through widespread use outpacing de iure (formally-ratified) standards. Unfortunately, de facto standards often come from dominant companies, thus strengthening their position. In fact, very few standards became such via a standard committee.

A major risk when working on a standardization effort is to aim at a universal standard. A standard serves a community: The larger the community the harder is reaching consensus.

And when de jure standards miss their goal, de facto standards prevail. The world is dominated by de facto standards such as the MP3 audio format, the QWERTY layout of keyboards, the 1/2-inch (12.7 mm) spacing of the rollers in a bicycle chain, etc.

Therefore, the absence of de jure standards leaves a big chance for victory not of the best model, but of the one with the highest visibility and the strongest marketing effort. For all this, money is a must.

Plugs and sockets

Anyone having the chance to visit a foreign country would most probably get dazed in the squirming and silly carousel of electric plugs.

IEC lists over a dozen plugs and socket outlets for household purposes, with the names of plugs being arbitrarily assigned using letters (A to N) in the effort to make things less confusing.

The European Union is kind of an oasis for having issued a standard plug, the Type C Europlug.

Why so many plugs and sockets? Why not a single plug to be used everywhere?

The background

In 1888, Italian physicist and electrical engineer Galileo Ferraris publishes a paper on the induction motor and Serbian-American engineer Nikola Tesla gets a US patent on the same device. Westinghouse Electric bought Tesla’s patents and settled on 60Hz, 120V, while the then monopolist AEG in Germany settled on 50Hz, 120V. After WWII, European companies switched over to 240V for better efficiency, while the US felt that it would be too costly. Today, there is still controversy over which system is better.

Early efforts to standardize the plug by organizations like IEC had trouble taking hold—who were they to tell a country which plug to adopt? And little progress has been made since then: Most companies focus on serving mainly domestic markets and on vested interests around them. Literally hundreds of millions of plugs and sockets have been installed and who would convince a country to invest now in changing its whole infrastructure?

Legislation also has its role. For example, UK law requires a suitable fuse to be fitted in each plug to protect the appliance flexible cord. The same law also provides for a child-safety shutter.


What does the future hold? Everyone has invested in their own system, and it is hard to get away from that. In the late 80s, a plug was designed for 240V and 110-120V countries, which is perfectly compatible with the one in use in the US. Most likely, the future holds a multi-plug accommodating many different plugs, or the USB plug or even new technologies such as low voltage direct current (LVDC) or wireless charging.

What the history of plugs and sockets tells us? A consortium is the best organization model to deal with standardization.

The lack of consortia in the translation industry tells why existing translation standards and practices look rather unfashionable to outliers. As a matter of fact, the translation community, frantically and feebly claiming for recognition, has been approaching standards as a way to recover from the failure of having the relevance and importance of translation acknowledged and unchallenged.

And yet, despite the plethora of standards, the translation industry is still affected by a general lack of interoperability.

In ISO/IEC 2382:2015, Information Technology — Vocabulary, interoperability is defined as the capability to communicate, execute programs or transfer data among various functional units in a manner that requires the user to have little or no knowledge of the unique characteristics of those units.

Interoperability requires unrestricted access to the specifications of any relevant formats and protocols. In other words, interoperability concerns important issues of power relationships.

Standards in translation

To overcome these issues, a superior, independent entity should be established to enforce any standard whatsoever. Does any exist in the translation industry? Definitely not. Every effort is flawed for the same approach, which cannot lead to anything significant.

Any standardization initiative in the translation industry starts aiming at covering every single aspect of all the topics addressed, no matter how vague or huge, in contrast with the spirit of standardization, which looks at general consensus on straightforward, lean, and flexible guidelines.

The predictable outcome, in this context, in spite of the risk of failure, is to yield to the audacity of describing a universal API in its objects, methods, and calls, possibly providing not just some code snippets, in support of a model, but a fully-fledged implementation.

A viable alternate solution would be a set of recommendations to manufacturers of translation tools and platforms for developing their own APIs to perform the basic tasks in a translation assignment. This would most probably be welcome and followed, and, in any case, better received than an allegedly universal API that might be perceived as over-reaching.

The million-dollar question is then, “Is there any big hi-tech customer willing to implement any solution whatsoever from one of its lesser vendors, especially after decades where translation providers have passively complied with the demands of their customers?”

Also, the definition of an open and flexible model might help either its adoption by a plateau of potential users, or its acceptance, as such, by a standardization body, thus leaving everyone at liberty while, at the same time, providing a reference framework for future certification. In fact, any implementation should just follow a few basic design principles.

By the way, no standard body manufactures no prototype. Every standard body just issues specifications defining the objects of standards.

Finally, with an open model, the issuing organization might require acting as a certification body and vetting compliance of future implementations. And this would give that organization the recognition and the dignity the industry has always been claiming for.

Of course, a distinctive and essential requirement for interoperability is openness to contrast obsolescence and allow for continuous improvement, since no technology can pretend to cover all needs and be ever-lasting. Unfortunately, openness is in contrast with the current trend.

On the other hand, why wonder if, given the context, an industry player with the necessary skills, capacity, and resources might not be willing to make a software product freely available and, in doing so, help its competitors.

Platforms thank

Given how long it took for the translation industry to embrace the cloud, the new frenzy around blockchain sounds and looks curious, to say the least. And it looks and sounds even more curious when hearing an authoritative player like Smartling’s CEO and founder Jack Welde delivering the unpleasant news that blockchain is not the right solution for the industry and it is unlikely that it will change anything. And yet, some people just know how to “go along and get along” better than others.

Dilbert on blockchain

Actually, Smartling is one of the three companies that should be actively monitored together with Lilt and Unbabel. They have all received substantial funding from primary venture capital companies for their ability to exploit the new approaches in the use of emerging technologies.

All three companies are turning towards managed services leveraging the technology at the core of their business. Seemingly, each of them is addressing a different driver, but they could be the outriders of platform economy in the translation industry. They all are good examples of artificial-intelligence-powered human-translation platforms; labeling their model as crowdsourcing is simply showing to have understood nothing of crowdsourcing.

Maybe it would have been enough to browse Daren C. Brabham’s book, not necessarily five years ago. Just like Alan T. Norman’s book on blockchain.

Incidentally, back in 2004, Jack Welde vowed never to involve himself in a translation project again.


Author: Luigi Muzii

Luigi Muzii