Monday, October 25, 2010

Machine Translation and the Gigantic Hamster Wheel

Last week I attended a virtual conference for translation agencies. Though I am not an agency (nor was meant to be...), the directory hosting the event opened the virtual doors of the event to so-called Certified Members, of which I am apparently one, after someone notified me of this fact about a year ago (it's kind of like the Nobel Prize, except for the lack of a huge cash prize and worldwide renown). Despite its virtual character, it was close enough to the experience of real conferences to remind me of why I don't go to conferences. The people who are looking for jobs WAY outnumber the number of people hiring (and since I am neither, I always feel as if I'm wasting people's time). And the people who are trying to sell me colored beads WAY surpass my interest in consuming colored beads (which tends to zero).

But I digress. Anyhoo, one presentation grabbed my attention. It was (grosso modo) about "disintermediation," an alleged trend in the industry for translation agencies (middlemen) to be phased out and for power to return to the individual translator. The presenter was sort of an industry guru and CEO of an agency (or should I say LSP, or "language service provider"? Yes, I probably should, since we are well into the realm of managementese, consultantese and corporatese). Ok. I am a translator. Power is why I got into this game (not the sex... not the money...). And when I lost it, I mourned. And now I'm certainly happy that it's coming back.

Now, "disintermediation" is a pretty heavy word. A compound of two Latin words with a further Latinate prefix to boot. They are fairly common in Romance languages and don't raise any eyebrows in the written cultures of Southern Europe. But they can come in quite helpful, as my now-deceased Swiss undergraduate adviser used to say,  "when shoveling sh*t in a Nordic language." But let's not be snarky. The presentation was 20 minutes long, but it can be summed up pretty much on the back of a napkin.

In the old days, the supply chain of localization projects looked something like this:

Content              Internal              MLV         SLV           Translator
Creation             Translation

(Note: A little translation (!) is in order to help the poor soul who hasn't had the privilege of being burdened with even more mindless jargon than what the world currently throws at us. An MLV is a "multi-language vendor," which is an agency that handles many languages, often "all" languages, as their websites claim. An SLV is either an agency that handles a single language or a shady businessman with a broadband connection and an unpaid subscription to an Internet translation directory. "Content creation" means "writing." Oh, and a translator is a translator.)

The contention is that there is a trend in the industry for the links in this chain to be squished together more and more. So much so that there is even a tendency for some of the links to be excised from the chain altogether, as unnecessary middlemen are mercilessly amputated from the supply chain. Hence, "disintermediation." Now, to be fair to the author, he stresses that it is a "trend" he is seeing. He is a senior executive of a company and he should have an interesting point of view. However, his insights are ultimately disappointing. He is not providing hard facts. Again, to be fair, the translation pond is peopled by millions of tiny little amoeba, the largest of which tout themselves as multinationals and are actually the size of a tiny red and white zit on Google's capital "G." Any figures about the size of the translation, er, localization industry in terms of turnover, profits, ink cartridges, Mickey Mouse hats or any other arbitrary criterion is really a load of hogwash. 

So let us pass over the issue of quantification. Take it as granted that the trend actually exists. The question now turns to the issue of why. And here the presentation is on even shakier ground, as the weight of its rather overblown premise sinks slowly into the fluffiness of its argument. El Niño in hydrometeorology is now invoked as an explanation for everything that is poorly understood because El Niño itself is poorly understood. It is a phenomenon that was only recently discovered (discovered, that is, by people other than Peruvian fishermen, who had known about it for centuries and perhaps millennia). So much the same for the buzzwords of today. Web 2.0! Globalization! Machine translation! Collaboration infrastructure! (Whatever that is...) Buzzzz... Buzzzzz... Buzzzzz....

Now: I'm not saying that these phenomena are not real. Or that their impact won't eventually be dramatic. My skepticism stems purely from the suspicion that historical change (even change driven by technological upheaval) is actually a lot slower than our cyber-gurus would have us believe.

As stated above, overall data for the translation and interpretation industry are hard to come by. Therefore, let us rely on the anecdotal, the illuminating empirical instance. The presenter complies. He proceeds to sketch out an example in which his company was pipped by an Indian company in a bidding process. This is where it gets really, really insane. I have to describe and quote this at length because, apparently, this is how the translation industry actually works.

