The Elusive Uberization of Translation

January 1st, 2016

The title of this post is borrowed shamelessly from the excellent article by Florian Faes found here.

Over the last decade, I’ve lost track of the number of times that the translation industry was gonig to be “reinvented” by this that or the other new model, usually one based on some sort of new technology. And each “reinvention” is accompanied by breathless hype and wonder in more blogs and posts by industry “experts” than you can count, many of whom should know better. Each “reinvention” is based on some plausible-sounding theory about the nature of the translation market that turns out to be just wrong.

These false theories and assumptions have no end. There would be an infinite demand for translation if only it were cheaper. There would be an infinite supply of translators if only we could tap the millions of bilingual people our there. Or no, the real problem is the efficiency of translation tools. Machine translation (MT) will eventually take over the lion’s share of translation work. Or it won’t. What we really need is to make it easier to order translation; where is my one-click translation button?

Problem is, none of these assumptions have proven to be true. The largest translation companies in the world continue to derive most of their revenue from large contracts with enterprises that have ongoing needs for translated documentation and software, carried out via well-defined processes and requiring well-defined quality levels. Startups based on the latest idea for a shiny new translation gadget flounder, ending up doing down-rounds to keep the lights on. Mid-tier translation companies continue to dominate the business in revenue terms, most doing semi-specialized medium-sized projects for medium-sized clients.

So how do we uberize this? The fundamental problem is to what extent translation is a commodity. Ride-hailing is the ultimate commodity: a car comes and takes you from point A to point B. There may be different sizes of cars, or special services like handicapped accessibility, but these amount to nothing more than different grades of coal. Ride-hailing is commoditizable because it is a commodity. We can aggregate demand, aggregate supply, and then tweak the economics of the business to death. To speak of uberizing translation implies that translation is a commodity.

Wikipedia defines a commodity as a “substantially fungible” item. It says a commodity is “an economic good or service when the demand for it has no qualitative differentiation across a market”. So to what extent is translation a commodity? I would answer very little or not at all.

First, translation has distinctly different quality levels. One relatively recent entrant into the market dubs its quality levels as “standard” and “business”. “Standard” apparently means “you can pretty much understand what it says”. Inexplicably, this company then quotes prices for translating a website at the lowest “standard rate”; more bizarrely, it also uses this price for estimating the cost of translating the microcontent found in an app. But in any case, “standard” and “business” can still be thought of as levels of a commodity. But interestingly, this company has now given up on the highest, third “premium” tier it once used, and now simply calls it “additional services” with the note to “contact sales”. In other words, this leader in new translation models has essentially admitted that translation is not a commodity, and that anything to be translated to a meaningful quality level requires contacting sales and getting a quote, and presumably, the company making special arrangements to select and price the right translators for the job. So much for commoditization.

Second, translation is inextricably related to the subject matter. Unlike Uber which offers three types of cars, it is meaningful to distinguish when translating among hundreds of subject areas, or more. A translation by someone not versed in the subject area is likely to range from unusable, to embarrassing, to damaging. And we cannot depend on translators to self-qualify themselves by subject area; the only way to qualify them is either through tests, or more realistically through evaluations of actual work that they perform. Since the client cannot reliably evaluate the quality of a translation into a language which they do not speak, and in many cases do not want to take the time and trouble to evaluate quality, the translation company needs to have a system to do internal evaluations, often using third-party experts. This involves more overhead and cost. We are getting further and further away from translation as a commodity.

Third, there is a learning effect over time in translation. Whereas neither you, nor the driver, nor Uber, learn anything from the first 99 rides that affects the 100th ride, translation is an ongoing learning process for the customer, the vendor, and the individual translator. This is the process which results in usable, viable translations. Whereas a key aspect of a commodity is low switching costs–I buy coal from Company A this time and Company B next time–in the translation world, switching, whether a customer switching a vendor, or a vendor switching a translator, comes with tangible costs in the form of discarding the accumulated learning of the past, whether that be about desired style, terminology, knowledge of the content, or project management approaches.

So translation is not a commodity, and therefore it is not Uberizable.

But wait. Isn’t the translation of tweets, or chats, a commodity? It is certainly closer to a commodity than other types of translations. But I believe the market for translating such snippets is vastly overestimated. In comparison to the value to Microsoft of translating its documentation–a requirement for selling its products into a foreign market–what is the value of having my tweet available in Chinese? Remember also that the majority of potential consumers of a translated tweet may well have enough English knowledge to understand a one-sentence tweet anyway.

It is with some puzzlement that I look at CSOFT’s Stepes app, discussed in the article referenced at the beginning of this post. According to the article:

CSOFT sees huge untapped demand for translation services that can be unlocked only if prices are reduced dramatically by using a crowdsourcing approach. Yao called this the long tail of translation demand.

