If you are like most people, it is probably a combination of both, although the lucky among us would never describe their job as necessary evil even though it may be necessary for them to work to pay bills.

It turns out that it does not really matter that much what you do and how much you make when it comes to job satisfaction. Your job may feel mostly as an evil thing that you simply have to put up with even if you make a lot of money.

Quite a few high-paid lawyers and bankers, and even doctors, hate their job. Many people who used to make a lot of money decide at some point to abandon a lucrative career in law, banking, or medicine, buy a wood workshop, or a small winery or antique store, or a farm and start raising llamas or alpacas in order to do something that makes them happy. Every now and then a story about somebody who did just that pops up in a newspaper.

Doing something that makes you happy is even more important than doing something that make you rich. I would not mind being rich, except if it meant being for example a private equity manager on Wall Street, because I think that this is a completely useless and unproductive job. Of course, private equity managers would strongly disagree with me by pointing out that Wall Street wizards are in charge of efficient financing decisions which are extremely important for smooth functioning of economy.

But if that is true, how is it possible that bankers keep making more and more obscene salaries, while the economy is not exactly functioning smoothly? And how is the job of a Wall Street trader different for example from that of a bookie who takes bets on dog races?

Would somebody care to explain the difference to me?

Another completely useless kind of job that I can think of would be a career in “creative advertising and marketing”. The last thing that we need around us is more advertising. Remember the moment when Dustin Hoffman in the role of a successful marketing executive in “Kramer vs. Kramer” suddenly realized that his job was about producing crap exactly at the point in his life when his wife filed divorce and sole custody of their son?

I realized that for some reason the one thing that I really enjoyed the most was learning languages and putting the newly acquired knowledge to use when I was about 17. I remember that I was sitting in a cherry tree with a friend and as we were eating cherries and spitting out cherry stones into the grass below us while discussing our plans for future, I told him that my grand plan for the rest of my life was to learn a bunch of languages, the more the better, and then travel around the world while using those languages to make a living.

At that point, I had no plan B because at that age I did not believe in the importance of a plan B.

Well, I did exactly that and I feel sorry for kids who are now graduating from college without a pretty crazy plan for the rest of their life. Most kids these days can’t afford dreams like that because most of them will paying off student loans for decades. I got to experiment with my life, moving from one country to another, and I did not became a wage slave until my mid thirties when my own children were born. But young people today are burdened with debts and turned into slaves right after they graduate from college. They become part of the slave class whose main purpose in life is to generate more profit for Wall Street even before their own life has really begun.

A society that sacrifices its young on the altar of higher and higher profits is doomed. At some point, there will be a rebellion of the young who will refuse to pay debts that they consider unjust, because they clearly are unjust.

After quite a few decades, it is still my mission to keep learning languages, although I am now concentrating only on languages that I already know quite well, and using them to make a living because even after quite a few decades, it is still the one thing that I enjoy the most.

There are many challenges in the life of a freelance translator, but as long as one refuses to be just an entry among thousands of other almost identical entries in the database of a “translation industry” broker, a database in which translators are arranged mostly by the rates that they charge, an independent translator can have about as much freedom and as much fun as an owner of an antique or junk store, or an owner of a farm where bizarre but lovely animals like alpacas are being raised for wool.

And you don’t even have to go through the burnout phase first before finding your true vocation, which is something that could happen to you if you were a marketing executive, or lawyer, or accountant.


Posted by: Steve Vitek | September 12, 2014

The Big and Shiny Moving Object in the Sky Is Language Technology


About 6 years ago while sweating bullets on a treadmill during my cardio workout in my gym, I noticed that a big and shiny moving object was advancing with jerky movements at great speed on several monitors mounted above the front row of exercise machines. When I started reading the text underneath the picture of the moving object which looked like a flying saucer, I found out, along with more than a dozen girls, boys, men and women who were somewhere between 17 to about 77 years old and who just like me were fascinated by the moving object, that a husband and wife in Colorado filled a gas balloon with helium and while they were not looking, the balloon took off with their 6-years-old boy possibly still in the balloon.

We were all watching it as if in trance. It was not clear whether the boy was in the balloon, the announcer said, but it was quite possible, and as the balloon was traveling at altitudes of several thousand feet (a couple of kilometers), he could freeze to death if he was still there, the announcer continued. When the balloon finally landed, it was empty, but the police and National Guard had to look for him for hours because the boy could have fallen out …. until to everyone’s great relief he was found several hours later safe and sound: it turned out that he was hiding the whole time in the attic.

If I remember it correctly, it was only the next day on a morning TV show where the father and mother of the boy were answering reporters’ questions when a reporter asked the boy why was he hiding, and the boy answered :” … um, we did this for the show”, that people finally realized that the whole thing was a hoax, a spoof designed to attract attention to the business of the boy’s father who was in fact inspired by American “reality TV shows” such as Wife Swap, a pretty stupid show that I myself was addicted to for quite a while, after I became addicted to “The Osbournes”, a reality show about the many tribulation in the highly entertaining domestic life of the rock singer Ozzy Osbourne and his family in a tacky mansion in Florida which I used to watch every time it was on MTV with my sons, and before I started watching “Home Hunters” and “Home Hunters International”, my current addiction.


Dumb and fake as these shows are, they are still much, much better than the rest of the stuff that they put on American TV these days, and often quite realistic, although the viewers presumably know that everything is staged and scripted to the last detail.

Just like there is an entire industry specializing in making profit from fake reality turned into scripted sagas portraying life as it is not, there is an entire industry in the so-called translation industry specializing in new concepts called “translation technology” and “language technology”.

The terms “translation technology” and “language technology” are often used on the websites of many translation agencies who generally prefer to be called “Language Services Providers (LSPs)”, although the translations are of course not provided by the translation agency but by individual translators who may be located anywhere in this world.

If you look at the commercial propaganda on the websites of these brokers of translation, you would not even notice that translations are in fact provided by translators because if the word “translator” is mentioned at all in their verbiage, it is hidden, always in plural, in a single sentence, such as “We have 15,000 highly qualified translators listed in our comprehensive database”.

You just have to take it on faith that all of these translators are highly qualified.

