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Do your strawberries still taste like strawberries, and do your tomatoes still taste like tomatoes? Are the egg yolks in your eggs yellow? Does the meat...

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Do your strawberries still taste like strawberries?

15 September 2010 Wednesday

Do your strawberries still taste like strawberries, and do your tomatoes still taste like tomatoes? Are the egg yolks in your eggs yellow? Does the meat that you buy at your local supermarket  taste the way you remember that meat used to taste a decade or two ago, provided that you still eat meat (and I don’t see why you shouldn’t  - after all, homo sapiens is just a carnivorous animal, not all that different from monkeys).

If the yolk in your eggs is more white than yellow and nothing seems to taste the way it used to, you are most likely experiencing firsthand the effect of efficiency in modern agricultural business. It is much more efficient to raise cows and pigs in little cages where they can’t even turn around than have them roam in meadows and fields. The modern agricultural business has very little in common with the family farms of our ancestors.

Family farms, at least in this country, have been for the most part replaced by huge agro-industrial operations which are much more profitable than a humble family farm because they are extremely efficient, at the expense of the poor animals.

But because industrial efficiency is hell for animals, animals who are being so ruthlessly exploited by this one particular animal species that can walk on hind legs while looking for ways to make more money are taking their revenge on humans. For some reason, their meat no longer tastes like the meat of cows that were free to graze in wide open spaces, and they are giving us new diseases that we are discovering in our children – why are there all of a sudden so many autistic children?

In the parlance of modern business, efficiency really means only one thing: maximized profit for the people on top of the profit pyramid. If it means extreme cruelty to animals – or people, for that matter – so be it. Fiat pecunia, pereat mundus as I wrote in this post.

But this kind of efficiency is creating a bland, tasteless world that is full of new, unexpected dangers. The biggest danger may be that our children, or their children, will be happy consumers of big, red, shiny and tasteless strawberries and tomatoes or equally tasteless meat because they may no longer even remember what a strawberry, or a tomato, or a steak is supposed to taste like.

What would application of efficient, industrial-strength methods to the translation business look like?

I think that it would mean that small, specialized operators would be replaced by large operations with strict division of labor. The old model, which is now a few decades old, was basically a small, mom-and-pop kind of operation. Most translation agencies were very small and they were often run by people who themselves were translators. Their business model was based mostly on just a few customers who needed certain kinds of translations and just a few translators who were able to deliver these translations because they were usually highly specialized.

Modern translation agencies specialize in …. everything. Just go and check out their websites. They all specialize in “all languages and all subjects”. Some of them even have different websites under different domain names to make it appear as though they too are specialists.

They have sales people who tirelessly go after new customers (because they are paid by commission). They have “project managers” who by definition manage subjects and languages that they don’t understand one bit because the company is handling all subjects and all languages. If you try to contact them as a translator, they will ask you to put your particulars in their database. Nobody at the agency (now called an “LSP”, they don’t use the name agency anymore, perhaps because it is too revealing), is interested in remembering who the translator is and what he or she does. Just fill out the fields in the database, there will be a new kid working there as a project manager next month anyway.

Perhaps somebody in the end will read the information that a translator dutifully provided for all the required fields, but only if the rate is “competitive” enough, and if the translator first signs a “Confidentiality Agreement” in which he or she must agree among other things to transfer all intellectual property created while working on a translating assignment for the agency to the agency, (including the specialized terms in his or her own CAT database? … but of course!), and pay all “reasonable attorney’s fees” should the agency decide to sue the poor translator.

I have not seen many “Confidentiality Agreements” recently, but I expect that they probably have many new even more demeaning clauses in them designed to put “freelance translator” in a little cage, not all that different from the little cages in which pigs and cows are kept in modern, highly efficient agro-business operations.

Just like the relationship between a farmer on a small farm and his animals was very different from the relationship between modern owners of agro businesses and their animals, the relationship created in this manner between highly efficient translation agencies and their translators is very different from what it used to be when most translators used to work for tiny agencies that were mostly run by translators.

The problem is, just like the new, highly efficient manner in which fruits and vegetables are grown is not good for the taste of the product, the highly efficient manner in which many modern translation agencies are being run these days is not good for the quality of the translation product either.

If you want to have yellow yolk in the eggs for your breakfast, my advice is: get to know your hens and chickens. Instead of buying eggs at your local supermarket, perhaps you can find a local, highly inefficient producer of very tasteful eggs who has a few chickens running in her yard.

And if you want to make sure that your translations are correct because they are done by people who actually know what they are doing, instead of relying on highly efficient translation agencies, it may make more sense to get to know your translator, especially if you are planning on using his or her services for years to come.

Of course, that translator would first need to make sure that the client would be able to find the right kind of translator who has the right kind of education and experience, but that would be a topic for another post.