First of all, a slide appears. In the first line, we see the current cost structure of the translation industry. A translator (admittedly very unproductive) translates 2,000 words a day at $0.08 per word (again, admittedly a crappy rate). (Let's not quibble, it's a hypothetical.) In contrast, let us visit Machine Translation Nirvana, where the translator spurts out 10,000 words a day and charges $300 per day. Although his rate per word has gone down from $0.08 per word to $0.03 (-37.5%, the presenter says), his take-home pay has nearly doubled:

2,000 words x  $0.08 = $160.00/day
10,000 words x $0.03 = $300.00/day
(+500%) = (-37.5%) = +187.5%

The first thing I would like to point out to the MBAs who currently tut-tut the translation industry for being managerially unsavvy is that basic math is still important. When something drops from $0.08 to $0.03, the drop is not 37.5% but 62.5%. But, hey, what the hell do I know? I have a doofy liberal arts degree, right?

The presenter, undaunted, goes on. I quote at length:

 "With the use of technologies like I mentioned like machine translation (sic), translators can boost their productivity to much higher levels than they had before. The simple example in this slide illustrates a hypothetical situation where the volume goes up 500%, from 2,000 words to 10,000 words a day [shouldn't that actually be 400%?]. The price goes down by 37.5%. [;o)] And yet the revenue for the project during the same working day, let's say 8 hours, goes up almost 200%. So are you sure that you still want to be complaining and talking about unit price? Consider talking about price per project, or hourly or daily rates. But keep in mind [that] what really matters is productivity: how many words you can do per unit of time. If this productivity is going up because of the technologies that you have, this is an improvement you can make to how much money you can make. Translators should not be, and LSPs should not be, married to unit prices. You have to look at increases in productivity and how that can give you an edge in providing clients with a competitive price. We probably have colleagues listening from India. We recently were faced with a project where we competed with an Indian company for French into English translation. Our price was, I don't know, 18 cents per word and our colleagues in India got the project for seven cents per word. I'm sure... It was a very large project. I'm sure it's not only the cost structure that they have, but also the productivity that they are getting from these projects that allowed them to provide such competitive pricing."

Wait, wait, wait... What? Stop presses. WHAT! This person is the CEO of a company and he is claiming that an Indian competitor beat him in a bidding process... not by two cents a word... not by three cents a word. No, not even five cents. The winning bid was 11 cents a word lower! That means a competitor undercut you by presenting a bid 61% lower than yours. And this wasn't because the competitor is savagely compromising quality and farming it out to non-native English speakers, but because of their "productivity." I'm sorry, but my bulls**t monitor is going haywire.

If this is the reality of the translation industry in 2010, then all of the major companies will be gone by 2012. They will simply be steamrollered by those crafty Indians and their top secret machine translation technology. And, yes, I know about Wipro and Infosys, and the Indian Silicon Valley, but come on... Moreover, if the Indian company can provide quality translation for the pair at $0.07 a word today, then they should own the entire market within two years. I mean, the owners of that company are the new Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Screw working. Sign me up for the IPO.

But let us go back to reality. We are in 2010. A sizable amount of the American public believes in intelligent design. We can't time travel. We don't fly to the grocery store in jet packs. Machine translation is still not very good, despite some very tangible advances in recent years. Moreover, unless you're using a free engine such as Google's machine translation service (and I'm afraid that's probably the case in the example above), creating your own MT application is still expensive. From the little I know, it requires building up a major corpus, analyzing it, assuring its quality, feeding it to the computers, buying major hardware moolah, etc. That means capital. If it's capital, why can't a half-decent Western company beat an Indian competitor? Or, Jesus, at the very least come close. Because, frankly, bringing an 18-cent-a-word bid to a 7-cent-per-word world is tantamount to whipping out a butter knife in the O.K. Corral and lunging at Doc Holliday. 

And, ultimately, if the edge isn't capital, the only other possible edge the Indian company has must be access to superior technology it created itself. However, unless its R&D budget is larger than Google's (and I seriously doubt it), then its competitive edge is a mystery.

But there is no mystery. The presenter asks us not to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. Behind the curtain lies allegedly superior technology powered by the megaprocessors of hundreds of servers processing language strings in supercooled storage buildings in Hyderabad. When we push back the curtains, however, we find a huge hamster wheel powered by thousands of underpaid and underqualified translators post-editing stuff the agency downloaded from Google Translate.

But let's go back to the mathematically challenged example above. The paragraph I quoted at length is very apt because it very neatly summarizes the sort of "deal" that freelance translators will be faced with over the next few years. Increasingly, translation agencies (let's call them TAs, since we apparently love acronyms so much) will try to migrate their freelance workforce to a new payment model based on hours and away from the per-word model (and its per-line and per-character brethren). The presenter mentions the possibility of a per-project rate, but my hunch is the per-hour basis will be much easier to introduce for several reasons.

