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Translation and the Sharing Economy: What’s yours is mine.

When I was in kindergarten, the biggest skill the teacher forced upon us was sharing. A lot of us were unaccustomed to sharing, we were often an only child or the only one of our gender at home, we rarely had to share. Sure, sometimes I had to share my snacks and some toys with my sister, but for the most part, I had my things and she had hers. In retrospect, this seems contradictory to the rest of the education system in the States because after this Pre-school/Kindergarten two-year grace period, we were thrown into the cut-throat world of American academia where it was a fight to the top, winner take all, forget the rest mentality, and the traditional American capitalist business economy model is not much different. This was reinforced about 15 years later when my first translation professor told me as I considered a translation project for the Army Corps of Engineers, “Never do any translation work for free. You wouldn’t ask a doctor to treat you for free; you wouldn’t ask a lawyer to represent you for free. Not everyone can do what we do so make sure you get paid for every word translated.”

Fast forward to 2015 and we are placed in a very strange predicament. After the greatest economic recession since the Great Depression of 1929, the traditional capitalist business model does not quite hold up for all people; many were left without jobs and were looking for ways to make money on their own as independent contractors. The modern idea of the Sharing Economy was born. The most modern manifestation, and most commonly used by the people being ride sharing (like Uber and Lyft). For those of you who are unfamiliar with these ridesharing innovations, this is basically a taxi service but the drivers are not employees of the company, they are “independent contractors” just like freelance translators, but with fewer necessary base skills, lower wages for good and for bad, and you do not even need to get a chauffeur license. These ridesharing services were originally touted as empowering individuals with automobiles to be their own boss and make money driving their own car. In actuality, these ridesharing services are ideal for the company owners and them alone. They receive the 20% of service fees (which, in some cities, start at 50% lower than regular cab fare), and because the drivers are independent contractors instead of employees, the company does not have to pay for health insurance, worker’s compensation, paid time off, vehicle maintenance, state taxes, etc. It is a libertarian’s dream business model: exploit your workers, be beholden to no one, and make a profit, I believe a tear of pride just came to the Koch Brothers’ eyes.

While the independent contractor business model has existed in the translation industry for decades and it is widely accepted that it is too expensive to have a team of in-house translators, the more recent innovation in regard to the sharing economy and translation is the idea of shared resources. One or two of my own compiled translation memories are good, but why not compile hundreds from other people? We can gain so much more leverage if we put our TMs together. But wait. Should I have done that? While I did the translation, I do not necessarily have the intellectual property rights to the content. In fact, I believe I signed a non-disclosure agreement stating that I would not share sensitive material with third parties. And that is just for TM repositories, what about the use of public machine translation engines? Do I really want to trust my work to a translation engine that has been built upon poorly constructed phrases from second language learners in grade school, high school, and college?

The fact of the matter is that as we go further and further into the 21st century, the opportunities for sharing our data (sharing our work) increase exponentially in the form of machine translation engines, MT APIs, TM repositories, online corpora, and online term banks. For certain services, there’s even incentive for sharing your work and you can get MT service for free if you share your final work with the MT developer. The longer I stay in this industry with all its technological innovations, the harder it is for me to adhere to my professor’s advice because in almost every single way that we interact with technology, we are sharing our work, literally giving our translations away for free. Last June, I wrote on “Taking pride in your work even before you translate a single word” securing your résumé; this is the next step: Taking pride in the work you have already done. While I am sure our kindergarten teachers would be proud to see us all sharing and getting along, I am also pretty sure our clients would raze our offices and take us to the cleaners if we ever shared their TMs. And if you doubt anyone would be submitting proprietary, copyrighted, trademarked or registered material in shared databases, go over and visit https://mymemory.translated.net and search for a specific drug or vaccine like Viagra and Enbrel, or visit http://www.linguee.com/ and search for Astellas, AstraZeneca, Abbott Labs, Informed Consent, or Takeda Pharmaceutical.

The overarching theme of most of my posts up to this point has been about data ownership. If there is anything I want anyone reading these posts to take away from them, it is that a lot of us have quickly adopted technology without adapting to it. While it seems that things may be free, often times, we are paying for a service by giving the provider the most important and valuable thing in the 21st Century: information. Please be aware of these issues moving forward and I will be sure to write more about them as circumstances arise and situations change.

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