The fake reality of translation brokers emphasizes other, much cooler words than the concept of a human translator, words such as: platform, content, server, manager, portal, quality assurance, workflow, software application, global solutions, digital revolution, qualitative data evaluation, hybrid communication modes and models …..

This gobbledygook serves an important purpose. It looks really cool when you put words like this on your website. When these words are well put together by a crafty marketing manager, who may know nothing about translation but who knows a lot about marketing, the client may accept as entirely legitimate the notion that the many sophisticated processes advertised on the websites of many translation agencies guarantee a high quality of the final outcome of these processes, which is for the time being still called “translation” although the word “translator” has been somehow lost during all of these sophisticated processes.

Digital revolution did in fact happen in so-called translation industry. But in reality it works like this:

A large translation agency located in a “rich” country, for example in Western Europe or in North America, subcontracts a long and complicated translation project with an impossible deadline to a much smaller translation agency located in a “poor” country, for example in Moldova or Egypt, while the agency located in a poorer part of the world may still further subcontract the complicated translation project with an impossible deadline to a cut-rate translation agency located for example in China.

Since every link in this chain of the “hybrid communication model” participating in this kind of digital revolution is entitled to a substantial profit, very little money will be left for the actual human translator, for example a bunch of Chinese guys and girls who kind of understand Japanese (it’s similar to Chinese, right?), well enough to translate it into a certain kind of English that may need to be eventually “fixed” by a monolingual editor so that the resulting product could be sold to a client as the real thing, namely a translation that was done by an educated and highly qualified translator who knew what he was doing.

The potential profit for the language brokers is very substantial because of course, the less you have to pay to the person who does the actual work, the more you get to keep for yourself, which is the revolutionary principle and driving force behind globalization.

About 6 months ago, a large translation agency landed a major project – translation of several million words from Japanese to English. The catch was that everything had to be finished within a few weeks, about a month if I remember it correctly.

My phone was ringing off the hook for about 2 weeks (I just let everything go to my old-fashioned answering machine), and my e-mail box was filled with offers of work on this project from agencies around the world – as many words as I wanted to take on within a limited period of time. Because the large agency, which is based in this country, subcontracted the job to many other agencies, different rates were offered to me depending on the location of the subcontractor.

I remember that I was offered work on the same project by translation agencies in California, Georgia, on East Coast, in Singapore, Egypt, Holland, and several other countries (I don’t remember all of them), at rates ranging from 10 to 18 cents, depending mostly on the geographical location of the agent.

I did not accept any of the offers because about 10 years ago I decided never to work for this large translation agency again as I felt that they were treating me like a piece of garbage. I am no longer one of the thousands of obedient hamsters running on the spinning wheel in a cage secured by creative “Non-Disclosure Agreements”.


 Language is not about technology. Technology has been used for close to six centuries to record and disseminate written word. You can use technology to record spoken word, in vinyl, on tape, on CDs, or as MP3 files. Technology is used as a tool by people who work with language, but technology by itself does not have the capacity to create language or translation because it has nothing to do with language.

The term language technology is in fact an oxymoron.

Leo Tolstoy did not even have a typewriter and Mark Twain was writing in longhand too. Both of them would probably have problems had they been able to use a word processor: there are too many dialogues in French in War and Peace, which would be flagged in red by the Russian spell checker, and the kind of English that Huckleberry Finn spoke would definitely not be accepted by MS Word as proper English.

Language, and its close relative called “translation”, are about little understood processes taking place in human brain, processes best described by words such as thinking, loving, hating, understanding, and misunderstanding.

If and when the big and shiny moving object in the sky called language technology finally makes a landing, people are likely to find out that the balloon was in fact empty and that the truth was hiding the whole time somewhere in the attic of scam artists who were doing it for the show in order to create juicy advertising for their businesses.


Translators who have websites or who are listed in different databases receive e-mails (sometime mass e-mails) from translation agencies who are inquiring about our availability for a given project. I generally receive several of them a week.

For example, I received two e-mails from two tiny translation agencies in the last few weeks. They asked me whether I would be available for a small translation, I told them I might be and asked to see the file, they sent me the file, I told them how much it would be and when they said OK, go ahead, I did the job.

Nothing could be simpler when you deal with a small translation agency. But it is a different story when you deal with the modern type of corporate agency.

I usually read only e-mails from people who address me by my name (it’s usually “Dear Steve, they are very informal), and delete those in which I am called “Dear Linguist” or “Dear Translator” without reading them. Several of these “Language Service Providers”, or “LSPs” as they like to be called, are located in countries where, based on the rates mentioned in these e-mails, translators are expected to work for what would be considered in most countries starvation rates, countries like Moldova, Egypt, China, or India (now often referred to collectively as “Chindia”).

Some of these cut-rate agencies who keep sending me their missives, although I never respond, are located right here in United States. One of them, based in Southern California, has been sending me offers to work for them for about half a year. I never respond to their e-mails because once they mentioned a rate and I think it was 6 cents a word. I wonder whether they will ever take me off their list of “Dear Linguists” if I don’t ask them to do so. So far I did not tell them to take me off their list because I want to know what kind of work people like that can get.

Cut-rate translation agencies and rock bottom rate translators have collectively managed to create in our wonderful 21st century a cut-throat market in a vast, dog-eat-dog kind of segment of the market for translation services resembling either the 8th or the 9th Circle of Hell of Dante’s Inferno.

In Dante’s epic poem, the hero is guided by the poet Virgil through nine circles of Hell, which are arranged as follows in order of severity of punishment:

1. Limbo,
(this relatively quiet but extremely boring corner of Hell is reserved for non-Christians, including, inexplicably to me, non-Christians from times before Christ),
2. Lust,
3. Gluttony,
4. Greed,
5. Anger,
(the sins committed by all of the sinners accommodated in these special facilities of the Hell Hotel are self explanatory, so I probably don’t need to explain them),
6. Heresy,
(this, at this point undoubtedly very crowded corner of Hell, is reserved for people who don’t believe in organized religion or established political dogmas, like the one-party system or the two-party system – I am pretty sure that’s where I will be assigned since I am definitely not going to make it to Heaven),
7. Violence,
8. Fraud, and
9. Treachery.

