Friday, 31 October 2014

Put Tech In Perspective

Reading, against my good anti-procrastination sense, some comments far down under Lord Lossner's blog post from 2013, and among them Kevin Hendzel's in particular, has reminded me about something I used speak more about: the prominence of technology in translator and translation agency profiles.

Before we move on I want to say one thing: CAT tools have legitimate uses. I'm probably addicted to tabular layout myself and use a CAT tool for almost every job that doesn't involve a PDF file the source original text arriving in a PDF file, I even charge direct clients less when they recycle the same old contractual clauses. I'm not a CAT opponent, nor a tech opponent. I grew up coding. I was the fat nerd kid in glasses. Not sure the past tense is justified. Anyway.

I do realize, and do not deny, that achieving mastery and certification in a CAT tool can open the door to gainful employment for many individual translators, more so in some paths than the others inside the profession, and especially those who aren't too heavy into marketing. In such cases even a CAT developer's logo displayed as a badge on a translator's website makes sense, adding some authority and credibility, and forging a cognitive link to a well-known name in the 'industry'. The translator may not be an artist, nor an artisan, but at least the CAT maker or trainer lends its credit to the translator's claim of being a qualified worker.

On the other hand, just like Kevin says, the translation world seems to suffer from a 'hysterical obsession over technology'. I'm just not sure whether it's really an obsession or despair and not knowing what else to do, as the tech does seem to me to be a desperate attempt at value proposal.

The tech may be the single last thread on which the marketing hangs for some companies and freelancers. The impression of a concrete and almost tangible something, which can justify the price.

The exaggerated claim to 'state-of-the-art technology' (running on Visual Basic runtimes) helps drive at least some enthusiasm and perhaps, for a while, create the illusion that the given translator or agency is the only place you can find that, a unique entity, a thought leader. Until you've cycled through most of them and know better.

Next, irresponsible and short-sighted use of CATs by people who don't know or care much about translation — perhaps due to a lack of emotional investment resulting from a lack of connection, resulting from not actually being a translator — leads to situations in which 'consistency', client-approved settings and QA routines override common sense. For a different but ultimately related reason the same may be taking place in connection with the could-care-less attitude of those disillusioned to the point of embracing the GIGO principle, as is the case with quite some small agencies and freelancers who know how to make good stuff but no longer even try to argue with their clients. Some of whose ideas challenge all laws of reason.

Not only the foregoing, but in some cases the monolingual underlying nature of CATs and related QA tools shows through, and their inability to take account of conventions applicable to languages other than a version of English, e.g. in match calculating algorithms, QA checks etc. So then you end up receiving a massive complaint about 'inconsistencies', which are essentially inflectional suffixes, punctuation rules and such like. 'There is an issue with your translation,' and they expect a 50% discount, and you should, 'respond to the client's feedback,' overnight.

I want to stress that this is not necessarily something CAT designers had in mind. In fact, at least one CAT manufacturer has noted publicly that agencies are putting too much of the technological burden on translators' shoulders. It is also possible that in introducing certain now-institutions such as matches, QA routines etc., the IT companies did not actually intend to redefine translation. (In fact, I find it hard to imagine anyone would have conceived of a quest like that, without the benefit of foreknowledge.)

Rather, it's about the attitudes with which people reach for technology and use it. An attitude which needs fixing.

A notable example I'd like to bring up is how some companies insist on OCR-ing and CAT processing even hard-copy documents complete with signatures, logos etc. So not only is the translation effectively being delivered on the company stationery of someone who doesn't even know about its being used, people's signatures are actually scanned, copied and pasted over.

Why? What for? Possibly to give the client the brain-killing comfort of imagining that he received his correspondence in that exact form in the first place (radically eliminating any hint of foreignness other than such inevitables as postal addresses in foreign countries), or perhaps to satisfy a 'client requirement', as in a client requirement to OCR the heck out of everything and lose nothing in translation — but in the sense of formatting rather than the meaning.