There is nothing wrong per se with a movement toward lower per-word rates or even per-hour fees, albeit with a major caveat: provided that (and that is a big unknown) computerized translation technology delivers the productivity gains that the poor man's Chris Andersons of the translation world are rhapsodizing about (always around the corner, perpetually beyond the reach of our thirsting, tantalized lips).

"With MT, it almost feels as if the wheel is moving by itself!"
The real mystery isn't the killer MT app. It is why a senior executive of a company that is being run into the ground by subpar competitors is so philosophical about this process.

I can hazard a couple of explanations. Technological determinists and free market theologists (this person is probably both) see competition and efficiency as absolute values. Schumpeter and creative destruction, etc. Don't get me wrong, competition and efficiency are important values. However, mindless migration to absolute computerization of the translation process before it is scientifically proven that post-editing is better, both qualitatively and quantitatively, is simply stupid. Frankly, we are not quite there yet. Do it badly or prematurely and it could become a traumatic process in which professionals are forced to become a hamsters on a poorly made wheel that perpetuates human misery.

The other potential explanation is that the author of this presentation is slowly transitioning from senior executive of a failing MLV to freelance cyberevangelist for creative destruction in the language world. And if his competition is undercutting him by 60% and providing the same quality, that is a smart move.

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.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Shopping for a CAT: You Have to be Insane or Stupid To Use Translation Software

One of the definitions of either stupidity or insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. If such is the case, to use software, you have to be either crazy or stupid. I try to install the SDL Trados Studio 2009 Starter pack. When I try to register the license online, I get the error "Could not contact activation server (Error code 50040)". (I mentioned the hassle of licensing procedures for CAT tools you own in a previous post.) I check again. The license number is correct. I look up the error code online and the uniform reply is to uninstall the program and reinstall. I do exactly that. Same result. Why shouldn't it be? What should make us expect to have a different result by deleting and re-installing a program? Is it that the computer will remember not to skip an important step in the second installation? Are they really that human?

Ok, reinstalling this turkey didn't work. So I take the long way home of actually looking up the error message on the KnowledgeBase. The instructions I get are as follows:

Error Message 50040:
If you are using the activation code on two computers already then please return one of the activation codes first to make it available for use. You will then be able to activate the new computer. Please follow these instructions on returning your activation code:
  1. Open License Manager. To do this, go to Start > All Programs > SDL International > SDL Trados 2007 > License Manager > License Manager. The SDL License Manager dialog box is displayed.
  2. Click View Activated Licenses. The Installed Licenses dialog box is displayed.
  3. Select the permanent license from the list and then click Return License. (Ignore the trial license.)
You should now see a message stating that the activation code has been returned.
You have now returned the activation code back to the SDL license fulfillment servers and are now able to use this activation code to activate SDL Trados on a different computer.

(Note that I am NOT using the license on two machines. So from the very start the help documentation is already off the mark.) This, however, does not work. When I click "View activated licenses" I see a license for a trial that either ended or expired on September 2. When I click on it, the option to return the license does not light up, meaning it isn't available.

Now, mind you, I am beginning this process out of pure inertia. The trial version of SDL Trados is there on my machine now. I don't like the product. But out of pure laziness (and because an upgrade of my old Trados license would be cheaper than most other CAT licenses), I am willing to give it a try. (Note that this is almost how monopolies work: even clients who hate your product are eventually compelled to use it.)

But the proof that our major industry players are completely divorced from any notion of customer satisfaction: do not forget that all this Sturm und Drang is to use a starter version of the program that I was given for free (!). I have to skip through technological hoops ringed with fire while pursued by starving ravenous wolves to install a license for a dinky little piece of software that is free. Pause for a moment and savor the imbecility of that situation. Yes, let it sink in...

So I follow the instructions: but there is no way to return any of my licenses, either old, new, provisional... The process and the troubleshooting guide were designed thinking of a situation that obviously doesn't include me.

After several attempts, it is still impossible to try out SDL Trados Studio because of the licensing issue. This is a measure of how crappy translation software is: the companies' own help documentation isn't capable of predicting the behavior of their own products.

