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Aug 1, 2013

The "WordPerfect Computer"

A recent discussion on a closed CAT tool forum on Facebook reminded me of an encounter with a school secretary some 23 years ago. At the time I was an Apple Education Sales Consultant and systems engineer for a couple of computer dealers in the Los Angeles area, advising educators on what to do about all the technology that was beginning to accumulate at their institutions.

One of the incidents I'll never forget from that time is an encounter with a school secretary who was getting a new computer for her duties. Actually, I have forgotten most of the incident.

What I will never forget is how she mourned the loss of her "WordPerfect computer". At first I was utterly baffled by what she meant, and then when I understood that she meant her old, dead IBM PC which had WordPerfect installed on it, I thought, "What a stupid person" and patiently tried to explain how the hardware was from IBM and WordPerfect was merely one of a number of applications installed on it. All in vain. For the entire length of my visit, she continues to speak of her WordPerfect computer. And how great it had been.

I was the stupid one, of course. I was a technically savvy 20-something, utterly deaf to the fact that she was giving me an important lesson in brand experience. For her, the experience of working with WordPerfect was so significant that all those other programs - Lotus 1-2-3 (an old spreadsheet application), Harvard Graphics (the pterodactyl to the bird PowerPoint) and so on - were merely other, less important things to be found on that WordPerfect computer.

As translation management servers from Kilgray, SDL, Across and others have spread among language service resellers and corporations wanting to manage their own large-scale translation resources, I am seeing some things that remind me of the secretary so many years ago.

The first encounter that many users have with a particular CAT tool is now very often in an online project. An online project with a host of problems. Very often the companies operating the server are inexperienced and haven't a clue how to operate their new platforms properly. The translators time is wasted and their work is compromised as resources are mismanaged, connections are difficult and the value proposition remains totally opaque to those doing the work. "Linguistic Sausage Producer" is probably one of the nicer thoughts entertained about an LSP at such times, as translators feel themselves chopped up virtually like bits of meat and extruded into some oozy gray mass of words in which a few specks of color and globs of fat can be dimly identified.

When a translator has had such a first experience with memoQ or SDL Trados Studio, for example, and engages in discussions with colleagues about the tool, there is often very little real communication. the victims were usually thrown at the tool like bits of meat stuffed in a grinder, trained for little, if anything other than the most basic mechanics of how to be part of the sausage (if that), and when I read their words in forum posts I see a lot of confusion, frustration and occasional rage. Except for cases like an obviously worthless tool like Across, that's really a shame. A lost opportunity in so many ways.

Who is to blame? Everyone can probably take some share of the blame, and certainly everyone suffers the consequences to some extent sooner or later. The providers of the translation environment tools should be more aware of and concerned about the experience of translators with their online tool and do more to ensure that these first experiences will be good ones. Train the language sausage producers, language service providers and corporations who buy their technology better and encourage best practices, which have an equal part of human concerns and psychology with the technology. Very often these translation servers are bought based on word-of-mouth from translators talking about their good and bad experiences.

My good experiences with memoQ as a desktop application led rather directly to a number of significant server software sales although I hadn't a clue about that environment. And I have experienced some well-managed online projects with companies that understood their memoQ Server well and used it appropriately. But I have had other server experiences that would have burned a very ugly mark on the Kilgray brand if I had not had good experience before and elsewhere. I haven't been terribly impressed by what I have seen from SDL server users, but I am trying to keep an open mind about where the problems lie. Across? (Well, the evidence is clear for Across, and we can just write it off as a lost cause.)

There are so many issues tangled up here with so many parties that there will not be an easy, packaged solution to all of it. Not even in TIPP format ;-) But most of the problems can be resolved well enough in ordinary learning processes if we make a conscious effort to be patient, to treat our business partners, clients and suppliers as reasonable people should, and if we commit ourselves consistently to better communication and education. Companies selling technology could be more aware that even after the deal is closed and the price is paid, the payables and receivables for karmic interest can continue quite a long time. The best thing SDL could hope for would be that some day some happy translators might innocently refer to their "Trados Studio" computers.

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