But virtually every phrase in this quote raises questions. Where is this huge untapped demand? From what sector? Who has determined that all these users are price sensitive? How will crowdsourcing reduce prices? People place a certain value on their time, whether they are translating 50K words per month or 50 words per month. Do they actually understand the actual theory of the long tail, which can be very long but still have a very low area underneath it?

Translators on Stepes use a chat-based user interface (UI) that allows them to work line by line in a way that looks like they are texting.

So the key innovation in the translation industry is going to be a new UI for translators? We’re going to upend the world by moving from a document-based approach, or a table-based translation approach, to a chat-based approach? I know that chat-based interfaces are all the rage, with people putting up Slack apps to order lunch, but do translators want to translate as if they were chatting? What if they want to go back and fix something? What if they want to review a few paragraphs ahead in order to gain some context? Let me go out on a limb and say that a chat-based interface, whatever its positives for other usages, is not a good translation interface whatsoever. Even if it were, in and of itself it is a minor element of innovation in the translation business.

So let me on this first day of 2016 give my predictions for what the new year will bring for the translation industry. Bottom line: not much. Things will change at about the same pace as they have for the last 30 years, which is to say, not very fast at all. All the changes will be incremental. There will be incremental changes in translation tools. There will be incremental changes in processes. There will be incremental changes in machine translation. There will be incremental changes in marketing approaches. There will be incremental changes in translation company valuations. The industry will remain, for the foreseeable future, immune to radical innovation.

Beliefs about belief

December 13th, 2015

Last night I went to a dinner party. One guest was talking about how different people believe different things and that’s just how it is and that’s fine. According to her, it’s all about diversity, and tolerance, and acceptance, and realizing that different people have every right to form their own opinions. 

That sounds unassailably correct until you think harder about it and realize that it’s not. I pointed to a tree outside the window and asked her if she thought it was OK for a person to believe that the tree was not actually there. Somewhat trapped, she asserted that yes, it would indeed be OK. After all, it could be me that was hallucinating the existence of the tree. Perhaps the person is living in a parallel universe where the tree does not in fact exist. Perhaps the tree is a hologram.

The problem with this line of thought is that beliefs have consequences. If I go out and pick an apple from the “non-existent” tree and bring it into the house and ask the person to take a bite, they will be hard-pressed to deny that they are biting into a real apple. If the “non-existent” tree is blown over by strong winds and crashes into the roof of the house, the damage will be very real no matter what the person believed about the existence of the tree. Or if I am standing on the roof of a building and believe that I can fly and decide to therefore jump off, I will die. If I believe that global warming is not caused by humans, and thus choose to take no action, the Marshall Islands will eventually disappear into the ocean.

Let’s consider the possibility that the person has a neurological deficit which prevents them from recognizing trees. They see the world as we do, but without trees. Or perhaps, they see trees as blobs of colors, or as a telephone pole, or as aliens taking the form of trees. Are they now justified in asserting a belief that the tree outside the window does not exist, and are we to accept this belief as reasonable? Hardly. The tree they do not recognize will still destroy their house if it is blown over on top of it. The tree they do not recognize will still produce apples they can eat. They may believe the tree does not exist, but this belief is incorrect, and this incorrect belief will inevitably have more or less severe negative consequences. They simply have an incorrect belief based on defective mechanisms of perception. We do them no favors by accepting their incorrect belief based on some notion of tolerance or diversity or subjectivity.

But what does it mean to say that the tree exists? In what realm does it exist? How do we “know” that it exists? If 50% of the people in the world have the neurological processing defect rendering them unable to perceive trees, who is to say that they are wrong and the other 50% are right?

Well, we can go out and cut a branch off the tree and bring it in the house and give it to them to hold and ask them, if the tree does not exist, where did the branch come from? We can cut down the tree and examine its tree rings and establish that it is not a telephone pole. We can subject the tree to spectographic analysis and identify the results as being consistent with all trees. We can measure the height of the tree over time and watch it grow. At some point, the sequence of denials and misperceptions necessary to continue to to assert that the tree does not exist will simply grow too unwieldy for anyone other than those completely divorced from reality to continue to support.

But what exactly is this tree that we are so sure exists? At one level, the tree is a construct of our brains. We “see” green leaves, but actually the green in our brains is the result of a long perceptual chain that originates with a certain chemical and atomic structure of the leaves and is then mediated through our visual sensing mechanisms and complex information processing circuits in our brain. We “see” the leaves as a certain shape, but actually that perception of shape is the result of a similar perceptual chain that identifies and groups patterns in our visual input. So the fact that we see green leaf-shaped objects is in some sense a product of our brains, or “minds” if you will. Since everyone has their own minds, at the end of the day, doesn’t this mean that the leaves and tree itself are nothing more than a mental construct, which people therefore should feel free to assert the existence or non-existence of?

