A recent ripple in the social media pond concerned the demise of London-based Fluently.io, a platform with pretentions of replacing human interaction in translation project management with a glory hole of electronic anonymity into which companies could plug their projects to be serviced by its team of digital sharecroppers. Aside from an understandable lack of enthusiasm on the part of venture capitalists, who have likely had their fill of such "innovation" promising to conquer great linguistic landscapes, things appear to have fallen apart after a year because wordworkers mostly had better things to do. Like washing their hair, for example.
Fluently is another of many examples where the desire for innovative imitation generated sound and perhaps some occasional fury among companies hoping for the satisfaction of a translated quickie, but made no waves, left just a bit more brown scum in the pond. The worldwide internet web has a lot of life in its tides, many niches where life and scum can proliferate, even depths so far from the light that one can look at the Smartling business concept and believe it to be unique and worthy of investment, because the better angelfish of linguistic Nature are swimming with that concept far away in sunnier, more accessible waters with fewer denizens drunk on pressure and nitrogen narcosis.
The War on Common Sense waged by a cabal of greedy, occasionally deluded fools with the help of some who merely have a healthy, but misdirected intellectual curiosity, tells us that machinery physical and virtual can automate away the pain of human interaction and our inevitable disappointment over words and actions which do not follow the algorithms of profit accumulation for a chosen few. If there is a God of Translation Technology, that is surely Janus, but it is often hard to understand which of His faces is toward the future, which toward the past best left behind.
There are prophet pretenders, like Robert "Sketchy" Etches, who preach that the future face is toward machine pseudotranslation and declare those who do not suck the firehose of bulk electronic content for every drop of profit to be had are fools and dinosaurs destined to perish. I suppose that those who choose to linger by a cool, clear spring and savor its content are equally fools for not drinking deeply the salty vastness of the oceans and using their waters to grow food in their gardens.
A viable future of health and prosperity for all of us will use technology like a pair of shoes to protect us from the stones and thorns on the road, help to climb over the barriers we face, but it is our human motor capacities that take us on the paths our sound human minds choose. How can a static algorithm adequately serve our often complex, surprising social and commercial needs with our desires for fresh variety and innovation? Is our wardrobe really enriched by an automated straightjacket?
The CEO of the Fluently failed venture, Karin Nielsen said that “Translators are their own worst enemy. They could ditch agencies and earn more money. But they miss the human interaction.” As surely many translation buyers would, particularly those with a real concern for the communicative quality of the texts they pay good money to translate. But translators and translation buyers do have an alternative in which nothing goes amiss: a direct relationship, facilitated perhaps by the modern technologies of communication, but with people and their productive, creative interactions at the hub of the commercial wheel. And sometimes a good agency with a sound understanding of human needs in complex processes is essential, but seldom can satisfaction be had from automation if it confuses the avoidance of responsible and sometimes uncomfortable human participation with real productivity.