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Monday, August 31, 2020

Lead and Gold: Challenging the Premium Translation Market Claims

This is a guest post that is a detailed response by Luigi Muzii and is a clear rebuttal of my previous post on the Premium Translation market. While Luigi agrees that the translation market is made up of many smaller segments, he does not see enough evidence of a clearly discernible premium market. He admits that there are premium customers who are willing to pay higher prices he questions the long-term viability of a market that ALWAYS pays higher prices for translation when reasonable lower-cost alternatives are available.

Since Luigi took the trouble to document his criticisms into a complete post, I felt it deserved to be an independent post that furthers the dialogue on the subject, by presenting another opinion and hopefully attracts further conversation from those who see the issues most clearly. 

We live today in a world where respectful dialogue is woefully inadequate, especially in national politics. While some of the comments might be seen as scathing, or overly negative, I find that his statement of his views (which I do not necessarily agree with) meets my standards for respectful professional discussion. Disagreements need to be forceful at times, and for this blog, I only expect that they do not become petty and personally disrespectful.

I also gathered that a primary motivation for his comments was his concern that premium market discussions would discourage both young translators who are just starting out and old-timers who might feel discouraged by choices they have made years ago.

There are, unfortunately, clear value associations in the very contrast created by the words "bulk" versus "premium".   The value creation aspects are more opaque in this dichotomy, as I have seen large MT projects can create more value (in monetary terms) than the most expert translators can around a single project, and that there is a place for the whole spectrum of translation production possibilities that exist in the world today.

Thus, I maintain that for those with demonstrated competence and true subject matter expertise, a premium market does exist. This means that it is not just higher priced work, but also that the client to translator engagement is much more active, collaborative, and consultative. 

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Do you know the way to El Dorado?
I’ve been away so long. I may go wrong and lose my way
Do you know the way to El Dorado?
I’m going back to find some peace of mind in El Dorado.


Do you know the way to El Dorado?

The fabled El Dorado of translation, the “premium market”, is to my mind much like a losing stream. Unfortunately for the many believers who still exist, there is no El Dorado. It is a legend, nothing more than a popular topic in blogs and at conferences. There is no proof of its existence because none of its fierce advocates have ever produced any, so there is no map or instructions to get there and no one is able or willing to provide any.

A few years ago, the news circulated frantically, without any confirmation from the said client, that Le Manoir de la Régate, a gastronomic restaurant in Nantes, had paid a notorious advocate of the mythical “premium market” € 800,00 for the translation of a “postcard”.

Lately, another example has been circulating, supposedly to put an end to any controversy about the existence of the so-called “premium market”.

Now, anyone who has worked in translation for a while knows that, for the job to be sustainable, a translation should not outperform the original (especially if this is already good), and that a professional translator producing superior texts from crap is not the reincarnation of Cagliostro, but a fool.

It may, of course, happen that the translator’s writing skills are such, that they easily outperform the original from the start, but in that case, the client is a fool, willing to pay more for a derivative work than for authoring. Provided, of course, that the translator is not so foolish or bashful as to accept to work for a pittance while being aware of their skills, the poor quality of the source text, and the intended use of the translation.

No top defense counsel is going to represent a pickpocket in court, just as no pickpocket is likely to have the means to hire a top defense counsel. Maybe because no defense counsel becomes the best in court overnight.

Similarly, a wicked lawyer may counsel a pickpocket and bill a fortune, just as a translator may charge an outrageous fee for translating a postcard. But, if this is true, this is rather a matter of professional ethics. Incidentally, counseling may not save the pickpocket, and the postcard may remain an isolated marketing attempt (the restaurant’s website above, for example, is still in French only).

Anyway, a customer looking for a translation to outperform the original has much more serious problems than finding a top (premium) translator. On the other hand, it is highly unlikely that the author of a legislative text, a patent application, an economic or financial report, or legal advice, would accept any comments, remarks, or writing directions from a translator, however capable. Unless, of course, the translator is also an equally capable lawyer, engineer, scientist, or economist.

Today, all published content is indeed global, and users can easily have it machine translated if they do not master the language(s) in which it needs to be available. On the other hand, in an ideal world, content would be designed and authored with translation in mind, the software would be perfectly internationalized and multimedia ready for multilingual subtitling. Only in an ideal world.