However, after several attempts to get over the license issue (and reading the help documentation and watching the slide presentations about the relicensing process), I have come to the conclusion that my problem is not covered and probably cannot be resolved without the active participation of a technician from the company (good luck!). So I give up. I give up. If installing and licensing the software is this aggravating, can you imagine how infuriating it would actually be to use SDL Trados Studio for something as crucial as your translations, on which you depend to feed and clothe your family? Can you imagine buying a license for the full product, being unable to use the program and then being at the mercy of unresponsive and under-informed customer service representatives? Brrrrrr.

Conclusion: after building up a nearly complete domination of the CAT tool market, Trados's licensing procedures are so inane that they are letting get away even a nearly-captive customer like me.

So, without too much regret, goodbye to all that!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Quantifying the Success of the SDL Trados Certification Program

Anybody remember this? Starting a few years ago, if you were a Trados license holder, you would regularly get spammed with invitations to become a certified user of Trados. This would allow you to prove to potential customers your expertise with the tool. You took a test and, depending upon the results, you had to take paid training courses to improve your level (even if you had been using the program for a zillion years).

Was it successful? Using's directory of freelancers, it appears that repetitive carpet bombing via e-mail only gets you so far., of which I am member, has 2,263 members who pay the subscription fee and describe themselves as English to Spanish translators. Out of that universe, 1,602 report owning some version of SDL Trados. This is a relatively high number (71%) that confirms the program as the industry leader. However, when you probe the directory to see how many are certified, only 28 have proven their bona fies as beginners for the 2006 version and a piddling 26 have done so in the beginner level for Trados Studio 2009 (totals are difficult to come by because the directory forces you to break down results among the different levels and among the different versions). The highest total is 57 for the beginnner level of SDL Trados 2007, a whopping 2.5% of the overall universe of paid members (3.5% of license holders).

Predictably, in my opinion, the program has fallen far short of becoming a must-have for the freelance linguist. So I guess all that spamming was unnecessary. The ATA's certification program has to be a much better investment of time and money. Now Lionbridge has come out with its GeoWorkz Translation Workspace. (What is the "z" for? How can it be trendier to change an "s" for a "z" unless you're a gangsta? Is Lionbridge the baddest homey in the translation 'hood?) Anyway, this attempt to reap marginal rents by leveraging in-house assets seems about as well-thought-out as SDL's certification program. Maybe Trados should have labeled its effort the "Zertification Program." Peace out, yo!

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.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Review: American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900

American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900 (Random House Large Print)American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900 by H.W. Brands

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sweeping economic history with a narrative twist

If the term "economic history" makes your eyes glaze over as you think about a dry analysis of GDP projections and steel tonnage figures, fear not. There isn't a single mention of inflation or per capita income in here. Think more along the lines of "Ken Burns: The Gilded Age of Capitalism." Although the subject matter is susceptible to drowning in rivers of mind-numbing statistical data, the author takes a single-mindedly narrative approach to his material. Moreover, economics is not really the sole focus: Custer's last, disastrous campaign; Irish and Chinese immigration; and the rise of Jim Crow are also featured in the book. Usually, the focus is either a major figure of the period or a representative individual. Biographical sketches of J.P. Morgan, Rockefeller, and Carnegie are a must, of course, but you also get to read about Little Big Horn from the viewpoint of a thirteen-year-old Sioux and Booker T. Washington's rise from slavery to national prominence toward the end of the century.

The tone is neither elegiac nor revisionist. The author deals in a relatively straightforward manner with both the positive aspects of the booming American economy and the seamier sides, such as racial tensions, corruption and labor conflict.

A perusal of the books cited gave me the impression that "American Colossus" is not based on either the latest scholarship or any fresh archival work. For example, the narration of Jay Gould's attempt to corner the gold market is almost exclusively based on the printed proceedings of a congressional investigation. And for a more compelling treatment of John Wesley Powell, I recommend checking out Simon Schama's chapter "American Plenty" in his The American Future: A History. Brand's work never rises to the level of astounding new insights into the American past. Without being a specialist in nineteenth-century American history, some of the material was familiar even to me. However, the author's achievement is to synthesize an amazingly large amount of material into a single book and still make it sound like a coherent narrative. I doubt the book will receive much praise from fellow academics, but as a layman's introduction to the history of the American economy, I am sure there aren't many books that can top this one.

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Friday, October 8, 2010

Sorpresa: economista galardonado con Nobel es un geek

Ayer terminé una entrada con un clip del clásico de Mel Brooks Young Frankenstein y hoy el blog de Paul Krugman contiene varias referencias a la película que ilustran su carácter como metalenguaje. Debe ser completamente incomprensible para cualquiera que tenga menos de 30 años. Lo transcribo y traduzco en su totalidad:

Blucher! Neighhhh! 

