eDiscovery Leaders Live: Brandon Carney of Divergent Language Solutions
Each week on eDiscovery Leaders Live, I chat with a leader in eDiscovery or related areas. Our guest on May 7 was Brandon Carney, Co-founding Partner and Chief Executive Officer of Divergent Language Solutions.
Brandon started the discussion by sharing a bit of what Divergent Language Solutions is and what they do. Brandon talked about the challenges associated with handling content in many languages and the need to remain flexible, as well as the ever-varying reasons why organizations need translation work performed for them. We talked about the inevitable “human versus machine” debate. Brandon described workflows for documents containing content in multiple languages and effectives uses for machine translation. We discussed the need to be an excellent consultant upfront and then deliver strong execution. I asked Brandon to give examples of some of the hot-button issues they have to deal with, with law firms large and small. I asked Brandon to tell me some of the myths he encounters and how they debunk them. Finally, I asked Brandon to gaze into his crystal ball and give us his thoughts on what the translation business will look like in the future.
Recorded live on May 7, 2021 | Transcription below
Note: This content has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Welcome to eDiscovery Leaders Live, hosted by ACEDS and sponsored by Reveal. I am George Socha, Senior Vice President of Brand Awareness at Reveal. Each Friday morning at 11 am Eastern, I host an episode of eDiscovery Leaders Live, where I get the chance to chat with luminaries in eDiscovery and related areas. Past episodes are available on the Reveal website; go to “revealdata.com”, select “Resources”, then select “eDiscovery Leaders Live”.
My guest this week is Brandon Carney. Brandon is the Co-founding Partner and Chief Executive Officer of Divergent Language Solutions, an international language service provider. He brings almost 20 years of executive experience, having worked with global translation and interpreting companies. Brandon currently focuses on the strategic growth of the company, key partner relations, and the day to day operations of Divergent. Prior to founding Divergent, Brandon established and oversaw the San Francisco office of Geotext Translations, a then industry leader in foreign language services for the legal community. Brandon holds a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish with a minor in Philosophy from Gettysburg College.
Brandon, thank you for joining us today.
Good morning. Thank you very much for having me, it's great to be here.
Divergent Language Solutions
It's great to have you. I’d like to start first with having you tell us a little more about Divergent. What it is, what you all do?
As you mentioned, Divergent is generically what is known as a full service language service provider. What that means is that we handle all languages and our main business is translation and interpreting for the legal community and the business community. But really, it's wherever foreign language comes into the legal space, there's something we can do, whether that's on site doc review. Nothing in our world is standard and so it's about being an excellent consultant, understanding what the pain points of our clients are and how we can bring our resources to bear with foreign language in their workflow.
We have offices here in San Francisco, New York, most recently expanded into Europe. We brought in a new partner this year, which is quite exciting. He's a longtime friend and colleague of mine. We actually started at Geotext together and then he established the London office, I established the San Francisco office. It's a bit of getting the band back together with our expansion into Europe. so that's exciting.
We focus on being a provider to the largest law firms in the world and high-touch white-glove service for all foreign language needs of those firms and corporate legal departments.
All languages…. is a lot of languages.
How do you deal with that?
Being Flexible in a Multilingual World
We see more Spanish translations than we do Amharic, for instance. But, just last week someone needed a contract translated into Mongolian. We don't do that every day but we can do it, there are resources out there. Our work flow tends to ebb and flow with the global economy. If you tend to think of what's up at the moment in the global economy, then chances are good that we're probably seeing an uptick in whether that be German, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, whatever the case may be. While we certainly service all languages, some of those rare ones we don't do all the time.
We do a lot of pro bono work as well and a lot of asylum work. In that asylum work, you will see a lot of those rare languages - some native languages from South America, Mayan languages, that type of stuff. So, it's certainly out there.
Then you get Samsung sues Panasonic, and then it's all Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. So it really runs the gamut, but we’re designed to be flexible that way so that we can service the needs of those clients.
The Ever-Varying Reasons Why Folks Need Translation
Translation is performed, of course, for many different purposes, not always with the same end in mind. What are some of the different reasons why you are translating content for people?
