Monday, May 28, 2012

Future Schlock: Common Sense, Nonsense, and the Law of Supply and Demand

Things seem so random all of a sudden, and time feels like it’s speeding up.
Mad Men, Season 5, “Signal 30”

The ideological arm of Lower Quality Translation, also known as the Common Sense Advisory (CSA), has published yet another dubious white paper on the translation market, enticingly entitled “Translation Demand-Supply Mismatch.” Thankfully, the organization charges a lot for its full-length reports, so peasants such as the writer of this humble blog are left to peruse only the public summaries. This allows us to devote the precious few moments left on this Earth to more profitable pursuits, such as the latest slutty exploits of those crazy Kardashians or that never-ending cliff dive known as the Spanish equity market. The CSA does push the low quality envelope a little aggressively, though, but, after all, their audience certainly is not little old yours truly. Their stuff is aimed more at the larger translation agencies that disguise themselves as technology companies and perhaps the odd middling sort of agency that dreams of making it to The Show.

Anyhow, in the fragmented age of the Internet, some of its stuff winds up on my iPad and the ease of blog publishing allows me to kick the tires a little bit. The first surprising takeaway of “Translation Supply-Demand Mismatch” is pretty breathtaking: The law of supply and demand isn’t applicable to the translation industry.

To start off, the author cites three factors that are constraining supply.

The first one is that old chestnut (say it with me) known as the Content Tsunami. I have played enough with this faulty concept to trot it out and flog it again. Let sleeping, defunct horses lie.

The second factor is a shrinking supply of translators. Really? Based on what evidence? Hmmm, “executives at language service providers (LSPs) regularly tell us…” That is called hearsay evidence in a court of law.

Thirdly, “translator productivity has stagnated.” This is a very strange way to put it that reveals an entire underlying agenda:

In the survey we conducted for this report, we found that individual translators averaged just 2,684 words every day. This number hasn’t changed much for decades, if not centuries.

Okay, De Palma has proven that supply is constrained (I guess…). Let’s take that as a given. The expectation would be that translation prices are soaring at a rate that zips past Zimbabwean inflation rates (cha-ching!). But no (crushing disappointment):

With such a classic case of high demand and inadequate supply [please note this elegant example of question begging], prices would rise, much to the delight of LSPs and freelance translators… However, we don’t see widespread rate increases any time soon, given the price sensitivity of the language sector and tight budgets at companies stockpiling cash.
What? The laws of supply and demand don’t apply to the translation sector? Really? That’s fascinating! You could get a Nobel Prize by demonstrating why that happens! Do, please, tell me more!

But Mr. De Palma has other more pressing business to take care of than the teensy weensy little detail that one of the most basic laws of the social sciences just doesn’t have any relevance to the area of the economy he analyzes. Because he is, after all, too busy frying other fish. McFishsticks, to be more precise. Yes, the lack of pertinence of one of the most basic laws that describe economic reality merits less than a passing mention, because now we are into the nitty gritty of where we wanted to go: “Some informed companies and specialists intelligently apply MT and other translation automation to the problem.” A clunky sentence? Perhaps. Completely misguided? Possibly. A ringing endorsement of cheap translation? You bet your ass! This is followed by a reference to a discarded guru from the 1970s who mistakenly thought that by now we would be colonizing Jupiter. All of this crowned with an admonition that the world is changing way too fast and that he who doesn’t adapt risks being left behind by the dizzying rate of innovation at companies such as Trados and Lionbridge:
we expect that many buyers and suppliers will merely react to the changes rather than permanently change their behaviors. If they can step back from their day-to-day issues, though, they will see that the market for language services market has fundamentally changed. Once a cottage industry, language has become a core business process and critical enabler for a range of economic, political, and humanitarian activities – and subject to all the attendant macroeconomic pressures. Some participants will be unnerved by so many changes in such as a short time, leading to the displacement that sociologists labeled “future shock.“ To survive, they will have to adapt to the new realities and economics of language services.
So, please, translators, take a step back. Please. I beg you. Be careful. You might get some of this future schlock on your shoes. Yuck.

