Luddites, Pirates and Privateers

Laocoön and His SonsThe Luddites

Maybe Luddites were not totally wrong to fight mechanization since they could certainly not foresee the benefits it would bring, nor they lived long enough to reap them.

In fact, in the long run, the effects of mechanization on economy have been largely positive, even though “in the long run we are all dead” and the short term, for some, may last a lifetime.

Luddites fought the use of machinery to get around standard labor practices and replace their role in the industry.

As Mariana Mazzucato observed in The Value of Everything, Karl Marx noted that workers did not own the means of production and were therefore “alienated” from their work.

As a matter of fact, the first industrial revolution was devastating for most people. Even if they had known that, in a distant future, innovation would improve economy and society, those who lost their jobs would not be relieved.

Were Luddites right about being worried? Absolutely. Were their protests sensible? Not quite, because mechanization would have gone ahead anyway, as indeed it did. Destroying the machines was useless, they would have been replaced, possibly with better ones.

Today, it is important to have knowledge make the difference, the knowledge Luddites did not have, to prevent the devastations of the first industrial revolution from repeating.

We should be focusing on creating new jobs and trying to understand the data gloomily saying that real-term pays have been falling for thirty years, and why. This applies especially for young people trying to build a future and may get worse for regional inequalities.

In fact, work has increasingly been getting low-paid and precarious, with jobs lost to automation and the gig economy. Many say the workplace has also become miserable and that, even when they are lucky enough to escape the gig economy, more and more workers are underpaid and exploited by unscrupulous companies and bosses.

In contrast, an article, and a Money talks podcast for The Economist argue that this bleak picture is at odds with reality and that data say otherwise, that the rich world is enjoying an unprecedented jobs boom without the bonfire of regulations that typically forms its labor-market policy. Maybe exactly because young people are better educated than their fathers.

Anyway, this jobs boom would not last forever and a recession will eventually kill it off. According to Carl Frey, who co-authored two massively quoted studies in 2013 and 2015, the effects of artificial intelligence they investigated still need to find a mass application. At the beginning of the first industrial revolution, steam engines were used only to drain copper mines; only much later they became a main multipurpose technology.

Frey’s new book, The Technology Trap, is an extensive analysis to respond to those who argue that technology has always replaced work, well before the first industrial revolution and ever since. Frey recalls that it took about seventy years for wages to start growing from stagnant or falling after the first industrial revolution. He also argues that the actual pace of job replacement will vary and will depend on many factors other than the availability of technology. Finally, Frey argues that for many years to come, Polanyi’s tacit knowledge (We know more than we can tell) and Moravec’s paradox will remain the major hindrance towards singularity.

Pretentious Misbeliefs

Frey’s primary field of research is economic history, and he is then solid when quoting Winston Churchill, “The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward”. Of course, you must look back honestly, without manipulating or deforming facts and data.

The major fact about the translation industry in an economic-history perspective is that it has been a forerunner of the gig-economy with the trend for ‘microtranslations’ starting almost twenty-year ago.

Although translation ‘gigs’ could have been more important and maybe even profitable in the past, microtranslations have largely proved as unprofitable. Also, today, things are a lot tougher for a newbie now than twenty years ago, let alone than thirty or forty years ago.

Technology has little to do with this. Simply put, all business models have remained unchanged together with the typical attitude of translation players to indulge in their opinionated arrogance, in an alleged superiority coming from the as rooted as absurd belief of translation being a bare necessity without ever doing much to prove it beyond whimpering.

The right combination of a much sought-after language and subject matter can still do, but ‘niche’ won’t, despite the ‘learned’ lectures of the usual suspects on ‘long-tail’ strategies. Anyway, beyond being stuff for a slide or two in some presentation, this is no sensible base for any old trombone—just like yours truly—to obstinately advocate business strategies that would have hardly been effective even forty years ago. Either they could reach no customer, or customers have never been listening because their arguments are unconvincing. Tertium non datur.

And when you have to bring copies of your self-published book with you for selling at events and the only buyers are people like you, you may possibly be popular to your peers, but hardly to those who really count, so you are just selling shoddy wishful thinking. And your actual market is not the one you boast.

Pirates and Privateers

Many industry veterans and habitué of trade events have got into the habit of branding as ‘pirate’ any entrepreneur who, in their own view, is lacking the right pedigree to join their club. Money is not enough. Success is a useless, uncouth tinsel. Indispensable traits are a long career in the industry, working or having worked in some big industry player or, even better, a large buyer, and the same spirit and likings. Finally, having long attended the same events and hung out with the ‘right’ people is a must.

Snobbish? Don’t be silly, of course it is. This is a relationship economy, an intricate interweaving of businesses, players, publishers, analysts, and consultants, where the difference depends on who you know.

This interweaving has resulted in exclusive clubs that have their meetings at industry events. Each area of the industry has its own club, and each club has its governance. Occasionally, members of different clubs from different areas mingle, but generally clubs stay distinct. Some clubs are larger or more powerful than others and their governance may recall a cabal.

Are there also privateers along with pirates? Of course, there are. The privateers are members of the cabal, the membership itself being an implicit letter or marque.

