French retirement reform: why France is on strike

France is on strike. Continents of trash have proliferated, enticing rats into elaborate empire building schemes. The gas stations alternate between deserted wasteland infrastructure and magnetic hubs for hordes of drivers desperate to fill empty tanks. Air and rail travel are intermittent at best. My son’s daycare closed again this week, a decision made at the last minute by the city, due to a shortage of available workers. As I, like most French workers, try to navigate this landscape and ensure a certain level of service and productivity, it occurs to me that my notions of what’s behind the protests are vague at best. Retirement reform, sure. But, at least from an American perspective, it’s a bit hard to grasp why there’s so much hullabaloo over pushing back the retirement age to 64 (from 62). We’re currently at 66 in the United States–67 for those born between 1955 and 1960.

Indeed, much of the American coverage of the movement in France expresses a certain degree of bewilderment and cultural bias confirmation: the French do not value work in the same way as Americans do, and retirement is seen as a “Nirvana of a time when you no longer have to work“; the French are lazy and “the word ‘work’ has a negative connotation” for them; the French are argumentative by nature and prone to striking, so even though “most people voted for Macron, who said he wanted to reform the system […], most people oppose the reforms“. To be sure, there are significant cultural differences between France and the United States when it comes to conceptions of work and the good life. And those differences are, to an extent, relevant to understanding what is going on with the current reform. However, they also obscure more nuanced and salient analyses.

While trying to gain a better understanding of what’s behind the massive contestation in France, I stumbled across a new-to-me podcast by French comedian Marine Baousson called Vulgaire. On a recent episode she does an excellent–and fun–job breaking down what’s at stake in this reform, starting with the change in the retirement age, but highlighting other points that I think reflect a general sense of malaise in France with respect to the economy, fear about a dismantling of the social system, and anger over deceptive, bad-faith communication tactics from the current administration.

Here are some of her main take homes:

  1. The government has posited the idea that, given people’s longer lifespans, the current economics of the retirement system are not sustainable. However, many economists dispute that.
  2. A pension reform was already enacted in 2014 (under Francois Hollande) in response to the issue of longer lifespans. It only recently started coming into force in 2020.
  3. A major incentive for the 2023 reform was actually to balance the books after generous corporate tax breaks. This sounds like a generic conspiracy critique, but it actually appears in “black and white” (to cite Baousson) in the 2023 Budget and the 2022-2027 Stability Program submitted to the European Commission.
  4. The reform disproportionately affects lower income workers whose life expectancies are significantly shorter than higher wage earners. On this point, a beautifully-written opinion piece by French journalist Rokhaya Diallo in the Washington Post puts it well: “mortality numbers vary among social classes. […] Blue-collar workers live six years less than executives, so that one-quarter of the poorest men die by age 62, while 94 percent of the rich are still alive at 64. Only 40 percent of the poorest survive to 80, whereas 75 percent of the wealthiest do. So it’s easy to see who needs retirement income the most.”
  5. The administration plans to eliminate special regimes for some sectors (rail, energy, etc.), with the stated aim of streamlining the system and making it fairer. This has inflamed many unions.
  6. The government claims this reform will better account for professions that are particularly physically taxing. This is simply double speak for an about-face from an administration that is merely reinstating some of the categories it had previously removed from a list of physically taxing professions in 2017.
  7. The government promised the reform would translate to a minimum pension of EUR 1,200/month. It has since walked back this commitment, to much criticism.

In France, the concern over the retirement age is not so much about the usurpation of one’s halcyon years, but about the assault on a social system that strives to protect the vulnerable and ensure a certain level of economic equality. This is perhaps an oversimplification, but here goes: the fear is that Macron’s administration, in its mission to “modernize” France’s economy, is leading the country toward a bleaker, more inegalitarian future, all in the service of capitalism. And, to make matters worse, for many, this shift is being undertaken on false and intentionally misleading pretenses.