Oh, dear. Brad DeLong is right: the CBPP transcript (pdf) of Jan Hatzius, Marty Feldstein, and yours truly being gloomy does keep calling Marty “Feldman” instead.  

Someone has a rotten brain! Destiny! Destiny!

Traducible del siguiente modo:

¡Blucher! (Relincho)
Qué error. Brad DeLong tiene razón: la transcripción del CBPP (pdf) de Jan Hatzius, Marty Feldstein y yo diciendo cosas lúgubres contiene numerosas referencias a Marty "Feldman".
Alguien tiene un cerebro podrido. ¡Es el destino! ¡Es el destino!

Marty Feldman como Igor.
La película de Brooks contiene muchos chistes que giran alrededor de los nombres. El joven Frankenstein pronuncia su apellido "FrankensTÍN" para distanciarse del infame antepasado que creó el monstruo. Del mismo modo, el descendiente de Igor se hace llamar "AI-gor". Mientras tanto, Frau Blucher --la tenebrosa ama de llaves del castillo ancestral-- es tan espeluznante que sólo mencionar su nombre hace que los caballos relinchen de terror (neigh). Al referirse erróneamente a su colega Feldstein como "Feldman", resalta la referencia inconsciente de la transcripción a la película. El lapsus se debe a que el nombre del ilustre economista de Harvard es muy similar al de Marty Feldman, el comediante que interpreta a Igor, el asistente de laboratorio de Wilder. Y la referencia al "cerebro podrido" es al intercambio en la película en que le explican al monstruo el error de haberle implantado un cerebro anormal.

El lenguaje de las referencias culturales puede ser increíblemente compacto. En apenas 20 palabras, Krugman remite a toda una constelación de significados. Lo curioso es que probablemente dentro de 100 años un mensaje como éste será completamente imposible de decodificar. Excepto quizás para la familia Feldstein.

La postergación del trabajo, Freedom, la lentitud de las herramientas CAT y Young Frankenstein

La edición de este mes del New Yorker, además de la pieza de Malcolm Gladwell que comenté hace dos días, contiene una reseña de James Surowiecki de una recopilación de artículos académicos sobre la postergación de tareas desagradables (procrastination). El artículo enumera diversos métodos que utiliza la gente para vencer ese obstáculo. Se trata de técnicas denominadas self-binding, que se podría traducir como "obligarse a uno mismo" o "autocompromiso". Consisten en hacer arreglos para negarte forzosamente a ti mismo la capacidad para cometer un error o transgresión en el futuro. Un ejemplo son los ludópatas que firman contratos con casinos para que éstos les nieguen la entrada en el futuro.

Surowiecki menciona también el ejemplo de un software llamado Freedom, que cierra el acceso a Internet y, teóricamente, obliga al usuario del ordenador a centrarse en la tarea que tiene ante sí. Confieso que los paseos intermitentes por Internet (y sin ninguna relación con el proyecto de turno) son uno de los principales motivos por los que sufre mi productividad. Probablemente podría trabajar con mucha mayor rapidez si la tentación de usar para averiguar en cuántas películas han figurado canciones de Creedence Clearwater Revival o consultar Wikipedia para verificar en qué LP apareció "Jokerman" por primera vez no estuviese a la corta distancia de la ventana de búsqueda de Google.

Confieso que no he probado la herramienta en cuestión, aunque la idea me parezca ingeniosa. El problema es que me parece demasiado radical, como una lobotomía para curar un dolor de cabeza. Una vez visité a un primo en su oficina y cuando quise hacer una consulta en su máquina, descubrí que el acceso a cualquier cosa que no estuviese relacionada con la empresa estaba bloqueado. Me pareció digno de un régimen autoritario fundamentalista.

Sin embargo, creo que mi facilidad para distraerme no es sólo una flaqueza propia de mi carácter. Estoy convencido de que parte de la culpa radica en las herramientas de traducción. Para decirlo brevemente, son demasiado lentas. Wordfast Pro se demora una eternidad mientras pasa al siguiente segmento y decide si hay alguna coincidencia en la memoria. Mal que bien (aunque en menor grado), Trados y SDLX adolecen del mismo problema. Dos o tres segundos suena como poco, pero mutiplicado por 1.000 segmentos, es una eternidad en la que siento cómo se mueren mis células grises. Ese dolor lo mitigo a veces yendo al New York Times o revisando mi cuenta de Twitter por enésima vez.

