Jul 15, 2016

Fluent failure in translation

Janus, the God of Translation Technology

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.


  1. "a platform with pretentions of replacing human interaction in translation project management with a glory hole of electronic anonymity"

    Wow .... that's taking descriptive prose in a blog post to a whole new level.

    So much so that it reminded me of the famous Baudelaire's poem "Une Charogne" (Carrion)

    I hope you don't mind if I copy the text of the poem here. Non-francophones can have some fun with GoogleTranslate.

    Une Charogne

    Rappelez-vous l'objet que nous vîmes, mon âme,
    Ce beau matin d'été si doux:
    Au détour d'un sentier une charogne infâme
    Sur un lit semé de cailloux,

    Les jambes en l'air, comme une femme lubrique,
    Brûlante et suant les poisons,
    Ouvrait d'une façon nonchalante et cynique
    Son ventre plein d'exhalaisons.

    Le soleil rayonnait sur cette pourriture,
    Comme afin de la cuire à point,
    Et de rendre au centuple à la grande Nature
    Tout ce qu'ensemble elle avait joint;

    Et le ciel regardait la carcasse superbe
    Comme une fleur s'épanouir.
    La puanteur était si forte, que sur l'herbe
    Vous crûtes vous évanouir.

    Les mouches bourdonnaient sur ce ventre putride,
    D'où sortaient de noirs bataillons
    De larves, qui coulaient comme un épais liquide
    Le long de ces vivants haillons.

    Tout cela descendait, montait comme une vague
    Ou s'élançait en pétillant;
    On eût dit que le corps, enflé d'un souffle vague,
    Vivait en se multipliant.

    Et ce monde rendait une étrange musique,
    Comme l'eau courante et le vent,
    Ou le grain qu'un vanneur d'un mouvement rythmique
    Agite et tourne dans son van.

    Les formes s'effaçaient et n'étaient plus qu'un rêve,
    Une ébauche lente à venir
    Sur la toile oubliée, et que l'artiste achève
    Seulement par le souvenir.

    Derrière les rochers une chienne inquiète
    Nous regardait d'un oeil fâché,
    Epiant le moment de reprendre au squelette
    Le morceau qu'elle avait lâché.

    — Et pourtant vous serez semblable à cette ordure,
    À cette horrible infection,
    Etoile de mes yeux, soleil de ma nature,
    Vous, mon ange et ma passion!

    Oui! telle vous serez, ô la reine des grâces,
    Apres les derniers sacrements,
    Quand vous irez, sous l'herbe et les floraisons grasses,
    Moisir parmi les ossements.

    Alors, ô ma beauté! dites à la vermine
    Qui vous mangera de baisers,
    Que j'ai gardé la forme et l'essence divine
    De mes amours décomposés!

    — Charles Baudelaire

  2. That's a thoroughly excellent post there, Kevin. Good work. Insightful and well written.

  3. Good article, Kevin, thanks. Indeed, I agree that human interaction is essential to me. Only by talking to your client you get to know what he really wants or needs and you can give him the best service. Therefore I would never consider using such platform. Good that translators as well as customers (those seeking high quality) seem to agree on this point.

  4. Hello Kevin
    Always interesting to read another frustrated author/poet – personally, I am no closer to writing that novel about Peter Abelard or my modern day version of Jude the Obscure, but have instead wasted my days translating computer user manuals, brochures, and annual reports. Or more, recently, evangelising, for a new approach to helping the world communicate.
    And my words have been ‘sketchy’ indeed, if you have so totally misunderstood them. Not that you are the first: my colleagues at TextMinded fear I’m a crazy old hippie intent on saving the world at the expense of the business; and you that I wish to use Machine Almighty to wipe out cohorts of skilful wordsmiths in the pursuit of filthy Mammon.
    What is it exactly I am evangelising for? It is called Sustainable Communication, which has as its goal to empower everyone, everywhere to communicate anything to anyone in any language. In other words, Sustainable Communication is at heart a fight for transparency, for democracy. To provide information in their own language to people disenfranchised by not having access to that knowledge; to people who die because simple facts have not been made available to them – in their language.
    There will always be translation work for professional translators of, dare I say it, our calibre. Damn I was good ;-)
    That has never been the issue. My wonderful colleagues around the world, bashing out prose perfect texts ten hours a day, six days a week, cannot keep pace with the amount of digitised information out there. We, the pros, have helped the world gain access to, wait for it, less than 0.01% of all information into more than one language.
    Having worked in this industry for more than 26 years, I cannot accept that we have produced so little information for so few. It’s tantamount to the 60 richest people in the world owning more than the poorest 60%! We, the multilinguistic intelligentsia, are monopolising access to information, to knowledge. Shame on us.
    The beauty of the modern world is that, of course, we can do something about it. We can share. We can make our linguistic data available on platforms that empower Everyman to help EveryOtherMan to understand; to communicate.
    So Kevin, it’s all about the Power of Sharing. The more you give, the more you get. TextMinded believes in Doing Better Business, and I’m sure that you, with your linguistic skills, do not require me to explain what better means in this context.
    Thanks for your blog!

    Robert Etches


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