To cite Diallo, “Such a mass of people taking days off to defend our social model, which once was praised throughout the world, shows we are ready to stand up for French values.” So, next time the daycare shuts down for strikes and protests, perhaps I’ll take the little one out into the streets. He is half French, after all.

quick thoughts on ai & translation

AI, Chat GPT: these are the buzzwords of the year. The machine mind has gotten smart enough to score in the 90th percentile on the Bar Exam and capable enough of human mimicry to offer plausible self-help advice. There is of course considerable debate as to what its real impact will be: a complete societal revolution followed by the machines taking over the planet and relegating humans to a subaltern role? Or another over-hyped technology, akin to the self-driving cars that were supposed to have put us all in the passenger seat by now?

But there is at least one arena that seems to keep coming up as an accepted point of agreement: translation. Open AI CEO Sam Altman recently mentioned in an interview that he enjoys being able to travel the word and communicate, thanks to technology, with people anywhere. On my favorite podcast, Vox writer Kelsey Piper said yesterday how excited she is for AI in the field of translation, comparing the transition to the shift in the nineteenth century toward machine-made rugs. Putting aside considerations on the quality of communication when traveling with Google or my thoughts on comparing rugs with language and human interaction (perhaps for another blog post), and acknowledging that despite some of my luddite tendencies I am not actually against the idea of technology used in the service of translation (we will all be cyborgs by the decade’s close), I want to take a moment to express my current reservations about these tools.

Out of curiosity, I’ve tried Chat GPT for translation. And in my professional life, agencies and direct clients often ask me to work with specialized translation tools that use both AI and more traditional machine translation methods. I would say that compared to similar systems even a few years ago, the improvements have been massive. Still, given all the hype around these technologies, I am continually surprised at how extensively I have to intervene, often to the point of completely retranslating giant chunks of text. Just this morning, I was working with one such tool that has been trained in industry-specific French to English translation, and to give you a short example of what we translators are dealing with, here are a few of the suggested translations compared to the end translations:

  • “These two models, fitting at the waist” became “These two shoes run small”
  • “Think about changing the price tags” became “Be sure to change the price tags”
  • “Put the product on the reverse side” became “Turn the garment inside out”

I’ve chosen these three examples nearly at random from a list that would be too long to reproduce here. The main criterion for selection was length: I didn’t want to do an in-depth autopsy of a long passage (again, perhaps for another day), preferring to give you a sample that could be grasped quickly and easily. As you can see, the first translation is simply nonsense. The second makes sense but does not convey the proper thrust of the imperative: this is not a suggestion but a command! Finally, while the third translation almost passes in terms of meaning, it lacks flow and naturalness; it sounds like a machine translation.

Ultimately, my point here is this: not so fast! I think there’s a lot to be considered in terms of what will be lost when we start replacing humans with machines for language jobs, from what it will do to the economy to notions about how we communicate with each other and create shared meaning. But for now, my thoughts are very much in the day-to-day work of translating and editing, and I would say that the task of the translator is still very much translation; that is, analyzing and understanding a text in its source (original) language and then, with considerable care and reflection, carrying that message over to the target language so it can be understood by a “foreign” reader.

This is why I am careful about the kinds of ‘post-editing’ (machine translation followed by human proofreading) jobs I take on. Because the language produced by artificial intelligence and machine translation still requires a lot of work. At times, I even ask myself if it takes me longer than a traditional translation, since I have to consider not only the source text but also the suggested translation–twice the reading! Moreover, the power of suggestion is difficult to counter. If the translation provided by the machine is not good–or simply if it could be better–it takes a certain amount of almost willpower to forget it and come up with something else.

My fear is that the promises of AI in this field will serve to drive down prices, even if the “assistance” provided does not save time in a proportionate way.

organizational tools and the laundry break

I recently attended a Zoom networking event between other language professionals. The gist of the session was tips, tricks, and tools for getting organized and staying focused. As the conversation unfolded, it dawned on me that my tips and tricks are fairly rudimentary and old-fashioned. I don’t use Pomodoro or special apps. I don’t turn off access to social media. I don’t really have any hacks to share. And while I was really interested to learn about all the gizmos and gadgets people are using these days to boost productivity, I felt a bit sheepish when the moderator called on me to share from my own experiences.

