Category Archives: Commodification

There and Back Again: Changes in the world of translation

There are as many definitions of translation as there are people in the world. Or, at least, as there are people who want you to hear their definition of such a pedestrian profession. Age gives you a new set of goggles to see the world every few years if you are gracious enough to let Time give you advice, that is.

Let’s assume translation has one main role, that of allowing one culture to be understood by another, and vice versa. In that sense, translation’s goal never ends as long as human cultures endure towards that end horizon we never seem to reach. That one culture needing to be understood in a different one possesses attributes, nuances and colors foreign to the receiving culture is a given. That cultural differences may be different, even shockingly surprising, is a fact that does not change. So, what does change in translating them? Processes, procedures, workflows, sales tactics, terminologies —What exactly?

The school of translation I attended in my youth was formerly called a school of languages, which reveals the fountainhead of ideas guiding the teaching of translation, imposing the models that are to be copied and passed down to professors and students, and offering up lists of authoritative books on linguistics, dictionaries, theories, etc. A closed world, you might say, almost like a serpent pursuing its own tail. Why? Even though translation was being (and continues to be) taught for several language pairs (Spanish>Italian, Spanish>German, Spanish>French, Spanish to English being the most popular), this academic bubble keeps on churning out translation graduates to an ever-encroaching global world. During my stay in Córdoba (Argentina) in 2005-2007, translation students graduating with little or no knowledge of how to present themselves to the world or understanding on the use of CAT tools was the common complaint I’ve heard. The emphasis in translation teaching was squarely set on language, grammar and texts.

My alma mater, the Facultad de Lenguas de la UNC

My alma mater, the Facultad de Lenguas de la UNC

From that school of translation of the 1980s to the Aughts of the 21st century, I saw a significant change: a university offering hundreds of Spanish, French, German or Italian translators to a nonexistent local market to the same institution offering an increasing number of Spanish translators to a globalized local market. And that brings us to a second change, that of the local or urban market, quite well defined in its physical, commercial and intellectual boundaries, converting, voluntarily or not, to one more affiliate of the global machinery of commerce. As a company, big or small, you no longer have to send representatives to foreign countries… you send your translated literature to those lands!

Moving on to an aspect with a different scope: translation itself has changed. The forces of globalized commerce, rather than bringing together different cultures, languages and cities, have brought them into closer proximity via two distinct vehicles: the English language and consumeristic technologies. In the 70s and 80s, the translated literature accompanying a product was something of a luxury or an option, but it was certainly not a commodity. In fact, if memory serves me well, reading the Spanish translation of some consumer pamphlet or manual was a singular experience that enhanced the purchase, or “purchase experience” as the marketers of today are wont to say.

This purchase or acquisition was enhanced because the translation itself revealed a level of writing, of composition, an arrangement of texts that we no longer see in assembly-lined texts produced within companies where simultaneous release or production is prime priority. The excellence in writing a piece announcing the new car model, computer or coffeemaker, for example, has been replaced with so-called quality statistics, colorful infographics and PowerPoint slides. Translations have lost their soul.

I still remember the care I needed to place on writing a single-page introductory letter to prospective buyers of the milk products my company was making for local markets, which were no longer sufficient for expansion. My boss, the sales manager, had to approve my drafts before I could commit a single word to paper via our IBM Selectric typewriter. Now companies rely more on robomail, Word templates and slick stock photography on websites to introduce themselves. Where’s the writing skill? The individualized text has become the commoditized content.

In the face of such challenges, companies intent on penetrating new and foreign markets —or that want to reintroduce themselves ­­— ­­­­would do well in securing the services of translators who are very good writers first and language experts second. People and individuals, all consumers in one way or another, still want to feel personally welcome, distinctly touched by your writing, even in the Age of Emojis.

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Filed under Commodification, Quality in translation, The business of translation, Translation as value added, Writing skills

See spots run

All languages are equal, but some languages are more equal than others.

Paraphrasing the (in)famous quote from H.G. Well’s Animal Farm, «All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others,” I find myself thinking of a soup of random but oddly connected ideas: pigs, languages, words, and spots. Why spots? British painter Damien Hirst’s endless artwork collection of spots, carefully arranged color dots named after pharmaceuticals.

In my list of random ideas, there’s an undercurrent: commodification. According to Merriam-Webster’s, it means turning something that is not supposed to be a tradable object into a commodity. Look around in your house or office. Are there any objects that are uniquely wrought and made? Maybe that purple sweater knitted by grandma? Or perhaps that loaf of homemade bread you made two days ago? Did you make the bread from scratch? Of course. Where did you bake it? In an oven, a bread maker?

My mother used to bake homemade round breads and pastries for sale, fresh out of a brick-and-mortar hemispheric oven. My father built it for her in our backyard when I was a preteen. That oven was very useful to my mother for several months. I only cared for the pastries. Even though my father was no skilled bricklayer, his oven was similar to thousands of other mud ovens. Whatever we do with our hands remains unique, not line-assembled like a plastic toy or an SUV. Working things with our hands has many benefits but, how many people bake their own bread these days?