In the real world, translation is often unappreciated, most often seen as a necessary evil, and, as such, left for the end of the content production cycle, to be done cost-efficiently. So, a client who pays more than four times the market average for the translation of a standard text is a fool, all the more so if that translation is not worth the price differential.

Commoditization

The commoditization that has been affecting translation for some years now has the same effects that all commodities endure.

For example, deforestation and climate change are progressively and significantly reducing coffee crops and worsening the conditions of extreme poverty in which farmers are already living, although the coffee trade generates revenues of over US$ 100 billion per year, leading many farmers to leave. The increasing sales of fine varieties like kopi luwak will be of no help.

Just as the demand for coffee, the demand for translation is widespread and increasing; the global marketplace is crowded with price-sensitive buyers and there is little point now to bring about the issue of information asymmetry and signaling, which has been regularly dismissed for years as irrelevant.

Like for coffee and kopi luwak, there is no translation “premium market”: There may be a few “premium customers” that can, at most, and with much goodwill (from my side), represent a segment. And you should be accurate with your lexicon, especially if you are a linguist and you work for the banking and financial industry.

Another example could be a bespoke, hand-sewn three-piece men's suit from a luxury tailor shop in Savile Row, which does not necessarily make any of the tailors in the shop, and maybe not even the owner, a wealthy guy. Likewise, Brioni can provide a very demanding customer with a sartorial ready-to-wear suit while Marinella can still sell its famous handmade custom ties at any of its stores around the world.

In short, the bulk-premium dichotomy is not only simplistic, Manichaean, and capricious, it is mala fide and reflects ignorance and a profound lack of respect for all those who make a more than respectful living working with “bulk-market” customers.

Finally, bringing on the example of US defense contracts to support the existence of the premium translation market is pointless. In this case, translation jobs go to some professional services contracting company, which is part of some large conglomerate, as in the case of GLS and other regular military contractors.

If “premium” simply means that the word rate is higher, possibly a few isolated, individual translators and, most probably, some sub-contracting LSPs may earn better money than average, but this definitely does not make US defense contracts any kind of  “premium market”.

In contrast, it is possible that other major institutional customers, e.g. the EU, push hard on translation prices when procuring for translations to compensate for the untenable stipends of their in-house translators, thus further contributing to commoditizing translation.

For all these reasons, should a “premium market” exist it would most probably be “fiercely guarded and (often) shrouded in secrecy to prevent additional competition”, and this would make it even harder to find and access it.


Venture Capital and Private Equity

The advocates of the so-called “premium market” have been using the interest that some private equity firms and, to a much lesser extent, a few venture-capital funds have recently shown in the translation industry to restate their arguments.

Others maintain that the Big Four accounting firms regularly approach translation boutique firms to explore potential opportunities.

Leaving aside for a moment the numerous and repeated criticisms made over the years to those Big Four firms, who figure prominently in corporate collusion allegations, and the suspicion of money laundering behind some PE transactions, recently some mid-to-high gross margin LSPs have caught the attention of PE firms because higher gross margins usually mean higher cash-flow margin to investors.

However, VC and PE firms are typically interested in short-term growth, possibly via M&A, but top growth rates are made up of, among other things, the pace of hiring, the complexity of services delivered, and the capital intensity of expansion, with respect to the market size, maturity, and competition, all things that are very hard to find in SME LSPs.

Indeed, the translation industry’s CAGR is often claimed to be steadily above the World’s GDP growth levels, following the explosion of content volume and expanded global trade. LSPs in the gaming and life sciences niches might in fact grow even faster, but PE firms usually expect to make a three-time cash-on-cash return or more on a five-years typical investment time horizon, and the expected IRR is 20-25 percent minimum. Objectively, these results are hard to achieve by investing in SMEs LSPs.


MERGE ET IMPERA

As a matter of fact, most of the people hailing the fabled “premium market” live and work outside it, and most probably do not know the path to it or the key to access it.

This, however, does not hold them from ranting against those who they believe, or maybe they just assume are the culprits, for the decadence of translation and the translation profession.