As the world gets smaller and borders are kind of dropping… You think of Europe. Europe is effectively kind of the United States but each one of them speaks their own language and if they're doing business together, then there's going to be translation needs. In litigation, marketing materials, and everybody needs to sell their services. If you're going into a new market, and interpreting for depositions, for trials, for meetings. Especially with COVID, when everybody’s at home, remote interpreting, as with a lot of technological things these days, got kicked forward maybe a couple years out of necessity. So, it really runs the gamut. There's a large bank out here that’s centered in China that we provide interpreting services for their CEO meetings every month. As I mentioned earlier, it's not as though we make pens and we're just trying to make as many pens, sell as many pens, as we can. Each pen, so to speak, that we make is completely different. It's one of the challenges of our business, but also it's something that I've always enjoyed because it's constantly new.
I've been doing this for almost 20 years and I can certainly bring my experience to bear, but very rarely do I get or do I see the same thing over and over and over again. So, it's nice that way in that it kind of keeps things shaken up a little bit.
Man vs. Machine: Reconciling with Machine Translation
Just as we do for things like artificial intelligence and the use of that in eDiscovery, we hear when it comes to translation debates about man versus machine, human versus technology.
That is the big one. So, Google Translate, right? That's the elephant in the room. And the one that probably most people are most familiar with if you are outside of the industry. And the technology is here to stay. However I will say, a lot of what we do is education and let me explain to you why what you just asked for is maybe not the best way to go and let’s give you some other options.
In our world it’s referred to as MT or NMT, which is Neural Machine Translation. It has its use case, absolutely. But the more regulated industries and very specific… Think of a 200-page patent for a cancer drug to be translated from English into Japanese. If you don't have the knowledge in English, you won’t even be able to read that in English, so take that one step further. And it's really just the technology is not yet there. or us, it's more about the combination of technology and humans in the workflow to get those efficiencies and cost savings and things like that.
There’s an industry newsletter that goes out every day from a very well respected organization. Their newsletter this morning, the headline says “It's a craft, not math”. And I saw this, I thought it was timely so I printed it out for our chat here. This is based on a recent study by Google. They were having translators, among others, review MT output and blinded and choosing preference and it was overwhelmingly, it says, “There's a clear preference for human over machine output. It's been fascinating to watch the ongoing complex efforts to mathematically evaluate language for decades. Researchers have pursued the seemingly ever distant goal of scoring translation quality with scientific precision. However, translation is a craft, maybe even an art, not math. So, the perfect quality score may continue to remain elusive, and yes, yes, yes, the neural networks powering MT are just math”.
I thought that was very interesting. And in today’s world where we're used to getting everything delivered, hitting a button or two on our phone and it shows up at our front door, and someone’s like, “Wait, you can't just put this through Google Translate?” You could, but I wouldn’t recommend it. And that's where specialists like ourselves would come into play, where quality is important and there's accountability as well. And there's a whole process that we have, a quality control process, that all drive towards that end.
But it's also, as you mentioned earlier, a big part of what we do is consulting with our clients, what is your end use? What are you using this for? Does this have to be certified and submitted to a court or a tribunal somewhere? Or, do you just need a quick and dirty version to understand what it's saying around a conference room so that you can then further what you're doing?
End use is everything for us because that drives the solution that we will offer. There's cost and timing and all of those good things and we can bring a different level of service to bear, depending on what you need.
MT for Multi-Language Documents
It is not unusual to have a project start with millions of pages of documents, or the equivalent of millions of pages of documents and it's not unusual these days to have content in multiple languages in a significant percentage of those documents. It's not, I don't think it is at least, cost-effective to try to do manual or human translation on all of those from the get go.
I wish it were.
What workflows make sense in those types of situations?
That's a great point and a great use case within the legal space. Some of our close partnerships are with eDiscovery companies for this very reason. You know, we have 10 million documents that are in four different languages, what do we do with that? Where do you even start with that, right? But a good use case for MT is, you zap it all with MT, maybe use some keyword searches, and as you do each one of those things, the universe gets a little bit smaller.
If you're doing a keyword search or once you take that 10 million down to a hundred thousand, you have a translator just review them to say, “Okay, they're talking about this so we're going to call this one hot doc and put it over here.” And then a thousand, ten-thousand documents shake out and we say we need these. These we need full human translation, certifiable or whatever the case may be. But you just took your costs significantly down, significantly. I giggle to say I wish that it would because that would be astronomical in dollars to translate that many documents, but you know it's normally…. When someone comes to us with that after we give them the range of pricing and after they pick themselves up off the floor from sticker shock, they're like “Okay, talk to me about what else you can do”.
