Macro/Micro: Pragmatism, conflict and translation

As of this writing, Ukraine — depending on your politics — is either on the verge of war with Russia or with itself. Beyond the natural humanitarian concerns that any reader with a heart must have, there are concerns unique to our industry that we must pragmatically look at when it comes to how we process translation for these countries’ languages.

I’ve written on war in this column before but only in the hypothetical. Now that it’s about two actual nations, both of which have MultiLingual readers, writing gets a lot more stressful. While I won’t say which side my politics align with, the first thing I have to do is admit a bias as a journalist: I have a clear opinion on right and wrong here. But what isn’t clear to me as a language service provider (LSP) owner is how our industry should handle the business side of this or any other war-like conflict.

Here’s the issue: Russian translators live in both Russia and Ukraine. They also live in the United States, Canada and all sorts of other countries around the world. That’s the nature of the beast: that when we as LSPs (or even clients, for that matter) pick a language, we don’t just pick a language, we pick a geography too. With any given project, where your translator lives is based on a combination of factors. Globally-accepted best practices require a native speaker of the target language living in a country where that language is not just currently spoken but is spoken by the living, breathing mainstream. Doing this ensures that slang, tone and current changes in meaning (such as that gay no longer means happy) are so accurate that the end reader will feel as if the translation was written next door — because, in a way, it was.

But the reality is, this isn’t always possible. Sometimes clients need something back the same day and ask for it after everyone in the target country has gone to sleep. Sometimes that country is in the developing world, and shaky access to electricity or internet causes delays that would mean late project delivery. Sometimes you have to use someone in a different country for the mere logistical reason that the target country doesn’t allow payment via PayPal or whatever means your LSP uses to transfer funds. The list goes on. Be it time zones, infrastructure or something else, geography gets trumped by practicality more often than best practices would like.

In an international industry, this type of concern is nothing new. Neither is war, unfortunately. The situation in Ukraine has gotten quite horrible lately, regardless of your politics. It’s gotten so horrible that even though this article will run two months after I write it, I feel safe as a writer that something will still be going on there at the time of publication. But even if it’s not, and even if by some miracle of God, the conflict is over, I doubt two months more will fix the situation between Israel and Palestine. Or that it will fix the one in Syria. Maybe Sudan will have calmed down. I need to be optimistic about something.

Conflict is. Let me say again, conflict is and very well always may be. It is only how we react to conflict as people and as an industry that we can change.

This is something LSPs dealing in certain language pairs deal with regularly. For example, take Rina Ne’eman, owner of Rina Ne’eman Hebrew Language Services. Having built her business off of providing Hebrew and Arabic to companies in the United States, Israel and elsewhere, Ne’eman has spent her entire career working with both clients and translators in conflict zones. An Israeli native, Ne’eman is so used to the situation in her home country that she felt my interviewing her for this piece “does an injustice to people in countries where there are truly acute issues.” I don’t know about you, but the conflict between Israel and Palestine seems acute enough to me, as I watch it on television from my air-conditioned living room. But what looks like conflict to me is just standard day-in, day-out for someone else.

Conflict does impact daily operations in our industry no matter where we are. From here in the United States, that’s very hard to claim. I certainly have never had a colleague shot and killed through my front window while he was translating — something that happened at Arabize’s Egyptian office during conflict there last August. That an employee could be killed while working on a translation is a reality I can’t even begin to fathom.

As a human being, this makes me want to outsource every single bit of Arabic language work In Every Language has straight to that company. In the United States, we have this perception that money fixes everything. Wrong as it may be, Americans have a capitalism-minded culture where dollars dress a wound and pennies form a poultice. It would be easy, then, for our industry to “deal” with conflict by simply throwing money at it. But no amount of projects that my or any other company sends Arabize will bring their colleague back.

In addition, we have that nasty, nasty problem of practicality that I mentioned at the start of this piece. In Every Language promises clients that we don’t outsource work to other LSPs. And whether we like it or not, when a translator is located in a war-torn area, it may affect infrastructure via internet and electricity. It affects a translator’s stress level, which then may reflect in poorer quality of translation — 12 may become 2, grammatical or punctuation errors could be made.

Thus, what we think we can fix with the bottom line could actually negatively impact the bottom line. And having run In Every Language as a certified social enterprise for the first six years we were open, I can tell you clients don’t care. Sure, they care on some intrinsic, personal level, but at the end of the business day, they still want — no, need — a quality translation delivered on time and under budget. The fact that this translation provided income to a linguist in a conflict zone may make them feel warm and fuzzy, but it’s not going to get them to stay if the work doesn’t meet expectations, and it’s definitely not going to make them choose you over your competitor. Pragmatism is a force and I’m not going to overcome it here, in this single column entry.

Whether we are willing or able to send projects to war-torn areas in order to morally help them out is not just an individual LSP decision, it’s an individual project one. In light of what’s going on in Ukraine, each of our project managers needs to do as she sees best for each document on a case-by-case basis. While the effort is welcome, a single translation project, or even several, is not enough to stand on by itself. Ours is an international industry, and international means more than just North America and Europe.

Because of the situation in Ukraine, this year’s Ukraine Translation Industry Conference (UTIC) has seen a record number of speaker cancellations, including its keynote speaker, Hans Fenstermacher. Due to last summer’s Egyptian conflict, the Globalization and Localization Association (GALA) cancelled last year’s think! Middle East event in Cairo. While blindly sending them projects is not necessarily the answer, neither is abandoning them.

I am not saying that people need to put their lives at risk to attend these events. But whatever happened to Skyping in? has offered virtual conferences since 2009. If the technology is there to translate in the cloud, then the technology is there to talk about translation in the cloud, too.

If we are to grow an international industry, then we need to look at the darkest places translators must work from. And that is where we first must bring the light. We cannot fix Russia and Ukraine. But we can fix this.