Indeed, PE firms targeting their investments in the translation industry cut freelancers out of the equation, and this gets things back to square one with the so-called “premium market”. However, the recent RWS’s takeover of SDL shows that domain expertise builds value, and this can be found not only in high-profile professionals. In this respect, back in 1993, AITI (the Italian Association of the Translation Industry) invited RWS to an international conference on translation quality assessment and report about being the first translation company certified to BS 5750, the predecessor of ISO 9002. The conference proceedings are available for download.

The fundamentalist fever against ‘corruption’ of translation also affects Academia. Actually, it started there and has always been spreading from there. Specifically, translation students are not taught to deal with the intricacies of the real market because most teachers have never translated a line in their lives. Preserving the status quo of the old curriculum, with the associated models, is a reason for the continuing survival of these attitudes.

So, a recent paper on the sustainability of the current models in the translation industry comes as no surprise, even if it comes from an otherwise seemingly innovative institution like DCU.

Sustainability is not a new topic and has often been associated with quality. Unfortunately, a major flaw in Joss Moorkens’s paper can be found right away. In actual fact, the working situation described in his paper is relatively recent and has not been “live for decades now”.

Moorkens’s paper presents the typical traits of confirmation bias, the same that can be found in most arguments from the advocates of the so-called “premium market”. Confirmation biases contribute to overconfidence in personal beliefs and can maintain or strengthen beliefs in the face of contrary evidence.

In fact, the paper does not substantiate or provide any actual evidence of the alleged widespread application to translation-work of Taylorism, which Moorkens also apparently confuses with Fordism. It may happen. However, the application of documented information as related to processes and workflows is the basis for quality management standards and even applies to the many, (somewhat poor), translation quality assurance standards. Even the existing translation quality assessment models, which come mostly from academics, are based–more or less knowingly–on “scientific management”. Finally, the standardization of production has allowed consumers to buy cars, and soldiers to be safer when using ammunition. See my further comments on the freely available A Contrarian’s View on Translation Standards.

Of course, the remuneration of translators is a critical issue, but M&A and PE firms have little to do with it. It is true, though, that remuneration has been decreasing for the last three decades due to the many technological innovations that have been introduced almost entirely from the outside into the translation industry. This is another interesting topic that academics seemingly prefer to ignore in their studies, possibly because it does not relate to their field of study and it doesn’t help to safeguard the status quo.

On the other hand, the issue of wage reduction has been at the heart of business associations’ propaganda for years, because it is easy, costs nothing, and avoids entrepreneurs from having to open their wallets to modernize production structures and processes.

Surprise, things are changing even in the temples of laissez-faire. For example, in The Economics of Belonging, the Financial Times’s European economics commentator Martin Sandbu argues that compressing labor costs reduces productivity, that higher labor costs push companies to move to more advanced production models, to make more investments, and that, as long as people are paid little, companies are settling on low value-added production. Likewise, in The Limits of the Market, Paul De Grauwe argues that if employers like to keep labor costs low, they will only succeed if they work to curb technological progress.

Wait a minute! Has this nothing to do with the Gresham’s Law? Maybe the advocates of the fabled “premium market” are short of updates in labor economics. And not just that.

However, if RWS’s takeover of SDL is good news for the translation industry as many seem to think, there will be less and less space for a “premium market”. The specialization required to become a skillful and well-paid translator with a lasting position at the high end of the translation market involves substantial commitment, time, and investment. Skills do not grow on trees or accumulate overnight; building a network of relations is toilsome; learning to exploit it may require some major changes in character, and no one can guarantee stable high prices and job satisfaction. Time is crucial unless your parents or your spouse can indefinitely pay for your continuing education while you are stuck in the “bulk market.” And possibly find you a permanent position in some financial or military institution.

Do advocates of the “premium market” ever tell this to their pupils willing to hear their fairy tales and feed their wishful thinking?

To be honest, in his paper, at least Joss Moorkens admits that “the hollowing out of the middle section of the market may make it more difficult to climb to the high end”.

Amen.