Managing Expectations & Execution
So they've started out with those millions of documents, they’ve got four different languages, they feel under pressure to get stuff done quickly, they come to you probably naively thinking that you can give them a price and you can give them a throughput that allows that all to be manually translated and you come back and say, “No, sorry, ain’t going to happen”. Where does the discussion go from there?
Well, where that discussion goes is what I would normally say is, well, let me explain why. The average professional translator translates between two and three thousand words per day. If you call the average page 250 words, the average document two pages, then we have 10 million documents. You can start to do some math and see how absolutely Herculean of a task that would be and what kind of resources you need to bring to bear.
The largest project that I've ever worked on, which I can now say I got when I had precisely zero employees: 30 million words. It was about two and a half million words into 15 languages. So, we had 15 different teams of folks and it was highly medical and so you have to handle all of those. But it can get real large there real fast. Where we excel is high quality, very fast in the legal space. But there is a limit to reality, there is an absolute limit to reality. I think we've translated five to six hundred thousand words in 48 hours, but we have to say “Look, if this is what you need, this is how we can get you to that goal line.”
We always want to say, “How can we get you to your goal line as efficiently and cost effectively as possible?” And again, it varies just based on whatever the circumstances are of a given project.
It's like a classic example of effective scoping and good project management.
100 percent. It's really about, like you said, being an excellent consultant upfront to sniff out what do you need and why do you need it? Well, you think you need this, let's talk about that and then really come up with the game plan. And then the second part is the execution thereof. It is really saying, “Okay, this is our game plan, client signed off on it, we're signed off on it, let's go hit the pavement and make it happen.” It's very demanding. We work with the largest law firms on the planet and as I'm sure you know they are very demanding. But it's an opportunity. We're a 24/7 shop and if we can service them and provide product and quality service then they'll be our best friend for years. We play for the long term relationship to be a part of these case teams, we don't want to be just the vendor that comes in. We really get down in the trenches with the case teams in some of these big matters and that allows us to do our job even better for them.
Getting Down in the Trenches with Vendors
On the big matters with the major law firms, what are some of the hot button issues you have to deal with?
Well, you know it's always going to be speed and timing and price. Those are the obvious ones. But then, there's confidentiality obviously, I mean that's the cornerstone of our business, we're working on these huge global matters, confidentiality is everything.
And some attorneys if they never had the opportunity to work on a case that requires foreign language assistance, we have to help shepherd them through. Going back to, we don't want to be just the guy that comes in and drops off the copier paper once a month, we really need to get down in the trenches.
But confidentiality, conflicts, we have to ensure that we're not conflicted. Which can be challenging because we don't always know because we're a vendor in the line. We will obviously do our best to sniff those out and if we’re conflicted out, we're very transparent about that. We don't mess around with stuff like that.
Trying to think, hot button issues. You never know; going back to my previous comment, there's things I’m not thinking of, but that's kind of part of it. Every day is its own little entity that you never know what's going to happen there.
Do those issues look different than when you work with smaller vendors, smaller organizations?
You can draw a big distinction. One of the main distinctions, I guess, between corporate legal, if we're ever working with GM’s corporate counsel on internal policies that need to be translated into 50 languages to push out to all of their offices. That’s a whole different animal than if we're working on some huge litigation, just use the Samsung Panasonic example.
And I also think between large and small shops, probably one of the biggest differences is demand. Why can't you do this tomorrow morning? And the smaller shop will be like, well you can take an extra day if you need to. That’s refreshing. But like I said, it's all part of the game and if you can service those requests, there's a lot of opportunity there and that's how our company is built, is to be able to service the high demand attorney or eDiscovery firm or corporate counsel. And to be able to pop up that team of 20 linguists to tackle this project over the next 48 hours, immediately. That's where our relationships with our vendors, our translators, is paramount.
If George calls me at 11:30 on a Friday night and you've got a week's worth of work that someone just dropped on your desk and you need it by Monday morning, if we can make that happen for you, number one, we're going to make you look good to your people. It's very demanding, but some of our largest clients have found us… There's one in particular I’m thinking of and it was early days, called me on a Saturday. I was out somewhere, I came back, sat down at my desk, didn't leave, talked to that gentleman once every half hour for about the next 36 hours. Stayed up overnight with them, got it all done, and to this day they are one of our top three clients every year and have been for the past 5 or 6 years. Tthere's an opportunity there and there's a void that we fill.
