The days after disruption

The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.
Geoffrey Chaucer

Boeing Model 299 crash

Atul Gawande, M.D., MPH, is a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who recently published “The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right” (Picador, 2011), on the benefits of strictly abiding by protocols (in the form of checklists).

What checklists are about

In his book, to stress the importance of checklists, Dr. Gawande recalls how the pilot’s checklist came about. On October 30, 1935, at Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio, Major Ployer P. Hill sat at the controls of Boeing Model 299, the future B-17.

Model 299 could carry five times as many bombs as requested and fly faster than previous bombers almost twice as far. But it was also a very complex and complicated aircraft.

The aircraft made a normal taxi and takeoff, began a smooth climb, but then suddenly stalled. It turned on one wing and fell, bursting into flames upon impact and killing two of the five crew members, including Major Ployer P. Hill. Two other men who survived the crash later died of their injuries.

An investigation revealed that the crash had been due to pilot error. Model 299 was substantially more complex than previous aircraft and required the pilot to attend many challenging tasks. As a newspaper put it, Model 229 was “too much airplane for one man to fly.” Major Hill ‘simply’ forgot to release a new locking mechanism.

However, some insiders remained convinced that the aircraft was flyable, so a group of test pilots teamed up to devise a solution. They did not require Model 299 pilots to undergo further training; it was hard to imagine having more experience and expertise than Major Hill. They came up with a new approach, as simple, brief, and straightforward as only ingenious solutions are, a set of four pilot’s checklists for takeoff, flight, before landing, and after landing.

Those checklists itemized the tasks all pilots know to do, ‘dumb stuff,’ and with those checklists in hand, pilots flew Model 299 for 1.8 million miles without a serious accident, gaining the allies a devastating air advantage in World War II.

The idea of the pilot’s checklist caught on, and other checklists were developed for other crew members.

Today, even the once crafted translating work is getting increasingly too complex to carry out reliably from memory alone. Translation has long entered its own Model 229/B-17 phase, becoming too much airplane for one person to fly.

The usefulness of checklists goes well beyond aircraft piloting and eve surgery. The value of checklists is in its implicit content, humility, discipline, teamwork.

Fundamentally, checklists are the foundations for quality of processes, for doing things right the first time, every time.

A fundamental reason for documenting processes within an organization is to reduce mistakes by preventing them from occurring. Error prevention comes from training and reminding people on expected practices. When an organization commits to best practices, the first goal must be having guidelines be read and used. These documents must then be as simple, brief, and straightforward as possible.

Checklists are a way to concisely document practices and find mistakes in an organization’s work. Simple checklists can ensure that critical steps are not overlooked.

Dr. Gawande also designed a checklist to aid the checklist creation process.

Hyper specialization

The traditional answer from translation academics and pundits to how professionals should cope with complexity is in hyper-specialization, obviously through training, obviously the one they provide.

Apparently, that answer is wrong. Mostly because those academics and pundits still look at the world as it was when they began.

But the world is changing, everyday faster than the day before.

As individuals, we will fail at our tasks no matter how smart or experienced we are; discipline in our processes is one way to overcome such failures.

In a recent article for The Pillar Box on the ITI’s website, David Jemielity, Head of Translations and Senior English Translator at Banque Cantonale Vaudoise (BCV), in Lausanne, Switzerland, made an interesting observation. He started by acknowledging that doing financial translation 40 hours a week is necessary to be a specialist. For years, not just months.

There is just not enough time in a day — or in a career — to become good at everything. Even though this could be obvious, the problem is that being specialized or hyper-specialized, as it is more and more required now, takes a lot of time. Lustra, not just years. This investment in time should pay off, but the same David Jemielity again acknowledges that the conclusions in The status of the translation profession in the European Union are essentially correct. The Pym/Grin study has it that there are no “pure” translators in Europe making € 90,000 or above. There actually is a small group making good money translating, but it is made up of translators occupying managerial functions. The fabled “premium market” where translators are working at an extremely high remuneration is a hoax.

Facite ammuina

During the Italian unification, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was invaded by the Kingdom of Sardinia. A Neapolitan officer who had switched to the side of the Kingdom of Sardinia was caught sleeping on board his ship with his crew and therefore placed under arrest for being responsible for indiscipline on board.