The people belonging to all creeds and nationalities who are running the hellish kind of translation agencies in this world – hellish when one considers the pitiful rates that they want to pay to people who do the actual work, called translators – will probably be assigned in the afterlife to the 8th and/or 9th Circle of Hell, although those paying from at least 7 cents a word and up might get lucky and spend eternity in the 3rd or 4th Circle of Hell where the punishment is less severe.

To make up for the fact that most of the translators who work for these doomed translation agency operators (I mean doomed in afterlife) are quite unlikely to be highly educated, highly qualified and highly intelligent individuals (if they were, why would they want to work for them?), most of these agencies first make translators sign a lot of silly paperwork.

But here’s the trick – you have to make “translators” sign the paperwork before the rate and payment terms are even mentioned.

Doing this does make sense, in a perverted kind of logic. If you sign an agreement to work for somebody before you even know how much you would be paid, that tells the esteemed translation agency that you are desperate and ready to work for next to nothing, which is always good to know!

And if you also sign a whole bunch of other agreements where among other things you proclaim yourself to be a highly qualified and experienced translator, then based on these agreements the translation agency does not need to pay you if something goes wrong and an angry client says that your translation is unusable.

It is not the fault of the agency if it hired an incompetent moron! The moron signed a piece of paper in which he clearly stated that he was highly qualified! So how could it possibly be the agency’s fault?

Since the translation agency does not know whether you are in fact a good translator either because the monolingual project managers (“PMs”) working for it are not qualified to make such a complicated determination, it really needs to have all kinds of agreements in place in the event that an irate client refuses to pay the bill received for a substandard translation from a translation agency.

One translation agency, which is located in Western Europe and which found my particulars last week in the ATA (American Translators Association) database, sent me an inquiry about my availability for a short translation last week. When I asked them politely whether I could see the document in question first before I give them my answer, instead of the document I received a zipped file (Registration Pack for Translators and Proofreaders) with 4 files in it:

1. Database Information
2. Non-Disclosure Agreement (this one was only 800 words long, although I have seen NDAs that were from 3 to 8 words long)
3. Supplier Agreement (well over 3 thousand words)
4. Registration Paperwork – Notes.

The Notes were particularly interesting to me because their purpose is to explain to particularly stupid translators, which evidently must be most of us, why all this paperwork is needed.

First of all we’d like to thank you for taking the time to read these documents. We do know there’s a lot to go through, but it is very important and very necessary … we’re not just wasting your time for our own twisted pleasure… We need you to fill in the details as accurately as possible so we can compile an accurate database of people we can trust, who know what to expect from us and vice versa.

The things we need you to send back to us are:
o Terms and conditions
o Includes details on general terms and conditions, service specific terms and details on how payments are made. Please check carefully to make sure we’re going to make you happy!
o Non-disclosure agreement
o We have to have this for everyone, even our in-house staff!
o Database information
o Please fill in carefully, especially the details on projects that you most enjoy working on – this goes on our supplier database.

Once you are happy [sic], please sign by hand on hard copy and return all pages to us via one of these methods:
o Email to either:
o Your project manager if you have been contacted by a PM directly; or
o The vendor manager
o Or by fax to: 12345678910
o Or by post: Trans-Galagtic Translations [I just made this name up].

o Two references. Not your best friends … professional references please.

We look forward to receiving all the info from you – and we look forward to working with you.
Yours faithfully,
Transgalactic Translations, Inc.

But nowhere in this paperwork did it say how much they would pay me should I accept the job that they were offering, which they said was a translation of about 800 words.

Although I politely refused their offer of work while pointing out that I could not possibly sign anything if I don’t know whether I want to work for them (and how could I know that when they never said how much they were willing to pay me?), they must have found my behavior irrational and difficult to understand because they then sent me a second e-mail two days later with the same four files in the same zipped directory, urging me to sign the paperwork so that they could “register me in their database and work with me on a regular basis once signed-up”.

So I just rudely ignored the second e-mail.

I doubt that I would be able to explain to them that I am not interested in being registered in their database because being “signed-up” with them to me would be tantamount to being sentenced to dwell for eternity in the darkest and hottest Circle of Hell where the incessant weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth of poor translators is extremely loud.

Posted by: Steve Vitek | September 6, 2014

How Far Should a Translator Go to Accommodate a Client?


Of course it would depend on what the client wants, right?

But to a large extent it will also depend on how the translator sees himself. I believe that many translators define their job too narrowly, as was argued for example in this guest post on my blog last year. I have been on occasion guilty of having blinders on too. When I started my translation business, I was basically interested only in Japanese, because that was my major in college and also because I thought that I would probably be able to make more money with Japanese than with other languages that I know almost as well as Japanese, and now sometime even better, depending on the technical subject.

But eventually I started to translate also other languages that I know, and later I also started accepting translations from languages that I subcontract to other translators from languages that I don’t translate myself – only jobs from direct clients, of course, the numbers would not work otherwise for me.

I can definitely do a much better job than your typically clueless and often monolingual project manager who works for your average translation agency that “translate every subject from and into any language” (because it has “thousands of translators in its database”).

Instead of saying no to a customer, I got used to finding the right translator for the job, regardless of what language it is.

Never say no to a customer was my motto for quite a while, especially since I found out that it is in fact often much easier to make more money when most of the work is done for you by other people than when you have to do the translation yourself. Incidentally, once I match a good translator with a given technical subject, I generally make about 3 times as much per hour for fairly light-duty proofreading as I make when I translate (and I am doing very well when I translate too).

But a few months ago I did say no to a customer and I am still wondering whether it was the right thing to do.

The customer in question is a multinational corporation. I have been translating patents and articles from technical journals for them from a number of languages for about 8 years now. Initially they were sending me only Japanese, but once I told them that I do other language as well, they started sending me German, Russian, French, Chinese, Korean, etc. For a long time they would only send me the number of the patent with the understanding that I would find the patent myself online and translate it for them. I had no problem with that. If it is a patent publications that has been already published, it is available for free on the Internet and I can find it within a couple of minutes.