A mud oven

Take another commodity: books. A Gutenberg-printed bible in 1455 cost “the equivalent of three years’ pay for the average clerk” (from http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/press.html). Nowadays, you can get a nicely bound bible for 5 bucks or less. Thanks to industrialization, many handcrafted items became commodities and arrived in our homes. In mine, for example, most items are commodities: books, computers, kitchenware, clothes, pieces of furniture, CDs, DVDs, consumer electronics, foodstuff, rugs, office supplies, lighting fixtures, even the paint on my walls. But it’s not just objects that have been commoditized. Services such as electricity, water, cable Internet and phone service are all commodities.

The benefits of commoditization are evident: affordability, predictability of cost, ease of manufacturing, standardization of manufacturing processes, performance and delivery, ease of use, easy transfer of goods and services across borders, just to name the most important. For us, consumers, affordability and ease of use stand out.

Globalization made commoditization a truly international phenomenon. Almost overnight, there were no borders, tariffs were lowered, products, services and jobs began their fluid transfer among nations and territories. In America, we live an economic paradox: we have an unprecedented access to affordable goods from all corners of the planet, and we want products with better quality at lower prices. The downside is that we lose jobs to other nations in the process —not just China. If the goods we so prize were made in America, we would be paying several times over for them…and we wouldn’t be a happy lot, would we?

Works of art used to be unique. Paintings, sculptures and installations worth tens, hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions of dollars, cover the walls and floors of many a museum in urban centers across the globe. Why are they so costly? Because they are unique. But then, we have another paradox: the commodified painting that is also expensive, intended for the wallets of the one-percenters.

Damien Hirst’s simultaneous exhibits in all 11 of Larry Gagosian’s galleries around the world consist of more than 300 spot paintings. These art objects come in different sizes and color palettes but share two themes: perfectly round color spots and grid distribution. Not all of these paintings were made by Mr. Hirst, however, but by his assistants. I saw some examples in the January 23, 2012 issue of The New York Observer this week. Granted, the paintings are mesmerizing in all their blahish glory. The most anyone paid for a Hirst spot painting, named 3 -(5-chloro-2-hydroxphenylazo)- 4, 5-dihydroxy-2, 7-naphthalenedisulfonic acid, was £1.8m (from http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Seeing-spots/24530). You can see a reproduction here and judge for yourself if this painting is worth more than 2 million dollars.

Damien Hirst's Valium (online reproduction)

But Damien Hirst is a well known painter, a brand in itself. His paintings draw higher-than-premium prices because of who he is and what he’s done, even though his spot paintings make you yell “My daughter could have painted thaaat!” Some art pieces are more equal than others, and so are other products or services.

Consider your product or service, how much it cost you to produce and deliver to market, and how much you price it. Even if it is a commodity, if your product or service is rare or unique enough, and useful enough, it will command a premium sticker price. Imagine your product to be a premium water bottle. Supermarkets stock those for $1.5o -$3.50 apiece. After a bottle is drunk and tossed into the garbage, what is its price? A few cents for recyclable content.

Consider now your product or service and the messages surrounding them that help to sell them or use them, such as ad copy, marketing collaterals, documentation, handbooks and instructions. How much value do they add to your product or service? Are they recyclable or transferable? In case you sell overseas, do the translations of said accompanying messages add value to your product or service?

Your product may look like millions of other products. Your service may sound like thousands of similar offerings. At a distance, all of them look the same, just like Damien Hirst’s spot paintings. Will Heinrich, The New York Observer’s resident art columnist, has this to say:

“…the medical-white canvases are decorated with perfectly round, appealingly candy-color spots…The colors, although sticking to a narrow, consistent palette, do not strictly repeat in any one painting, and they’re so precisely applied that the spots look like stickers…Even the white backgrounds stop perfectly short at the edges.”

Hirst’s formula to make his spot paintings unique was the unrepeatability of the color dots, which brings uniqueness to his commoditized art. Likewise, the texts that promote and sell your products and instruct on their use may as well share this distinctive trait of unrepeatability: your company style and tone permeates the texts to create the look and feel your customers have come to expect from your offerings. So should your translated materials. Your message —in English or in foreign languages— does not have to be a commodity just because it is printed on commoditized paper, html or pdf.

A skilled word artisan can make this possible by spotting the inherent and vibrant patterns in your writing, and then casting fresh servings of texts in foreign-language flavors that are pleasing to the eye of the discerning consumer. Whether it is an MSDS, a help file, a tool’s instruction manual or a brochure for your new service, don’t relegate them to your customer’s blind spot. Make them visible. Make them valuable.

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Filed under Advertising, Business of writing, Commodification, Style, Translation as art, Translation as value added, Value added