Some of you may be familiarized with Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock idea. The latest season of Mad Men plays a lot with the unease that Americans felt in the mid-sixties. The fear was that the world was changing a lot faster than the speed at which an individual could assimilate it. In Mad Men’s case, it is not so much because of technology, admittedly; the vertigo felt by the characters is punctuated mostly by famous crimes, such as the U of T at Austin sniper and the nurse massacre in Chicago. Half a decade after Pete Campbell was having sexy fantasies about the daughter from The Gilmore Girls, Toffler put the finger on that unease, called it future shock, and made a bundle of money explaining this anxiety to the general public. Anyone who is around forty has found that book lying somewhere in the bookshelves of every household he visits. However, what Mad Men is pointing at is social change. As the United States becomes more fragmented socially, racially, generationally and sexually, the world begins to look a lot scarier and less integrated. That is the subject of a lot of pre-post-modernist literature. Things fall apart. The center cannot hold. But technological determinists take another, slightly different, view: chiefly, that it is technology that is driving everything. And technological determinism, as I have pointed out often, is our sad, secular religion.

Now, note that to state that the rate of social change is speeding up is not exactly a world-changing perception. We can all pretty much agree on that. However, the prediction that this rate is only set to speed up to a point where we all go insane (i.e., that it is exponential) is quite another thing. As a recent reporter who visited Toffler writes:
Still, the accelerating change doesn't seem to be driving people crazy, as was predicted by Future Shock. Alvin Toffler says it may be that younger generations have simply become more adapted to change, that it is their culture. Academic futurist Stuart Candy says the Tofflers were wrong to predict widespread "future shock," as a form of societal illness or breakdown.
So, let me see… Future 1-Toffler 0. Shocker! (Schlocker?) And yet, forty years on, sub-gurus are still peddling this as a diagnosis for people trudging through the Great Stagnation. (Which prompts one question: Why, if the world is changing so quickly, is a book from four decades ago still relevant? After all, Adam Smith apparently isn’t relevant, since demand and supply is obsolete. Why should Toffler remain pertinent to our madcap era of flying cars and weekend trips to Mars?)

But all of this is deceptive. We have arrived at this point by conceding the premises of Mr. De Palma’s faulty analysis. Let’s go back to some of his more eyebrow-raising observations. Chiefly, that the dynamics of supply and demand don’t apply to translation. If true, that should blow you away like a tornado. But, as noted, the author glides blithely by.

Imagine a naturalist who passes by an elephant with a giraffe neck and says: “Wow! That’s kind of weird! It contradicts everything we know about evolution and the animal kingdom. But, wait, look over there! Is that a new Krispy Kreme? Wow! In the middle of the bush? That’s even more awesome!”

Or imagine your friend giving you a tour of his new five-bedroom house. “And this is the guest room. However, the law of gravity doesn’t apply here, for whatever reason.” You peer inside and see a bed, a dresser and a cocker spaniel floating around in zero gravity. What would you do? Would you follow your friend out to the garden to have cocktails as the furniture and the dog float round and round? Or would you devote your entire life to finding out why the law of gravity doesn’t hold in your friend’s guest bedroom?

I wonder. Is it possible that a lot of the “empirical” observations about supply constraint are not really based on any concrete studies? Maybe. Is it possible that the translation market is incredibly inefficient, as I have often preached from this digital pulpit? Hmmmm, perhaps. Is it possible that the enormous spectrum in which translation prices float is due to massive information gaps? You know, that’s possible. Or is it perhaps also the influence of the commodity thesis that is explicitly or implicitly held by a lot of buyers and sellers of translation? You know what, now that you mention it, that might be part of it. That surely does not mean that supply and demand doesn’t apply. Only that a slightly more informed analysis is needed that employs the tools of very traditional microeconomics. Also, a consultation of slightly less outdated gurus might come in handy. Unfortunately, none of these avenues of inquiry would help Mr. De Palma sell more reports. 

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, May 23, 2012

The Power of Anchoring and Rate Negotiation

Quick. A bat and a ball cost $1.10 together. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Come on, come on.

Hurry up, answer.

Was your answer that the ball costs $0.10? That answer is wrong. If the ball cost $0.10 and the bat cost $1.00 more (i.e. $1.10), then together they would cost $1.20. For the bat and the ball to cost $1.10 together, the ball has to cost $0.05. (Did that just blow your mind?)

