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Aug 16, 2014

Post-slavery bondage and poverty

Following the news recently, I read with some interest a number of stories involving the latest innovations in the modern chattel labor market. Some corporations now control their labor costs with the use of innovative software which optimizes the labor force to meet the ebb and flow of spot demand at retail locations. What that means is that worker's schedules are adjusted, sometimes on as little as an hour's notice, and after working the night shift, getting off for an hour or two or three to sleep and shower before opening the shop early the next day, these desperate low-wage workers may find that they are sent home after just a few hours of work that morning because not enough customers have showed up.

The effect of this on families and relationships or the complications - the impossibility - of serving multiple massahs should one be unfortunate enough to have two such optimized part-time positions to make ends meet.

"Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be broken" a youth pastor in my church used to say many years ago. But that was in an era where such things were unheard of, where the expectation of a job was that one could meet life's expenses with it, not be an underutilized but optimized cog in the profit gears that grind out their soylent bulk feed for the global corporate trough. A body just can't bend enough to meet some of today's unreasonable demands by the merchants of greed.


Some of this may sound very familiar to many translators, especially those stuck in the bulk market bog where tools like Across or GeoWorkZ is used with or without the Babeled output of machines to grind and season wordworkers in linguistic sausage production. "Ah!" – you may protest – "But slavelance translators can do their work at home!" as if the digitally sharecropped fields where one need not even be exposed to sunlight on the way to work all day for the sugar in yer tay were any greener....


Historically in oppressed labor markets, companies and those who supported the interests of exploiters at the expense of social stability and healthy markets made good use of "divide and conquer" tactics to pit one group against another and drive wages into the dust on which the desperate choked in an attempt to eat it when bread was too dear. Living in Portugal and having just left a neighborhood with a degree of social misery through economic disadvantage which I simply cannot describe in public with polite language, I have seen some modern variations on this there with skilled college graduates willing to go to extremes for the typical monthly wage of a bit over €400 (with skilled engineers earning a lordly €1500 a month or so, enabling one I know to pass up the opportunity to work for three years in Germany as an indentured servant of Siemens for €800 a month and share a flat with other chattel). I see the stress cracks in spirits pounded relentlessly by those much-loved laws of "supply and demand" and wonder how it is that most have forgotten history and are now doomed to repeat it.

In a recent Twitter dust-up, a number of colleagues who position themselves in well-compensated parts of the translation markets, where there is a continued demand for the kind of quality and service that Linguistic Sausage Producers are unable to deliver or even really comprehend in most cases (and which, alas, too few are able to deliver, though the Dunning-Kruger effect often leads them to think otherwise), argued with a prominent figure in the language service world known for his role as a consultant to commoditizers, as a co-founder of the Common (Non)sense Advisory and more. I found it interesting and disturbing that a man involved with marketing and market development for a bulk processing word shop would make a divisive statement claiming that his partners in the conversation "despise" those with lower rates. Those receiving the slave wages are very conscious of the difficulties of their lives and are often rightly resentful of the arrogant and dismissive way in which some colleagues do go on about the "price dumpers", but in this particular discussion the point was being made that there is more room in the "premium markets" for those with the skills and the business savvy to work them.

I'm not taking a side in that particular argument, nor will I add my voice to the occasional chorus that condemns Renato, who may well have responded too sharply in this case because of the many unwarranted personal attacks directed against him by people who too often fail to understand his world as he appears to fail in understanding theirs. But I have been fortunate to have a few exchanges with him in person and through various online media, and while I disagree on a number of points (possibly a great number, but I really don't know, because we haven't talked enough), I have found him to be one of the most insightful persons with whom I have discussed marketing in my many careers, and the fact that his focus is on linguistic sausage shops and their bulk word paste and redefined "quality" criteria doesn't detract in the least from the many good lessons I have learned from advice he has generously shared in public and private.

On the other hand, I am taking a side on a number of other matters, because I feel it is necessary for the good and profit of all parties who deserve to continue in productive participation in our societies. I think that we need to resist the temptation to suck the black, infected milk of lies from the "free market" advocates of markets which are far less free than claimed and recognize that all boats will not rise with the wave of prosperity unless we do something about patching the holes in many of them. Rather than waste its time canonizing popers who protected child molesters for decades, perhaps the Catholic Church should think about making Henry Ford a saint. Certainly he qualifies better than some of the disreputable characters in the roll of holies.

Mr. Ford is often noted as an innovator of sorts with assembly lines. He came rather late to the game of automobile manufacture, but it's probably fair to say that the automobile industry as we know it today and the prosperity it helped to create for generations is due to this great man and innovator. But what, in fact, was his greatest innovation. His assembly lines produced cars at a lower cost than ever before! Surely that, and in school I think this is what I was told. But I think that is not it. Mr. Ford had the radical idea that the workers in his factory should be able to buy the cars they produce. And they bought them not because the cars were suddenly cheap enough that a worker in an automobile factory could afford them. They were not. Unless that worker happened to be building cars in Mr. Ford's factory. The rest is history as they say.

