A Disservice to the Translation/Interpretation Profession on National TV

The TV show Shark Tank is among one of our favorites.  It is a free, weekly education in modern business.

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It is fun to learn from the creativity and entrepreneurship of the contestants and sharks.  It is not often that a familiar business comes into the Shark Tank.

A few months ago, however, one company's presentation and subsequent discussion on the business of translation made us want to turn off the TV in disgust.

The following is a deconstruction of the VerbalizeIt presentation:

To begin, Erica the "translator" stands to the side and after the VerbalizeIt co-founders speak, she begins her "translation" by stating "They are the co-founders..."

Stop it right there.

First of all, since she is speaking (and not writing), what she is actually doing is interpreting, not "translating" as everyone goes on to refer to her role (and the company's business) throughout the presentation.  Secondly, any respectable, professional interpreter recognizes her statement as an amateurish mistake.  Professional interpreters know better than to interpret in the third person.

Ryan Frankel, the CEO of VerbalizeIt states: "In case you haven't figured it out, Erica is a translator".  No, she is not! She was performing the duties of an interpreter.

As an investor, we would be hard-pressed to invest in a company whose founders have a fundamental misunderstanding of the very business they purport to promote and represent.


During the ensuing discussion, both the presenters and the sharks discuss the merits of machine translation (MT). Here is where the industry terms become all the more important.

Frankel states that for the purposes of his business "machine translation does not work".  He is right. MT refers to translation, not live interpretation.


The following text is the explanation of how Google Translate works (emphasis added):

When Google Translate generates a translation, it looks for patterns in hundreds of millions of documents to help decide on the best translation for you. By detecting patterns in documents that have already been translated by human translators, Google Translate can make intelligent guesses as to what an appropriate translation should be. This process of seeking patterns in large amounts of text is called "statistical machine translation". Since the translations are generated by machines, not all translation will be perfect.

Granted, not all translations by humans will be perfect either. Nevertheless, we would also be hard-pressed to accept a translator to provide us with an "intelligent guess" as a product when a better alternative is available.

Mr. Frankel's statement is immediately challenged by one of the sharks, Mark Cuban.  Mr. Cuban defends MT by making a good point regarding interpreters' expertise in a particular field. Nevertheless, an experienced interpreter in a specific field is preferable to an "intelligent guess" on a source text.


Again, we are talking about apples and oranges.  MT addresses the translation of documents, not the interpretation of a live conversation between two or more parties.

At this point, it is our turn to grill Mr. Cuban.  A self-avowed "tech guru", our questions to Mr. Cuban (who is an investor in MT) would be as follows:

  • Are you fluent in another language?
  • If not, how are you able to fully understand the intricacies of MT as it relates to a different language?

As the negotiations continue, another shark, Kevin O'Leary rightly identifies that Mark Cuban investing in the MT business means that he is in another business altogether. This knowledge and offering the most favorable terms eventually land him a deal with the VerbalizeIt founders.


Had we been in that boardroom, we would have extended three chances to the VerbalizeIt founders to rightly identify their business. Undoubtedly, they would have responded "translation" in every instance.  That would have spelled our refusal to do the deal because, again, their business as presented was interpretation, not translation.

Upon securing a deal with Mr. O'Leary, Kunal Sarda, COO and co-founder states "In the end it wasn't about the 5%, but Mr. Wonderful [O'Leary] showed that he really understands what our business is about."  Even to this day, a closer inspection of the VerbalizeIt website spells that the founders still do not understand their business.  They still refer to their interpreters as "translators."


In a business that hinges around the meaning of words and sentences, VerbalizeIt just does not seem to get it.

¿La Bella América? An Experiment in (Reverse) Localization Gone Awry?

Introduction Call us naive, but the immediate, seemingly knee-jerk backlash on the Coca-Cola multilingual Super Bowl ad came as somewhat of a surprise.


