Why Don't Journalists Use Professional Translators? A Conversation with Lane Greene.

Why Don't Journalists Use Professional Translators? A Conversation with Lane Greene.
August 17, 2016
Lane Greene, the primary language reporter for The Economist and writer of the magazine's Johnson language column, discusses translation from a journalism perspective. Why isn't translation more frequently used to verify news sources, and what do journalists need from the language industry?
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Renato Hi, this is Renato Beninatto.
Michael And this is Michael Stevens.
Renato Today we have a very special guest with us.
Michael Yes, one of the more esteemed guests we’ve had; a writer for The Economist.
Renato Well, it’s not every day that you get a famous journalist, an accomplished writer and, all in all, a very smart guy to talk to us.
Michael Yes. But what does he know about language? That’s the question!
Renato So, Lane why don’t you tell us about yourself, who you are and just a brief introduction like two or three lines that you would write about you?
Lane Okay. My name is Robert Lane Greene, people call me Lane and I am an editor at the Economist in London where I also write the bi-weekly language column which is called Johnson, and I also cover the language issues in the science section of the magazine from time to time and other parts of the paper. I have been a keen language-learner myself like a lot of people in the translation industry over, basically, all of my adult life, so these issues are very close to my heart.
Renato You have written a couple of books about language, but you are the antithesis to the classic joke that the definition of a person who only speaks one language is an American, you speak nine languages, or did you learn another one since we last met?
Lane No, I decided to slow down on adding new ones because I realized there’s a lot of holes and depth to be added to the ones I’ve already worked on so I’m going to try to build those up for a little while yet before I take on something new.
Michael Lane, what drew you into this?
Lane It was just high school Spanish, just that simple, I never had international exposure, never had any international exposure, never had left the United States; suburban family in the American South and it just was the one class that just kind of tickled me and I don’t know why but I just seemed to do well in tests an quizzes without working terribly hard. I just kind of reached out to it, just wanted that input and wanted to soak it up; it was like a puzzle, like some people like crosswords, I’d never been a crossword guy, for whatever it’s worth, but I just loved trying to puzzle out how Spanish was put together, which is so different from how English is put together. Then, I just added German in college and added and Portuguese, and then I added French, and I just kept going, I couldn’t stop. I’m a strange one in that way.
Michael Also, you have this passion for languages and you’re very much in the details with it but I’ve even heard you self-describe, others have said this about you, when you write about language you write from a meta view, you’re writing about the bigger story.
Lane Yes, I like writing about the things people say and think about language. I don’t know why I got into that but because I’m not a translator industry professional in that sense, in your sense and I’m not an academic linguist so I’m not doing original research on changing vowels in the Great Lakes region or the theoretical syntax of the Chompskyan school of linguistics. I like language, fascinated by the individual questions like the changing use of whom over time, on the subjunctive, but I also like and am fascinated about how people think about it and I guess what some people don’t know about me is I have a Political Science degree and a Master’s.

So, I come to it from a sort of how do people organize themselves into groups and how do they make decisions as groups and individuals. And, one of the ways you signal how you think about the world is the language group you choose to join, not only the Portuguese speaking world or the English speaking world but are you one of those English speakers who insists on whom and insists on saying “it is I” instead of “it’s me”. What motivates those choices really fascinates me. So, that was the impetus behind my book, *You Are What You Speak*—why do people choose the sort of language tribes that they do, what’s behind that?
Michael You seem to also have a very generous perspective when you come to language; you use one description that language is like a dance.
Lane Yeah, it really is a two-person thing; to be ornery and say “you’re doing it wrong” is like telling your dance partner “knock that off”. Well, you’re not going to get dates and names on your dance card if you do that over and over again; so, it’s just no fun. And, because I think language is so interesting, it’s so fascinating I can talk about it all day. Just the sort of red in the face kind of attitude towards it doesn’t do anything for me.
Renato And you work for The Economist, one of the most respected publications in the world, one of the most considered, unbiased, fact-based – and I’m not talking about the blog only - how is language relevant inside The Economist because you report on issues from all over the world; you have publications in China and different languages also, how does that permeate the day-to-day activities at The Economist?
Lane Yes. It’s interesting. While the spoken language is seen as important, you’re quite expected to be able to sit down and have a conversation with someone. So, you either learn the language or you might take an interpreter in the spoken role. It’s really not that common to seek out and really immerse yourself in documents and written matter in the foreign language and that’s always struck me as kind of odd. It’s, either you find English translations that are done by the institution producing the original or you just call an expert and ask them to summarize it for you. But, it does not seem to be an instinct of most journalists to get written material translated when they need it.
Renato It is something I’ve been observing for many years; I have a sense that especially for breaking news they use young journalists and they get AP or Reuters news flashes and they do a rough translation of what’s going on. Very often you have very, very wrong translations in the first news that’s coming out.
Michael So, there’s wrong translation that is a result of that. What are some of the impacts of this lack of ability to research in the native language from your perspective?
Lane I try to tell monolingual English speakers just to do the brief thought experiment, which is imagine you’re a French person in America and you can’t speak English; you can’t talk to the cab driver; you can’t talk to the man on the street; and you can’t read the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post. How successfully do you think you could…but, you do have very friendly French/English interpreter who walks around and, at your request, with a time delay and the loss of nuance and all, you do have a nice interpreter who helps you out every time you ask him to. Do you think you would be able to cover the United States and all of its complexity? The answer is obviously, no, right?

