Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Never Stop Bullshitting: Or Being Popular in the Translation Industry

This is a guest post by Luigi Muzii (and his unedited post title). Luigi likes to knock down false idols and speak plainly, sometimes with obscure (to most Americans anyway) Italian literary references. I would characterize this post as an opinion on the lack of honest self-assessment and self-review that pervades the industry (at all levels) and thus slows evolution and progress. Thus, we see that industry groups struggle to promote "the industry", but in fact, the industry is still one that "gets no respect" or is "misunderstood" as we hear at many industry forums.  While change can be uncomfortable, real evolution also results in a higher and better position for some in the internationalization and globalization arena. Efficiency is always valuable, even in the arts. In my view, the companies that solve the most challenging and interesting translation problems today (and thus earn the most money from translation related activity) are all VERY focused on efficiency, and interestingly are also not really part of  "the translation industry." These companies are in a different league, in terms of scale and process efficiency and I think could pave the way in providing a vision for real change in how things are done in "the industry". The old process models are not sustainable for anything but the most important and critical content. From my vantage point, most of the content that is the primary focus of  "the industry" is not really important or critical. Simpler, faster and more efficient translation (cheaper) production really does matter to both the existing and emerging customer base

I came to the "translation industry"  from the IT industry, specifically, the storage virtualization and applications software development sectors. I recall that I was surprised by several things I saw when I first arrived to "the industry", and I am sure this is not unlike what many brand new translation buyers might also experience. My key observations when I had a fresh mind include:
  1. The degree of fragmentation in the translation industry which hampers movement towards more efficient production processes,
  2. How archaic and dated the most popular translation technology was, especially TM (1990's technology that was really the only automation technology in widespread use),
  3. The number of LSPs who still kept building (sub-optimal, klunky) "custom" TMS and Project Management systems, when perfectly workable, more robust options were available,
  4.  The hostility and ignorance regarding MT technology and it's potential and proper use cases,
  5. How labor-intensive, slow, reactive and inefficient production processes were in general.
This, I suspect is what many others feel if they come from other industries where efficient production processes are much more deeply established and understood. Not that much has really changed in 10 years, though now you see a proliferation of really bad, self-built MT systems, and fortunately, most have given up on building that magical TMS, that is allegedly waaaaay better than anything yet known to man. Maybe MT will also reach the point where most users realize that it is an undertaking best left to experts, especially in these NMT days, where new developments and techniques are occurring every week.

There are going to be many more "buyers" and new customers entering the market for translation services in future, and we probably do need to move beyond the insubstantial fluff that pervades "the industry".  Potential customers who understand your product and service are more likely to buy quickly, than those who need to learn and decipher what your special obfuscating in-group language and terminology actually means.

Frankfurt (referenced below) determines that bullshit is speech intended to persuade, without regard for truth. The liar cares about the truth and attempts to hide it; the bullshitter doesn't care if what they say is true or false, but rather only cares whether or not their listener is persuaded.
For those who are offended by the term bullshit, let me share these alternatives and feel free to substitute these terms wherever you see the offending word. In the British Parliament, you are not allowed to call a member a liar as this ‘unparliamentary language’ brings dishonor to the house. As a result, various euphemistic phrases are used to indicate ‘bullshit’:

  • Winston Churchill in 1906 used the term ‘'terminological inexactitude’;
  • more popular recently has been the phrase ‘economical with the truth'. This was originally coined by Edmund Burke referring to measured speech, but has come to mean ‘liar’ in parliament or court
Bullshit Innovation - Graphical View
The emphasis and italics comments in [  ] below are mine.


Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.
Eric Ambler

According to Evgeny Morozov, bullshit is the new oil, everything derives from that. Many years earlier, Harry Frankfurt opened his best-selling essay with “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share.”

It is worrisome that most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. As Frankfurt noticed, the bullshitter is, by his very nature, a mindless slob. And a presumptuous snob, too. The bullshitter’s arguments and use of language are both meant to support a kind of bluff or be a misrepresentation or deception. Indeed, his ultimate goal is to convey a plain falsehood. Marketing is the typical realm for bullshitters. Not surprisingly, storytelling is the new black in written communication.