Luigi Muzii's profile photo



Luigi Muzii has been in the "translation business" since 1982 and has been a business consultant since 2002, in the translation and localization industry through his firm. He focuses on helping customers choose and implement best-suited technologies and redesign their business processes for the greatest effectiveness of translation and localization-related work.

This link provides access to his other blog posts.


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Post Script Addendum

I dug into the €800,00 postcard translation example given above and found out some facts on this that I think are worth sharing to give it an accurate context.



The example comes from Chris Durban who uses it as a teaching aid (shown above) in a classroom setting to explore and show different aspects of value-added translation work. It was done for an FDI client of hers whose primary focus was on texts that were intended to attract foreign investment into a region of France to increase employment. This client was sending a team to Davos, and the postcard was part of a press kit pointing to the quality of life characteristics of the region and was intended to attract investment, and expatriates to consider the region for new business initiatives. This was to be used at the WEF conference, where it would be compared to other premium marketing and communication messaging.

"My point with this exercise is generally to introduce (and raise awareness of) value pricing, expertise, context (purpose of the text, client's communication goal), and time factors."  

It required the contribution of a specialist cookbook translator working together with Chris working within tight deadlines to make it work with the quality-of-life theme they were trying to promote in the press kit. The point of the example is to show how value is added when one looks beyond the words that need to be translated and focus on the broader intent of the communication, which typically requires more elaborate and knowledgeable integration procedures.   

7 comments:

  1. Hi Luigi. I've no problem with disagreement or criticism, but I think you've misrepresented my article somewhat.
    The line you quote - “live for decades now” - isn't in the text. In fact, I wrote that localisation workflows *are becoming* increasingly complex. Digital Taylorism is an established term used as described in the article. Rather than preferring to ignore falling remuneration in studies, I've been critical of it in this article, in a survey of Irish-English translators published earlier this year in Translation and Interpreting, in an article on translation in times of austerity in 2017, and in several others.

    My article calls for a sustainable balance between innovation and conditions, including rates, which actually echoes what you wrote in 2006 about "a market where economic sustainability is in the interest of both parties". Your point that "compressing labor costs reduces productivity" also fits neatly with the article you criticise.
    I'll leave a response to your points about the premium market to others who are more well-placed.

    I can't help but feel that this blog post conflates two issues that you found in your sights at around the same time and that you had decided what was contained in my article before you read it. Thus the unfounded comments about protecting the status quo and fundamentalism.

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  2. The irony of this rant by Luigi--who is presumably a translator himself--is that it is written in such tortured English that it proves the need for excellent, premium-market translators. Indeed, the English is so poorly written (and so full of strange non-sequiturs) that it is excruciatingly difficult to read. I don't know whether Luigi wrote the post in Italian and then translated it into English himself, or whether he translated his thoughts into English as he drafted it, but either way, he was not the right man for the job. The post cries out for a capable into-English translator (and editor) to make it readable. It makes sense that someone who produces a text like this would be completely unaware that a premium market exists and that there are clients who would not put up with this kind of tortured writing.

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  3. We've had an article about the wonderful premium market and one on the non existence of the premium market.

    Now, why don't we talk about those translators who used to work for the premium market and lost their premium clients because starting in 2008 companies decided it was time to cut down on localization costs and invest more in innovation (no, not in MT) and in so doing they prefer to send their texts to Transperfect, SDL, Lionbridge because it's cheaper (localization being a necessary evil, it needs to be as cheap as possible, cheaper than toilet paper, as Mr Beninatto pointed out years ago)?

    Should I tell my students in the Netherlands to specialize in legal translation when the Dutch Justice Department wants to pay rates that date back to 1988 (or around that time) and prefers to work with a intermediary that guarantees that translation requests will always be handled on time, come rain or shine?

    Or should I tell them to choose the medical/life science sector, knowing fully well that at best they'll end up working for agencies like Lionbridge Life Science or Medilingua (whose policy by the way is to work exclusively with professionals with a scientific background who decided to abandon science and do translations instead)? By the way, many legal translators in the NL had to go on strike for weeks and still they had no results.

    Should I tell my students to become transcreators and try and work for the various Don Drapers, when I know - based on mine and my colleagues' experience - that ad agencies can be the most difficult and harsh clients to work for, and that the marketing budgets are not what they used to be?