Mostly, I use a notepad and a day planner to jot down my to-do lists, which I organize into levels of urgency over time. When I finish my goals for the day, I cross them off. If anything is remaining at the end of a day, it gets rolled over to the next day’s list.

In terms of productivity, I would say that having a toddler has made me fairly immune to distractions–at least compared to the pre-parent version of myself. I simply don’t have minutes to spare, and that knowledge has drastically reduced the allure of social media and online shopping. I’ll admit, however, that I can fall into mean research rabbit holes, but even those seem much shallower than before.

Of course, there’s the question of how to manage wildly different projects at the same time. Within the space of a workday, the translator’s mind can be taken on divergent journeys: romance fiction, tourist hotspots, marketing for children’s clothing, EU documentation, and more. Here, I found a good deal of convergence with the other Zoomers: to prevent whiplash, best to segment the day, with bouts of fresh air or household chores between each project. One woman spoke of doing the laundry as a well-deserved break from a tedious proofreading project. I could relate!

translation and research

A conversation with a potential client last week has had me thinking about the disjunct between what people think goes into translation and what actually does. Of course, it’s natural that we don’t understand all the nitty-gritty of other professions. I only have a vague idea of what goes on inside a cockpit or how lawyers spend their days, notions gleaned mainly from Studs Terkel’s 1974 book Working (I jest–kind of) and media portrayals. But, in light of AI’s storm on my livelihood (subject for another blog post) and just for general insight into what happens after you, the client, confirm a project, I would like to clarify an overlooked but vital part of the work of a translator: research.

So the client in question, whose target readers are funeral homes and the bereaved, was very rightly concerned about getting the language just right in English. A translation gaffe here could be less on the order of accuracy and more related to conveying the message in a sensitive and culturally appropriate way. The concern here is two-fold: the translator must both find the habits of language used in the rites and rituals of funeral ceremonies and strike the right note of caring and sensitivity appropriate to grief.

The client, who is interested in both translation and post-editing (AI/machine translation followed by intensive proofreading and editing) services, wanted to know my rate for research. This is a wonderful inquiry from a client. On the one hand, it shows a real attentiveness to the message they wish to put forward, and on the other, it demonstrates a true understanding that research takes time–and time is money.

Yet I do not have an additional rate for research, and that is because research is nearly always inherent to what I do as a translator. Research can be as straightforward as hunting down terms in various language resources–general and specialized dictionaries in French and English, linguist forums, Google searches, and so on. It can go more in depth, pushing me down field-specific rabbit holes. And it can be very academic, as I read and scan through journals, books, and periodicals (my early training in academia is a big help here). I may watch YouTube videos or search through images; I may take time to watch a documentary or immerse myself in relevant literature. The strategies and tactics change depending on the project at hand and, to a certain degree, on my previous experiences.

My educational background in literature, culture, and theory makes me particularly well-suited to translating for cultural fields. However, all kinds of life experiences can be brought to bear in this profession. I am surprised by how often I rely on recollections of my first job as a sales associate at Banana Republic or memories of my environmentalist grandparents. Past translation work has also left a strong mark on my practice, including numerous scholarly publications in postcolonial studies and even romance and detective fiction.

Whatever the project, there will inevitably be some degree of research. This, among other things, is what I am evaluating when I ask to see the original text–or at least an excerpt–before generating a quote. Like many translators, I have a sliding rate scale to reflect the time and skills a translation will require. Many criteria go into this evaluation and of course one of the main ones is research. So, rest assured, dear client, when I send you a quote, the research fee is already rolled in!

2028 ECOC

Disappointed to see that Reims is out of the running for the title of European Capital of Culture in 2028! I had the wonderful opportunity this past fall to work with a small team of linguists on translating the bid documents for the Reims application. This vibrant city, with its history of coronations and culture of champagne, its multi-cultural makeup and ecologically tuned-in population, put forward an ambitious project that brought together myriad groups and actors from all walks of Reims’ diverse landscape. I’m certainly excited to see which city the European Commission ends up crowning for 2028. Here’s the current shortlist: Czech Republic–Broumov and Budejovice. France–Rouen, Bourges, Clermont-Ferrand, Montpellier.

