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The unconscious business


Did you know that most companies (and translation agencies are no exception) are not actually run by anyone? Like airliners, they cruise on autopilot, and all their employees, the managers included, are their idle passengers. Don’t you believe that?

A bit of neurobiology

In 1979, the American psychologist Benjamin Libet conducted an experiment: while their brains were scanned, volunteers had to press a button after a particular event — to make a decision and then perform an action.

The results of the experiment were shocking: it was shown that the brain sent out a signal about pressing the button a split-second BEFORE the person made the decision to press it.

This discovery transformed our understanding of consciousness. If the decision a person makes comes after a nerve impulse, as opposed to preempting it, can it really be said that the decision was made by that person consciously? In that case, no person has ever made a conscious decision in their life.

That said, most of our actions don’t even reach the level of consciousness. And we’re not talking about functions like breathing and heartbeats. Even our higher neural activity (driving a car, for example) and social functions are “automatic”: we know in advance how to avoid the sales clerk in a shop, we reflexively greet our office colleagues in the morning, respond to our clients’ latest queries with pre-prepared answers. We resurface from this unconscious state only when our “autopilot” finds itself in a non-standard situation — for example if the clerk suddenly starts yelling: “Get out of here! I’m not selling you anything!” or when a client asks in all seriousness for you to translate something into Elvish.

A typical working day

Think of your own translation agency. It’s morning, the working day is starting. All the employees — project managers, translators, editors and senior management — are sitting at their work stations, switching on computers, opening inboxes, loading translation management systems (if you have them) and starting to perform their familiar, routine activities.

The corporate machine starts up, everyone in it performing their own function. The project manager knows what to do with the file they have received from the client, where to upload it and how to assign the job to a translator. The translator understands what program to translate it on, what checks to perform before starting the task etc. And the company manager makes sure that the whole mechanism runs smoothly.

But is he conscious of how the whole system works, or is he cog within it, like a nerve center in the brain? What percentage of his decisions and actions are carried out reflexively, and what percentage consciously?

The tail wags the dog

Why is it so difficult to quit smoking, to start doing sports or optimize your business processes? It is obvious, after all, that all this is necessary and useful, and there are hundreds of books on how to do it.

But your inner autopilot persists and tries to take control of you, throwing up excuses at your conscious mind. Today was a stressful day, how could you not smoke? I don’t have the money for gym membership just yet, I’ll buy one next month. There is no time to install a project management system now, this deadline’s getting closer, we’ve lost a file somewhere, the project manager is sick and I have to figure out all his notes...

People don’t get around to taking control of their own lives, and companies don’t get around to improving their business processes. And events get out of control.

The working processes at a translation agency are set by rules drawn up a long time ago by the founder, or simply by current circumstances. The life of the company itself begins to determine the decisions of its managers. Every action is honed to the point of automation and there is no need to change anything.


There are two ways to get out of this quagmire: forcefully or willingly.

Forceful scenario — usually after some kind of force majeure: a sharp fall in the volume of orders, several crucial managers or translators leaving at the same time, the company’s commercial niche being wiped out by new technologies or political events. This kind of upheaval can threaten the very existence of the company, and if it does not kill it, forces it to change its working methods.

Willing scenario — this is an intentional effort by the management, aware of the need for cardinal changes, to lead the company out of a state of stagnation, or at least to prepare it for potential risky situations.

The willing scenario rarely materializes and normally encounters active opposition from workers. Their logic is simple: if everything is going okay, there is a stable flow of orders, deadlines are being met, money paid out, they figured out an algorithm a long time ago that still solves most problems — why change anything?

Perhaps there is no reason to. But only the manager or owner of the translation agency can say, if they are completely satisfied with the volume of orders and profits, and also if they are prepared to calmly accept the company’s potential ruin. But in the real world such people are extremely rare. They are almost all looking to earn more and frightened they might go out of business tomorrow — and yet they cannot find the strength in themselves to change a thing, even if the world is falling apart around them.

Coachmakers knew automobiles would soon consign them to the garbage can of history, but they went on making coaches. At Kodak, they knew the days of analogue photography were numbered, but they didn’t adapt to the digital market. And in the field of translation and localization, there are companies to this day that don’t even use CAT tools, never mind translation management systems, translation quality assessment systems or neural machine translation systems.

A flourishing company, but one that refuses to change, will flourish only in specific conditions — i.e. only until the point when those conditions change. And if you care about the fate of your company, every day you have to find a way out of that vicious circle, however difficult it may be.

Imagine you are a passive onlooker or a consultant. There are a number of questions you can ask yourself:

  • Am I digging with a shovel in an age of excavators?
  • How has that young company managed to outstrip us veterans?
  • How are our competitors managing to sell the same product at a higher price?
  • Why is that company making 10 times as much profit as we are? What do they know that we don’t?

Some questions require serious analysis. But you’ll get the answer to most of them from good old Captain Obvious:

  • Because we are still doing things manually that can be done by computers.
  • The others have better working sales and marketing departments.
  • They are better known in that field.
  • They train their translators and managers themselves and don’t hire people externally.

And at this point your conclusions should follow immediately:

  • We need to work on sales and marketing.
  • We need to install a state-of-the-art translation management system.
  • We need to train our translators and project managers ourselves.

And so on. So you should know what to do. Then there’s just the small matter of getting on with it...

System inertia

After overcoming internal opposition, a person or organization may have barely started making changes when they are immediately confronted with external opposition. A person is brought back in line both by people around him who aren’t ready to accept the new him, and also by his own habits. An organization is tethered to its own established processes and long-standing corporate culture.

When new working methods are implemented in a company, there is always someone that will not like them. Someone who doesn’t fit in with the new structure. But even those who are conscious of the need for change and accept it unreservedly will have to overcome themselves. They will have to learn new programs, run their projects differently, follow new procedures in translation quality assessment, etc.

There is always the temptation to work in the old way, especially if the reason for bringing in the new methods isn’t clear to everyone. The manager will have to be constantly stopping people trying to go back to the old, inefficient methods that were preventing the translation agency from competing at a serious level.

Back to the matrix

Everyone eventually adopts the new working methods. But all that means is that you and the whole company will simply “stabilize” at a new level of unconsciousness. Yourself and the office go back to a “regular”, settled life once more.

A person cannot exist in a constant state of concentration and emotional stress, and nor can an organization live in a state of never-ending changes. You get used to everything. Then the time comes when once again that question arises: can you reprogram your inner autopilot so that it surrenders full control to you again?

And history repeats itself once more...

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