A few months ago they asked me whether I would be able to find technical articles for them in various languages that they need to have translated. They said I could just charge them for the time and put it on my invoice.

But I politely declined their request. I told them that I would not be a suitable person for something like this because I have no idea how things like that are done and since there are many companies providing precisely this kind of specialized service, they would do a much better job. That is of course true, but was that the main reason why I said no?

Probably not. It is also true that I did not want to have to learn something new because I see myself mostly as a translator. Yes, the typical translator with blinders on, who sees only what he wants to see and a who knows nothing of the real world, just like the frog in a dark well in a Chinese fable.

One could also say that the main reason why I said no was laziness.

After I turned down their request, all of a sudden translation requests from this particular source of work stopped coming. Since this client accounts for about 15% of my income, panic set in. Maybe they dumped you because you said now, I was thinking to myself, and I fired off an e-mail to the secretary who was my main contact at the company to find out what was going on.

“Many people are on vacation”, was her reply. And indeed, after a lull of about two months, the work from this source picked up and to my great relief, it is now back to normal again.

Should translators say “yes” to requests for services that don’t really have anything to do with their own work, if this is something that the client absolutely needs, as well as something that translators can learn, probably quite easily?

I am still kind of torn about this issue. A part of me wants to say, yes, of course, this is precisely what we should do to enhance our competitive edge.

But my alter ego, the little translator in me who is oh so happy when all he has to do is simply to translate stuff without having to bother about anything else, the guy with limited experience and limited vision, given that I was doing little else beside translating for the last 27 years, keeps saying to me that what I did was precisely the right thing to do.

I kept the client, and the client got what they wanted from a specialized source that can presumably do a better job than this translator.

What do you think, if a client asks me next time for something like this, (if there is a next time), should I say “yes”, or should I say “no” again?


The fact that nude pictures of the young actress Jennifer Lawrence, which she unwisely stored in “secure storage” in the cloud, were hacked and made available to millions of Peeping Toms on the Internet was on the first page of just about every newspaper in this country yesterday, and probably in other countries as well. It was also all over the so called news channels on my teevee yesterday. They will be talking about it for many weeks if not months now (remember Paris Hilton?) That way they don’t have to cover real news, and they are not really very good at that.

Nothing is better for making people pay really good attention than when a beautiful young woman is thoroughly humiliated.

So the obvious question that is on everybody’s mind now is, how secure is so called “secure storage” in the cloud? And the obvious answer to this question is that secure storage in the cloud is extremely insecure.

Most of us store a lot of information about ourselves in the cloud without even realizing it. For example, if you have an iPhone or iPad or another smart phone or a tablet, you were probably asked at some point whether you wanted to have your “data backed up” in the cloud so that it could be easily restored. And you probably said “yes” without giving it much thought. I did too, of course. It’s so convenient!

So now they have all kinds of personal information about us, with our consent, and we have absolutely no idea who “they” are. The news media, I mean the infotainment channels, keep talking about the danger posed by hackers. But hackers are only a small part of the problem. In addition, the government is spying on everybody and their grandmother and her dog, probably regardless of which country you happen to live in. (They only do it to protect us from bad terrorists because this is obviously the best way to protect us from the evildoers!)

And so are many corporations whose goal is to “own” as much information about us as possible.

I am also asking myself, what about the employees of these companies who “own” our data, how many of them are looking at the goodies we have stored with them for fun and profit? Probably quite a few. Of course, it would be illegal to do so, but wholesale government’s spying on entire populations is illegal too and nobody gives a damn, least of all the politicians who have taken an oath to protect our constitution.

So I was thinking, perhaps I should write a post about a few things that we as translators who have to use Internet every day should probably keep in mind and a few precautions that we might be able to take to protect our privacy and the privacy of our customers.

1. It is a really bad idea to store any sensitive data about us or customers’ data in the cloud.

Just ask Jennifer Lawrence. Nobody would be interested in my naked pictures, if I had any, but a lot of people might be interested in other data that I sometime work with. Lot of the stuff that I translate has Bates numbers on every page with the words, in capital letters: HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL – ATTORNEY’S EYES ONLY. To store these kinds of documents or translations of these documents in “secure storage” online would be really asking for trouble.

2. It is probably best to assume that at some point, our computer will be hacked and somebody will be looking at our private and confidential information or infect it with malware.

There are a few things we can do to minimize the potential damage if something like that happens. Like most translators, I have several computers in my house, both desktops and laptops, and I used to check my bank account balance from any of the computers I own, while I allowed each of these computers “to remember” the password.

I don’t do that anymore. I check my account only from one computer now, and the passwords are stored only on paper and in my head. I am sure that there are still ways to hack into my private information, but this should make it a little bit more difficult.

Having several computers also means that should one of our computers become infected, we will be able to get rid of the malware immediately by simply junking the infected hardware, which can be done easily as long as most of the data needed for our work is backed up on another computer or on an external hard disk.

3. Who else besides us can view the data contained in our online machine translation queries?

If all you do is look for the translation of a word or a few sentences, it is not a lot of data and it would be hard to misuse it. But it is a different story if you run an entire document through a machine translation program.

Does Google Translate have employees whose job is to look for gold nuggets in all of this data? I would hope not, but it is possible. Are there rogue employees working for companies offering free machine translation online who could illegally spy on our information while looking for something that could be sold to somebody? I don’t know, but it seems very likely.

If you have to run something through machine translation, you should at least remove all identifying information from it, such as the names of persons, places, and companies.

4. Who else besides us can view data contained in online conversions of our files, for example from PDF to MS Word format?

I use this conversion all the time because most of the time I am dealing with a PDF file rather than a word processing file and the first thing I need to do is provide a cost estimate which will be based on the number of words as counted by MS Word.

However, I only use my online conversion tool (which costs me 20 dollars a year) for documents that are already in public domain, such as patent applications.

For other documents I use the scanning software package that came with my printer because in this manner, all of the information will remain only on my hard disk.

5. Is it a good idea to use only one search engine for all of your searches, even if it is a very good search engine?

I don’t think so. If you do that, a lot of information about you will be conveniently accessible from one location to …. who knows who can access this information?

