…and into the lion’s den
Productivity is a controversial issue among translators. We all know what we can do and we often don’t like the idea that other people can work faster than we can. If they can, we have a tendency to think they can’t be doing things properly. Now I’m quite tolerant of other people’s productivity, maybe because I’m quite a productive translator myself. I can translate 4,000 words a day to a quality standard that I am happy with, and more in an emergency. So I’m used to people saying “I don’t know how you can do that” and I’m prepared to believe that others may be able to do more than I can. If someone said they could do 6,000 words a day, for instance, I’d be surprised but I wouldn’t be calling anyone a liar.
Some productivity claims, however, go too far. One such appeared a couple of weeks ago, when Wolf Steinhauer offered a webinar claiming to teach translators how to translate 10,000 words a day. It caused quite a stir on Facebook, with many colleagues agreeing with me that such a level of productivity was impossible if quality was to be maintained and others saying they would prefer to see the webinar before making a judgement. The discussions even became quite heated, with one translator accusing me of being “incompetent”, an insult I couldn’t quite understand in the context. Another colleague said she couldn’t understand the apparent anger the advertising of the webinar had aroused.
The point of this post is to explain exactly why this sort of unbelievable claim is objectionable, particularly when combined with the offer supposed translator training, as in this case. To begin with, why do I say it is impossible to translate 10,000 words in a day? After all, I’ve already admitted that everyone has a tendency to disbelieve higher productivity than their own. The problem with a figure like 10,000, though, is that it is very close to the number of words I can edit in a day, and, remember, I’m quite productive. This must mean that either the whole translation is being done in barely an hour so that there’s time to fit in the editing process, or it simply isn’t being edited at all. Either way, the resulting quality is hardly going to be acceptable.
Added to this is the fact that if you do manage to translate and edit 10,000 in a day you are going to be very tired indeed. That will almost certainly put you out of action for the next working day, nullifying any gains your extra productivity has achieved for you. In the unlikely event that you do manage to keep up the pace for more that two or three days at a time, you’ll have had little time to do anything other than work and, as all of us who have done such daft things from time to time know, your health is bound to suffer. So not only will the quality of your work will be down, the quality of your life will also be negatively affected. Where’s the sense in that?
And yet there was Wolf happily promoting his webinar as if he was about to reveal some sort of important secret. What could it be? Maybe I should have attended to find out. There might indeed have been something to learn, as some productivity tricks are useful. My best one, as I think I have explained before, is touch-typing. Others swear by voice recognition software. Some translators even use codes or hotkeys to reduce the amount they have to type. And, of course, there are CAT tools, although if the 10,000 words a day that were being claimed all came out of a translation memory that would be cheating, as no translator is going to get that lucky on a regular basis.
But I didn’t attend the webinar because, as I have already explained, what Wolf was claiming to be able to do is simply not possible day in, day out to a decent quality standard, and that makes anything he was trying to say simply misleading. Because who wouldn’t want to be able to achieve that sort of productivity, especially translators who feel forced, for whatever reason, to accept low rates? So is it fair to tempt these vulnerable translators with a promise of something that can’t realistically be done? I would say it’s not.
But it doesn’t end there. Not only is the idea of translating that much that quickly unrealistic, it is also precisely the wrong approach in a market increasingly threatened by machine translation. No-one can be any doubt that the very first humans to lose their place in the market to machines will be those who translate like machines. Yet this is exactly the way people translating 10,000 words a day are going to be working. And they won’t beat the machines for speed, that’s for sure. Nor will they beat them on price.
Where they might score as human translators is on quality, but Wolf doesn’t set much store by quality. In an e-book he has published, he claims that (the book is in German, but the translation is by a German-speaking colleague) that: “The competence and abilities of a translator or interpreter don’t count for anything. The clients just don’t have any idea how to assess these.” Now, while he may have a point about the inability of some clients to judge quality, the basic idea that translators’ skills are irrelevant is utterly wrong-headed as he is disparaging the only strategy likely to save members of this profession from losing out to those machines.
It’s true that, even at low rates, translating 10,000 words a day could bring in a reasonable living, but for how long? The only way this end of the market is going is down, in both price and quality terms. So what happens when those rates are cut again? Will people be trying to translate 20,000 words in a day? Or 30,000? In the end it won’t matter because, as we all know, Google Translate is free.
And here’s the source of the anger perceived by my colleague in some people’s reactions to the webinar advert, including my own, I have to admit. Because although I’m not going to be fooled, where will those translators who have naively followed Wolf’s bash-it-out-and-sell-it-cheap approach be when machines are doing all the bottom-end translation? They will be entitled to feel they’ve been led up the garden path, but in fact they will have been guided into the lions’ den, as lambs to the slaughter.