Today the largest retailer in the world, Walmart, has many of its (low wage) workers subsidized by public benefits to be able to afford to shop for the cheap goods in their stores. McDonalds I'm told even has a hotline to advise its workers on how to get food stamps and other necessaries to support lives that are not sustainable through their employment. And at Lionbridge, TransPerfect, thebigword, Moravia, Kern and others....

Yes, there is a premium market of which many of the linguistic sausage pundits in the MpT world are often largely unaware, though, as colleague Kevin Hendzel has pointed out for years, it comprises many billions of dollars, euros, zlotys, etc. of business ripe for the taking by those who can meet the market criteria. All the disputes and denials on that subject are either deliberate deceptions on the part of corporate-side exploiters or simple lack of insight or of information by others. But in parallel there is that other universe of "commodity" language service which some are best suited to serve. There is no shame in that, because these words are often needed just as much or more than those in the world of high-end language service, and the waters are indeed rising swiftly with globalization there for all The Big Wave itself might have failed. But those hoping to profit from what the profiteers often refer to as the tsunami of information would do well to remember the example of Henry Ford if they want to escape being left broken on the beach one day when the tide recedes. Fairness pays and bread cast upon the waters is indeed found again, multiplied.

7 comments:

  1. [Part I]

    From my own viewpoint, it does seem that the localization industry/bulk translation market has long suffered from a “we’re the only game in town” problem.

    There’s an amusing story about SeaWorld (an aquatic theme park in the US) that goes a long way toward illustrating this exact echo-chamber problem that the localization industry and pure bulk-market providers seem to be perpetually trapped in.

    Occasionally you’ll see protesters outside SeaWorld holding up signs that declare: “It’s not SeaWorld, it’s PoolWorld.” The corporate entity SeaWorld telling tourists that these tiny, familiar pools constitute “the sea” does not make them the sea. The sea is immensely, incalculably larger and more complex.

    The same is true of the translation market. Referring to the tiny pool you are familiar with (low-end bulk localization and translation) as “the sea” (the whole rest of the market) tends to distort one’s sense of the enormity of the sea, the complexity of sea life, not to mention how damaging it can be to trap sea life in unfamiliar and hostile surroundings.

    There may also be value in dispensing with a couple of misconceptions.

    Myth #1: There are two market segments (premium and bulk) that are easily delineated and the premium market is dramatically smaller than the bulk market.

    Reality: There’s a very long continuum that encompasses all market segments, with raw bulk free MT at one end and $25,000 tag line translations of 3 words at the other.

    It’s far more accurate to characterize the continuum in terms of gradual and consistent gradations of shade rather than in terms of clear differentiating boundary lines. The “premium vs. bulk” dichotomy is a form of shorthand only.

    That also applies to price and quality, since the correlation between the two is not always linear.

    The premium sector includes commercial segments that are fiercely guarded and (often) shrouded in secrecy to prevent additional competition. Many of these are boutique translator-owned companies that deliberately fly under the radar of “research” companies like Nonsense Advisory (itself shamelessly in bed with the large companies it purports to “cover,” and stubbornly resistant to acknowledging its own 50-kilometer-wide blind spots) to avoid alerting other companies to their profitable businesses.

    There is an astonishing amount of money in these premium sectors. Pure translation alone in the high-end expert pharmaceutical, medical device and IP litigation as well as the premium legal, financial and marketing sectors across all languages and in all countries dwarfs the entire global IT localization industry by about two to three orders of magnitude.

    There are some years where one single IP pharmaceutical litigation case in Japanese-English alone will run into the $10 - $20 million range – about 10 times the “savings” that TAUS preaches are available to localization companies and their end clients that embrace their “translation as a utility” model in localization.

    That’s one single translation project in one single language pair.

    And the net profit margins are considerably higher.

    Myth 2: Price is the key differentiator between the premium and bulk market.

    Reality: While it’s true that the premium market tends to operate at higher prices, the market really operates on a completely different value proposition than does the bulk market.

    That proposition is that the cost of failure is dramatically higher than the cost of performance.

    So in the premium market, the cost of translation errors – liability, regulatory failure, loss of life, damaging publicity or significant loss of prestige – far outweighs the cost of “getting it right.” Paying whatever cost premium for translation that is necessary to PREVENT the cost of failure is viewed as a wise investment.

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  2. [Part II]

    In the bulk market, those two are reversed. The cost of failure is low, so there is no corresponding push to invest in getting it right.