En todo caso, al menos soy consciente de mi problema. Antes que soluciones radicales como Freedom, prefiero esperar a que alguien invente una CAT que se ejecute con más rapidez y reduzca mis devaneos. La idea de Freedom me recuerda a la escena de Young Frankenstein en la que Gene Wilder decide entrar a la celda a domesticar al monstruo. Les dice a sus asistentes con gran solemnidad que no abran la puerta por ningún motivo, incluso aunque les ruegue o amenace. Es un buen ejemplo de una técnica de obligación de uno mismo para hacer una tarea desagradable.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Review: Duct Tape Marketing: The World's Most Practical Small Business Marketing Guide

Duct Tape Marketing: The World's Most Practical Small Business Marketing GuideDuct Tape Marketing: The World's Most Practical Small Business Marketing Guide by John Jantsch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is no silver bullet for the small business owner, but this book might be helpful to many

After having read two or three of these marketing books targeted at small businesses, I have come to the conclusion that the best thing for the genre is to follow some sort of middle way between being a haphazard assortment of tips and “secrets” and a proper system in which all the parts of a method click together like a well-oiled machine. This book achieves that to a considerable degree, by being a little of both. I do not think there is actually any single marketing book that will serve as a silver bullet. You have to scavenge around three or four similar publications and take from every single one a little bit of knowledge here, a strategy tip there, and so build your own marketing plan.

Seen from that point of view, the question is: how many nuggets of wisdom does “Duct Tape Marketing” contain? Quite a few, according to my woefully unscientific system of counting how many Post-It notes I attached to the pages that contained something worth remembering. A total of sixteen, which for a 280-page book is quite a lot. What I liked most is that it makes you think. I have had a website for several years that has brought me very few clients, but the fact is I put it up without investing much thought into it, under the unconscious belief that just having my own domain and website would be enough of a differentiator. This is where a book like Jantsch’s can help. In a no-nonsense style, he tells you things that are almost Zen-like in their profundity: “Find something that separates you from your competition: become it and speak it to everyone you meet. Quality isn’t it, good service isn’t it, fair pricing—not it. These are all expectations” (p. 21). Now that is an insight worth paying for. The process of working out your Core Message and the Talking Logo —rather than being simply gimmicky marketing-speak (which I am wary of)— genuinely sound like worthwhile exercises for people who need to sit down and promote their businesses for the first time. The fact that, contrary to other similar “guru” books, Jantsch does not plug his seminars or websites too obtrusively is another point in the author’s favor. All in all, I think there will be something here for everyone who is starting to rethink their marketing efforts.

On the minus side, there are a lot of careless typos, something I find in a lot of the stuff put out by marketing specialists, which is rather amazing, given that marketing is basically about presentation. And what does sloppy writing and feckless proofreading say about you?

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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

La revolución no será transmitida por Twitter, según Malcolm Gladwell

El viernes pasado estaba viendo el Colbert Report y el invitado era Aaron Sorkin, guionista/creador de mi programa de televisión preferido (quizás de todos los tiempos), The West Wing. Estaba promocionando su más reciente peli, The Social Network, sobre la creación de Facebook. Huelga decir que es tan brillante que se le deslizan perlas similares a las de sus personajes (y con el mismo desparpajo). La siguiente fue tan lapidaria que se escucharon exclamaciones de asombro (audibles) en el público: "Los medios sociales como Facebook y Twitter son a la socialización lo que los reality shows son a la realidad". (Ver clip aquí.) Cuando alguien así expresa escepticismo sobre el evangelio de esta década, hay que sentarse a pensar. Y ahora se ha sumado otra voz digna de escuchar que nos invita a dudar, aunque sea un poco.

Malcolm Gladwell es una de las estrellas del non-fiction en inglés (categoría de escritura para la que no existe ningún equivalente en castellano, al menos que yo sepa). Para mí, es el mejor escritor de misterios de la actualidad --con la diferencia que sus misterios son sacados del mundo real. Suele abordar un problema cognitivo, analizar con elegancia por qué las respuestas tradicionales fracasan y rematar sus piezas con descubrimientos científicos recientes que sugieren nuevos horizontes.