Unfortunately, marketing, especially social media marketing, as it’s virtually free, is the new mantra of "translation industry" people.

Whether he/she is a translator, an LSP, or an advisor, a bullshitter is always there, mouth breathing, his/her words like mere vapor.

Invariably, bullshitting in the translation industry revolves around three subjects: Innovation, Technology, and Quality. They may be presented differently, but they are always interconnected. Invariably, the most active bullshitters are always the very same people. They champion innovation, without having introduced any, ever; they champion technology, especially when related to automation, without having automated anything, unless, sometimes, forced by customers; or they provide premium quality, only work for premium customers, receive premium fees, even though they won’t substantiate any of their statements.

The Quality Myth

When the bullshitters are LSPs, they are obviously always technology-savvy, localization technology developers, and positive users of the most amazing KPIs—which they always forget to enumerate. They consistently boast of having (unmistakably) seasoned linguists and localization and globalization experts in their (unquestionably) great teams, known for — guess — outstanding quality of delivery and service, and famous for their technical and technological capabilities. More and more often, the icing on the cake is a set of wonderful tools available for free.

When the bullshitters are translators, the mantra becomes perfect, absolute quality. The bravest bullshitters venture intrepidly into dispensing with hands full, their futile directions to navigate out of the wild and stormy bulk market, up to the bright and warm oasis of the premium market, a mirage if not a hoax as most believers would discover at their own expense. Indeed, if there ever were a premium market, it would most likely be a small segment of a bigger market, otherwise, it would be so large as to welcome everyone, and it wouldn’t be premium anymore. There are certainly premium clients, but everyone can tell, they are hard to reach, win, and retain. To penetrate the fabulous ‘premium market’, bullshitters all have the same strategy and advice for peers and newcomers: specialize, brand and market yourself, raise your rates, educate your prospects and customers. However trivial, it is worth reminding readers, that studying (to specialize) and networking (for branding and marketing) are costly activities that consume time and incorporate the work of others, although their costs might be indirect, hidden, postponed, redistributed, or transferred elsewhere. Not surprisingly, these bullshitters never produce a single piece of evidence of the effectiveness of their advice, and never talk about how much money they get from implementing the strategies they advocate, or where their money comes from.

When the bullshitters are advisors, their landmarks are faddy and fancy words and phrases like simship, continuous delivery, KPIs, agile, lights-out project management, augmented translation, and the inexorable big data and disruption. And if you manage to use blockchain and smart contract in the same paragraph, then you’ve really authored a masterpiece. That’s marketing, baby. Marketing! And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing! It’s a basic truth of the human condition that everybody lies. The only variable is about what. And you don’t need to be Seth Stephens-Davidowitz to know. On the other hand, why lie when storytelling can be equally effective?

The Innovation Myth

Even innovation is a casualty of this mouth-breathing hype. Bullshitters from all categories battle on the innovation field. Although the translation industry has not seen real innovation coming from its players for years, they have always been talking grandly as they were competing for ranting the loudest and shooting further. Indeed, the translation industry is overcrowded with futurists, visionaries, and wishful thinkers, with the latter being largely more numerous. They can all be found in any localization conference around the world. The narrative/storytelling frenzy virtually affects every LSP. Every LSP has a brilliant ambitious idea, an innovative process or some new technology that is going to disrupt or revolutionize the industry. And this does not happen just once in a year but happens recurrently, whatever the event. To quote Renato Beninatto and Tucker Johnson from their recent feat, “the language services industry has proven itself to be horribly equipped to actually innovate in any meaningful way.” This deluge of bombastic bullshit is nothing but the effect of a self-breeding epidemic of ‘delusions of grandeur.’ In fact, most LSPs do not have the spirit, the capability and the resources to innovate, they simply cannot afford it, let alone become the driving force for innovation. The bigger they are, and the more they are focused on basic financial indicators, making profits, and possibly growing their business, the more unresponsive they are to invest in innovation.
Unfortunately, as Beninatto and Johnson say, “critical thinking and skepticism are often thrown out the window in favor of recycled ‘headlines’ and flattering commentary.” In fact, there are no contrarians in this industry, though one may just occasionally stumble into a talking cricket.