    This can be tested by comparison to the dynamics of other industries, too. The cost of failure for a Walmart product is very low – the consumer almost expects the damn thing to break. It’s the same with cheap online localization and “just good enough to understand it” bulk translation.

    But a fractured fuel pump on a Boeing aircraft in flight has an enormous cost of failure, so several layers of review, ongoing maintenance and testing as well as regulatory enforcement are built around it in an effort to ensure that does not happen, a process which drives up fuel pump manufacturing costs dramatically.

    This is the market Robin Bonthrone, Chris Durban, Rose Newell, Ted Wozniak, Kevin Lossner and I (and no doubt several others reading this right now) work in. When the failure of an IPO or the collapse of a deal due to a translation-related regulatory failure or when nuclear weapons are improperly dismantled or lost to unknown people – yeah, that’s a very, very high cost of failure.

    Wallets open up to pay a premium for translation in these cases.

    Of course, translators who want to play in this market must be Boeing quality, though, not Walmart. (If any serious person considers this view “elitist,” I will contemplate the validity of that charge when that person agrees to fly on Walmart-manufactured jet aircraft that fly without regulatory approval or oversight.) :)

    Myth 3: The largest translation company in the world is Lionbridge, crowned once again by Nonsense Advisory.

    Reality: It isn’t. It may be the largest localization company that openly shares public financial data in an easy-to-read format and hence is trivially “researched,” but it omits huge operations that just don’t advertise their existence in quite the same way.

    For example, there are Global Linguist Solutions and L-3 Inc. just in the US alone. Never heard of either, right? GLS won the original US Army contract to support Iraq ops worth about $4.64 billion over five years after L-3 had the original one pre-Iraq.

    Perhaps more to the point in terms of current size, the U.S. Army recently awarded a huge US Army contract referred to as DLITE valued at $9.7 billion to 5 companies including those two.

    Those are JUST the U.S. Army contracts. The open, unclassified ones. This does not include all the other U.S. federal open spending on language services for all the other agencies that these same companies along with DynCorp and McNeil and Booz Allen and a dozen others that have never been to an ATA or any other translation conference compete for and win.

    It also omits all U.S. classified and confidential contracts. It omits all other governments’ outsourced classified and unclassified language spending.

    It’s like omitting the Indian Ocean and half the Pacific from your "research."

    It’s a vast, complex, cloudy and immensely varied translation sea out there.

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    Replies
    1. [reply, Part I]
      Thank you for the commentary, Kevin. "We are the sea" versus pond describes the mentality of a lot of the BMB (bulk market bog) argumentation I hear. For further examples, just look to the MpT carnival and all the freakish claims of astounding productivity, especially with you add HAMPsTr to the wheel. Yet each time I have heard specific cases mentioned, the end clients are inevitably in some sort of IT domain, which, as I have noted in my 4+ decades of involvement in IT as a user, developer, consultant and translator has never been noted for the quality - or often even the utility - of its language. And I see time and again that the people embedded in the world think that these are, for the broader world of translation and communication and that the textbooks, management reports and legal work with which I and many of my colleagues and friends are involved are somehow exceptional, unusual texts. I've got some old news for them... that stuff is still a lot more typical than repetitive software strings for webshops and unhelpful help texts in software. The bulk market boggers (BMBers), or linguistic sausage producers (LSPs) as we usually call them, for all the big contracts they may occasionally pull in from big corporate or government organizations, are simply not capable of delivering up to standard. They may even have all their tools and processes in tune, but too often these fail, because the slim portion remaining from their fee for the actual translation often cannot interest a translator with the subject and language skills needed. A few years ago in Warsaw, an agency owner whom I respect greatly and who is one of the few honest advocates of MpT technologies in their proper context, told me in a semi-private chat that one reason we need MpT with HAMPsTr is that in the future we won't be seeing upcoming linguists with the kind of subject knowledge that "we" have in engineering or chemistry. Bullshit, I say (and said rather loudly on that occasion). You may have difficulty training them up in numbers for the same reason it's hard to create an army of electrical engineers, synthetic chemists or aircraft test pilots, because the bar is high, the commitment to education is long and most people just won't have the stamina, interest or skill no matter how much money you throw at them. When the stakes are high, you'll always need this "premium" talent, and with language and fields of knowledge evolving at a rapid, though often unrecognized pace, somebody's software simulations of language are never going to cut it.