Don’t worry, I didn’t get it right either. Even years after I first heard this test, every time I hear it I still have to stop and work out mentally why this is. Getting it wrong doesn’t reflect badly on your intelligence, just on your condition as a hairless ape. Faced with a similar problem, Stephen Jay Gould wrote that even after knowing the correct answer, “a little homunculus in my head continues to jump up and down, shouting at me” the wrong answer. It is just that deceptively simple arithmetical exercises like this are done by the intuitive, quick-thinking part of your brain. If the problem used less round or larger numbers, you would be less likely to go wrong. Because then you would mobilize the more sophisticated—but lazier—part of your brain that makes more complex mathematical calculations.

The preceding brain teaser is an ingenious demonstration of cognitive biases (or malfunctions) that are built into our brains. The slower, lazier System 2 that lumbers along slowly to make calculations is a very recent product of evolution. Most of the time, our System 1 is in charge, which we share with other animals. It is quick, unreflective and superficial, because its main job is to flee predators and find food.

I’m reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, an introduction by the Nobel-winning psychologist into the study of the systematic mental biases that dominate a significant part of our interaction with the world. Together with fellow Israeli psychologist Amos Tversky, Kahneman revolutionized the field of economics five decades ago by turning the idea of rational choice on its head.

One of the main quirks of the brain that these academics discovered is the phenomenon of anchoring. In experiments, it has been demonstrated that people who have been shown arbitrary numbers are influenced to use these numbers in making subsequent calculations that have absolutely nothing to do with the original number.

One example: a group of people see a wheel of fortune with numbers being spun. It always lands on 65. Then they are asked what percentage of the countries in the UN is African. On average, they respond 45%. A different group that is shown a wheel that always lands on 15 respond on average 25% to the same question. This means that even numbers which people know are random have an impact on their subsequent mental calculations. This anchoring effect has been demonstrated over and over in many different contexts. Some are funny: MBA students are told to recite their college ID number and it has an effect on different estimates they are asked to make. Others are more chilling: Judges are told to roll two dice and then sentence people for a misdemeanor. Systematically, the judges who rolled low numbers sentenced people to a couple of months, while higher rolls corresponded to sentences of seven months or more.

Leaving aside the disturbing aspects of our irrationality, it makes sense to exploit the phenomenon of anchoring when negotiating rates. Regardless of whether your initial rate is accepted or not, your opening proposal will act as an anchor on a negotiation. Moreover, regardless of where you start the negotiation, your counterpart will be keen on achieving a reduction. Conclusion: never start with the minimum at which you would do the project. Start at a high rate, because the client may ask for a reduction (and perhaps even need it psychologically). Give yourself leeway to reduce the rate a little in case you have to drop it a little to give the other person the illusion that he or she is a savvy negotiator. The use of anchoring is win-win. If you have to lower your original high bid, you still get to work at a rate that is acceptable to you, and the other party feels satisfied after having obtained a “discount.” If your original high offer is accepted, you get to work at a rate that is more than satisfactory for you. 

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.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Language Barrier, Knowledge Exchange, and the Googlevi Twins

Can we honestly go to some scientist and say
 the reason you haven’t found a cure for cancer
 is you don’t have access to information about cancer research? No!
—Malcolm Gladwell
Is the language barrier an obstacle to knowledge? People with technologically oriented minds would immediately respond in the affirmative. They are frustrated by the language barrier. They feel it is irrational. They equate immediate access to every single bit of information as liberating.

I’m not saying that the language barrier is a good thing or a bad thing. All I would caution is that the belief that it is the cause of ignorance or underdevelopment is perhaps accepted uncritically by supporters of what one might euphemistically call “language technology.”

A late chapter in The Shallows analyzes the attitude of Google’s founders toward information. Brin and Page are, famously, computer engineers. In Ken Auletta’s phrase, “Google's leaders are not cold businessmen; they are cold engineers.” Of course, the dominant ideology of Silicon Valley in 2012 consists in invoking lofty goals for very non-lofty business models. For instance, universal access to information is invoked as the end, and the means is the sale of (slightly tawdry) online text ads. The cure for cancer is invoked as the ultimate goal for selling mp3s, etc., etc. Which prompts the question, if the ultimate goal is to cure cancer: why not, uhm, devote your life to cancer research? Inquiring minds might want to know. But you’ll never get a response.

Google’s goal is, as former CEO Eric Schmidt famously wrote, to “gather together all of the information in the world in a single place.” The current dispersal of information is an obstacle to knowledge, and that is true, to some extent The key linkage between the Googlevi’s engineering backgrounds and the ambition of digitizing every single bit of information boils down to efficiency of access and distribution.