I now alternate my searches between several search engines, and I am especially partial to DuckDuckGo and other engines that do not track me and do not store information about me. At least they say so. It is of course entirely possible that they are simply lying to me and that they track me anyway and store information about me too, but maybe they are telling the truth and in any case, at least I am making spying on me more difficult.

These are just some of the precautions that translators who deal with sensitive information about themselves and their clients should take into consideration.

Let me know if you can think of other common sense precautions.


It is a well know fact that most professions, even well established ones, do not stay the same. They change over time, and sometime they disappear.

Have you ever met a cobbler who was not a pie? And when was the last time you had your refrigerator, TV or PC repaired? Since products that used to be made to last a very long time are now thrown out because they give up the ghost after just a few years, refrigerator repairmen and TV repairmen had to find a new job. PC repairmen are still surviving, but just barely, mostly because there is plenty of work for people who can remove viruses from infected computers.

Or take a profession that still exists, such as the policing profession. They used to be called “peace officers” and “peace keepers”, but now the police drive through poor neighborhoods in what looks like tanks, or walk on the sidewalk wielding machine guns, protected by impenetrable body armor from demonstrators who somehow got the crazy idea that they are entitled to free speech. The former peace keepers have now become war makers. They are the most dangerous people in many neighborhoods. They have a gun, they can get away with murder, and they know it.

But of course, the police have different roles in different neighborhoods. The description above is applicable, at least at this point, mostly to poor neighborhoods, the kind of places that are best to avoid. But how do you avoid them if you happen to live there?

In vast American suburbia populated by what is left of the middle class, the main role of the police is to generate revenue for various minor infractions such as by ambushing drivers in speed traps where the posted speed is 25 miles an hour because only locals who know exactly where the cop’s car is hiding drive at 25 miles an hour. If they catch you driving over the speed limit, it will cost you well over a hundred dollars, depending on how fast you drove, and most of the fine will go to “court processing fees” because you will have to go to court to pay the fine.

In neighborhoods where the super-rich live, the police are still the peace keepers. They know that their job is to protect the ruling class and serve the nice people who live in exclusive, gated communities from the rest of the world in this manner.


Some people think that the translating profession’s days are numbered as well. I hear it all the time from non-translators. “Is there even a need for translators when machine translation is easily available?” people sometime ask me when they find out what it is that I do for a living.

Most people have already discovered that machine translation often makes no sense, but they still don’t understand that it will never really make sense because the reason why machine translation often makes no sense is that it is not translation. It is basically just a bunch of words generated by a machine based on an algorithm and it is up to the reader to make sense of these words.

Depending on the language combination and how complicated the subject and the structure of the sentences may be, sometime it does make sense. The approach of Google Translate seems to make sense more than other approaches to machine translation, but that is because Google Translate simply tries to find an existing human translation and match it to a similar text.

But since a perfect match can be made only when it is basically the same text, what do you do with the mismatched parts?

To make sense out of the mistranslated parts, you will need, …. ehm ….. a translator, and contrary to what certain people who push the concept of post-editing of machine translations as an easy fix for this particular problem are saying, not just any translator will do. You will need a very good translator because what is euphemistically referred to as post-editing is most of the time a complete retranslation.

In theory, even a relatively inexperienced translator should be able to edit machine-translation output because most of the work has already been done, right?

Well, not exactly. Most of the work has been done only if the words are correct and they have been put together the right way. But how often is that the case? Not very often, at least not with the kinds of text that I translate.

This week, for example, I was translating among other things a relatively short medical report from German and a relatively long medical study from Japanese. I am not a doctor, let alone a medical doctor specializing in the fields and the subjects that I was translating a few days ago – cardiology, and infectious diseases.

Two or three decades ago, it would have been very difficult for a mere translator such as myself to translate these two medical reports because translators could not look to the Internet to have their questions answered when they were dealing with arcane subjects and very complicated terminology.

Compared to the situation back then, translators have many more tools at their disposal now, and search engines and machine translation represent one such a tool which is rapidly replacing specialized dictionaries in the bag of tricks that most translators are now using.

New tools have always been a part of the evolution in just about any profession. People who think that these tools will eventually replace my profession just like technologies enabling cheap manufacturing of shoes and TVs replaced cobblers and TV repairmen are entitled to their expectations, and it does not bother me much anymore when they ask me a dumb question.

I forgive them because I know that they are mistaking new tools (Internet, machine translation) for what can be done with these tools, but only when the most important tool available to humans, called human brain, determines the result of one of many mysterious process in this human brain called translation.

Translators will go the way of cobblers and TV repairmen when the ruling class no longer has any need for police to protect a privileged few from enormous multitudes of unwashed masses …. by which I obviously mean …. never.

Posted by: Steve Vitek | August 29, 2014

Brief History of Russian-English Translation in America


A guest post by James F. Shipp, who also published on this blog a post titled Comments of a Veteran Translator on Corporatization of Translation in May of 2014.

When World War II came to its unforeseen conclusion, with the Soviet Union divorcing itself from the Allies and retaining possession of the nations it had “liberated”, the need for Russian-English translators in the United States increased precipitously.

Compounded by the failure of Russian machine translation to materialize as rapidly as anticipated (it still has not come to pass in any workable fashion today), former US military translators, Russian-speaking East European immigrants, and college graduates unable to find positions in academia largely filled this void.

Documents were exchanged in person, through the mail, or via facsimile. Fax machines in those days used a low-quality heat-activated paper that printed out in one continuous sheet, which then had to be manually cut into individual pages. These pages curled incessantly and the translator was forced to weigh them down in some manner in order to read them before they lost their legibility. It was often easier just to make plain-paper copies of the faxed pages, which were expensive in those days, then discard them.

At first, translation manuscripts were submitted in longhand and were typed up by staff secretaries whenever necessary. As the demand for typescripts rose, translators were compelled to take on this additional skill. The first typewriters were big, heavy Remington or Royal uprights. Typing in Russian required a second typewriter with a Cyrillic typeface and a very different keyboard arrangement. Bilingual typing meant the tedious realignment of pages from one machine to the other. Graphics were cut from source document copies and pasted into the translation typescripts, with inset phrases often being whited out and reproduced by hand. A smaller typewriter in something that resembled a hatbox was used for “away” assignments. Typewriter ink ribbons allowed for typing in either black or red. Typos were corrected with erasers until the advent of whiteout products. The erasers left rubber particles in typewriter than inevitably led to sticky keys and typebar jamming.