To begin, the ad was beautifully done.  The music alone is inspiring and the sense of celebration of the American spirit permeates the entire production.  This is particularly evident after inspecting the rest of the videos that make up the totality of this marketing campaign.  Unless we are missing something, the multitude of people featured are proud to be called Americans.

Judging from the subsequent videos, great care went into the production of the ad from a cultural (localization) and voice-over perspective with perhaps one exception:

"While I'm singing, I'm translating (sic) an English song trying to change it to a Hebrew song and that kinda made it hard" -- Natalie, on singing and interpreting "America The Beautiful" in Hebrew.

We would like to extend the benefit of the doubt to Coca-Cola.  We would like to think that "an American multinational beverage corporation" (per Wikipedia) would have professional translators tackle such an important task as this one.  Surely Coca-Cola would not leave the translation and localization duties to its young, voice-over artists as the Natalie video seems to suggest, right?  On another video, the young voice-over artist explains: "We had to go back to our elders to help translate."  So at least, the task of translation was a communal one.

Anyone who has translated poems or songs understands the intricacies of the task:  While language is always at the forefront, the translation has to take into account the music and the rhythm of the source material.  That is no easy task.

Melting Pot or Salad Bowl

The voices that rose up in opposition of this piece seem to be based on the notion that immigrants to the U.S. must abide to the melting pot theory of immigration and assimilation.  Per Wikipedia:

The melting pot is a metaphor for a heterogeneous society becoming more homogeneous, the different elements "melting together" into a harmonious whole with a common culture.

As Allen West (quoting Teddy Roosevelt) stated in one of the first columns published on this subject:

We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, and American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house; and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.


The melting pot metaphor was in use by the 1780s.  By the 1970s however, the notion of the melting pot theory was challenged by the mosaic, salad bowl and "American kaleidoscope" theories of assimilation.  The salad bowl metaphor "suggests that the integration of the many different cultures of United States residents combine like a salad [maintaining each element's unique attributes], as opposed to the more traditional notion of a cultural melting pot."


While the melting pot metaphor seemed to describe earlier waves of immigrants who refused even to teach their children their native language (Italians, for example), anyone who has visited Chinatown in San Francisco or New York recently, or anyone who takes a closer look at the many ethnic neighborhoods that make up New York City or Brooklyn can attest that reality looks more like a salad bowl: Each ethnic group maintaining its distinct characteristics combining, yet not melting (assimilating) into one whole.  More recent waves of immigrants proudly maintain their native language while they strive for English proficiency.


Denigration or Celebration

Perhaps the detractors of the Coca-Cola ad were equating the translation/interpretation of "America The Beautiful" with the translation/interpretation of "The Star-Spangled Banner" into Spanish a few years ago.

There is a key distinction at play here.  The translation/interpretation of the latter was done in anticipation of pro-immigration reform rallies.  It was a protest song and Americans were rightfully aggrieved.  Singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in Spanish ("Nuestro Himno") was meant to be incendiary and provocative.

While the makers of the Coca-Cola ad more than likely anticipated some negative responses, a closer examination of the remaining videos leaves little doubt that (unlike the translation/interpretation of "The Star-Spangled Banner") the motivation the producers (and its participants) was not denigration, but rather celebration of the American spirit.  It is interesting to see the wide-eyed enthusiasm of the largely young, female voices.

Reverse Localization?

Before delving into this concept, let us define the term.  Per The Globalization and Localization Association (GALA), "localization":

Describes the process of adapting a product to a specific international language or culture so that it seems natural to that particular region, which includes translation, but goes much farther. True localization considers language, culture, customs, technical and other characteristics of the target locale. While it frequently involves changes to the software writing system, it may also change the keyboard usage, fonts, date, time and monetary formats. Graphics, colors and sound effects also need to be culturally appropriate.

As stated above, there are many elements at play when localizing material, let alone a song that strikes at the heart of a nation.  Whether the Coca-Cola producers realized it in advance or not, the controversy has apparently added another element into the discussion.  That element is hereby described, perhaps for the first time, as "reverse localization."

