From reasoning to storytelling

StorytellingStorytelling is the new black in written communication. It entertains rather than informs, aiming at influencing the reader’s perception rather than being thought-provoking. Storytelling replaces reasoning with narrative.

The boundary between storytelling and fabulation is fleeting. This phenomenon does not affect politics only and comes from marketing and advertising.

Sometimes, with their fabrications, unknowingly or not, storytellers rationalize the arguments of the many laudatores temporis acti who crowd this industry, and not just that.

Translators have been having the blues at least for 35 years. Judging from how many people in the translation community have been struggling so far, they really “crave attention.”

The “wrenching change” the industry is undergoing is not new and is not due to the Internet nor to machine translation or technology at large.

For at least the last 35 years, that is well before the spread of the Internet, translators have been complaining about rates, the dominance of intermediaries, the working conditions, the trifling influence of their role in the society despite the importance of translation in many daily tasks.

And yet, through the 80’s and the 90’s, many could make a more than decent living on translation, raise children, buy a house, and enjoy summer holidays every year.

Neither globalization nor technology has made competition any fiercer. The major technological innovation of the last three decades has been translation memories, which are still being illustrated to the general public and roughly taught in translation courses.

Many—if not most—freelancers who thrived on translation during the 80’s and the 90’s, as well as most of those who extoll the wonders of the improbable Eldorado of the so-called premium market made no use of translation memories. Why improbable? Because these people seem to forget that they have been in business for at least two decades, that they started their career in prosperous times, and that they are English native speakers, possibly expats, and/or working in highly sought-after language combinations. Also, these people strictly avoid providing any sound proof of the existence of this premium market—actually a segment—or samples of their work for premium customers, or their income statements.

Anyway, premium customers really exist, of course, but they are fewer and harder to reach than imagined. Also, they could show erratic, the marketing effort required to win one could prove draining, and the attention to pay to keep one could be more than intense.

Therefore, it looks at least weird that an otherwise watchful observer of this industry can so naively take the storytelling of these people seriously and offer it in his column for a magazine of international importance.

The translation industry has always been a truly open market, with no entry barriers, in which all economic actors can trade without any external constraint. Information asymmetry is its bogey. Even where local regulations apply, typically concerning sworn translation and court interpreting, these are no guarantee of remuneration and working conditions. In other words, the enormous downward pressure on prices does not come from a broadening of offering. On the contrary, in the world, there are more lawyers and journalists than translators; there are even more doctors than translators, and, keeping with the countless articles that daily describe the devastating impact that artificial intelligence will have in the immediate future, they are equally at risk.

True, not everyone seems to share the same catastrophic predictions; there are also those who include the translator profession among the seven professions that won’t have to fear the future.

A few weeks ago, an article in the MIT Technology Review presented a survey reporting a 50% chance of AI outperforming humans in all tasks in 45 years and of automating all human jobs in 120 years. Specifically, researchers predict AI will outperform humans in translating languages by 2024, writing high-school essays by 2026, writing a bestselling book by 2049, and working as a surgeon by 2053.

As a matter of fact, in the last decade, machine translation has improved the perception of the importance of translation, thus exposing translators to higher demands. At the same time, the quality of the MT output has been steadily improving, and now it is quite impressive. This is what most translators should be afraid of, that expectations on professional translators will be increasing. Unfortunately, dinosaurs can be found rather easily in translation, mostly among those who should be most “excited about technology and the possibilities of scale it offers.”

Are translators to blame for not being passionate about technology? Of course not. And not just because many of them really are almost obsessive with the tools of the trade. What so many outsiders much too often choose to overlook is that translators, still today, are generally be taught to consider themselves as artists, mostly by people who never confronted with the harshness of the translation market in their lives.

Furthermore, with very few exceptions, translation companies are generally started and run by translators who generally lack of business administration basics. On the other hand, the largest translation business that are typically run according to best-class business administration best practices do not certainly shine for technological innovation, unless this is functional to maintain appreciable profit margins. And this is usually done by compressing translator fees and by using low-priced technologies.

So, why would translators be having trouble thriving or even surviving? Does it really have to do with technology? Has disruption come and gone in the translation industry and we didn’t even notice?

Technology has profoundly altered the industry, but the elephant in room of the translation industry is in the translation process and the business model, both as obsolete as translation education programs. Even translation industry ‘leaders’ seem more interested in reassuring those working in the industry than in driving a real change. Morozov’s “orgy of amelioration” has been affecting translation too, without having seen any disruptive or even substantial innovation coming from inside.

The most relevant innovations have involved translation delivery models, not processing or business models.

So, it is not surprising that, given the premise, an outsider may think that “literary translation is under no threat.” It may also be true, as long as it is tied to the publishing industry. However, representing no more that 5% of the overall volume of translations, it is generally quite hard to find anyone making a living of literary translation only. And this is definitely not about technology.

Furthermore, from a strictly academic point of view, it is true that “a good translator may need to rethink a text, rewording important pieces, breaking up or merging sentences, and so on”. Unfortunately, in real life, a professional translator who tries to make a living out of “commercial translation”, most of the time, to be generous, does not have the time. Of course, in this respect, namely for the sake of productivity, translation technology is of the greatest help for any translator willing to exploit it.

Unfortunately, even here, nonsense is on the agenda. Machine translation, shared data, and post-editing, for example, are no “dirty little secret.” Getting suggestions from machine translation, edit them and use the results is a good way to exploit translation technology. And it is possibly incorrect to say that “everybody is doing it, but no one wants to talk about it.” This charge can easily be addressed to those intermediaries seeking to exploit as much as possible the information asymmetry typical of the industry and, among them, there are no freelancers.

Transparency is another victim of marketing and storytelling, maybe the first victim, and a typical product of deceptive marketing tactics based on a lack of transparency is ‘transcreation.’ This is an empty, all-solving word forged to scam buyers. Every translator should ‘transcreate,’ by default, to make two cultures meet. It is a service invented by marketing people to create a false differentiation and recover the losses due to pressure on the prices of basic services. It is definitely not “another market.” It is just another one of those “new trends and buzz words” that “pop up every now and then, only to be forgotten among the presentations at the usual conferences or the blog posts of self-defined experts.”

On the other hand, it is no coincidence that another narrative is emerging around the alleged analogies with the pre-Internet advertising industry. And it is no coincidence that many want to get it. But have you ever noticed how many online services are still advertised on media that were given as doomed?

In the same way, a survey on a less than statistically insignificant sample of volunteer respondents is certainly not the best way to gain any insight. But it is definitely good storytelling.

In the end, being sanguine about translation technology and seeking protection for not being overwhelmed did not help produce antibodies against the unexpected virus of a technological shift.

And no storyteller can cover the uncertainty of the future of the translation with his narrative. Certainly not from here to five years.