    How about the tourism field? Arts and museums? Finance? ABN AMRO closed its translation dept. in 2000 and just like ING they make use of agencies, by the way. Amex Netherlands, idem ditto.

    Apologies to Mr Vashee for this rant and to the anonymous English native speaker who will probably be shocked by my use of his/her language, but I am really sick and tired of this discussion.
    Why don't we all just come down to earth and deal with reality?







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    Replies
    1. Isabella, Many thanks for your comments. I think they highlight that the situation is more nuanced than many of us care to admit. It may be that premium segment opportunities exist only in certain languages and domains e.g. Financial domain is most likely best for FR, DE, ZH and JP translators as this is where the biggest investors come from, and thus are more likely to need nuanced communication that can have a significant monetary impact. And national security/IC buyers probably create more premium opportunity for RU, AR, ZH, KO translators.

      I appreciate your comment in response to the anonymous comment about Luigi's English writing. The fact that the comment author chose to remain anonymous speaks volumes about his/her lack of testicular fortitude. Over the years I have observed that translators are often exceedingly harsh, hypercritical, and judgmental about the writing of other translators. Nit-picking, unkind and nasty. Admittedly Luigi's writing is somewhat dense at times, and thus not easy to follow, but I think still accessible to those who care to listen to opposing opinions. We love our echo chambers as the national political discourse (or lack thereof) shows. Real dialogue requires listening, especially to those with a different view from yours. Real dialogue is a revolutionary force as it can enable real change. The whole BLM illustrates the need for closer listening and closer self-examination of long held tacit assumptions. Thank you for reminding me that the anonymous comment should be called out for what it is: petty and unkind.

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    2. Kirti, thank you for taking the time to reply to my comment- and for the expression "testicular fortitude".

      You're absolutely right. When talking about the premium market (or any market for that matter), let's be precise and consider the local/national market, the language combination, the specialized segment, and when the person has started working in translation. Also, let's not use personal experience and success as only valid references, especially when we talk to the new generation of translators.

      I read back in 2017 the post by Mr Hendzel about this success story. And I am glad for him. He is clearly very prepared and capable. Unlike him, unfortunately, my university chums and I couldn't put our Russian degrees to good use. We graduated in 1987 and in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed (remember Eltsin on the military tank? I was rooting for Gorbachev, by the way). For 2-3 years after that, in Italy there was not **one single word** to be translated/interpreted from Russian into Italian or viceversa. And afterwards, the translation market for RU-IT-RU remained wobbly for many years. We all had to switch career/language pairs. Different experiences, different markets, different moments in time, different conclusions.

      As far as MT, ML, and worries about the future as expressed by Mr Hendzel and others, I would like to point to a great editorial by Shira Ovide, tech editor for the NY Times, about tech optimism/pessimism. (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/01/technology/yes-to-tech-optimism-and-pessimism.html). There might be a paywall, I would be happy to send the article to anyone who is interested.

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  4. As many readers of this blog certainly know, Mr. Muzii and I have been consistently at odds over the existence of the premium market. I’ve lived inside it for decades, so I’m reporting my own personal and extended experience within this market as well as the exceptionally hard work of my colleagues in various segments of the market all over the world. I also had to become an expert on the markets writ large when I was the ATA National Media spokesman (2001-2012) in order to avoid misleading the media, researchers and my own colleagues.

    So I work in the very market that Kirti expertly describes in his original post.

    Happily, as such a practitioner, and despite (by extension) being called a “fool” four times, told these views “reflect ignorance,” and demonstrate “a profound lack of respect for bulk market translators,” I still welcome the opportunity to respond to Mr. Muzii from the viewpoint of an individual who has actually lived in this market for most of his professional life.

    Mr. Muzii’s repeated denials over the years, and especially those proffered above, are heavily based on repeated speculation on a whole range of market activity with no factual basis whatsoever, combined with the total absence of experience in the premium market. It’s an argument from the absence of data, not the presence of it. This stalemate persists because Mr. Muzii refuses to allow any first-hand or published descriptions of the premium market to ever be allowed to be treated as data.

