Industrious? Yes. Industry? Maybe Not

by Jost Zetzsche, Ph.D.

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 need.

Can we say the same about our industry?

Technology is simultaneously the great divider (through access vs. lack of access/resources to use certain technologies) and the great uniter.
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.

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 field.

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 communicate.