This situation improved dramatically when IBM introduced the Selectric typewriter with its replaceable printball during the early 1960s. Electrically operated, with a built-in correction tape, this innovative typing system appreciably hastened the translation process, resulting in a higher quality product that was much less labor-intensive.

The IBM Selectric remained the standard until Xerox came out with its Memorywriter electronic typewriter some 20 years later. The Memorywriter featured a replaceable printwheel and a 30,000-character memory that permitted line-by-line editing before printing. This desktop prequel again reduced translation processing time and vastly improved product quality. As with the Selectric, however, the Memorywriter’s printwheel had to be replaced for different languages and special character sets.

Although they had been around for some time, desktop computers remained cost-prohibitive until the mid-1980s. I recall that my first complete desktop system came to staggering $8.000.

The early desktop computer was the size of a refrigerator, with a memory the size of a thimble. The printer was massive, overly sensitive, and together with the attendant fax and modem equipment, accounted for one-half of the system’s cost. The standard word-processing software at that time was WordPerfect – much less user friendly and productive than today’s Microsoft Word.

Imagine if you will a world without the Internet. Pretend for a second that you have to prepare a translation using only the meager hard-copy resources at your disposal. The status of bilingual reference aids prior to the birth of the Worldwide Web was dire. Russian translators in Washington, DC, had a leg up in this regard due to the existence of the Victor Kamkin Bookstore in Rockville, Maryland. There, on a Saturday morning for a negligible outlay, translators could find dictionaries spanning numerous scientific and technical disciplines; however, most of them were English-Russian with short Russian-English indices in the back. They were literally the only game in town. Reliable Russian-English reference aids from the English-language press could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and sadly, this situation remained fundamentally unchanged for several decades.

While reverse-sort bilingual dictionaries were available at Kamkin’s bookstore in Washington, D.C., some of us had to resort to making our own dictionaries.

Translators had to keep copious margin notes in the dictionaries that they were able to acquire and to compile their own lists of frequently encountered terms. The Guild of Professional Translators (later the Translation Research Institute) in Philadelphia heard about my first such list – a Russian-English Index to Scientific Apparatus Nomenclature – and published it in 1977. This resulted in the ensuing publication of a Russian-English Dictionary of Surnames in 1981 and a Russian-English Dictionary of Abbreviations & Initialisms in 1982, as well as the self-publication of a Concise Russian-English Chemical Glossary in 1983. Because they continued to be in demand after they went out of print, the National Technical Information Service of the US Department of Commerce in Springfield, Virginia, repeatedly reprinted all these volumes over the years. In 2005, Dunwoody Press, also in Springfield, Virginia, published a Dictionary of Contemporary Russian Abbreviations, Acronyms & Initialisms that I had coauthored with Maks Rozenbaum. The revenues from these publications were extremely sparse, but no amount of money could ever have recompensed the thousands upon thousands of hours spent compiling them – they were strictly a labor of love for the purpose of helping my colleagues generate a better translation product.

Due to the emergence of translation and interpretation as an independent sector, the American Translators Association was founded in Ossining, New York, in 1959. Local affiliates soon sprang up in hub cities across the nation. This organization’s stated primary goals consisted of “fostering and supporting the professional development of translators and interpreters and promoting the translation and interpreting professions”.

Following almost two years of negotiations with The Newspaper Guild, six fellow translators and I founded The Translators Guild (TTG) in June of 1991. Almost perishing to due lack of community support for fear of industry reprisals, this true AFL/CIO union ultimately became The Translators and Interpreters Guild (TTIG), is now an arm of the Communication Workers of America (CWA), and primarily focuses on interpreters, since they comprise the bulk of its current membership.

Despite the existence of these and similar groups, the cards still remain stacked against translators as a whole today, who must often work unspeakable hours to meet impossible deadlines, accept rates of pay that are far from commensurate with the complexity and importance of the work performed, and endure insupportable delays before finally receiving their money. While conditions aren’t as bad as they used to be (one of my first freelance jobs was translating the Shipbuilding Journal on a monthly basis for 4 cents per source word), they are still in need of great improvement before translators see the light of a new day.

Good translating,
Jim Shipp

(Translation history buffs may want to compare Jim Shipp’s reminiscences also to my post about the history of Japanese-English translation in San Francisco in the eighties and nineties which I originally wrote for Translation Journal).


I started watching C-Span, an American cable and satellite television network created as a public service in 1979 mostly through the efforts of Brian Lamb, about 13 years after we moved to Virginia from California. The call-in show starts every day at 7 AM Eastern time, which was too early for me when I lived in California.

C-Span is billed as “a public service by the TV cable companies”, but there is an interesting twist here: the cable companies themselves do not finance the programming because a special tax (6 cents per subscriber) is collected from all cable subscribers, whether they watch C-Span or not. That is why, thankfully, there are no commercials on C-Span. Based on my informal research, very few people watch it here where I live. In fact, not a single person among the people I asked was watching it on a regular basis and most had only a vague idea about it, or did not know anything about it.

I start most mornings by watching the call-in show at 7 AM and if the topic being discussed is of interest to me, I listen to callers until 7:45 AM, at which time I generally take my pit bull Lucy for a walk.

She is already waiting for me downstairs by the door, patiently as only dogs can, wondering when the stupid show will finally end.

Since there is not much real news on the alphabet news networks on US TV anymore, I stopped watching the infotainment channels more than a decade ago. Occasionally I may still turn on CNN when there is an earthquake in Japan or California, but that’s about it. I know what they will be saying 24/7 on each of these channels: MSNBC: Obama and Democrats gooooood, Republicans baaaad; Fox: Republicans gooood, Obama and Democrats baaaad.

C-Span is a little bit different because as it is not controlled either by the Democrats or the Republicans, anybody can call in and start talking, for a couple of minutes, before they cut you off.