Speaking of which, there is no concrete reason not only why the details of formatting should need to be handled personally by highly trained specialists with degrees and accreditations in translation, which is a different field from printing, typography and copy-shop services, in which an entry level qualification would often have sufficed. Putting translators on entry-level technical tasks is the translation equivalent of overlawyering, use of overqualified personnel and multiplication of trivial tasks taken to absurd levels of importance. Let's revisit the Bitter Lawyer clip from three posts ago:

Simply put, OCR with manual connections, and manual reconstruction of formatting from PDF files in general by white-collar workforce can't replace a professional typesetting/publishing process that should be used for real publications. Not much more than Paint-edited graphs and charts could hope to replace the real thing in a glossy brochure, as much as we do that sometimes for the client's convenience and to spare the graphics guy the need to go through a wall of text to figure out what goes where.

Essentially, this seems to be pointless work, generated to just have some work to do, to give or receive some semblance of value. Or to cater to some sort of non-rational (or outright irrational) requirement somewhere, in a hope that such unconditional and full obedience would please the client (Stockholm syndrome?). Or perhaps there really is so much corner-cutting these days even in publishing that this is actually done for a real purpose, especially if translators can be tricked into free gophering.

And, for the record, the general fasctination with PDF files and OCR-ing them is ridiculous. There is almost no real need these days (barring some niche applications) to use non-editable formats in normal textual translation, and the use of PDF files no longer should impress anybody because these days literally anybody can save his own PDF files using free software.

Note how all those .doc files that have been lost (really?) are found miraculously when you quote a PDF surcharge.

It almost seems like there's a morbid appeal in sculpting the exact same format in a .doc as there was in a (sometimes even non-editable) PDF file.

Or, in other words, there is played a pointless game of creating obstacles and overcoming them. To achieve what? To prove one's dedication to the client? To mark territory and show the supplier who's the boss? To project status? Meh to all three.

Well, unless it's an effort to put everything in a large TM and never pay for the full word count any more on similar segments, but there just seems to be too much accompanying focus on formatting preservation and sculpting for this alone to be the case.

In short, excessive reliance on technology, especially connected with a lack of due reflection, dumbs our work down, piles up red tape and shuts down rational thinking, creativity and everything else that marks human translation as human. It also dehumanizes our work and makes its conditions sometimes dreadful and depressogenic.

Obviously, reducing translators to gears in a world wide word mill whose job is not to think or create, who are vendors with numbers and 'dear translators/dear linguists' rather than people with names, can't be good for the profile and respect enjoyed by the profession. If there is any enjoyment of anything left in it.

I should probably mention, at least in passing, custom CATs and custom online translation management systems. In short, they're unwieldy, worse than the alternative, and compound the unhuman nature of translation these days. Will you stay logged into 20 different agencies' dedicated systems, keep a tab on things all the time, jump at jobs and click your way through auctions and confirmations all day long... ugh.

If you, Dear Reader, by chance, are a translation agency owner or employee, know that it does not make you unique and remarkable from a translator's perspective, at least in a sense other than unique and remarkable pain to work with. Which — I still hope — is something you actually give a dime (or shilling) about.

Next, technology is not what defines you as a translator or 'professional translator'. In connection with what I said earlier on, I understand that it may be a sound idea to focus on it much on your presentation, but still perhaps exercise some care and do not let it get out of hand. Technology is a huge aid and in many cases the be or not be of a professional translator, but not in the sense that owning a CAT-tool licence makes you 1) a translator, 2) a professional translator, or 3) a great translator. Your intelligence, knowledge, creativity, imagination, intuition, research aptitude and work ethic do that.

So perhaps don't emphasize it more than necessary in your profile — unless you can confirm that it works for you.

I can imagine and accept that in some specific situations it does work and it turns out well for the translator. Probably more so in the localization subsector than elsewhere, though I wouldn't like to judge by appearances here. Or in those long-term assignments where large volumes of text are translated for a utilitarian purpose.

But for that you need a working environment in which the translator is respected as a fully valuable professional and not regarded as a low-ranking menial member of the workforce several grades below a technician or engineer with real, useful skills. Or at least where the knowledge of all those substantive tools and all the attendant gadgetry at least finds appreciation and validates you. And where the processes are not degrading and soul-destroying, at least in the subjective experience of the translator involved.

If you can help it, please do not be indifferent to the tech madness, and try to guide your clients and agencies back onto the track of common sense when they steer off it.

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