We have all been trained since a young age to think that precision of computerized production systems combined with a strict observation of industrial standards automatically equals high quality. This is a general principle that is spot on when it comes to some products. For example, there are no computer chips hand-crafted by individual computer chip makers because the processing techniques involved include hundreds of processing steps and each of them requires extremely high precision. Fortunately for people like me, every of these hundreds of step is described in patents issued in a number of languages, and chip manufacturers have been fighting over perceived or real similarities between each of these steps for several decades already and hopefully will continue to do so for a long time.
But is the industrial production principle, which is based on highly precise and measurable standards, applicable to all products? And can the quality of services, all services, be measured on the basis of rules and standards that were originally designed for processes used in industrial production?
Antonio Stradivari, the famous violin maker, died almost 200 years ago, even before the initial phase of industrialization was in full swing, which is to say before machines started being introduced on a large scale into the production process. He only used his hands, his eyes and skills acquired over decades of working with wood in combination with what could be called quite primitive tools, namely very sharp knives, to produce the instruments that he was lovingly crafting. Yet, while a good violin made with the best of what modern computerized technology can offer in a modern industrial production line may cost perhaps a few hundred dollars, a violin made by Stradivari, if you can find one that is for sale, which is not very likely, would cost several million dollars.
The best violins are still made by violin makers who use their hands, eyes and skills acquired over decades of work in combination with primitive tools like knives by craftsmen in little towns in a number of countries, not by industrial production lines. There is something that a computerized, extremely precise production line will never be able to create. It is called soul, and only a human being who is deeply in love with the craft can give a soul to what used to be a piece of wood.
The best sounding violins are those that have a piece of the soul of the violin maker in them, because the only kind of immortality that most humans can probably aspire to is when we leave little bits and pieces of our soul in the world around us. Architects and bridge builders, composers and writers, teachers and translators, chefs and cooks, these are just a few examples of many professions that require a great deal of love and soul from professionals who take pride in their vocation.
I am not so sure that I could say the same about some other professions. Some require mostly just greed and complete lack of concern for the welfare of the society. The profession of Wall Street bankers comes to mind.
In just about every aspect of human civilization, we can find products that can be and are now made by machines, including ingredients that we put in the meals that we eat.
Many countries are rightfully proud of their culinary tradition and they intend to preserve it for future generations. Interestingly, what this usually means, whether we are talking about the cuisines of Japan, Italy, or France, is resisting industrialized production methods.
Because France is one of such countries, the French government enforces culinary standards in restaurants and bakeries in France. Restaurants and bakeries in France must clearly indicate to customers whether their meals and baguettes were made from scratch (“fait maison” in French), or prepared from cheaper, mass-produced frozen ingredients for foods that are manufactured based on the industrial style of production line, which must be indicated in the shop window by a picture of a cute little penguin or a snowflake.
It is much cheaper to put mass-produced ingredients into an expensive restaurant meal and many chefs are no doubt trying to get away with it. But people have noticed and started complaining and these chefs have a problem now in some countries, such as France, and Italy too, I think. I have never seen anything like a picture of a cute penguin in a restaurant or bakery or doughnut shop window here in the United States, so maybe the chefs and cooks don’t have these kinds of worries here. The penguin may be cute, but it tends to turn customers away, because that is not what they want, at least not in Europe. If the chef and cooks cheat and are caught, the restaurant or bakery will be hit by stiff penalties.
The globalized “translation industry” is presently trying to turn this principle on its head. If you listen to them as they advertise their services, the narrative being sold to customers who don’t know much about translation is based on a claim that the quality of their translation can be guaranteed because it can be measured with industrial-strength measurement tools (that were originally designed for mass manufacturing of products)?
They proudly display on their websites certificates stating that their quality control is in compliance with ISO this or ISO that, without giving a second thought to the fact that the letters ISO stand for Industrial Standards Organization, and that the quality control methods that were created by this organization were designed for measuring the quality of methods used for producing products ranging from relatively simple mops to really complicated computer chips.
It so happens that translation from one language into another is a very complicated process involving human thinking rather than an industrial production line. It is a process that is not very well understood because we still know very little about what is going on in human brain, including the process that takes place in the brain of a human being called translator, which is to say that it is a process that cannot be standardized in the same way as one would standardize manufacturing of mops or computer chips.
Just like the quality of a violin or a meal prepared in a restaurant depends on how good and experienced the violin maker or chef is, the quality of a translation depends on how good the translator is.
End of story.
Most people would probably agree that using industrial standards to measure the quality of human thinking is really a stupid idea. Of course it is a stupid idea.
But apparently, it is not a stupid idea when it comes to advertising of translation services. Let’s face it, most customers know even less about how translation works than they know about how all of the systems under the hood of their car work.
So the translation industry is busy creating and throwing around new slogans using words like “language technology” and “technology tools”, by which they mean things like computerized methods for universally enforceable procedures and terminological databases and the use of machine translation, which makes the translation process “efficient”. To confuse customers as much as possible, they even stopped calling themselves translation agencies many years ago and became first “Language Translation Companies”, and later “Language Services Providers”, although it is obviously not them but translators who provide the language services. Sometime they also call themselves “Computer Services Providing Companies”, and new nomenclature aimed at further confusing customers is no doubt just around the corner.
They don’t talk much about the translators who work for them. If these translators are mentioned in their propaganda at all, it is usually in a single sentence claiming “We have thousands of highly qualified translators” (at our beck and call).
But who are these highly qualified translators? If you go for example to a website of a law firm, a prominently displayed link on the site will take you to a list of professionals who work for the firm, from partners to associates and paralegals, including a detailed description of their education and experience. For some reason, no further specific information is available about the thousands of highly qualified translators who are apparently eager to work for large translation agencies. Because they are considered by brokers to be just a tiny, relatively unimportant part of big, wise and extremely precise machinery, they are anonymous, invisible and unidentifiable. All you see on the websites of most translation agencies are pleasant, photoshopped images of sexy, smiling young people posing as translators.
Only websites of very small translation agencies, which are usually run by the translators themselves, or websites of individual translators proudly describe the qualifications, education and experience of the translators.
Wouldn’t it be nice if all of those agencies claiming to practice strict quality control methods that are allegedly enforced in their Industrial Standard Organization-certified translation processes were required to show pictures of cute little industrial robots hard at work on an industrial mass production line on their websites, just like restaurants and bakeries in France must display pictures of cute little penguins in the shop window if they use frozen ingredients in their meals a la carte and in the sugary cakes they sell to their customers because it is much cheaper, faster and thus more profitable than having to make everything from scratch in house, the way meals are hopefully still prepared in good restaurants?