En la edición de este mes del New Yorker, Gladwell enfoca sus poderosas baterías analíticas sobre el mundo de las redes sociales online. El título, "Small Change", es un doble sentido: en el primer nivel, significa "menudo, sencillo, las monedas que uno lleva en el bolsillo" y, en otro, significa "cambio pequeño", referido a lo impotentes que son las redes sociales para efectuar cambios políticos genuinos. Su primer paso consiste en analizar la sabiduría convencional. Todos conocemos el Zeitgeist: Twitter permitió que la disidencia iraní se organizara para protestar las elecciones presidenciales fraudulentas en las que Ahmadineyad salió reelegido. Tanto así que el Departamento de Estado solicitó a Twitter que suspendiese el mantenimiento programado durante la crisis para impedir que el movimiento verde quedase incomunicado. Contacto con la realidad: la mayoría de los microblogueros que tuiteaban sobre los eventos en Irán y escribían en inglés estaban transmitiendo desde el exterior. La sensación de inmediatez pasaba por alto un dato evidente: ¿no es extraño que los organizadores de las protestas en Irán escribiesen en inglés y no farsi? Efectivamente, la mayoría eran exiliados que transmitían el mensaje de sus compatriotas a un público internacional. Es posible que las esperanzas milenaristas de los "maoístas digitales" (derecho de autor: Jaron Lanier) sean, por lo menos, exageradas. Para reforzar este punto,  Gladwell procede a citar a mi historiador preferido, Robert Darnton:

Las maravillas de la tecnología comunicacional en el presente han generado una falsa conciencia sobre el pasado, incluso la sensación de que las comunicaciones no tienen ninguna historia.

De allí, Gladwell pasa a aplicar su bisturí a un contraejemplo del pasado: el movimiento de los derechos civiles de la población negra en el sur de Estados Unidos. La característica clave de este activismo "tradicional" (es decir, previo a Internet) que resalta Gladwell es la siguiente: fuerte compromiso interpersonal (los participantes en las protestas se conocían entre sí), lo que el sociólogo Doug McAdam denomina un fenómeno strong tie ("vínculo fuerte"). Este tipo de relación es la que permite a los individuos correr los riesgos (prisión, violencia física, incluso asesinato) implícitos en el desafío del sistema de segregación institucional conocido como "Jim Crow".   

Las redes sociales modernas, en contraste, carecen de este tipo de vinculación: "El tipo de activismo asociado con los medios sociales no se parece en nada a esto. Las plataformas de medios sociales se construyeron alrededor de lazos débiles". Lo que no significa que estas redes carezcan de valor. Los vínculos débiles logran fomentar acciones pequeñas que, agregadas, se pueden volver gigantescas. Gladwell cita el ejemplo de un empresario que logró que 25.000 personas se inscribiesen en el registro nacional de EE.UU. de posibles donantes de médula ósea. El esfuerzo requerido para darse de alta es mínimo y el beneficio para la sociedad es inmenso.

Pero esto resulta muy distinto a imaginar que este tipo de activismo puede tumbar gobiernos autoritarios. Los organizadores de movimientos como los derechos civiles en los años 60 y los jóvenes iraníes de la Revolución Verde exigen mucho más a sus seguidores que simplemente tomar una muestra de su ADN y enviarla por correo. Golpizas, tortura, prisión y pérdida de empleos son apenas algunos de los costes de este tipo de activismo. Acota Gladwell:

Los evangelistas de los medios sociales no comprenden esta distinción; al parecer, creen que un amigo de Facebook es lo mismo que un amigo real y que inscribirse en un registro de donantes en Silicon Valley es activismo en el mismo sentido que sentarse en un comedor segregado en el Greensboro [Carolina del Norte, cuna de las protestas contra restaurantes segregados] de 1960.

No contento con esta herejía, Gladwell pasa a explorar un territorio aun más delicado: la posibilidad de que las redes sociales desestructuradas son menos efectivas que organizaciones más jerárquicas. Del lado positivo, las redes carentes de autoridad central son "enormememente resistentes y adaptables en situaciones de bajo riesgo". Pero del lado negativo:

Debido a que las redes no tienen una estructura de liderazgo central y líneas claras de autoridad, experimentan problemas serios a la hora de llegar a consensos y fijar metas. No saben pensar estratégicamente y son susceptibles de forma crónica al conflicto y el error. ¿Cómo puedes tomar decisiones difíciles sobre asuntos tácticos, estratégicos o filosóficos cuando la opinión de todos pesa por igual?