This viewpoint fundamentally confuses the question of the brain as creator of reality, vs. the brain as processor of reality. The key point — which must be taken basically as an axiom — is that there is one, single, physical, underlying reality. It is not a reality of trees with green leaves; it is a reality of whirling tangled microcosmoses of atoms and quantum fields. It is our bodies and brains that have developed the machinery to capture information about this underlying reality, and process, synthesize, adapt and aggregate it into mental models that are useful, or necessary, to our survival. If this machinery is defective, then the models will be defective, and when people act on the defective models, the ultimate result will be some degree of harm to themselves (or others). So in general no, it’s not OK for them to continue to work with their defective models, and it’s not OK for us to accept their defective models. If we care about such people, or their defective models pose a meaningful threat to others, that is all the more reason to be concerned about the bad models and even take action to remedy or counteract them the best we can.

The above barely scratches the surface. In additional to beliefs about physical objects, such as their existence or non-existence, we have abstract beliefs, subjective beliefs, and meta-beliefs (beliefs about beliefs). Those are topics for another time. However, it is useful to think about simple beliefs such as the existence of physical objects since they are easier to reason about and many of the conclusions remain applicable to higher-level types of beliefs.

The Meaning of Meaning (3)

February 1st, 2014

Of course, Zen therapy does not pinpoint only existential angst by mitigating cravings for universal meaning. It also influences the pattern-making and pattern-matching we use day-to-day. Now, our pattern machinery basically works quite well, look how far it’s gotten us. But at the same time there are many ways in which it’s broken, or should I say problems in how we use it. The main issue is how we try to apply patterns when they don’t really fit, how we apply them with no flexibility, how we fail to tweak the patterns as we are applying them. Of course there has to be an essence of the pattern, which is the point of its existence, but at the same time we have to keep evolving the patterns, choose the right patterns to apply, adapt and refine them. Our built-in reward system for finding and matching patterns can lead us to use patterns which aren’t really relevant, or to try to stuff a pattern down some situation’s throat.

Dogen’s Zen therapy not only relieves our cravings for patterns, and leaves us comfortable even in pattern-less situations, but also acts as a kind of lubricant for our patterning systems. It gradually rewires our brains so we more easily find new patterns, modify existing patterns, and choose the right pattern.

But let’s go back and parse a bit more of what Dogen was saying. He refers to “enlightened ones”. This, obviously, in terms of the patterns we know and love about sainthood and rarified states of being, must mean someone who is at a completely different level in terms of grasping deep, intricate patterns about existence, right? No, it just means a person who through intensive therapy has ceased addictively looking for non-existent patterns. He refers to “ultimate awareness”. This, obviously, must mean some exalted state of being achievable only by some sainted person in an altogether different league from ourselves, right? No, it just means someone who has stopped spending his energy seeking unseekable patterns and who therefore is able to focus on the reality in front of him.

Deciding to Start Zen

January 29th, 2013

The decision to start Zen could be treated more like a decision to start taking a painting class at the local adult education center. You could go to one class and not go back, or go for one quarter, or keep going for ten years, or keep going until you die. I guess I also disagree with the people who say this is a really big deal and is going to be real hard work and you have to really make a commitment or else the whole thing is a complete waste of time. Wrong! The thing about Zen is that, and this fits in with my theory that’s basically about rewiring your neurons, or neuroplasticity if you prefer fancy words, you do a little bit of it and experience a little effect or do more of it and experience more or do a whole lot and become an enlightened Zen master. It’s linearly scalable, in other words. If you started off by going to a dojo once a week and sitting with them, and maybe meditating 30 minutes per day, then after a month or two no, you would not have some kind of life-changing realization, but you would notice changes in the way you look at things which would be refreshing and helpful. A little bit of rewiring.

There is another thing about Zen which is sort of like the way that when you work out at the gym, your body changes in a way which helps you be more fit and healthy even when you don’t work out, you consume calories more efficiently, etc. As you keep doing Zen, by which I mean meditation, not reading books or listening to talks, you develop the ability over time to use every moment to enhance the way you view the world, not just when you’re meditating. Or to put it another way, you sort of learn to meditate as you’re going about your daily life, or conversely, you begin to see that your daily life is a kind of meditation, or perhaps that meditation is nothing more than a sort of concentrated form of daily life. As you get there, you might find yourself wanting to meditate more, and kick it up to two 30-minute sessions per day, as opposed to a thought process that says hey, I’m supposed to be doing this Zen thing, gotta work harder at it, I told myself I was really going to get into this, so I gotta buckle down.

