ve been struck recently at how fragmented we are as an
"industry." In my writings I've freely and proudly used the terms
"language industry" or "translation industry," but are these terms
appropriate? Are there such things?
In my mind, an industry is made up of commercial
endeavors that are set up to fulfill a particular need. Let's take the
example of laundry detergent. There is a need—clean
laundry—and a response in the form of products that are all more
or less the same. Some detergents might have more bleach than others,
some might be more environmentally safe, some will have a bigger
marketing budget than others and/or more colorful packaging, but they
all more or less do the same job and attempt to fulfill one particular
Can we say the same about our industry?
Look at the different goals that translation requestors have: While
some do translation only because it's a legal requirement for a target
market (and no one is going to read the translated products anyway),
others do translation because being multi-lingual and multi-cultural is
at the very heart of who they are. For some companies it's fine to have
some "gist" translation done to communicate some approximate meaning;
for others, lives are at stake when meaning is not 100% reliably
communicated. Some companies pride themselves on achieving their
multi-lingual goals by using their user groups to do the translation
and making them into ever more ardent users, ambassadors, and "owners"
of the product, while others prosecute users who do exactly that. And
all this is just scratching the surface of the diversity that somehow
ties us together.
Technology is simultaneously the
great divider (through access vs. lack of access/resources to use
certain technologies) and the great uniter.
And that brings us to "us." Who are "we" to start with?
To satisfy the needs listed above, "we" includes everything from the
bilingual secretary to the machine translation engineer to the
enthusiastic translation volunteer to the highly specialized
professional expert and everything in between. And these are just the
ones who do the actual translation work. Then there is the middle
layer, often represented by the translation agencies or the translation
portals—and you and I know that there is a huge diversity in that
Considering all this, can we really talk about one
"industry," or are we more a hodge-podge of small groups or individuals
who are trying to carve out niches for ourselves in answer to some
specific, as yet unfulfilled needs?
Terminology often—perhaps always—uncovers
much more of what's real than those who choose it intended to convey.
And I think that poor choices like localization/localisation, l10n,
GILT, and transcreation are, in the context of this topic, nothing
other than poor attempts to create something—the sense of being
an industry—out of thin air. Just because the efforts in the
realm of translation are fragmented, any attempt to call it anything
but the powerful "translation" ("to carry across") seems silly. Add to
this the now failed attempt to create a "Localization Industry
Standards Association" and the crazy number of competing conferences
and "industry associations" and you have to wonder: an industry? us?
If we are not an industry with common interests, is
there value in bringing "us" together, in uniting us? To be honest, I
can think of only a very few reasons why there would be
value—being a stronger lobby, being able to provide better
funding for technology, sharing experiences—and a whole bunch of
reasons why it might not be a bad situation the way it
is—including the many, many niches that are left for all of us to
occupy and the creativity we can harness to carve out even more.
Technology plays a very strange role in all of this.
Technology is simultaneously the great divider (through access vs. lack
of access/resources to use certain technologies) and the great uniter,
at least in a top-down approach from the very large translation buyer
to the translation agency to the individual translator. Technology also
has the potential to shape some sections of the market in interesting
ways, for instance by giving translation clients direct access to
single-language vendors or individual translators while providing all
the quality assurance and file management that the translation agency
does today (keyword: disintermedation).
So, what does this all mean? If anything, it's this: So
much of what we say and think and write about our work and our
particular processes might fit perfectly for our particular situation,
but it very well might not fit someone else's, and it certainly will
not fit everyone's. Think about all the different groups that I
mentioned above (and the many that I did not mention)—there are
only very few common denominators, and there is no reason to pretend
there are more. Recently I listened to an interview with Werner Herzog,
who mentioned his all-time favorite movie scene: Fred
Astaire dancing with his own shadow in the 1938 movie Swing Time.
At some point the shadows become independent and cannot be reconnected.
Eventually they vacate the premises, leaving Astaire on his own. I
cannot help but think that this is a pretty good description of what we
call the "translation industry."
If there were one single strand that could unite us, my
wish is that it would be this: a love for language and a desire to