Attorneys are good at attorneying. You’re not going to let the electrician or the painting contractor, if you're building a house, run the electrical wire, and that's kind of the example. We are specialists, and while machine translation is certainly there and great technological advancements are continuing to happen in our space every day, and they are here to stay. It's quite the topic in our space as you can imagine, as it is in many spaces. Ours is a very human one and there's lots of folks wondering, are going to be replaced by the machines. And what I say when people ask me about this: “specialize, specialize, specialize”.
Machine translation technology just as a whole will, for sure, and it already has begun to eat away at the bottom levels of the industry. The general stuff, the more repeatable stuff. A manual for a Caterpillar engine that they have to release every year, well it's not going to change that much. While it's quite technical, it's very repetitive. That's a good example of where you can bring to bear technology. That stuff is here to stay. We recognize that and it's a shifting landscape, and we have to shift with it if we want to remain relevant. There's a service we offer, it's called MTPE, which is Machine Translation with Post Editing, whereby it's run through a machine, but then a high level skilled translator will come along and clean it up.
That's an approach. That said, though, you're still never going to get human parity there, you're not going to get to the same level. But again, not to be a broken record, it depends what your end use is. Maybe that will be good enough for what your purposes are. You're not going to submit that to the court. We won't put our name on it as a certified version and submit it to court, but if that's not what you're doing then it might be a perfectly suitable solution at half the cost. So again, it's, what are your needs? How does language present a problem to you and let's talk about that and figure out how we can help you along. And then the use of technology in our workflow to gain efficiencies and be able to execute for our clients.
Debunking Myths: Language is not 1:1
What are some myths you’ve encountered and how do you debunk them?
The myths… The main one is a lot of people don't know what they don't know and that's fine because, unless you've been in the trenches of the language industry, which not many people have, they shouldn't be expected to know that. It's an uphill battle against machine translation as well. Why can't you just dump all these documents in there? Well, a lot of people won’t even think about the source content, what format is the source content in. A lot of these litigations, we’ll see fifth, sixth hand scans of bylaws of Puerto Rico. That has to be OCR’ed. OCR, if anybody doesn't know what that means, it's Optical Character Recognition and the technology there, while there are great OCR tools, it's not perfect. If you can't get it into a workable live format, you can't run it through a machine.
So, it's something as simple as that. Or, it might not make sense from a financial standpoint to spend the dollars that you need to get that content to a point where it then can go into the machine. There's all sorts of different levers that can be pulled or have to be looked at when you're making these decisions. But that's the biggest one, is explaining to our clients, look this is not a silver bullet. It is a tool in our tool belt that we can use potentially, depending on what it is that you need. But it's not a silver bullet where we just say, hey we click a button and everything just snaps into a different language. Language is not one for one, it is not even close to one for one. And again, if you don't work in the field or don't have any experience, that's a common misconception that's totally understandable.
Evolving Side-by-side with Technology
So Brandon, I've got one last question for you. Put it on your robe and cap, look into your crystal ball, and tell us what this whole field is going to look like at some, whatever you choose, point in the future.
It's a great question. Technology obviously is going to continue to progress. And as I alluded to, I think it's going to continue to gobble up pieces of the market. But those are going to be the lower end. I mean no disrespect by saying that, but just the more general stuff. The more regulated stuff and the specializations, the specialized patents and heavy duty financial, medical, business, legal work, that's going to continue to require a specialist touch.
Now, will machines ever get there? Maybe. I hope I'm on a beach somewhere at that time, to be honest. But look, it's the evolution of things, right? Technology is pushing us forward and we have to, as I mentioned, we have to either embrace and find out how we can evolve with it and use it to our clients and our own benefit, or we will be gobbled up. I think it's about using technology in the workflow and that will continue to progress and progress at a faster rate, I do believe.
But it's a very interesting piece of our industry, as it is with a lot of other industries, and something that folks like myself and in our space, we talk a lot about it and think a lot about how it's going to affect us. So it's just really remaining agile, open to change, which can be hard, and keeping up with things.
Great. Well, thank you Brandon. Brandon Carney is Co-founding Partner and Chief Executive Officer of Divergent Language Solutions. I am George Socha, this has been eDiscovery Leaders Live, hosted by ACEDS and sponsored by Reveal. Thanks all for joining us today, please come back and join us again next Friday, May 14th, when our guest will be Joseph Tate of Cozen O'Connor. Brandon, thanks so much.