The Meaning of Meaning (2)

January 28th, 2013

It would be one thing if our unmet need for existential closure meant only that we had occasional unsettling attacks of meaninglessness, or a vague cloud of doubt hanging over our heads as we went about our daily lives. But unfortunately this nagging psychic unease also interferes with us just getting done our day-to-day business as normal human beings, as if we were lugging around a 20-pound sack of potatoes everywhere we went. For all the design flaws in the whole homo sapiens mind-body system that the messy evolutionary process has bequeathed to us, we basically work remarkably well. We’re endowed with well-functioning instincts and behaviors. We’re lithe. But the bag of potatoes bogs us down, gets in our way, disrupts our rhythm, saps our mojo, puts us off our game.

Then there’s a second order effect which is that our inability to find the big pattern we crave saps our confidence. We can’t find it–so maybe there’s something wrong with us! Maybe there’s other patterns we’re missing! Maybe other people have found the pattern and we’re inferior to them! This fear, this complex is yet more sand in the gears. If the basic existential pain is not sufficient motivation for us to try to do something about the problem, this negative effect on our basic functioning certainly is.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Meaning of Meaning (1)

January 26th, 2013

Here is the theory I have arrived at. Humans are successful animals because we have developed large brains with the capability of identifying and matching patterns of many varieties. These patterns could be called concepts, or theories, or hypotheses, or just rules of thumb. The patterns can range from the highly concrete (“a chair”) to the social (“a family”) to the philosophical (“happiness”).

Evolution equipped us not only with the ability to handle patterns but also a reward mechanism for exercising it, which like other reward systems takes neurochemical form. You will know this as the “Eureka” moment when something suddenly “makes sense” (meaning you found a new pattern it fits into, or an old one, or a modification to an old one), or, less dramatically, the little satisfying mental click when something falls together.

Although it is not directly related to my overall topic here, the human inclination, or one might say compulsion, to believe in God can be tied to this neurotheoretical notion of pattern-finding and pattern-matching (and thus the somewhat unfortunate term “neurotheology”), in the sense that a belief in God again activates our reward systems for finding patterns, in this case a “pattern” or framework that ties together disparate and otherwise unexplainable things. Of course, this fundamental biological motivation that results in a notion of the supernatural is then embroidered and modulated by any number of social and political factors, and people have written entire books on the subject, but underlying it all is the human thirst to understand (in other words, find patterns), which, again, has a neurobiological basis.

Thirst in the very real sense, because reward is the flip side of desire, be it for water or anything else, and desire merely one stage on the path to addiction. Those neurochemicals sloshing around in our brains making us feel great when we have sex are also capable, by their absence, of making us sad, horny, jittery, or desperate. It is when this deprivation becomes so serious that we seek to satisfy it, even at great cost to ourselves, that we call it addiction.

Evolution made a wise enough choice in developing these mechanisms; they mostly serve us well when it comes to nourishment, or reproduction, or social relationships, or even intellectual pursuits, such as in the urge Einstein felt to discover the pattern which resulted in the theory of relativity. But what purpose is served by the deep emotional unease, pain, or even agony, that we feel when we are unable to satisfy our cravings for finding patterns, especially big patterns, or the biggest pattern of all, which is how all these other patterns fit together–the “meaning of life” (yes, patterns are essentially identical to what we call “meaning”)–even in the case where there is no pattern to be found? (The millions of people who are desperately seeking the big pattern by pursuing whatever form of religion or practice or devotion or philosophy are, at one level, hardly different from the crack addict furiously looking for his next fix. Of course, just as not everyone develops an addition to drugs, not everyone develops an addiction to finding patterns. In both cases, I suppose it is, like most other things, a matter of so-called epigenetics.

Crime, Punishment, and the Singularity

May 28th, 2008

Another interesting social issue related to the is its effect on our penal system especially the millions of folks we’ve got locked up right now. Take a prisoner with a 50-year sentence. If he has to serve his entire sentence he wouldn’t be out until 2050, but by that time we expect inconceivable advances in genetics, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence/robotics, all of which could have implications for his case. Read the rest of this entry »

The Singularity is Near

May 26th, 2008

Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near ( ) is one of those books that really changes the way you look at things.

For instance, when the Supreme Court rules on virtual child porn as it did recently ( ), you see that the real issue goes far beyond Photoshopping some kidpix. Read the rest of this entry »

Sakiko's new blog

May 22nd, 2008

Sakiko has started a blog at . Expect lots of cat pictures.

Nearman’s new translation of Shobogenzo

May 21st, 2008

Rev. Hubert Nearman, O.B.C. has put out an ambitious new translation of Shobogenzo, a 14-year labor of love, now available from the Shasta Abbey website.