While localization takes into account the target audience (the audience for whom the material is translated/localized for), the Coca-Cola controversy raises a new challenge:  that of considering the source audience (the original audience for the material).

For purposes of this post and given the novelty of the term, we hope that reverse localization will be the subject of study in the future.  We do not assume to finalize, but to start the discussion on this subject.  Therefore, we will leave the reader with a few questions:

  • Should national songs/anthems be translated/interpreted into other languages?  Why or why not?
  • Does it matter that "America The Beautiful" belongs to the public domain?
  • What are your thoughts on this controversy?
  • What are your thoughts on "reverse localization"?


Write your comments below.

Alternate Ending

We are not however, too naive to surmise that Coca-Cola conducted considerable market research weighing the pros and cons of this campaign before giving the green light.  Our suspicion is that Coca-Cola knew in advance that this campaign would exacerbate the very divisions its videos were designed to ignore.


Thoughts on Next Generation iPhones...Good Try, But Not a Way to Innovate.

In our first installment, we will cover the battle between Android and Apple phones. Per TechCrunch (per WSJ), Apple to Market Larger-Screen Phones.

Our thoughts:

It is no secret that we are fans of Android phones, particularly those made by Samsung.  Whether it is the Galaxy S4 or the "phablets", our reaction to iPhones is, well, to laugh.

In its quest to monopolize the mobile phone business, Apple has rightly identified one of the areas in which Android phones have claimed a stake of superiority over the iPhone: the screen's surface area.

Once you have used any of the Samsung phones/phablets, using an iPhone is obviously a downgrade in terms of the viewing area. So we do not blame Apple for going after the Android market in this way.

Battery Life

One of the only weaknesses of the Samsung phones with larger screens is related to its battery life.  The same is inversely correlated to the size of the phone.  Herein lies one of the few weaknesses of the Samsung phones when compared with the iPhone.

First a personal note:

In addition to a Samsung phablet, we also have an iPad Mini (9.7-inch screen size).  It is obvious that the battery on the iPad Mini is better than the one on the Samsung phablet.  Why? Because it does not lose charge as quickly despite the fact that the screen on the iPad Mini is larger than that of the phablet. Perhaps it is also related to the difference in processors. Nevertheless, Apple should continue to use or improve upon its current battery offerings.


Another area where the Galaxy phones are better in our estimation, has to do with text-input.

Along with a larger screen, the input area for text on the Galaxy S4, for example (5-inch HD screen) is greater than that of the iPhone 5s (4-inch, diagonal Retina display, 1135x640 resolution, 326 ppi).  However, this section is related with the actual input of text.

Whereas typing text on the iPhone has to be done on a character-by-character basis, the Android provides a much more elegant solution.  Whether it is the Samsung keyboard or other applications such as Swype, text entry is faster and easier on an Android.


These are but two areas in which the iPhone should improve to truly rival the latest generation of Samsung phones/phablets until, that is, the next wave of Samsung innovation. While offering larger screens is Apple's way of attempting to delve into and shrink the Android market, its iPhone innovations should go beyond the ones described here to truly count as such.

[As we wrote and conducted research for this post, we became aware of applications available at the App Store which replicate Samsung's keyboard and Swype.  Considering both phones out of the box, however, our conclusion remains].

This Just In We came across this picture on the WSJ Facebook page to drive our point home:





A New Beginning

It's a new year.  2014. Following the advice of two people we respect, we are starting this blog which will cover musings on the latest trends in translation, IT, technology, medical interpretation and other related subjects.

We are excited about what the future holds.

Microsoft, IBM, Dell all started in garages.  Our dream started in 2002, in a living room and thus far, has taken us to Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and the Middle East.  It has also resulted in one published translation that has reached unto all corners of the Spanish-speaking world.

Let's see where this journey leads us shall we?