Translation Wars

We live in demanding times, running at the rhythm of a tyrannical clock that dictates its own rhythm and pace.

In an increasingly interconnected world, where information can surge from one point of the globe to another in a matter of seconds, time is always of the essence, merely because it turns into a possibility and is no longer an obstacle.

It was presumably Ben Franklin who once said that “Time is money.” And easily as that, money made its way into our equation.

In the world of translation services, these two factors drive the medium that sets the rules of the game.

In today’s market clients want things done quickly and cheap, and whoever can offer the better balance between time and price will usually close the deal, which sets the fighting arena for the competition, where translation services will quarrel to survive.

But there is a third driver representing a term within this equation, that completes the holy triangle, that returns things to its natural balance.

I speak of quality. That essence we try so eagerly to preserve as linguists or poets.

Quality, Cost and Time are the three basic pillars of this natural equation. And such an idyllic structure can only sustain itself with one prevailing over the other two. You can’t have them all in full capacity.

And usually, time and cost are the drivers that share that moment in the spotlight.

In this trinity, one of them will always be sacrificed for the sake of the other two. It’s tragic, really.

It’s like a romantic triangle, in which Quality is usually set aside as the third wheel, sobbing lonely in a dark corner, filled with apathy and a feeling of unrequited love.

Think about fast food. It’s quick and cheap (and even tasty), but you don’t get any nutritional value out of it.

And that is what’s on high demand these days. In an age where the world’s largest fast food chain boasts “1 minute or it’s free” like a warcry, where business thrives at the pace of an exhilarating tempo driven by low costs and timely deliveries, it’s easy to forget our purpose as paladins of the vernacular.

The so called “miracle” of machine translation thrives on this increasingly soulless environment where being able to process complex parameters in seconds makes you win the race.

But what is this race for? Where are we running to or from? What is the purpose of it all?

Let us not forget why we chose the path that led us where we stand today. The noble path of the linguist, those are the colors at least I stand and fight for.

But there are many tracks on this race, many battlefields in which this “war” is being fought, and the most powerful armies in this conflict are increasing their firepower as fast as they can.

A few weeks ago Amazon announced the development of its own machine translation engine, challenging Google in a market that until today belonged almost entirely to them, suddenly establishing a bipolar scenario of equally contested forces. ¿Sounds familiar?

So, as this modern “Clash of the Titans” takes shape, and re-shapes the industry of translation services at the same time, it’s important to know where each of us stand and where our loyalties lie.

In a time where money is both the engine and the fuel that moves the sprockets of the civilized world, mega-corporations such as this rule the industry with the mind-blowing power of their technical and financial resources, making us forget of what’s most important: The essence of the craft.

Something so pure and ethereal that cannot be computer simulated or reproduced in a Fordian-like way.

It’s the very “Aura” Walter Benjamin wrote about once.

For this Benjamin (not the aforementioned reckless kite flyer) it was mechanical reproduction that transformed the arts in an irreparable way:

“The aura is an effect of a work of art being uniquely present in time and space. It is connected to the idea of authenticity. A reproduced artwork is never fully present. If there is no original, it is never fully present anywhere. Authenticity cannot be reproduced, and disappears when everything is reproduced.”


A wall may rise and a wall may fall. A huge mushroom made of smoke may darken the horizon before us yet again, as an eerie omen of what is yet to come (yet again). But as long as we remember or purpose in this senseless war of technical escalation and fast paced demands, the flag of our principles as linguists will always wave high and proud.