      As for "premium", I'm flattered that you count me in those circles, but frankly I'm not sure that I qualify by some people's standards. My lifestyle choices have often put me under the magical six-figure dollar or euro income than any of us are capable of hitting in certain language combinations and fields of work, and each year I note when I look at the excellent BDÜ rate survey (Honorarspiegel) or similar surveys by the ITI or SFT, I note that my piecework rates are seldom above the average for those working as full-time professional freelance translators, though I can and do knock that ball out of the park or at least well into the outfield when the spirit moves me or the situation requires. (And as many note, it's not piece rate that counts in the bank, but that's another discussion.) However, if we consider the definition of "premium" beyond piece rates or even hourly take, I will accept the label of a translator in "premium" markets.

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    2. [reply, part II]
      I read so often about colleagues who are "forced" to accept certain unreasonable terms or unwanted tools for work. And a lot more about the sort of silliness that arises when underage and underpaid PM cannon fodder at a BMB shop botches yet another sausage recipe. But then there are those who, through a combination of intelligent presentation, emotionally aware client relations and good follow-up control the business relationship to the extent their satisfaction requires and extract what they feel is a reasonable return for their efforts. Their conversations are not focused on allegedly falling rates (which I still have not seen in my corner of the world, though some of my friends and clients who inhabit that gray No Man's Land as agency principals between the bog and the green fields are sometimes certainly suffering). Simple, healthy business and sustainably structured business relationships would almost seem to count as "premium", because if your focus is largely on the bog and those drowning in it, that other world seems impossible and magical or magically rich at least. Rich the way I feel now while I watched my dog this morning as he searched the high grass in my back field for stray chickens (from the neighbors) to retrieve as I recalled the need to write some more invoices and deal with my cash flow. A premium life if you will, because I have positioned myself in a way to affect its course efficiently when I need to. And it's that control that the bogmasters don't like their "cloudworkers" to have.

      Money isn't everything and personally I can feel I have a premium life while living in a tent and begging for a bowl of rice each day, but we all know that money often draws certain lines, and sometimes we must step over these. As you yointed out, those who buy cheap have low expectations, and time and again I have noted that underpaid translators take a lot more shit than is justified. A translation performed at 8 to 10 cents per word will often be returned with many corrections and complaints from agency or direct clients with little understanding of the language. At 12 cents a word the complaint rate will drop significantly on average, and somewhere north of 15 cents severe errors are often dismissed by the client with comments like "well, you're only human". I have seen this phenomenon time and again, and it's so consistent that I routinely coach colleagues through it. The actual numbers differ of course according to language pair, subject area and more. I'm not advocating that we raise prices just to have our stupid errors forgiven, but it almost seems to be a law of social nature that people do not respect that which does not cost them significantly. So let's all get out there and charge for "premium respect"!

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  3. "A translation performed at 8 to 10 cents per word will often be returned with many corrections and complaints from agency or direct clients with little understanding of the language. At 12 cents a word the complaint rate will drop significantly on average, and somewhere north of 15 cents severe errors are often dismissed by the client with comments like "well, you're only human"."

    This is absolutely true... it amazes me that many "agencies" don't see the correlation... like the one that the other day announced to me they were going "in the cloud"... I had to explain to them why they would get an inferior end-product. They had no idea. But then, none of them are translators...

    Giovanni

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  4. Regarding, 'the only game in town,' an analogous problem exists in the broad market of small and not so small agencies in how they are unable to differentiate, and they end up engaging in solipsistic marketing like no competition exists: the best quality, the best prices, all those bald assertions which nobody with a basic knowledge of the 'industry' will take seriously. The clients, however, don't know. Neither do they know that those 'networks of 2000 professionals worldwide' are, in fact, databases operated by the lone secretary or even the owner in sole props — or that all those specialized, qualified, native etc. etc. experts are, in fact, winners of reverse auctions often of the kind that leaves little time for the actual work after the job poster is done choosing the most advantageous bid.

    Interestingly enough, translators are not necessarily afflicted with the same difficulties, given as, after a while, it's hard not to have recorded a biography that makes you different from everybody else — whereas intermediaries are often perpetually stuck in the word mill mode. Somehow, translators generally have little to offer in the way of magnetic personality online, even though they generally have what it takes to merit and fill a personal website of the kind that writers have (and bloggers, consultants etc.), starting from a moderately interesting bio (instead of a CV). With that done, they'd indeed *actually be come the only game in town* for that particular thing they specialize in (more actively pursued) on their personality makes them not even the best but rather the only real fit for (more passively tempting their prospective clients). This, of course, often would come at the cost of not trying to be the only game in town for just about every sort of translation need a prospective client might have.

    Somewhat connected with this is the one-stop-shop mentality. I doubt clients who go to individual translators lose sleep because a French-to-English translator can't provide Armenian to Chinese. Nor is it in any way necessary for translators to provide a huge structure of support tasks connected with office and IT work the way some people think to be the case.

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  5. Thanks to both Kevins for a great read!

    And the discussion rages on, over at ProleZ: http://www.proz.com/post/2344120#2344120

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