Y, con esto, Gladwell cruza el Rubicón y se instala del otro lado de la ribera, ocupado por apenas dos o tres intelectuales públicos como el chillón Andrew Keen (El culto del aficionado; en la página de Amazon hay una reseña mía, enterrada en algún lado) y el estrafalario pero profundísimo Jaron Lanier, uno de los pioneros de la "realidad virtual" que después de cumplir los 40 comenzó a replantearse algunas de las esperanzas evangélicas de la cultura digital. Su brillante You Are not a Gadget está a punto de aparecer en castellano como No somos ordenadores gracias a Debate. Y es que cuando se combina la crítica de la tecnología mediática con la sugerencia de que la ausencia de jerarquías no necesariamente es algo positivo, la respuesta puede ser explosiva, como lo verifica la recepción de estos dos libros. ¿Será éste el tema del próximo libro de Gladwell? Ciertamente representaría un cambio de rumbo para él, pues hasta ahora sus libros presentan ideas de las ciencias sociales de forma muy atractiva para su fácil deglución por la legión de management consultants y "asesores de estilo de vida". Confieso que estoy prejuiciado a favor de la gente no sólo brillante sino también combativa. Veremos.

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.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Financial Translator as Small Businessman: No Logo? Yes Logo!

As part of my focus on direct clients, I decided to spruce up my website and acquire certain accoutrements (logo, letterhead, business cards) that bespeak professionalism (without actually pretending to be an agency, which a lot of people do and simply looks shady). The new website is almost completely ready and I will roll it out as soon as I iron out a few details. Regarding the visual paraphernalia, I read on Tim Ferriss's Four Hour Workweek that there are websites for small businesses where graphic designers compete to provide precisely that kind of service. (A quick aside: Regarding Ferris's book, I recommend reading it even if you think the concept of "lifestyle coaching" is laughable or if your list of goals does not include working just four hours a week; it is full of tips and observations that are helpful for any professional working by him or herself).

One of the websites mentioned by Ferriss is, where small businesses can recruit freelancers to carry out graphic design projects. The concept is simple. The first step is to post a graphic design project. You must provide as much information as you can: what the logo is for, where it will be used, what you want it to transmit, etc. Then you specify the amount of money you will offer for it. The minimum for a logo project is $200 and for a logo and letterhead project it is $300. The project is then posted to the site and designers register to participate. Afterward, they submit their options. I left mine open for nine or ten days and received some fifteen submissions, most of which were of a surprisingly high quality.

This was the design I eventually selected.
I ended up going for a simple logo composed of two arrows pointing toward each other. It is slightly generic, but I thought a design that is as simple as possible was better for posting as a profile photo on professional websites. The closest competitor was a bar chart enclosed in a circle with a fountain pen tip projecting outward. It was worth considering because it was obviously made to suggest financial translation. However, ultimately I went with the frontrunner because of the aforementioned criterion of simplicity.

In summary, I was very pleased with the experience. It ended up costing $474 for my logo (on both black and white backgrounds in addition to an  array of formats for the Web and print uses); a letterhead template in several formats (including Word); a business card design I can upload to online printing services; and an envelope design. Three hundred dollars from the total go directly to the designer and the website's different fees account for the rest ($174).

Other random observations about the website: the winner was ultimately the person who submitted the first proposal, several days before the deadline. Also, it doesn't really pay to set a deadline of more than a week because, in the end, 99% of the submissions were placed on the final day (indeed, the final hours). That means the winner (a designer from Bulgaria) had an edge, because I had already asked her for stationery designs and I had already been given several days to get used to the idea of her design as the look for my new website.

Therefore, all in all, a very satisfying experience. Now, I must also mention in passing that I was ambivalent about using the service. After all, I am a freelance professional and I was using the website to hire freelance professionals. The crux is that the contest format means that the people who submitted the ten or twelve losing designs did not receive anything for their work. I admit that this gave me some pause. You can award second or third prizes for entries that do not win, but when I tried to include a second prize to assuage my guilt (after the project had already been posted), it turns out that any prize has to be equal to the first one, which meant that I would have to pay a further $300 plus assorted fees, bringing the total cost of the project to over $800 (after factoring in the website's fees). This was well beyond what I had budgeted and so, unfortunately, I decided to decline the second-place prize and live with my guilt. I had to tell myself that the cost of mocking up the design was small enough that the risk of losing was outweighed by the frequency with which you win a competition (comparable, perhaps, within the translation sphere, to submitting a small sample when bidding for a project).

So, in any case, that is my first incursion into the brave, new world of crowdsourcing. Despite my qualms about the contest format, I amply recommend the service, because it beat all of my expectations. And now my freelance business has a professional client-facing look that will hopefully send out the right message to prospects.