Now, I would like to make a heretical assumption: perhaps the language barrier is not as much of a barrier to science as one would imagine. For almost a millennium after the fall of Rome, Latin was the lingua franca of learning in the Western world. The fragmentation of the Tower of Babel only entered the ivory tower of science until well after the Scientific Revolution was underway, probably due to the influence of the ever-increasing power of nationalism and the Reformation, but also because of the growing importance of science itself and the desire to get out from under the constraints of Thomism, the heavy legacy of the Middle Ages, and its exclusive use of Latin. Perhaps if Latin had remained as the lingua franca of letters and science, we would be further along the path of progress today, but I doubt it. The movement away from a single pan-European language of knowledge that knitted together scholars from Toledo to Warsaw was in part due to factors such as the Reformation and the rise of nationalism. But it was also due to the fact that the gentleman-scientist of the seventeenth century need not have attended the major learning centres of his time. The exclusive use of the common Latin language for learning might have actually shut out these individuals from the pursuit of scientific truth. Or it may have loaded up a scholar with a lot of prejudices about language and thought that were inconvenient.

In our day, English is the lingua franca of science. I find it hard to believe that the language barrier is a problem when a pre-requisite for being a scientist is to be fluent in English. And, let’s face it, the only type of knowledge that is crucial for the advancement of humanity is scientific. Helping sailors maintain email correspondence with the cutie they met at the last port may help humanity somewhat, but not as much as a cure for malaria. (Would it be churlish to ask to which of the two Cheap Localization has contributed more over the past decade, I wonder?)

If English as a lingua franca for science leaves you unconvinced, listen to this argument about how connectedness inhibits inventiveness. This more sophisticated counterargument comes from novelist Neal Stephenson. It is a parable of how interconnectedness depresses innovation:
Most people who work in corporations or academia have witnessed something like the following: A number of engineers are sitting together in a room, bouncing ideas off each other. Out of the discussion emerges a new concept that seems promising. Then some laptop-wielding person in the corner, having performed a quick Google search, announces that this “new” idea is, in fact, an old one—or at least vaguely similar—and has already been tried. Either it failed, or it succeeded. If it failed, then no manager who wants to keep his or her job will approve spending money trying to revive it. If it succeeded, then it’s patented and entry to the market is presumed to be unattainable, since the first people who thought of it will have “first-mover advantage” and will have created “barriers to entry.” The number of seemingly promising ideas that have been crushed in this way must number in the millions.

So is efficient information exchange a pure good? Not necessarily. Sometimes, the walled garden and the solipsistic bubble are crucial for creation and innovation. Think about Descartes in his man-sized oven. Or Proust in his sound-proof bedroom. The absence of space for unmolested invention may be part of the reason for our current Great Stagnation, pace naïve connectivists such as Mark Zuckerberg and his legion of wannabes. 

The amount of information flow does not produce qualitative jumps in our knowledge or social wealth. Our current period is marked by the fastest transmission of the largest amount of information ever amassed in the history of mankind, and yet its is also marked by the slowest economic growth in many decades. The Scientific Revolution came after the invention of the press, but it was not caused by the printing press, as is wrongly believed by a lot of people who know exactly diddlysquat about history. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is a fallacy, but, as Roland Barthes wrote, it is the foundational premise of narrative. 

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, May 8, 2012

My Dinner with Renato

Is that all there is? Is that all there is?

Esto es lo que hay. Esto es lo que hay.

(It wasn’t actually dinner with Renato but rather lunch with Renato, but you know I can’t resist a meta-reference.) Readers of this blog are aware I have a low opinion of Renato Beninatto’s take on a lot of issues. The problem is that the world is a small place and eventually even he read these snarky posts and started contacting me on Twitter and via this blog. I basically pretended not to notice, because some of the stuff he says is so outrageous that it provides easy fodder for a lot of blog posts. But he insisted. He proposed a grand debate. I humbly begged off. My counter-offer was that he should write a guest post on this blog. He declined, somewhat predictably, excusing himself on the grounds of time constraints and that he does not write that well. It was therefore a stand-off. However, he proposed dinner in Madrid as one way out. I acceded, although as I said, I was very reluctant. I knew that once you see pictures of someone’s kids, you can’t really be as sarcastic as you once were. The problem is that if he did’nt exist, I might have to invent him; he’s just that juicy. Nonetheless, I thought at least I owed him a hearing. I knew that he was going to “sell” me. Sell me what, I was not sure. But if he insisted, I could not in good conscience refuse all personal contact. Nonetheless, I felt less like a berobed Alec Guinness going to meet David Prowse than one of those writers in Po-Mo novels where an uneasy author meets one of his characters.