This is a reason for not discrediting the unreliable surveys that have been circulated to constantly feed ourselves with a reassuring echo and lead people in the industry to believe everything they hear.

However, when you need the hype, it usually means you’re in trouble. Once the hype starts, it often continues on and on, and the longer the hype is sustained, the bigger the problem, and capturing the attention of the random public is not the same as revolutionizing an industry or a market.

Hype does not affect technology only; it also affects market analyses, branding, sales, and marketing policies. The essence of marketing is about narrowing the focus. Too many in the translation industry translate this fundamental principle in a self-defeating approach, using quality as a magic wand. No wonder if it works no wizardry. “Focus on the high end of the market!”, the (in)famous premium segment as if anyone is interested in the low end, where the emphasis is on price only. “Raise your rate, quality is worth a higher price!” The problem is that since no one proclaims themselves as the “un-quality” [or bulk market] player, everybody stands for quality, and as a result, nobody does. You cannot narrow the focus with quality or any other idea that doesn’t have proponents for the opposite point of view. Especially if “quality” is the only way to prove you are better than your competitors.

The "Educate The Customer" Myth

Most people want to believe they can get to the top by being better than others, but actually, the best way to do this, if not the only way to get there is by being first. It is the first one of the 22 immutable laws of marketing enumerated and illustrated by Al Riesand and Jack Trout in their 1993 book. Riesand & Trout also wrote that many people believe that the basic issue in marketing is convincing prospects that you have a better product or service, despite this, people tend to stick with what they have already got. It is a common belief among industry players that educating the client is an absolute necessity when, on the other hand, the idea is equally widespread that salespeople fail because they don’t understand the customer needs, as they are better trained on LSP processes, rather than on client issues. In fact, most LSPs are still in the nuance-specifics-of-translation-industry state of mind, and simply dismiss people who are not from the translation industry as to those who need to be ‘educated.’

Educating customers is not a cost-effective marketing strategy for most small businesses like LSP’s, especially towards first-time buyers who probably don't know very much about translation. Translation industry players who may be tempted to approach their customers this way possibly do this from an illusory sense of superiority. They offer their products/services (solution) to people who don’t recognize that they have a demand (problem) and assume the client has a sort of functional illiteracy. They presume the client has an interest in features rather than in benefits, and thus fail to understand and quantify the client’s needs, thus showing their ignorance and lack of interest in their customer’s business.

Rarely are customers willing to be instructed by someone who does not belong to the same class of business, especially if they understand the issue behind their demand and are searching for answers. On the contrary, the “I have no questions” attitude is fairly common in customers who are not concerned in disentangling the intricacies of an extraneous and unimportant business. So, what word should a translation business own in the minds of prospects? Tip: customers want to see instant results.

All this to say that educating the client is bullshit too.

The Growth Myth

But how is bullshitting affecting market analyses? In the way, the industry news is presented.

According to Aiman Copty, Vice President of International Product Solutions for Oracle Corporation, since translation is now increasingly at a general utility stage, “people should not need to think about it,” and “the industry is rich with translation and subject matter expertise,” the keyword is no longer cost or quality, but efficiency. According to “captain of the translation industry” Adolfo Hernandez, “localization is far too labor-intensive” and “for the foreseeable future, the best results in localization will come from the best humans using the best machines.” Luckily, SDL is creating ‘islands of stability’, whatever that means. Another captain, Rory Cowan, invites readers to observe patterns across other industries and get the pace right. No matter if the financial results of his company in two decades could hardly be labeled as astonishing in spite of “the growing opportunity” H.I.G. Capital is supposed to have seen, according to Lionbridge’s chief sales officer Paula Shannon “in the company’s business and the value in the long-term relationships that Lionbridge has with customers in verticals such as IT and financial services”. Smith Yewell, founder, and CEO of Welocalize is strongly convinced that the value-add won’t definitely be in technology but in the strength of the service.

