Thursday, December 16, 2010

Cultural Learnings of Translation Market for Make Benefit Glorious Company Lionbridge

You shouldn’t Google yourself. I read an entry in one of those small business blogs about your “personal brand” and about keeping up with how your “brand” is reflected on the Internet. “Good idea,” I thought, like the idiot I am. So I decided to Google myself on Blog Search.

Bad move. Bad, bad move.

It is rambling. It was not proofread. It is stilted. The prepositions are all wrong. Was it written using Lionbridge’s real-time translation app?

It is signed by a member of Lionbridge’s vendor management department. A lady called Monica Oliveira. On one hand, she at least has the courage that her male colleagues lack and defends her company with her first and last name (although stressing carefully that she doesn’t speak for the company...). On the other… well… see for yourself (skip down to comments section). (Sigh.)

So, OK, here we go.

Gremlin Translation Booths

There is apparently an oversupply of translators. And there is apparently some sort of positive correlation between the number of booths at the ATA and the number of unemployed translators.

Is it perhaps because booths are used to mate by this species? Or is it that the booths spawn the translators? We are not told.

In my personal opinion, what is bringing the prices down is the large supply of translators in the market. This year, at the ATA, there were 5-6 booths representing universities. In the recent past, you would only find Monterey Institute and Kent University. It does not matter in [sic] which side of the political spectrum you are, supply and demand works and there is not much we can do about it.

“Oh my God! So many booths! It’s like… first there were two booths. And then there were four booths and now there’s an ocean of booths! There are, like, five… or SIX booths! I don’t know! Booths as far as the eye can see! So many booths! You can’t count them on the fingers of one hand! Where will it all end! Why won’t anyone think of the children!”

Conclusion: Don't spill water on your translators and, for the love of God, don't feed them after midnight.

Lionbridge Eat World

Ms. Oliveira then goes on to bloviate on the economics of the translation industry. Probably without knowing it, she is parroting a machine-translated Cliff’s Notes version of John Malthus printed on low-quality paper, dropped in a puddle on the way to class and then transcribed using Dragon by a special needs child. This brings to mind Keynes’s dictum that “practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

The imagery becomes decidedly nutritional and (dare I say) cannibalistic.

What I see happening is that the large customers (on the top of the food chain) will keep pushing down the prices until students (on the bottom of the chain) lose interest on [sic] becoming translators because of low pay. Prices, then, will go back up because there will be only enough translators for the amount of work out there. This happened to nurses in the USA, where, today, the medical industry is giving all kind of incentives to people who are willing to become nurses and teach in nursing schools.

Now, I don’t know diddlysquat about what happened to nurses in the U.S., but this is far from the way supply and demand works.

Under the Oliveira model, Lionbridge’s Irish-potato-famine wages winnow the weakest from the herd, who drop out of the labor force, emigrate to America with “Ma” and “Da” or fall back to positions as drug pushers on housing projects. Eventually, the process goes too far and too few people are left who are capable of living with less than 1,200 calories per day and at the same time continue ponying up the myriad fees that LIOX demands. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts at hooking up (formerly) bilingual corpses to Translation Workspace, Lionbridge decides it has reached “the limits of what anal probing can teach us” and raises rates. A freelance Golden Age ensues.

Except that Ms. Oliveira’s grasp of supply and demand is tenuous at best. Yes, the weak and stupid are thinned out of the herd by Malthusian starvation or Lionbridge’s Victorian vendor policies, as Ms. Oliveira claims. Eventually, a better crop or higher wages leave the hardy survivors better off, but then the contrary wave begins.

Pace the Lionbridge vendor manager, a positive equilibrium never persists. Peasants begin to breed bigger families and some of the heroin pushers are coaxed to drift back into Lionbridge’s database, lured by the shiny, new above-subsistence rates. And then the process begins anew, as Lionbridge retightens the screws again and so on and on.

But that is not the case. Lionbridge is always engaged in a massive experiment to find out the slimiest depths to which it can lower its wage bill. The experiment is independent of any world economic recovery or slump. Lionbridge is a boot stamping on a human face… forever. Come feast or famine.

Goodbye, Lenin

Oliveira then channels Hegel:

Translators are wasting their time and energy with [sic] vilifying the big LSPs, which will take [sic] them nowhere. Only an objective analysis will allow translators to make the right decisions for themselves and for the translators’ community. My friends and I boycott Walmart and this is not preventing it from being one of the largest companies in the world. Forgive me, but Miguel Llorens [sic] rhetoric reminds me of myself as a student in Brazil, in the 80’s, throwing eggs on [sic] the US Embassy walls, protesting against the American big corporations [sic] exploitation of South American countries. Translators need to focus,[sic] and put their energy in the right place. Have you seen anyone survive swimming against the current?

(Uh, excuse me, but isn’t there an entire species of fish whose very survival is founded on the activity of swimming against the current?)

For the record, I am not now nor have I ever been a member of the egg-throwing left. I attended a Jesuit university, where one didn’t have the luxury of being stupid. Or of missing class to deface public buildings. And as an adult I’ve had to march against an authoritarian socialist government enabled by the sort of fuzzy ideology that spawned that kind of egg throwing. Yes, I’ve marched for freedom of enterprise. And freedom is freedom. Even for those who abuse it, such as Lionbridge.

No, my contempt for Lionbridge is not fueled by ideology but rather morality, as uncool as that might sound. And this contempt is heightened by lame rationalizations from liberals who think personal responsibility is passé and simultaneously take paychecks from sweatshops.

The Lion and the Bridge: Worst Narnia Chronicle... Ever!

But, hark, what light through yonder window breaks?:

Translators have been working with 2 wrong assumptions: 1) translators that charge less are not good [sic], and 2) there is plenty of work that pays what the well established translators can charge.
Aha! Fear not. There is hope. Low wages do not imply poor standards. Chimpanzees may eat peanuts and fling feces at each other, but they can still paint a Jackson Pollock if you tie a brush to their hairy little paws.

But who exactly decides that “translators that charge less are not good”? Who sets the quality standards for the recruitment process over at Lionbridge?

Off the top of my head, I’m guessing that the Lionbridge vendor management department.

But after reading in disbelief how Ms. Oliveira, her boss and her boss’s boss deploy language and logic, please allow me to be a little skeptical about their judgment.

And my recommendation to Lionbridge vendors: Swim upstream! 


Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. He has worked as a translator for Goldman Sachs, the US Government's Open Source Center and H.B.O. International, as well as many small-and-medium-sized brokerages and asset management companies operating in SpainTo contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. Feel free to join his LinkedIn network or to follow him on Twitter.

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