We met for lunch last Tuesday. He was in Madrid for a localization association’s networking event. The conversation was in Spanish, which he speaks fluently. He is a talker (not a huge shock). He was not there to hear me out so much as to clarify his own views. The main message he wanted to transmit was that he is not a carpetbagger. He is a translator who pivoted by several degrees to the business side of things. He launched into a detailed narration of his professional life, from a business and economics degree, to his first job at a consultancy at which he also did translations, to film subtitler (like me), to independent freelancer (like me), to owner of a budding agency in Brazilian Portuguese and Latin American Spanish, to executive for several large “multi-language vendors.” His career spans a period in which translation transitioned from being a cottage industry dominated by individuals and small companies to a slightly less fragmented cottage industry in which much larger mid-caps provide outsourced language services to multinational blue chips. I think a lot of his views are tied to his participation in that transition.

I don’t dispute that he is an experienced translator. Point taken. He is not a carpetbagger. Okay. Most of his views that I have found questionable have to do with slightly superficial ideas about the transformative power of technology. Surprisingly, that subject was barely mentioned during a lengthy three-hour-long exchange. His attitude is that technology is an adjunct and not as central an issue as many think, at least from a business perspective (I think that is just a step away from my own suspicion that translation technology is commoditized, but he did not go as far as saying that). Another surprise is that he also expressed considerable skepticism about crowdsourcing. Furthermore, when I asked him if he thought that translation was a commodity, he did explicitly and flatly refute the idea.

Beyond personal biography, the message he sought to sell me was that “we are not so different, you and I.” I concede we are both Latin Americans of almost the same generation who drifted into translation. We are both typical of a certain, recognizable middle-class type of South American who comes from No-Place, raised and educated in several countries, with two or three passports, two or more languages, and with grandparents who hail from all over the globe. But I replied several times that our views are indeed sharply different, and probably determined by our contrasting positions within the industry. He is a born entrepreneur. I am not. He has probably gambled his life savings on a wing and prayer a couple of times. I am by nature risk averse. He feels frustrated that criticism of business as a dirty thing is unfair. His view is that we cannot and should not demonize companies. I agree with him on that, but that does not mean that sleazy businesses or shoddy practices should not come in for criticism.

It is not so much the facts on which we are divided. It is on the interpretation of those facts.

For instance, he is very enamored of the argument that a call for all translators to try to get into the high-rate sector is self-defeating. He drew a Gaussian curve on a napkin and told me that if everyone in the overpopulated, hamsterized portion of the bell curve jumps into the higher part of the curve, the better-paid freelancers would face increasing competition. In my view, that is a very simplistic way of looking at things. It assumes a perfect, undifferentiated market. In such a hypothetical (and unlikely) case, I still don’t think other freelancers would be my competition. Neither is Lionbridge, which is too large to be interested in the tiny companies I serve. My concern is competition from junky small agencies that are pure intermediaries for a so-so database, or perhaps a junky larger agency such as Transperfect, which is very aggressive in competing at every price level and for every single loose dollar drifting along out there (anywhere). No. I would welcome more translators emigrating from the middle of the bell curve, because I think a rising tide could well lift all boats.

Another challenge Renato posed: Do I think all translators should charge homogenous (and high) rates? No, that is certainly not my view either. A market should be stratified and diversified in order to reflect different levels of service, specialization, and experience. I certainly don’t think someone who just graduated should get the same compensation I get. My view, though, is that the current state tends toward a curve that is far more skewed to the left side of the distribution than is warranted. I see a lot of highly qualified specialists struggling to make rent, or people living with roommates well into their thirties. Not a pretty sight. A slight trend toward the right side of the chart would not be a bad thing, in my view.

Another pointed challenge: Do I think there should be an international brotherhood of translation teamsters demanding standard wages? Not really. First of all, I don’t think it’s feasible in the age of the Internet (except perhaps for interpreters), or even desirable. Rent seeking is not a pretty sight. We have to accept the good that globalization brings in with the bad: the former being access to a worldwide market, the latter being Lionbridge and those annoying South Asian agencies who claim to do “native Spanish.” I don’t think homogeneity is something professionals should strive for. (But even if that were to happen, at least homogenous rates would relieve me from the niggling worry [to which I’m sometimes prone] that I’m competing on price. It would allow me to focus on differentiation.)

