(Robot arm places soy sauce on Penny’s palm)
Penny: Oh ha-ha. That’s amazing!
Sheldon: I wouldn’t say amazing. At best,
it’s a modest leap forward from the basic technology that gave us Country Bear Jamboree.
—The Big Bang Theory (2010)
I see that ProZ.com and TAUS are organizing a virtual conference about technology. For those who don’t know what TAUS is, it is an organization set up by several large translation sellers and buyers to enhance the sharing of translation memories, either for use as TMs or as raw material for training machine translation software. It is billed as “The Great Translation Debate” about technology and localization. Which I find utterly endearing for its absolute lack of self-awareness. Hello? The irony warehouse called (they’re kind of running out). It is sort of like the Schutzstaffel and the Sturmabteilung getting together in 1930s Berlin to organize a conference on “The Future of Judaism in Europe.”
But seriously, folks. Before the great debate occurs, I can pretty much sum up the message from the same four gurus and hamster apostles who will preach soothingly to the crowd: “Translators won’t be replaced by computers,” they will coo, “but professionals should nonetheless stay up to date with the latest technology.” These are shallow platitudes, both of which I agree with, for whatever that is worth.
But lost in the mass of shibboleths and condescending denunciations of Ludditism will be a more interesting point, which I will now try to summarize as succinctly as possible. Crowdsourced post-editing (CPE) isn’t really “technology” in the sense we usually use it. A lawnmower is technology. You can use it either as an individual to mow your own lawn or as a professional gardener to serve a neighborhood. A Blackberry or an iPhone is technology. You purchase it off the shelf and use it as either a substitute for old land lines, or as a calculator, or as an app downloader or to surf the Web. You can use it to text your friends or to stay in touch with your office.
CPE is different. It is a business model. Yes, it uses some of our crude, early 21st-century translation technology. But the technology by itself is not conducive to isolated use by the independent professional. Rather than a lawnmower, CPE is more akin to the assembly line designed by Henry Ford to build automobiles on a mass scale in the early 20th century. Even today, despite massive advances in robotics, people are still needed in car making plants (which makes my analogy even stronger). Of course, Ford created a great company that most blue-collar workers in the United States back then would have wanted to work for. Unfortunately, the evidence for the same paternalistic benevolence among the large translation companies that will lead the push into CPE is more mixed (and if you want some palpable evidence, go talk to some of the Polish computer programmers employed by a certain mega-LSP whose name rhymes with Xionbridge).
But that is not my point. The laborers who built cars for Ford provided a commodity: raw manual labor. Even those higher up the scale with some technical knowledge could be easily replaced in the case of a downturn, as in the Depression, or labor unrest, which occurred from time to time. Even the best workers were cogs and could not differentiate themselves (except on the basis of earnestness, punctuality or dependability). That is my point. And that point is a little more complex than a lot of the acritical chestnuts that will be doled out during the soi-disant “Great Debate.”
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, several small-and-medium-sized brokerages, asset management institutions based in Spain, and H.B.O. International. To contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. You can also join his LinkedIn network or follow him on Twitter.