Why Machine Translation is Not My Bogeyman

File:Gustave Doré - Dante Alighieri - Inferno - Plate 13 (Canto V - Minos).jpg
Gustave Doré – Dante Alighieri – Inferno – Plate 13 (Canto V – Minos)

There are many misconceptions about the job of translators. When I get out from behind my computer and into the world, the people I interact with, from family members to other professionals to parents in my son’s 0-3 play group, inevitably do one of the following: treat me as a human dictionary, express skepticism about my stance on not translating out of my mother tongue, act surprised I don’t speak a gazillion languages, give me a sly look as they ask about machine translation and what they assume is my impending obsolescence. An author once jokingly admitted his astonishment at meeting a real live translator, as if I were a rare specimen, one bound for extinction. (I went on to translate several of his books.) Even though much of what we do as translators happens remotely, and so necessarily through the mediation of machines, our task remains inherently human. I have no interest in reading a novel or poem written by a robot, since how can a machine give me insight into the human soul? Likewise for a translation made entirely through machine translation: how can technology understand and render all the nuance, tone, cultural innuendo, and je ne sais quoi of great literature? Indeed, the fact that some books get retranslated again and again, to better speak to different generations of readers, is telling.

Yet machine translation, particularly together with other features of Computer Assisted Translation tools, is becoming more and more vital to our work, making us more efficient, less prone to error, and better able to collaborate—provided, that is, we know when and how to make use of these tools. For some texts, they can be an asset. Translation software is often a good solution for documents featuring a lot of repetition, since it helps translators be consistent in their vocabulary choices and can free up mental space for more challenging areas of the text. It can also ensure that numbers and dates don’t get distorted through typing errors. Moreover, in my work as a translation proofreader, I have come across many translations with missing sections of the original text. This can happen when translations are made under tight deadlines that don’t give translators the time to review their own work against the source text. But, even under time constraints, it can be avoided with the help of translation software. Finally, for large, on-going projects (as in some legal cases, long-term marketing campaigns, etc.) software can help translators work together and provide consistent language choices, even over periods of many years.

In my experience, machine translation tools are not well suited to literary or even academic translation. In addition to the loftier ideals mentioned above, I attribute this in large part to parsing. Most translation software parses texts into sentence-by-sentence segments and will then provide translation suggestions, recommended vocabulary, and so forth. But a literary translator needs to work not only at the minute level of the sentence or the individual word, they also have to grasp the larger whole, which can sometimes call for work on a more architectural scale as the translator rebuilds a section to better reflect what the source text is up to. Even the suggestions given by machine translation can be a nuisance, cluttering the translator’s mind and preventing them from straying away from the source text’s syntax, for example, to find other, less obvious solutions.

Similar reservations can be expressed for academic translation, though there is one thing I would like to add: academic style. Cultural differences apply not only to the content of what is being expressed but to the form. The ways in which we express ideas, including sentence length, the amount and type of jargon used, what we consider “smart” language, the acceptable use of repetition or passive voice, and so many other factors, can vary dramatically from one academic culture to the next. And this cultural straddling, this refashioning of a text to make it cohere with the target culture’s expectations and norms: this requires human judgment.

I am a translator, and I am not afraid machine translation will put me out of a job. Machine translation is one of many tools at my disposal to provide the best possible translations for my clients. Now, what is my bogeyman? A last-minute babysitter cancellation when I’ve got a deadline coming up. Or the Internet going down …

The American Translators Association has a useful position paper on machine translation: ATA Position Paper on Machine Translation: A Clear Approach to a Complex Topic. Their takeaway: “Professional translators and machine translation engines work together very well. […] If reliable and secure translation is desired, machine translation should not be used without the ongoing involvement of professional translators.”