In response to the undesired homogenization, I challenged him with this question: What is more valuable for a young translator, to toil for years as a cog in a Very Large Translation Agency for pennies a word, or to forego paid work and maybe get into a graduate program, travel, take a course on specialized translation, or learn another language? He saw no problem with spending your apprenticeship years in the commoditized sector. I, on the other hand, don’t think there is much of a future in working for faceless PMs you never meet or agencies who think translation is a commodity. So that is another major difference.

On another issue, I asked him if he sincerely believed that a translator could deliver 10,000 words a day of high-quality, publishable material. He replied in the affirmative, but I was surprised to learn that it turns out technology has little to do with it, in his view. He confided in me that back in the eighties and nineties (when SMT was not even a twinkle in the eye of Phil Ochs and post-editing was a typo), his output was 7,000 words a day (he described his method as dictating into a tape recorder which would then be transcribed by a typist). My interpretation of this is as follows: A few productivity tweaks, whether from MT or TM or whatever, should suffice to push the profession into five-digit daily outputs. In other words, technology is a red herring. Renato countered by asking me what my output was. I answered honestly that 7,000 words a day was a bridge too far for me, but conceded that I had actually pumped out 5,000 words on many days. With the caveat that I couldn’t do it for more than two weeks in a row before being totally burned out. So you see, slight differences of opinion conceal vastly different views of the profession.

Let me provide another example of differing interpretations of the same facts. Renato said he had once been asked at an event what output a translator could achieve in the future. He had replied with typical bullishness that 30,000-35,000 words per day was a feasible number for a translator in the Era of the Jetsons. I gasped (audibly): “That’s absurd! How could you even proofread that output?!” Undaunted, he went on to tell me that the day after he voiced that opinion, he had logged onto his email to find an advertisement from a leading CAT tool designer in which a translator gave a testimonial claiming that the tool had allowed her to translate 32,000 words in a  single day. Once again, I blurted out: “That person doesn’t know what she’s talking about! Thirty thousand or twenty-five thousand 100% matches do not count as words you translated!” That person was completely misreading a technology she didn’t understand (and the company was more than a little dishonest in publishing the testimonial). You see what I mean about differing interpretations? For Beninatto, the incident is a harbinger of a happy future marked by greater productivity. For me, it is a perfect example of how translators are completely incapable of interpreting technological change. Night and day. Day and night.

Regarding the “quality is dead” issue, he explained that it is related to his view that quality as mere error detection was the wrong view. He complained that the bandying about of his now infamous title was unfortunate (which made me think to myself that perhaps a less “provocative” title would have been in order; you can’t place a huge target on your back, take a leisurely stroll through the Amazon jungle, and then complain that the natives are aiming poisoned darts at you). I agree insofar as it means that the TEP model in which proofreaders add a myriad of useless tweaks (and often typos) is not efficient. However, my view is that such a model can work well in small groups of professionals who work with each other. But scaling up that model to larger and larger collectives or companies was a recipe for a lot of trouble. And, incidentally, for hamsterization, a term that he criticizes as impolite (I would reply that it is far more uncouth to deprofessionalize people, but there you go).

No, our opinions are completely different. I asked him point blank if he thought a translator should compete on price. He said flatly no, that competing on price is suicidal. But I think where he contradicts himself is that he often voiced the parallel message that not everyone can aspire to the higher echelons of the market (which is self-evident and not insightful) and that the lower-rate competitors will ultimately eat your lunch.

To sum it up, I think his career represents an example of the undeniable triumph of the drive to Cheap and Big. However, I think Cheap as a pricing model might not be as successful over the next two decades as it has been over the past two. Cheap is already running into headwinds as the middle class in China gets larger and larger. Look at Latin American currencies. They are appreciating at breakneck pace while the industrialized world deleverages. Of course, the commodities boom will eventually go bust, that is inherent to cycles. But take a look at Brazil’s or Colombia’s international reserves. Dutch disease is deadly for cheap labor. Asians and Latin Americans learned the painful lessons of the nineties (the Tequila Effect, the Samba Effect, and those little episodes known as the Russian debt default and the Asian financial crisis). They learned them rather well.