What bright future translation and translators have ahead! And forget about the Bodo Dilemma.[ an abundance of tools, technology, data and innovative solutions combined with a painstaking shortage of human talent to properly deploy them. ]

This is just a part of the problem. Another major issue comes from how numerical data on the industry are presented.

For example, the growth of the translation industry over the last decade or more is usually presented as linear, steady and unceasing, but it is expressed with revenues only. If the same trend is displayed on a combined graph together with percentages, things look a little bit different.

If profits or volumes are taken into account, things might be even less exciting. In fact, while volumes have been possibly—undoubtedly if we should trust the same sources—growing as much as revenues—indeed they should have been much higher according to the same sources—we might discover that profits have not been growing at the same pace. Any real industry ‘veteran’ with a ungarbled memory can tell that, in the last twenty-five years, prices have been undergoing an increasing pressure and compensations, at best, have remained unchanged, i.e. in real terms they have halved. On the contrary, it does not take a genius to figure out that, over the same period, IT has made volumes increase by at least a 10x factor while productivity has, at most, tripled. In other words, revenues are not the best metric to measure growth. Also, the translation industry is notoriously made up of very ‘light’ players, who rely almost exclusively on outsourcing. Therefore, even the average revenue per employee and the average revenue per salesperson are not reliable metrics. A volumes/revenue ratio would be more suitable, but the two figures might be very hard to get from players (remember, everybody, lies.) EBITDA (i.e. earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) might be a good metric to evaluate profitability, even though it has its drawbacks too. In fact, it is often used as an accounting gimmick to dress up a company’s earnings. More properly, it is good to meet the original purpose to indicate the ability of a company to service debt.

The noise around the recent acquisitions or the interest in a few translation businesses by some private equity firms is just more wood for the hype fire.

The recent deal for the acquisition of Moravia by RWS is a purely industrial (i.e. not just financial) transaction. Incidentally, Moravia has been entirely held by a private equity since 2015. Clarion Capital Partners sold Moravia to RWS for twice the company’s revenues, 11.8 times the 2016 EBITDA. H.I.G. bought Lionbridge for a fraction (64%) of the company’s revenues. RWS acquisition of Moravia will be a typical LBO, through a combination of equity (60%) and debt (40%.) RWS exposure is therefore expected to be substantial (roughly USD 400 million in total) corresponding to the combined pro-forma annual revenues.

After a bitter—to say the least—three-year war to win control of the company, the forced sale of TransPerfect might hardly be anywhere near to the projected USD 1B.

In essence, organic growth in the translation industry has long been left to small businesses. Even medium-size businesses are now relying on M&A to expand. See Arancho Doc’s M&A history with the acquisition of the fellow Italian, 40-year-old LSP Soget in April to be subsequently acquired by Technicis.

Technology is not the primary interest of private equity funds looking for investments, nor is it the service, however profitable. In an industry where growth increasingly happens through M&A, mid- and large-sized translation businesses are easy preys and vehicles for easy money. Also, the size of translation companies is considerably lower than that of other companies with comparable performance in other industries and this makes them even more appealing.

Why the hullabaloo, then, around the alleged interest of private equity funds for translation businesses? What do you expect from an intelligence channel with a boasted base of a few thousand readers releasing the results of casual surveys run through its main outlet with a rate of response of 0.9%? Tertium non datur: either the released news is just gossip, or industry players are dancing on the Titanic.

Chasing the hype ends up with us getting lost. In 2016, the eight fastest growing industries to invest in were 3-D printing, drones, marijuana, virtual reality, AI, food e-commerce, wind energy, and green building. In 2017, they grew to eleven, virtual reality, video games, elderly health care services, physical therapy, translation and interpretation services, biotechnology, VoIP, drones, green energy, water and water treatment, and marijuana.

Maybe marijuana is the one secure investment, judging by certain analyzes and those who support them. Incidentally, BLS expects a 29 percent increase in the number of jobs in the translation and interpretation service industry by 2024.

After The No Asshole Rule and The Asshole Survival Guide, do we need a No Bullshit Rule or a Bullshit Survival Guide?

A Bullshit Process Graphic


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.


