I don’t really believe very much in the power of algorithms. I just don’t trust them too much.
Unlikely bedfellows though they are, driverless cars, drone killings, and machine translation have one thing in common: they are controlled by algorithms, and algorithms can be lethal. Sometimes, an algorithm can kill by driving a driverless car into a tractor trailer, and while a drone (“believed to have been operated by the US”, as the New York Times put it) is relying on smart algorithms, it sometimes assassinates 60 civilians in a funeral procession.
Machine translation has been so far diligently killing, quite gruesomely, not just our language, but also jobs for translators, although it is quite possible that people relying on information “translated” by an algorithm were already or will be killed one day too.
According to Slator.com, a translation platform called Fluently is going out of business because the company ran out of cash and failed to secure further financing. Fluently was an online translation platform, (one of many) that sought to automate away the project management part of translation. Although the company says that it signed up 2,000 translators, the company eventually did not make it. I think that what in fact killed this (yet another) innovative platform was the company’s excessive faith in the power of algorithms. Here is how Slator described what happened:
“Minimal Human Interaction
In part, Fluently relied on clients’ willingness to manage their own projects, and on translators open to completing jobs with minimal human interaction.
The way Fluently works is clients log in, drag and drop files, and then get an instant word count, translation memory leverage, and a quote. They then go through a briefing screen, where, using a slider, they are able to select, for example, what style they prefer (formal, informal, etc.) and pick the translator’s area of expertise.
After clients choose from among the matched translators served up by Fluently’s algorithm, they are required to pay upfront. Payment is done through the platform and the funds are held in escrow until the translation is delivered.
There was a lot of rejection when a customer picked a translator, but the translator did not take the work. Fulfillment became difficult.”
—Karin Nielsen, founder of Fluently
Most translators will understand instantly that it is not terribly difficult to, “sign up 2,000 translators”. There are so many of them out there! Even somebody like myself, a one-man operation which does not provide a “translation platform”, and which is not really a translation agency either, receives dozens of resumes from translators hungry for work just about every day, and I usually delete without reading them.
Matched Translators Are “Served Up” by and Algorithm
I love the description, “After clients choose from among the matched translators served up by Fluently’s algorithm”. Smart translators are served up by smart algorithms like a meal in a restaurant, huh? But if the algorithms were so smart, how is it possible that ” fulfillment became difficult” because the translators in the end did not want the job?
Because I don’t believe in the power of algorithms when it comes to finding good translators, I only work with a few translators, almost always translators who were recommended to me by other translators; currently less than a dozen.
But unlike in the case of the Fluently platform, soon to be or already deceased, my translators almost never reject a job offer and on the rare occasion when they do, usually because they are on vacation or because they can’t fit the job in (although my deadlines are generally very generous), they usually suggest colleagues who are equally skilled in the art of patent translation and who, bless their hearts, charge about the same.
My guess is that Fluently’s signed-up translators rejected the jobs offered to them for two reasons: 1) because they were poorly paid, and 2) because the deadlines were short.
I should mention that the rates I pay translators who work for me are not really stellar (as one of them snidely commented to me). But still, they are much higher than the rates translators can expect, regardless of their education, credentials and experience, on “translation platforms” such as Proz or Translators Café. (And the rates on these platforms are probably still much higher than what Fluently was offering.) So that I can sleep at night, I pay translators who work for me the lowest rate that I myself am willing to accept for my work from other translation agencies. Even so, there is still a nice profit margin in it for me, too.
I know from resumes that I receive daily that I could hire translators for the translations that I am unable to do myself, (usually due to the wrong language direction), but that I can proofread quite competently since I almost always know both languages. Also, given that I have been in the business of patent translation, both as a translator and as a mini-agency for almost three decades, I know a little bit about how things work in patent translation and don’t need to rely on a combination of databases with very smart algorithms; I can just use my human brain.
I know that I could easily find translators who charge much less than what I am paying when I look at the rates that translators themselves advertise on what are called “language platforms” and that I could contact translators who are much cheaper.
But greedy as I am, I fear that if I go for maximum profit for me, me, me by looking around for translators offering lower rates, I will eventually pick a subprime translator without realizing it, or even though I may pick a relatively good translator, this translator will be under such pressure to accept as much work as possible to pay the bills, that in the end, he or she will start making too many mistakes.
And if I am not able to catch these mistakes, I will eventually lose a client that might have been with me for many years.
Staying Away from Algorithm to Play it Safe
So I try to play it safe. I don’t use logging, dragging, dropping, or “translation memory leverage” which I assume means wage theft through algorithms referred to as “fuzzy matches” and “full matches”, a very popular racket nowadays in “the translation industry”.
Nor do I ask my customers to pay in advance to make sure that I will get paid for the translation even if the quality is so horrible that the customer might balk at paying for it. Well, I do ask for advance payment if I am unable to ascertain that the customer is a bona fide patent law firm or a real company that has an address, a product to sell, and employees.
If I deal with an individual, I usually ask for a down payment of 50%, but this is the only time when I do so.
I believe in replacing algorithms by human interaction as much as possible. I understand that replacing human interaction with smart algorithms as much as possible would certainly be a very profitable concept for a translation platform. The owners of the platform could save a lot of money that would not need to be paid to project managers when everything is done by just dragging and dropping files into automated menus.
All you need now is a few thousand translators hungry and willing to work for what an algorithm determines their work is worth – and you have created the most innovative, ultimate cash register platform in “the translation industry”. Ka-Ching with minimum human interaction.
But minimizing human interaction, profitable as it might be, is not a whole lot of fun for clients, or for translators. It would be kind of like trying to limit human interaction to a minimum during sex. I suspect that fulfillment might become difficult. Human interaction, when it works well, is not only necessary, but also fulfilling, and fun.
It is not an accident that the most severe type of punishment in prisons is a model that is based on minimum human interaction called solitary confinement.