It was Marcus Tullius Cicero who said “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue”, of course, although most people remember only the first part of the sentence as something that Senator Barry Goldwater said to great applause in his acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican Convention. Cicero also said “To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be forever a child”.
But the quote on which I base my post today is “Extremism in the pursuit of excellence is no vice” because I found it somewhere online today. This permutation and immature imitation of what was originally an elegant Latin sentence, unless meant as a joke, is pure marketing drivel, typical for example of what one can see on hundreds of websites of translation agencies. Translation agencies profess to adore quality. If you believe what they say on their websites, the sole purpose of their existence has been and is a never ending quest for quality in translation.
The marketing specialists who write the propaganda for their websites use marketing slogans such as “we redefine the very meaning of translation through the use of new and innovative translation management models with unique solutions”.
These marketing specialists are invariably monolingual. They understand how to manage the translation business to squeeze as much profit from it as possible, but how could somebody who is imprisoned in a monolingual world possibly understand the translation process? The job of health insurance claim adjusters in the American for-profit healthcare system is to minimize expenditures and maximize profit. That’s it. They don’t know anything about medicine, other than how to make a lot of money out of human suffering and pain, and even death. At least they don’t pretend that they are medical doctors.
But monolingual managers of translation agencies claim to understand everything about translation much better than the actual translators who are hardly ever mentioned in the marketing propaganda.
And how are they transforming the process of translation by creating new models for measuring the quality of translation?
First they create a computer database of translators and ask translators who look for work to answer all the questions. There are about a hundred questions you have to answers in an online questionnaire for translators that I am looking at right now. Questions about things like translator’s operating system, computer memory tools and other software, experience with “crowdsourcing”, and “What is your normal hourly Machine Translation post-editing capacity?”, or “Do you provide transcreation services?” (don’t you need to be a trans-gender person to be able to do that rather than a mere translator)?
They always ask about how much you charge, what kind of discount are you willing to give them for this and that, and how many words a day you can translate.
Although the online questionnaire for translators that I am looking at right now has more than a hundred different items, there is nothing in it about the education of a potential hungry translator eager to work for the agency. How translators actually learned a foreign language, for instance whether they graduated from a university with a degree in French or Japanese, is completely irrelevant to the person who created this questionnaire. They ask potential candidates about their competence in different fields such “IT, legal, medicine, patents, finance and banking, pharmaceuticals”, but all the potential candidate for working for the agency has to do is to put a checkmark in a little box. There is no way to determine from the questionnaire how the would-be translator acquired specialized knowledge in various fields.
Neither does the questionnaire ask about how many years the would-be translator lived in a given foreign country. If you are for instance a Japanese to English translator with a PhD in physics from MIT who studied Japanese at Todai or Waseda and then spent the next 10 years translating patents in Japan, this would not be reflected in your answers, evidently because it is not important. What is really important is whether you use the software that the agency wants you to use such as Trados, and how much discount you are willing to give for the famous “fuzzy matches”.
Another thing that agencies are increasingly demanding these days from freelance translators is complete obedience on the level that Cesar Millan the Dog Whisperer demands from the wayward dogs that he is training. Translators are no longer even allowed to submit their invoices. That is so 20th century! Translators must log onto an accounting software module of the agency to submit their request for payment. It’s not really an invoice anymore. You just fill in items that the agency asks you to fill in. This means that you can’t really have your own payment terms. You must simply accept what the agency allows.
Of course, unlike “freelance translators” who work for this kind of agency, Cesar Millan’s dogs are richly rewarded for their complete obedience by being well taken care of and loved because they have learned over the centuries a few neat tricks such as how to wag their tails just so to express the depth of the admiration for their owners. But since translators have no tail, they can’t wag what they don’t have.
And unlike employees working for paternalistic companies, who are also being generally well taken care of in return for their loyalty to the company (this model still exist in some countries such as Japan), the agency has no such burdensome responsibilities to “freelance translators”.
In return for complete obedience, the persons formerly known as freelance translators will be fed some work by the agency if their rate is low enough and if they are willing to wait at least two months to get paid this low rate, after a hefty discount has been taken for “fuzzy matches” and such. But only until the next person who fills out the online questionnaire puts in a lower rate, of course.
This is how extremism in the “pursuit of quality” in translation looks from my perspective. I see plenty of extremism in the model, but the goal is definitely not “quality”. There is only one goal here: to maximize the profit for the agency, regardless of the quality, especially since the people running the agency are usually unable to tell a good translation from a bad one.