Or so I thought. But recent changes in C-Span policy lead me to believe that C-Span is in fact controlled by the same people who control information about everything, only in this case, they do it in a less obvious manner.

I often used to put the talk show on my iPad because I’m a multitasking kind of guy: I like to do laundry, check e-mail as I walk from one room to another, or go downstairs to the kitchen to make coffee while listening to a guy in Louisiana bitching about his miserable hourly rate.

Last week, when I tried to put the talk show on iPad again, I was stopped by an ominous screen that ordered me to identify my local TV station carrying the C-Span programming if I want to continue watching. C-Span’s CEOs in their wisdom determined that the ostentatiously non-profit organization will no longer allow viewers on Internet to watch live programming unless they can prove that they paid their six pennies unto Cesar, by which I mean a for-profit cable company.

I decided not to identify myself as a paying viewer, although it means that I am no longer able to view C-Span on Internet, only on my TV. I have about 200 channels in my cable package, but like most people, I can stand to watch only about half a dozen of them, if I don’t count the movie channels where they seem to be showing the same movies over and over again. I probably watch two C-Span channels more than anything else on my TV: C-Span 1 for the call-in shows, and C-Span 2 on Saturdays and Sundays for their Book TV programming in which various American authors are introducing themselves and talking about books.

My local cable company makes me pay for all kind of disgusting garbage on my TV. There are many religious channels on TV here in Virginia, at least a dozen of them are blasting religious propaganda on Sunday, where slick, greedy shysters are making out like the bandits that they are while selling a solid and very profitable product called Jesus to intellectually challenged individuals. I have no choice but to pay for those channels if I want to be able to see any TV programming at all.

There are 3 or 4 Pentagon channels in the lineup of my TV channels where our hungry but well fed war machine is celebrating our awesome military and the cool weapons that we have. I have to pay for those too if I want to be able to see any TV programming at all.

Most of those channels that I have to pay for, although I never watch most of them, are also filled with tons of advertising. I think that the ratio on most TV channels is about 40% of advertising to 60% of programming, although it often seems that it is the other way round. A rare escape from mind-numbing advertising are the two German channels that I have and one French channel. But for those I have to pay extra, 15 dollars a month for German and 10 dollars a month for French TV.

I actually felt good that the 6 pennies that I am paying every month for C-Span programs brought real, raw information, information that is unfiltered and unthrottled by omnipresent corporate propaganda, to people who could watch it on Internet anywhere in the world, in Austin, Texas, as well as in Austria, Africa, or Australia.

So, that is no longer true, as C-Span cut off access on Internet for people who do not pay them 6 pennies a month, whether they have an opportunity to do so or not.

In 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq, there were many programs on US TV and radio stations in which various experts who know everything about nothing and nothing about everything were beating the war drum to earn their very generous salaries, some organization, I forgot which one, counted the number of pro-war and anti-war programs. According to Wikipedia and other sources, the ratio of pro-war to against-war programs was 16 : 1, although I remember that I also heard the number 297 : 6, which would be closer to 50 : 1.

In any case, I do remember that 11 years ago the entire “liberal media”, including newspapers and radio and TV stations, was turned by people who control everything into a chorus of obedient war cheerleaders. My neighbor, a lieutenant in US army, was at that time helping me install a garage door opener; well, it was more like he was installing it and I was holding the ladder. He thought that I was crazy when I told him that if we attack that country, we would not be welcome as liberators and that the result of such an invasion would be unpredictable and probably horrible. That’s what long-term exposure to Pentagon channels will do to you.

Voices warning against a new war were almost completely silenced in the official media back then. You could only hear them on calling shows on C-Span because the C-Span management was unable to shut off people who called in.

With the new paywall, they now have at their disposal a valuable tool for managing unmanageable callers who often have a tendency to stray from the official party line, as people who have not paid their 6 pennies to C-Span will simply not be allowed to participate in the debate.

Another fact that I realized based on the decision of C-Span management was that one cannot take for granted access to programs that are for the moment available on the Internet because any of these programs can be killed  by people who control everything it they decide to simply kill it with a convenient Internet kill switch.

Posted by: Steve Vitek | August 22, 2014

Let’s Stop Educating Our Clients About Translation


It has become something of a fad to keep emphasizing that translators need to educate their clients about complicated issues having to do with translation.

I read a number of posts on this subject written on translation blogs by well meaning but deeply misguided translators. We supposedly need to keep explaining to our customers all of these things that they keep getting wrong.

No, we don’t need to do that. For example, non-translators don’t need and don’t really want to know that there is allegedly a big difference between the word “translator” and “interpreter”. Why should they care about this “major difference” between these two words when it will become obvious after the first few words whether what they need is translation of written text or interpretation of spoken word?

In any case, if this distinction is not really made consistently in English by native speakers of English, and it certainly is not since the verb “to translate” is used by native speakers both for translation of written word and for interpretation of spoken language, who is using the wrong word, the “ignorant” client, or the supercilious know-it-all who calls herself “translator” and wants to correct the ignorant world surrounding her?

It is a somewhat different story in other languages where the root of the word may sometime clearly indicate whether the activity described by the word refers to interpreting or translating. For example in German, “dolmetschen” means only to interpret, while “übersetzen” generally means to translate, although it is also used to mean “to interpret” in colloquial German. Similarly, in Japanese, 通訳する (tsuyaku suru) means only to interpret, while 翻訳する (honyaku suru) means to translate, although it is again used also for the verb “to translate”. The same is true about the words for interpret (tlumočit) and translate (preložit) in Czech and other languages.

“To translate” and its various equivalents in a number of languages simply means both “to translate” and “to interpret”, and there is nothing foolish translators can do about it.

So why not let people speak the way they have been speaking all their life, especially since everybody else is ignoring this terribly important difference between these two words in English and other languages anyway? But for some reason, some translators want to correct the way everybody else is using their own language. It is almost as if some of these translators have been entrusted with  an important mission, namely a mission to change the way people use certain words, either because they have nothing better to do with their time, or perhaps because it is their divine mission in life and they are commanded by God to do so, sort of like Joan of Arc was commanded by God to rid France of the evil English.