    This reminds me of Lord Kelvin’s resounding and confident claim in 1895: “I can state flatly that heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”

    I’m pleased that this also gives me the opportunity to go back in time to my Precambrian college days and quote a professor who insisted that the proponents of Marxism had a lot in common with the star of the TV mystery crime show “Columbo.” The star of “Columbo” always knew from the beginning who was guilty. It was fun to watch him trap the offender under a mountain of actual facts. Real evidence.

    My professor’s point was that Marxist ideology already had the conclusion in hand, too. The only difference – and this is crucial – is that the Marxists only cared about the conclusion. They were converts. They knew what the conclusion would be. (The premium market does not exist!). No matter what events actually occurred in the world, those facts would be wrestled and twisted and crammed into that Marxist suit. It was the conclusion that was important.
    Any set of assumptions or facts or evidence could readily be twisted and jammed into that poor distorted suit.

    This approach is unhelpful, because it makes it difficult to reasonably consider other views, ideas and concepts – to say nothing about personal experience -- in an increasingly complex world.

    Let’s consider this claim by Mr. Muzii:

    “Now, anyone who has worked in translation for a while knows that, for the job to be sustainable, a translation should not outperform the original (especially if this is already good), and that a professional translator producing superior texts from crap is not the reincarnation of Cagliostro, but a fool.”

    Continued in Part 2.

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  5. Part 2

    I’ve been in translation for longer than Mr. Muzii, so I guess that means I qualify as “anyone.” It turns out, though, that premium-market clients are far more concerned about whether a translation works as a form of communication. The overriding objective is to successfully convey a message that is crucial to the client, and can involve significant market risk. These client/translator collaborative efforts are deeply rooted in comparing multiple different translations, and tweaking the options. It’s why premium-market translators are consistently and thoroughly engaged with their clients. This is in fact discussed in detail in the original post on premium markets. I can’t imagine how Mr. Muzii could have missed David Jemielity’s video image and quote in 14-point type on how communication is the primary objective.

    Mr. Muzii’s claim would also be news to the late Gabriel García Márquez, who called Gregory Rabassa's translation of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” better than the Spanish original.

    Perhaps the winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature was just another of Mr. Muzii’s “fools.”

    I also found this comment by Mr. Muzii interesting:

    “Finally, bringing on the example of US defense contracts to support the existence of the premium translation market is pointless. In this case, translation jobs go to some professional services contracting company, which is part of some large conglomerate, as in the case of GLS and other regular military contractors.”

    I found this argument to fail on so many points that it’s a real head-scratcher to figure out how to begin to address it. First, Mr. Muzii selects a single isolated example and then turns around and projects it out to represent an enormously complicated multi-billion-dollar market. Second, most of that spend bypasses companies because top-notch translators and interpreters are directly recruited and hired by government agencies at USD six-figure salaries, which only begins to cover the demand. At the ATA conference in Phoenix, Arizona, back in 2003, I worked personally to put a significant number of skilled translators in touch with these agencies, which again represented only a tiny trickle of recruiting activity. Third, large companies do provide a significant percentage of talent, but they pay translators exceedingly well because of the complexity of the missions. Fourth, Kirti himself – who has had a peek into this market – observed in the original post that that this certainly extends beyond “U.S. defense contractors.” While many U.S. intelligence and defense agencies are major consumers of MT, their funding of premium-market translation experts is 50x greater.

    I thought it would be most helpful to end on a topic where Mr. Muzii and I are in solid agreement.

    “The specialization required to become a skillful and well-paid translator with a lasting position at the high end of the translation market involves substantial commitment, time, and investment. Skills do not grow on trees or accumulate overnight; building a network of relations is toilsome; learning to exploit it may require some major changes in character, and no one can guarantee stable high prices and job satisfaction.”

    This is all certainly true.

    What I have not yet figured out is how we will train future generations of premium-market translators as our working world is increasingly interwoven with AI and ML, both of which are improving daily. Much of the bulk market has already been gouged out by these technologies, with varying degrees of success.

    My guess is that translation programs will need to recruit from graduate programs in engineering, physics and law, etc., or future generations of premium-market translators will simply train themselves.

    So this is a topic about which I am – without a doubt – woefully ignorant.

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