After serving the sentence, the officer was put back in command of his ship. He then instructed his crew to “do as more noise and confusion as possible” (facite ammuina) should a higher-rank officer come aboard, to be warned and demonstrate the crew’s industriousness.

The hullabaloo around translation technology (especially translation automation) is nothing more than ‘ammuina.’

Rather than responding to the increasing complexity of demand and work with new agile models and technology-oriented education programs, academics and pundits strife stubbornly to reaffirm their now obsolete and unsuccessful overcomplicated traditional theories and models. Rather than teaching future and professional translators to prevent errors, they insist in suggesting — if not imposing — the traditional error-catching approach for quality, prone to subjectivity and fallacy. Rather than using their experience and expertise to help translators increase their productivity, they rely on the typical wishful thinking of the translation community to peddle their crap, possibly invoking an imminent disruption.

Well, disruption is here and they have not even realized it.

The second machine age

A CSAIL study found that human subjects prefer it when robots give the orders. Findings would suggest giving machines more autonomy, while delegating control, scheduling, and coordinating to human-generated algorithms.

Less than forty years have passed since translators used typewriters and correction, heavy and costly paper dictionaries, phone books or rolodex to handle terminology, filled their desks with reference material, and spent days in libraries and small fortunes in phone bills.

We have long entered now the era of open knowledge sharing, where automation is spreading with giant leaps every day. 2.5 Exabyte of data are produced every day, equal to 1.25 billions of 2 GB pen drives.

The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York is training IBM Watson to help oncologists personalize cancer care. Recently, Mark Kris, head of thoracic oncology at MSKCC, confirmed that Watson’s help is proving essential in having the staff strictly follow protocols, preventing them from skipping steps and thus reducing diagnostic errors.

Bad faith

Luddites and translation fundamentalists are in such a bad faith with their fallacious arguments to try to manipulate some incontrovertible facts by isolating single sentences from wider contexts and offer them as the implicit recognition of some horrendous crimes against innocent workers.

Anything can of course be used as a bogey, including disintermediation. Curiously, but not surprisingly, these people resort to basest FUD tactics to convince their gullible colleagues to join initiatives whose sole purpose is to let them benefit.

The truth is that in an era of information overflow there is not much stuff deserving highly specialized, costly, sluggish pure human translation. And yet, translations will still be criticized, no matter whether really good or bad, at least on the whole.

The truth is that the obtuseness and obstinacy of backward academics and translation pundits have been making more and more translators unprepared to win the challenges of an increasingly demanding industry, leaving them with little perspective of a decent salary.

Vitam brevem esse, longam artem

Last quarter, Facebook reported that it had 1.32 billion users, collected $2.91 billion in revenue and made a profit of $791 million, for a profit margin of 27 percent. The profit per user is then just under $0.60, and this is definitely low, but more interestingly Facebook reports that users spend 40 minutes per day on the site, or roughly 60 hours per quarter.

Maybe, then, 2,500-3,000 words per day could definitely not be considered a comfortable rate of work. Machine translation is incomparably faster, but post-editing remains a serious bottleneck where the initial output is not reasonably mendable.

Quoting Hippocrates, Seneca continued his statement with “occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile,” meaning that brevity is not inherently and inescapably related to life, but descends from men’s senselessness who scatter their time in a thousand streams of useless occupations.

Seventeen centuries later and, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz added that “It is unworthy of excellent men to lose hours like slaves in the labour of calculation which could safely be relegated to anyone else if machines were used”*. Three centuries after Leibniz, Jaron Lanier eventually sentenced that “Any skill, no matter how difficult to acquire, can become obsolete when the machines improve.”

Following the case of Boeing Model 299 and Dr. Gawande, translation academics and experts should start wondering whether checklists are a suitable means for quality assurance, to prevent errors rather than try to catch them. Translation academics and experts should start wondering whether the time has come to switch to new models rather than stubbornly and obsessively insist on obsolete and inefficient ones, such as those proposed so far in industry standards. Translation academics and experts should start wondering whether the time has come to abandon abstruse, convoluted and hard-to-apply technical specifications and start working with an open mind and a joint effort on automatic tools reducing human involvement, and thus subjectivity.


Es ist unwürdig, die Zeit von hervorragenden Leuten mit knechtischen Rechenarbeiten zu verschwenden, weil bei Einsatz einer Maschine auch der Einfältigste die Ergebnisse sicher hinschreiben kann.