Friday, April 15, 2011

Framing the Discussion about the Future of the Industry

Earlier this week in Budapest, during the MemoQ User Conference, I participated in a panel discussion about the future of the industry. It seems that this is a favorite subject in recent events and I suspect that people are so interested in what is going to happen either because they are bored with the present or because there is a sense of insecurity in the air.

At a dinner with Kirti Vashee in the Trastevere the previous week, David Orban, CEO of dotSub, gave me an inspiring quote by William Gibson: "The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed."

I couldn't resist and started using it the next day in a presentation to the students at LUSPIO. That quote helped me frame several of the ideas that are popping up in the global discussions about industry issues in events, associations, and online venues like LinkedIn and Twitter.

I particularly like that quote, because every time that a problem is raised, someone comes up with a story about a company that has already found a solution or is working on it. Combined with my favorite disclaimer that “The closer your vision gets to a provable future, the more your are simply describing the present. In the same way, the more certain you are of a future outcome, the more likely you will be wrong,” — which I took from The Visionary’s Handbook by Wacker & Taylor — William Gibson's axiom explains why we seem to be stuck: We never really talk about the future, we are only talking about a present in which we don't participate.

In a recent interview, Nassim Taleb, author of the Black Swan and one of the first to preview the collapse of the financial system in 2008, talks about the concept of "subtractive prophecy." He says that "to predict, you need to remove from the future what doesn't belong there because of fragility." This thought completes the triangle that I like to use in the recurring discussions of what will happen in the localization industry.
The questions that I pose myself are:
  • Is someone already doing it? (Description of the present)
  • Is it plausible that someone is already doing it or is the issue easily solvable with existing technology? (Provable future)
  • Do we really need it? (Subtractive prophecy)
Following these premises, here is what I think of the three favorite topics of the industry:

Machine Translation, My view is that it is a reality that is here to stay. It will improve over time and its uses will expand. It is not "evenly distributed" but it is widely available, and it is more of an ally than a foe to the language services space.

Standards. A laudable effort undertaken by organizations that have no power to enforce them. On the technology standards front, I think it is more likely that middleware will develop to broker conversions between translation memories and transfers between different content management systems. (I seem to have heard something about a product called Any2TM at memoQfest and ClayTablet already does some of it).

Crowdsourcing. A topic dear to translators who see it as a threat, as the encroachment of non-professionals into the language industry. Too late. People will do translations for free, just as you take pictures without the help of professional photographers. The reality is that there is more demand for translations than there are professional translators to handle them. Crowdsourcing -- like machine translation -- is just another way to address this market reality.


  1. I don't think anyone could disagree with this, as you say... "“The closer your vision gets to a provable future, the more your are simply describing the present.". But on the standards front... I think there will be both; standards and tools to manage the conversions (like the SDL OpenExchange -

  2. Good points, Renato, and well presented. Thank you for introducing me to the term "subtractive prophecy"; I think we'd all do well to subtract a lot from discussions about the future. Whether it is intended so or not, too much of the discussion of MT and crowdsourcing in one way or another uses the FUD-factor to sell or even force-feed an idea and a "future" hardly worth discussing. The translation markets are very diverse, and there are enough niches in this ecology for most to find viable business if they are alert.

    Standards are a bit like sheepherding. You'll often get a few strays (like SDL ;-) but with a good dog and a little reasonable discipline, you'll get 'em in the pen eventually. It helps to have a wide gate.

  3. Considering we have input into most,if not all the standards in this industry, and after being excluded from an effort to introduce another independant standard last week (as you well know Kevin) your example would be better pointed at others, not SDL.

  4. Paul, you know I feel very strongly that SDL should be a part of the interoperability initiative, and I promise the last word has not been spoken there (watch my blog for the fireworks after I finish a big delivery this week or early next).

    I am very encouraged by steps your company has taken to open up in recent years, and I cannot find enough good words for your efforts to inject a healthy dose of sense and spirit into a company whose first reflex for many years seemed to be insulting its customers. Although I use another tool for my actual translation because it is ergonomically superior, the SDL Trados products in various incarnations are absolutely critical parts of my integrated workflows in many cases, and I recommend them as such to anyone who wants a business that can respond to the full range of format and process challenges we face today. No vendor's tools stand alone... which means that standards and the cooperation of major players on standards is vital to us all.

  5. Anon E. Mouse9:52 PM

    “A laudable effort undertaken by organizations that have no power to enforce them.”

    Renato, what do you expect? There is no legal authority over an internationally outsourced services industry. If any group tried to acquire the power to enforce standards, it would be widely resisted and, quite rightly, regarded as a power grab. At most you could see local enforcement of particular standards (e.g., a Chinese language services standard), not some sort of industry-wide enforcement.

    Does this mean that standards aren't worth while? If customers demand it, then voluntary compliance with some sort of compliance verification (like the TAUS interoperability dashboard) would go a long ways. But there is no sense lamenting something that, structurally, is impossible in our industry. You will never see the standards bodies getting at what you seem to aspire to. However, these organizations do need to do more about education and promotion of the value of these efforts.

    The question is how to get something done despite it.

    I have to lament the fact that many people claiming to want interoperability and openness define that openness by exclusion. Such efforts should be widely criticized for what they are. If interoperability is to mean anything at all, SDL must be present at the table as one of the major players. Sadly, with the demise of LISA, there are a number of groups that want to stake their exclusive claim to LISA’s turf and continue the clannishness and tribal mentality that have long pervaded our industry. Until we overcome that all-to-common mental defect nothing else will really matter and these efforts will be window dressing.