Originally, governments issued the letters of marque. In present-day economy, PEs and VCs issue them.

This explains the M&A frenzy of the last few years. It also explains the watchtowers to sight the new Saracens and the lack of innovation, which has been regularly coming from the ‘pirates’.

The scarce turnover and the intricate interweaving of relations makes the translation industry kind of incestuous.

The higher it gets in the translation food chain, the easier it gets to bullshit the people below by telling them what they want and expect to hear. It gets harder when you try and climb the chain because a lot of sagacity and some special skills are necessary to bullshit the people higher up. That’s why there are people who would literally sell their mothers, wives and daughters to join the cabal.

Do PEs and VCs Bear Gifts?

Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes. Are PE firms and VCs always to be welcomed? After all, they are at the origin of the widely described and stigmatized smash-and-grab, get-rich-quick, screw-the-workers Uber-like gig-economy model.

All the above explains why innovation is a legend in the translation industry, and why innovations have always come from outside. Even today, scrolling through any of the lists of top LSPs, no one in the top ten, the top twenty, the top thirty, or even in the top fifty stands or have stood out for any significant innovation. Likewise, most of them stood out in various capacities in the past for acquisitions, mergers, and legal disputes with their competitors, none of which had any innovation whatsoever as the object. In many cases, the actors were the same, regardless the play, and so was the script. And the ending too.

The cashflow is always the only motive. And most major LSPs can present a fair workflow and decent profits despite overhead. Maybe this is the reason for calculating growth on revenues rather than on EBITDA, and those ‘analysts’ are maybe not as unwary and superficial as imagined.

And it comes as no surprise that PE and VC firms are shopping in the industry. As an industry veteran recently said, they see the opportunity for consolidation, especially among small- and medium-sized companies that are experiencing a hard time to cope with technology advancements and stay afloat.

PE and VC firms have deep pockets and can therefore buy as many LSPs as they may need and scale up. The performance of the industry, persistently advised as formidable, is the major attractive to them, especially in the face of the minimal investments and the simplicity of sales organizations.

M&A with PE funding is most probably the only way to multiply your revenues by seven in four years and scale up from being a local, mid-size LSP to be one of the world’s largest LSP.

Technology as a Veil

PE firms collect and use investors’ money to buy companies and restructure them before selling them again at a hoped-for profit; they frequently make extensive use of debt financing too.

Typically, the strategy of PE firms is to create value by overcoming agency costs and aligning the incentives of corporate managers and shareholders. This leads PE firms to take out the earnings and distribute them to shareholders rather than reinvesting them in the company. This also tells why PE firms are seldom interested in technology and do help companies to grow but not to introduce any real innovation. Finally, this tells why PE firms usually push for companies to pour money on renowned people, more for their leverageable relations than for their past achievements, so that, in the end, sales grow, revenues grow, maybe even profits grow, but innovation stops.

All this happens with the involvement of academic organizations and public institutions. Sometimes, this involvement is discouragingly dull. This is the case of the paper that the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union, the European Commission, and the Court of Justice of the European Union authored in preparation for the International Annual Meeting on Language Arrangements, Documentation and Publications (IAMLADP).

The paper has the ambition of examining the current state of language technologies and artificial intelligence—ça va sans dire—and their use within the EU’s translation, interpretation, and conference services.

Fairly funnily, the paper sees a potential barrier to a wider implementation of language technologies and artificial intelligence in the lack of a smart CAT environment that “is yet to be developed”, despite the many pundits who are familiar with such organizations and have long decreed the sunset—at best—of CATs. Others had already considered CATs and TMSs as doomed a decade or more ago.

Not surprisingly, the self-celebrated prime mover of CAT tools is the perfect example of what the cabal membership can offer, while, sometimes, listing is a just another way to allure PE firms, although thin exchanges should lead investors to look into the real interest a company is capable of arising.

Over a quarter of a century after their appearance, these pundits, many of whom saw their birth, suddenly realize that these tools “can be lacking in user friendlessness (UX) and many do not integrate sufficiently with terminology, MT, workflow, and CMS systems”.

However, some still deem necessary to enumerate four good reasons to use a CAT tool in a fancy infographic almost thirty years after their introduction. It may even be true that lots of new localization buyers are still there, but this means that not much—or not enough anyway—has been done in thirty years to improve the public’s perception of the industry.

The same applies when you deem necessary to disguise a certification to an international standard for a long-established practice as innovation and use the hype of the moment (AI) to do it. The news here is twofold: PEMT is no innovation and ISO 18587 contains no specific reference to NMT and AI.

A new front opens on PEMT, ‘post-editese’, just to aggravate confusion, as if there were not enough entropy in translation. Will buyers, especially the new ones, know of the “laws of translation” and “translation universals”? Above all, must they know?

Being ‘buyer’ or ‘new’ is no clearance for bullshitting.

By the way, despite being one of the two favorite topics of the translation community, academics never managed to solve the issue of ‘translationese’ but throw the new challenge of ‘post-editese’. Why translating, then? Tout court?

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.