The Lingua Boutique Blog
The Lingua Boutique Blog
The United Nations' Language Competitive Examination —or UN LCE amongst friends—has undergone a complete makeover, just in time for its 2017 edition. Content-wise it is still the same exam, but the format was re-arranged in an effort to garner higher pass rates for those who make it to the second round.
Previously, the UN LCE for translators and the UN LCE for editors and verbatim reporters were two completely different exams. Monolinguals were allowed to sit the latter, since knowledge of other languages was preferred but not required.
Either exam was conducted in the same manner: first, hopefuls would take a short but timed screening exam online to determine whether they were worthy of sitting the actual proctored exam at UN offices worldwide. Those who passed the first round, were invited to the nearest testing location, on their own dime. There they would get a chance to try their hand at the full version of the exam.
The translators' LCE consisted of two parts: translation of a general text from one of the UN languages into English, and translation of second specialized text into English.
The editors and verbatim reporters' LCE also consisted of two parts and as you might suspect, entailed editing an English text and drafting a verbatim report based the hard-copy of a UN speech.
F0r 2017, they've decided to smash it all together and, if you weren't confused enough already, they also turned it all around.
Now it's the initial, timed online screening test that assesses candidates' translation, editing and verbatim reporting skills. Hopefuls are given an 8-hour window during a weekend in which to complete the approximately 5 hours worth of testing.
The longer, tougher exam has become the screening phase. The lucky (few?) who pass it, are then invited onsite to complete a proctored examination — no word yet on whether this phase is less arduous.
The goal of this new testing regime is likely to increase the pass rates for those who sit the second phase of the exam. It's also convenient for candidates, who no longer have to spend money out of their own pockets to get themselves to UN offices for a second round of examinations that they will likely not pass.
This new system assumes that only the best and the brightest —those who are the most likely to pass the second round— will be summoned to the next phase. Candidates might find it less constricting to self-finance a trip to a UN office when they are confident that they have a good chance at acing the test.
Those who are out of luck, are monolinguals. Before, they had a chance at UN language jobs within the field of editing, précis-writing and verbatim reporting. Grouping all exams together under the framework of the translation LCE, means that only candidates with at least three UN languages (their native language plus two others) have a chance at these posts.
You’ve heard about it. It has been sweeping through social media: Netflix has launched a massive campaign to recruit subtitlers, from English into over 20 different languages.
To do so, they created a one-of-a-kind testing platform, which they claim to be a fail-proof and accurate way to test the skills of applicants. Let's hear it straight from the horse's mouth:
"[...] designed to be highly scalable and consists of thousands of randomized combinations of questions so that no two tests should be the same. The rounds consist of multiple choice questions given at a specifically timed pace, designed to test the candidate’s ability to:
“Bah! Humbug!” you groan, “I don’t do subtitling. Who cares!” you add, finishing it all off with your best angsty teenager eyeroll.
But this is why, my fellow language professional, you should really care about Hermes: the name Netflix gave to its new testing platform for subtitler-wannabes -- not to be confused with the luxury brand, which you’re welcome to care about, also.
Netflix has obviously learned from its mistakes
Hermes is Netflix's most sophisticated Franken-creature to date, following in the footsteps of a previous experiment with crowdsourcing, known as Amara.
It is safe to infer that Hermes' older sister-platform was a failure, although Netflix never publicly admitted it. As any language professional knows well, crowdsourcing translations (or in this case, subtitles) is just another term for having “people who know languages work for free.”
Sadly, crowd-sourced translations, as you might have noticed, are all around us in the digital world. Facebook has used it shamelessly, as has Google (I guess Google Translate wasn’t good enough for them). If you look at apps on iTunes or shop for Google Chrome extensions, most developers openly welcome fan translations — in some instances, they even beg for them.
This, of course, is yet another example of how our profession —and here I include translators, interpreters, transcribers, subtitlers and assorted misfits— continues to be devalued by the public at large. And here, in part, we must admit our fault: it is evident that, thus far, we have failed to educate them.
Nevertheless, there’s still hope. Having worked for apps and startups myself as a temp in-house translator, I can tell you that most tech firms do eventually learn from their initial mistake. A programmer who kindda speaks another language, does not a translator make — imagine that!
Whereas larger companies such as Facebook, Google and Netflix, perhaps do have enough influence to quickly recruit a team of volunteer translators who perform temporary fixes, they have the decency to hire professionals later on in the process to smooth it over, once whatever they’re working on is ready to go public.
And in their dismissal of the crowd-sourced Amara in favor of the talent-seeking Hermes, it means that Netflix has learned that you can’t just have random users or developers doing a professional’s job. And that they’re ready to seek out the best and the brightest subtitlers out there — kind of.
A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing
Still, we can’t overlook what lies beneath: a company has developed its own version of a proficiency test that will assign each subtitler a score and rank them.
Netflix cites issues with maintaining quality standards when working with several subcontractors as the reason behind this move, so they have cut out the middleman (the agencies) and have created their own system to judge our competence as professionals. This is what they say:
"There is no common registration through a professional organization which captures the total number of professional media translators worldwide, no license numbers, accreditations, or databases for qualified professionals. For instance, the number of working, professional Dutch subtitlers is estimated to be about 100 - 150 individuals worldwide. We know this through market research Netflix conducted during our launch in the Netherlands several years ago, but this is a very anecdotal “guesstimate” and the actual number remains unknown to the industry."
I smell a move to save money, hidden behind a facade of caring about quality assurance.
And you know why they can do this? Because we, as language professionals, have failed to formalize our profession. That is why in today’s upside-down world, our clients are increasingly doing it for us. If that’s not a sign to stop with our dilly-dallying and band together, I don’t know what is.
Still, there is a silver lining: this move by Netflix should cause off a commotion among agencies, hopefully getting them to work on those QA deficiencies that had Netflix going off in search of greener pastures.
This agency flaw is already what gives solopreneur linguists an edge over agencies, but if the latter focus more on quality assurance than their bottom lines, the consumer will win in the long run. And this could, in turn, further counteract the devaluing of our profession.
Show Me The Money
Those Netflix users among you, might have noticed how the company sneakily hiked their prices last year. A bold move, but given their continued expansion, a profitable one. Users, on the other hand, have also been able to enjoy high-quality Netflix original series.
With their growing customer base and their higher rates, one could say that company has been making a steady profit. But, will there be money to pay their new subtitler recruits decent wages? Or will they go the way of Amazon, recruiting translators for their item descriptions for quasi slave wages.
Lisa Calabrini an Outsourcing Specialist at Amazon.com, informed me in an email exchange, that their rates were between €0.04-€0.10 per word, depending on a “project-per-project basis”. And of course, we all know what that means. And beware fellow linguist, the e-shopping giant is also sticking its stingy nose into literary translation, courtesy of AmazonCrossing.
If anything, it seems quite suspicious that a company like Netflix will go through the effort of testing, shortlisting and creating a database of contributors, without first discussing rates out in the open. If their intention is to attract talent, this is not the way to do it: a professional subtitler would not perform a test —much less for free— without prior agreement on fair rates.
I have contacted Netflix to inquire about the rates they plan to offer, but I am yet to receive an answer. If I do, I will update this post. Meanwhile, feel free to also ask them yourself.
Hi, I’m Carla McKirdy, the powerhouse linguist behind Lingua Boutique.
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