  1. Most probably the best article I've read all year. Thanks for sharing!!

  2. I would like to be so sure about what I’m thinking (or believing) that I feel authorized to spit on everybody who doesn’t agree withe me : I have the truth, everything else is bullshit!

    The problem in translation nowadays is that the domain is contaminated by techies and business people who don’t care about the real use of translation: satisfying the needs of the end user. You know such « useless » things as the ability to fully understand and remember a technical manual, a business report or a diplomatic paper written in another language.

    They only focus on what buyers (not users) need. They see translation as a big assembly line that must produce the fastest and cheapest way possible, without regards to the output and its usefulness for population and mankind. To them, the process is more important than the product itself. Just like at McDonald’s. Would you like to live in a huge McDonald’s, where food is tasteless and deadly? I don’t.

    1. Francois, I think the primary focus of the post was NOT to just bash anything and everything mindlessly. By calling out perceived falsehoods, and questionable practices, it is also possible to drive some kind of change or discussion.

      The status and general value associated with "translation services" is closely tied to these true and false messages, so I think it is worth doing this, ESPECIALLY when I don't agree with everything being said.

      I think your point questioning slavishly following EFFICIENCY is a good one, it can clearly create low-cost but crap commodities like McDonald's has done with "food". However, much of the content that is the focus of business translation has very limited shelf life and value only for a short window. It is already almost crap BEFORE it is translated. It does not make sense to treat all content the same way. Buyers are acutely aware of this relative content value, though all translators may not be. Once content value is clear,the need for higher quality work can also be recognized as something that needs real expertise and it easier to agree that it should be compensated differently and done with more care.

      Just in case it was not clear, I want to assure that I do not want live in a huge McDonald's. That clearly is a dead end for all of us.

      My primary focus in this blog is to raise questions that can drive this evolution to higher value recognition. And to my view the path to this, needs a real understanding of what efficiency is, and how to accomplish it for "bulk" lower value content.

      If industry insiders will not do this then outsiders will come in and do it. Hasn't free generic MT changed your work/view just a little? Now we need more process efficiency IMO, so that truly high value work can be isolated from bulk work. I would expect that this could drive a professionalization movement where good translators would be recognized and compensated for their skill for material that really mattered.

  3. Excellent article and couldn't agree more. LSPs basically have the same mouse traps; some are better than others. Client-focused LSPs that assist their clients in saving time and money, through efficiencies, are the ones that are going to cut through the BS and build their reputations as a result of client trust and confidence.

  4. Points 1-3 are valid and I'm going to do something about them in the foreseeable future.

    4) That hostility comes from ignorance... but the ignorant ones are those pushing this technology with little to no perspective of the long-term consequences. Basically... the marketing should keep their hands off creative work which they are supposed to integrate/sell not steer/contaminate. And yes, MT is being used by translators - just like surgical instruments are being used by surgeons. Give them to the manager/marketing and you'll see the point ;-)The hubris here is claiming that "everyone can write something"

    5) Yes, those are hampered by trying to inject coal-mining rush/push/scrum/shmum methodology into a multi-stage creative process of translation/adaptation. In my experience the more marketing/management pushes for ownership of translation (especially in game localisation), the more they ask for a critical failure which tends to have exponential consequences the more early-on the push.

  5. Hi Kirti and Luigi!

    Can't say that I agree with the low-grade profanity you are choosing to use here, but otherwise I think you are making several interesting points.

    We are working quite earnestly at Zingword ( to solve some of the problems that are being laid out here, but it is very much an iterative process. I think we are innovating and will make some sort of leap for the industry, but I wouldn't take away from the small iterations that people are making every day.

    Hype-wise, not all hype is created equal. There are things in life, translation industry or otherwise, that are worth getting excited about. I wouldn't want to paint too bleak a picture of the industry, even if it has certain structural issues.

    If anyone wants to talk to me about Zing before we launch (for a little preview) to see the next most awful and hyped trend for the translation industry, just let me know. :P

  6. Very interesting article, a lot of it rings true from my own experience. You see examples of glazed over marketing blah blah every day in the industry, with little solid backup.