So, if you’re in Brazil you really want to be knowing not just some of the basics of what’s happening, but you want to know the meta-conversation about what’s happening; you want to say “these are how the papers are covering the latest scandal, the latest impeachments, the latest…
Michael The latest part of the Olympic thing that’s not done.
Lane Yes, and so you want to know what Sao Paulo and global are saying because it gives you a sense of where the goalposts are in the country. So, you really want to be able to pick up and read a paper. And most people, in some of those countries we do that. Like I said, our man in Sao Paulo is quite good in Portuguese by now but in other countries we don’t expect it as a minimum.
Michael You wrote an article that we want to highlight for folks for TAUS, the TAUS Review, covering this exactly right, how rarely journalism is translated.
Lane Mhm. And in that article, we can go ahead and concede that not every journalist is going to know every language they need to know. Some people are working in London and cover a sectoral issue like, healthcare or something like that, the environment. And, they can’t know all the countries of the world’s languages but it will happen, sometimes, that a piece of copy will come your way that is not in English.

Now, as it happens, say you’re covering the environment, most of the stuff you need will be in English, the scientific bodies, the NGOs, produce a lot of their primary stuff in English, but we can just posit that sometimes it won’t be and most of the reports I know, their instinct would be to say “is there an official English translation of this” or just skip it and say “it obviously doesn’t matter. If it wasn’t done in English, I’ll find something that was.” But, it does not seem to be their instinct to turn to the translation industry.
Renato Yes and that’s the interesting part because there is a lot of bias in reporting according to the language. I remember, clearly, during the Iraq war I was listening to the news in the United States and I was reading the news in other countries online and they were completely different and I kept talking to my wife and she wouldn‘t understand what was the difference. So, then, I subscribed to the French television and the perspective from outside the United States was completely different and she was shocked at how a French show could have people from 20 countries including Arab countries and Israel and the US in a show that lasted three hours without advertising to talk about the real issues. These are things that don’t happen here in the United States so there is this element of bias also that is compounded by the fact that the language in which the information is reported conveys some kind of world view.
Michael And how does budget influence the instincts of journalists with this? You say they just skip the article and don’t consider translation is that because there’s only so much that they’re getting paid for each article and to hire a translator would diminish what they make on it?
Lane Well, if you’re a freelancer that would be your calculation depending on your arrangement with the publication. I’m a staffer and always have been, so it’s hard for me to say how freelancers make their decisions but sometimes, depending on your contract, you can say that any expenses are paid by the commissioning publication so your fee is what your fee is and then your travel and translation and all those things are on top.

In the case of staff, think about this, we fly people around the world all the time. We’re buying $1,000 plane tickets to send people across the Atlantic and Pacific on a regular basis; and we put them in hotels in New York and London that costs hundreds of dollars per night; and we pay expenses for all kinds of journalism. In this context, translation of brief pieces that might be useful wouldn’t be an unthinkable crazy charge. I mean, we have a catered lunch on Wednesdays, we have people take cabs home if they work past a certain hour at night; we pay for lots of things that make our lives and our journalism better.

So it’s not… everything is constrained by budgets right now, this is just in the nature of budgeting; everything that’s an expense is not part of the profit pool but it just doesn’t seem to have become habit to consider this a worthwhile expense.
Michael Yes, that may be a harder thing to change than just a budget line.
Lane Yes, it’s a cultural change. It’s changing habits.
Renato That’s a challenge for the industry because I think the message you share with us is, essentially, that there is a lack of awareness of the ability and availability of good quality translation. What’s the role of machine translation in this process? How is Google Translate a friend or a foe for a journalist?
Lane Google Translate has obviously got lots of pitfalls. It will give you a rough gist but sometimes the gist can be 180 degrees wrong by Google Translate mistranslating or not catching a polarity item like not or never, always or isn’t, or something like that, that switches the meaning of the sentence completely. That can happen. And then, of course, there are just the many things that just get turned into a hash by Google Translate. I have to say, I think Google Translate can be amazing sometimes but it just produces errors that can vary from trivial to very serious in almost every translation.