To illustrate the point, I mentioned the anecdote about the late Steve Jobs and Obama at a dinner party held last year. Obama asked the Apple CEO how the U.S. can bring back those factory jobs making iPads. Jobs replied bluntly that those jobs are gone forever. Beninatto knew the anecdote. His eyes brightened when I mentioned it, but I’m sure that it’s because he misreads the anecdote. He thinks it confirms the superiority of Cheap. But the founder of Apple wasn’t saying those jobs are gone forever because Chinese salaries are dirt poor. His point was far more subtle. Listen to why those salaries will never come back to the U.S.:
Another critical advantage for Apple was that China provided engineers at a scale the United States could not match. Apple’s executives had estimated that about 8,700 industrial engineers were needed to oversee and guide the 200,000 assembly-line workers eventually involved in manufacturing iPhones. The company’s analysts had forecast it would take as long as nine months to find that many qualified engineers in the United States. 
In China, it took 15 days. 
Companies like Apple “say the challenge in setting up U.S. plants is finding a technical work force,” said Martin Schmidt, associate provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In particular, companies say they need engineers with more than high school, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree. Americans at that skill level are hard to find, executives contend. “They’re good jobs, but the country doesn’t have enough to feed the demand,” Mr. Schmidt said.
If the FoxConn jobs are fated to remain in China, it is not because those engineers are cheap. They may earn less than American engineers, but their country’s real advantage is ease of sourcing and abundance. And that means skilled labor. It is a dramatic indication that China is climbing up the value chain, just as Japan, Korea, and Chile did earlier. That is something a member of a hamsterized work force is not doing. The anecdote does, unfortunately, also spell the end of the highly paid American blue collar worker, whose elegy is pictured in Michael Moore’s films. But it also spells the rise of something equally revolutionary: the better-paid blue collar Chinese worker and the well-paid, thrifty, and hyper-educated Chinese middle class. More significantly, it also spells the end of something else: the demise of Cheap as the main pillar of international business models. China’s edge is now both volume-based AND strategic. An alert player should pick up his ears, because the times they are a-changin’. That is the real significance of the Jobs-Obama story.

As I assured him over and over, I do not think he is an evil person, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t find a lot of his opinions completely erroneous, if not downright objectionable. Every time I said that, he assured me with a little twinkle in his eye that, deep down, we actually agree on more than I think. I could see readily that he is a born salesman. Perhaps even too good. The dirty little secret about investment banking is that, at heart, it is just sales. A trader, a VP, a guru-economist, even a nerdy quant is really just a salesperson. But at Goldman Sachs, the capital sin was to be “salesy,” which means being slightly too slick for your own good.

So, does the man have horns and a tail? No. Does he smell of brimstone? No. He is a charming, affable person with a big personality. However, if he gets flak from random bloggers, it is probably due to his lack of awareness about the heterogeneity of the audiences you reach now on the Internet. A message on a blog or a video uploaded to YouTube is pushed out to an audience that is difficult to predict, much less control. That will be the case until the Internet becomes a more textured place broken down into apps or dominated by more regulated spaces unreachable via the flatness of the search engine. I told him that. Once again, he completely brushed off this suggestion. However, I reiterate my belief that if you venture out into the Internet, you have to be prepared to be misunderstood. I write a niche blog read by a tiny audience of 200 people, and the variety of reactions always runs the gamut from utterly fascinating to completely baffling. We have to learn to live with that.

So, in closing, I thank him for the invitation to lunch. He was also gracious enough to invite me to the ELIA networking event free of charge a couple of days later, an invitation I accepted. But differences of opinion remain and don’t necessarily have to be drowned in bonhomie and red wine, since they can be insightful. My two main messages, which I would like to reiterate, is first of all that translation will probably come to be dominated by a barbell, with large agencies on one end of the barbell and cottage providers on the other. The contrasting views and philosophies of the two extremes will become increasingly more divergent, a divergence which will on occasion sound rather bitter. That is unavoidable. Secondly, there is an emerging sleaze problem as some unethical companies scale up.

About both of these opinions he was unsurprisingly dismissive. He cheerfully waved them off, like the eternal optimist he probably is. I accept these as very real, like the over-analytical pessimist I am.

We must, therefore, agree to disagree and hope for the best, because—to answer Peggy Lee’s melancholy question with a refrain from funk-salsameisters Los amigos invisibles—that’s really all there is.

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.