Macro/Micro: Hotelling’s Law

Translation is not a fried chicken salad. As bizarre of a sentence as this may be, stick with me. I, Terena Bell, have something to confess: I am a fried chicken salad freak. Love them. For those of you outside the United States, let me explain what this culinary triumph is. A fried chicken salad is the most generic meal known to man.

No matter where you go, it’s prepared exactly the same way: iceburg lettuce, pieces of tomato and cheddar cheese topped with fried chicken tenders and the dressing of your choice. It doesn’t matter if you’re at Applebee’s, Rafferty’s, O’Charley’s or Cheddar’s — no matter where you go in the United States, the fried chicken salad can be depended on. They even cost the same amount at every restaurant. Why, some may even argue that the fried chicken salad is as steady as time itself.

But because they’re the same everywhere you go, and because they cost the same amount everywhere too, when I think, “You know, I’d love a fried chicken salad,” I don’t really think of any particular place. I just go — heaven forbid — to the restaurant that’s closest to me that I know sells them.

It’s not that hard to cut a head of lettuce and sprinkle cheese on it. America’s a great country, so great we don’t even have to cut up our own cheese anymore — we just take it right out of the package, preshaved. Quality itself isn’t even a variable at this point. There are pretty much only two grades of fried chicken salad: Good and horrible. The lettuce is either fresh or it isn’t. The tomatoes are either soggy or they aren’t. Fried chicken salad quality is a yes or no equation.

Translation, on the other hand, has grades of variability. Were it only a matter of good or bad, in-country review would be simpler. Client feedback would be cut and dried. Editing would take five minutes.

Unfortunately, we live in a land of subjectivity, where the word couch may be deemed inappropriate even though it means the same thing as sofa, where someone who took one semester of Spanish at age 15 considers themselves an expert for review. The word quality, which as an adjective usually signifies superiority and excellence, sometimes just means “good enough” in our industry. Where the fried chicken salad is the embodiment of standardization itself, the world of translation can’t agree on what the word standards even means.

Translation is clearly not a fried chicken salad. So why do people buy it like it is?

See, it’s all in how I, the consumer, see the salad. Differentiate all you like, but if I see every salad as the same, they’re the same. There’s actually a law for this: Hotelling’s Law. Developed in 1929 by Stanford University economist Harold Hotelling, Hotelling’s Law claims that competitors purposefully make their products as similar as possible. So there’s a science behind my salad. By making their salads alike, restaurants late to the scene save the work that creativity and branding require, and cut into their competitors’ existing markets. Call it the lazy man’s way to the top. Or maybe the smart one’s. But regardless, there’s a reason why you can’t tell store brand from the original or why every Home Depot in America seems to be across the street from a Lowe’s. Copycats go the easy road.

How many translation companies have you seen use translate-edit-proof (TEP) as a delivery method? That’s not because TEP is always the best route to an end product. That’s because everyone else is doing it, so it’s easier for me to do it too. If your competitors are selling TEP as the only way to get a vetted, qualified translation, then it is harder for you to market something else — even if it’s better.

When you stray off the beaten path, that means you have to beat out a new path. You’re not only making the case for yourself but you have to also make the case against what everyone else already thinks works. It’s easy for restaurants to sell fried chicken salads in the South. They know Southerners like them. Economists can call this Hotelling’s Law all they want. I call it sloth.

It’s easier to market yourself and model your business processes around what already works. And if your goal is making money for yourself, this is the smart way to go. Pepsi isn’t that different from Coca-Cola after all, and by coming on the market 12 years after Coke, Pepsi was able to create a multinational conglomerate on Coca-Cola’s coat tails. If the goal is money, if the goal is financial success, then go for it. Make your little translation chicken salad the same way every other company on the block does.

But what the translation industry is learning the hard way as companies like Gengo and One Hour Translation come on the scene is that over a period of time, a copycat industry gets stymied. By no longer being innovators ourselves, we became ripe for disruption. Our tomatoes have grown soggy, as it were, and people don’t want our salads anymore. These companies and others now are able to come in and sell translation at a fourth of the rate as everyone else. Do they sell quality translation? Do clients care if they’re buying quality translation? Or because we have served up translation like a salad, do they see us all the same? When we complain about new-to-the-scene competitors undercutting rates, when we moan about nonprofessionals coming in and taking work from certified translators, we are complaining about the bed we have made. Clients have the perception that all translation is alike because for a very, very long time it was. And we have no one to blame for this but ourselves.

Translation is not a fried chicken salad. And it is high time this industry stopped acting as if it were.