Friday, September 4, 2020

The Premium Translation Market: Come On In. The Water’s Perfect.

This is the full text of a response by Kevin Hendzel to a guest post by Luigi Muzii that challenged various attributes and characteristics of the "premium" market that I described in a post focused on this market segment.  

The notion of premium evokes strong opinions from both translators and LSPs, and one can see the range of views and opinions that are highlighted in this post, as well as the other two linked above. Like much of the phenomena in the translation industry and the definition of the translation market itself, the views on the premium market are fragmented. 

Fragmentation means to see partially, to not see the whole. Insight is only possible when one sees the whole. 

We see that the professional market research firms completely overlook the market (mostly because it is much harder to research and pindown) and thus perpetuate the view that the market does not exist, but we also see that there are huge differences in their own analysis on what exactly is contained in the "translation market". The differences are so large that it raises credibility questions on the validity of any or all of the estimates that are currently available.

For the record, I stand by my initial "opinion" on the premium market as I cannot really say that it is more than an opinion. I cannot provide any more data than I already have.

In fact, this discussion on the translation market and what it really is brings to mind a story I was told as a child, about blind men who encounter an elephant for the first time. 

The parable of the Blind Men and an Elephant originated in the ancient Indian subcontinent, from where it has been widely diffused. It is a story of a group of blind men who have never come across an elephant before and who learn and conceptualize what the elephant is like by touching it. Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant's body, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then describe the elephant based on their limited experience and their descriptions of the elephant are different from each other. In some versions, they come to suspect that the other person is dishonest and they come to blows. The moral of the parable is that humans have a tendency to claim absolute truth based on their limited, subjective experience as they ignore other people's limited, subjective experiences which may be equally true. (Source: Wikipedia)

And so these men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right

And all were in the wrong!


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 [any] 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.”

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 a 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.

Maybe 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 multibillion-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 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.

Kevin Hendzel is an Award-Winning Translator, Linguist, Author, National Media Consultant, and Translation Industry Expert

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