So you have to just use it with caution and that means having a meta-linguistic knowledge about what Google Translate is, what it can do, recognizing the limits of your own ability to judge how good a job Google Translate has done; if you don’t know the source language and you’re translating in English, you know absolutely nothing of the source language, then you’re in trouble because even if you see some grammatical English coming out the output side you have no idea if that was good; all you can see is that it seems to be grammatical English. Now, if what comes out is a hash, of course, you can say “well, that’s garbled and I can’t use that” but if it seems to be grammatical then you might just say, “hey, nifty, that’s perfect” not knowing if Google Translate hasn’t missed something quite crucial and I’ve seen it do that.
Renato I have a saying that translation is only news when it’s bad.
Lane That’s right, it’s like the referee in a soccer match…
Renato Exactly; a hashtag that I use every once in a while because that’s the only time that you see translation in the news. Is there a way that you think we could make the journalistic environment more aware of language issues in reporting?
Lane Well, language issues, I think journalists are quite taken with language, they like the subject, they write about trends in the English language eagerly; those who write about foreign languages like to take their chance to write about trends in French, Portuguese or whatever country they’re in, but the thing is that because there are very few, and close to zero journalists in the world – I’m one of the very few – who actually write about language regularly, the analysis can be very superficial, very kind of summer trend piece rather than the fine grain feel you get from working with an issue over the course of years.

We don’t expect that an environmental correspondent can just wade into the climate change debate, dash off a piece after five interviews and nail it, but that’s how we very often, too often, treat language because I think the idea is if it’s physics, we know that we’re not physicists so we don’t try to do that but because we can use language we think that we know almost all that we need to know about describing language, including its interior workings, and that’s the stuff of linguistics which is somewhere between a social science and a hard science depending on the sub-field and it really does require long-term knowledge by paying attention to the field over time, getting to know sources, getting to know the debates, getting to know their contours; and we just don’t pay very many journalists out there in the world to do that.
Renato We are aware of your time constraint; is there anything that you expected us to ask that we forgot to ask, a message you would like to convey?
Lane What I take as part two of your last question to be how can the profile of the translation industry be raised among journalists? Most journalists I know will not be able to name a single translation company, even a very big one. And, that is two reasons, I think. One is that it’s a quintessential B2B business so it doesn’t have consumer-facing products like Apple; it has … it’s behind the scenes like Deloitte or KPMG, it’s a professional service in that way.

Now, I mention Deloitte, KPMG, everybody knows they’re Big Four accounting, audit firms; there’s not a Big Four translation firms, it’s an extremely fragmented industry, a lot more like the legal industry, where even the very biggest firms are hardly known names. So, it makes it, without famous companies and without shiny products, journalists aren’t drawn to it as a business story. And that’s one of the same reasons why they just don’t think about the industry generally and so that is part of the reason why they don’t think about engaging pro-translators to do their own work when writing about some other issue.

In that column I wrote for the TAUS review – and I hate this cliché, but I’m forced to use it anyway in this case – nobody has really come up with an Uber of translation; everybody wants to be the Uber of everything; there are lots of satires about Uber being a pitch deck for the Uber of pony-rides and things like that. So, everybody wants to be the Uber of everything. I’m looking forward to this cliché dying, and it may do one day soon but somebody needs to come up with an elegant and quick way to link translators and people who need small translation jobs.

When I was in Brazil to talk to the Brazilian translators and interpreters association, last year, I met a young guy who was trying to build exactly this and it was going to put the people who needed a job done together with a bidding system for getting it done, a reverse auction kind of system. Unfortunately it didn’t take off; he tried to fund it through the Brazilian version of Kickstarter and I just don’t think he got there. So, this has yet to be done right but if someone did build a system to make this quick, fun and painless, then I think individual freelance translators could pick up a lot of work depending on their availability; it’s the kind of thing that Uber drivers love, when they need more money they work and when they don’t, they don’t. And those of us who needed it could summon it quickly.

Maybe that app could, if it were a bigger job, 10,000 words and you needed it tomorrow it could be broken up through something like the mechanical Turk that Amazon has done to break apart smaller jobs, have people work away at bits of it. Duolingo has crowdsource translation is part of its odd business model.
Renato Apparently I heard that they stopped.
Michael Yes, they’ve moved away from it. They’re now doing certification tests as their primary business.
Lane Interesting! That’s good to know. You’ve broken some news to me. I’ll go and take some tests, see what I can certify for!
Michael But, it is interesting, this long tail area is a place that people are starting to think about more and more because we now have the technology to connect it and we used to move big things very well in localization and, all of a sudden, everyone’s looking at the sand that’s still on the beach and we’re going, “ooh, there’s a lot more sand than boulders” and how can you efficiently address this.
Lane Yes, and that’s not easy to do but the Netflix and Amazons of the world have found a lot of gold in the long tail.
Renato We have a show planned on the sharing economy in the translation business and we’re going to cover that topic in a future episode. Maybe we’ll invite you again to comment on that.
Lane Well, I would love to come whether as a guest or as a listener; I look forward to it.
Michael Awesome. I think we did good.

End of conversation

Lane Greene

Lane Greene is an editor for The Economist, one of the world’s foremost publications of business, economics, political and world news. For 16 years, Greene has written primarily about professional services, and is The Economist’s leading writer on language-related issues, including the bi-weekly “Johnson” language column. He is also the author of You Are What You Speak, a book about the politics of language.

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