Joan of Arc fulfilled her mission, but it goes without saying that to try to make people see this difference in English is a complete waste of time.

I too usually want to know only the absolute minimum about a lot of things that I absolutely need to know about, even on subjects that are much more important than the difference between the verbs “to translate” and “to interpret”.

For instance, I really don’t want to know a lot about my car. As far as I’m concerned, as long as I know enough to be a safe driver (more or less), I know plenty. For everything else, there is a toll free number for “road assistance service” in my wallet that comes with my car insurance, and when I still have a question about something, I can always ask Jimmy at the car shop about what is going on under the hood of my car.

The reason why I patronize Jimmy’s car shop is precisely because whenever I ask him a stupid question, he will patiently explain things to me in such simple terms that even a total car-idiot such as myself can understand it. He often uses diagrams and if it looks like I may still not be fully comprehending the essence of his simple explanation, he takes me to a car that is being serviced in the shop and demonstrates the issue in question on that car.

Translators, take heed and learn from Jimmy, the astute and resourceful car shop owner! The best way to keep your customer satisfied is not to bother him or her with too much extraneous and basically useless knowledge.

Most of our customers only want to know how much we charge, why we charge by the word or whatever other metric we may use, and why it takes 2 days to translate 10 pages when it takes only a few seconds to copy the same 10 pages. If that is about the extent of what they want to know about translation, it’s perfectly fine with me.

Just like there are some people who are not car mechanics but who love to fix and rebuild old cars, a distinct minority of our clients does have an acute interest in foreign languages.

We can still show off our incredibly superior knowledge of foreign languages to people who may be fascinated by the fact that the Japanese language generally makes no distinction between singular and plural, that a certain term is used generally only in Swiss German, or that that Slavic languages have so many cases (up to seven cases) with different endings in singular and plural for different declensions of every noun and adjective that it makes it next to impossible to learn these languages if you are a foreign speaker.

These are the people who will appreciate it when we share what we know about languages with them if they happen to be our customers.

The rest of them don’t really care about anything having to do with languages one way or the other and they will appreciate it if we try not to bother them too much with completely useless knowledge.

So let’s leave them in peace.


Everyone who has a blog also has a list of links to fellow bloggers who are also affected by the blogging disorder and like to bring to some of us from time to time good and bad news, a bit of camaraderie and even inspiration on a good day.

Unfortunately, having a blog with links to other bloggers also means that you have to delete those links every now and then because people simply stop writing, for all kinds of reasons.

I discovered recently that translation blogs have already become a subject that is being studied and analyzed in translation studies at universities. Well, at least at one university, namely Aarhus Univesity in Denmark, where Helle V. Dam from the Department of Business Communications recently published an article titled “The Translator Approach in Translation Studies – reflections based on a study of translators’ weblogs”. You can read the entire article here and come to your own conclusions about the folly of blogging by translators (warning: it’s about 8 thousand words long, much longer than even the longest of my posts).

Instead of attempting to analyze an article that was analyzing a sampling of what 21 bloggers wrote on their translation blogs, I will use the Aarhaus University study of certain occurrences on translation blogosphere to illustrate another occurrence on translation blogosphere, namely the one expressed in the title of my post today.

The article took into consideration 20 translation blogs based on a sample of posts downloaded from these blogs in September of 2012, or about 2 years ago. Here is the list of the blogs, which were apparently selected kind of at random by the author of the article from a list of 158 translation blogs published by the American Translators Association:

Blog Author/blogger, Downloaded on (date), Number of posts

1. About Translation / Riccardo Schiaffino, 9/10/12, 10
2. Catherine Translates / Catherine Jan, 9/10/12, 4
3. Financial Translation Blog / Miguel Llorens, 9/10/12, 5
4. Musings from an overworked translator / Jill R. Sommer, 9/10/12, 10
5. Naked Translations / Céline Graciet, 9/10/12, 6
6. On Language and Translation / Barabara Jungwirth, 9/10/12, 7
7. Patenttranslator’s Blog / Steve Vitek, 9/10/12, 10
8. Thoughts On Translation / Corinne McKay, 9/10/12, 7
9. TranslateThis / Michael Wahlster, 9/10/12, 7
10. Translating is an Art / Percy Balemans, 9/10/12, 10
11. Translation Times / Judy and Dagmar Jenner, 10/10/12, 5
12. Translation Tribulations Kevin Lossner, 10/10/12, 2
13. Translationista / Susan Bernofsky, 10/10/12, 7
14. The Translator’s Teacup / Rose Newell, 10/10/12, 8
15. Fidus Interpres / Fabio Said, 31/10/12, 12
16. The Greener Word / Abigail Dahlberg, 31/10/12, 7
17. The Interpreter Diaries / Michelle Hof, 31/10/12, 3
18. Mox’s Blog / Alejandro Moreno- Ramos, 31/10/12, 6
19. Say What? / Alexander C. Totz, 31/10/12, 10
20. Words to good effect / Marian Dougan, 31/10/12, 14

In less than 2 years, about a third of these blogs either disappeared completely, or activity on the blogs became very scarce compared to the situation 2 years ago.

One of these bloggers, a very smart guy who used to make me laugh like crazy, died (Miguel Llorens, No. 3).

A good number of other bloggers who used to inform, educate and entertain me in their posts, generally several times a month, simply stopped writing, while others have not published anything in several months, or even close to a year.

Catherine Jan (No. 2), returned from Paris to Canada, got an in-house job and stopped blogging. On ne sait pas vraiment pourquoi.

Fabio Said (No. 15), the phenomenal blogger from Brazil who racked up more than 1.5 million views on his blog, is blogging no more, and neither is Abigail Dahlberg (No. 16), she of the Greener Word Blog.

I still drink my coffee in the morning from a cup decorated by cartoons that Alejandro Moreno-Ramos mailed to me all the way from Spain (or was it France?), but I have not seen any activity on Mox’s blog recently either, have you? Or could it be that my link is outdated?

Some of the bloggers still seem to be sort of alive on the blogosphere, but their last post is many months old, although they used to post quite frequently only 2 short years ago. I am talking for example about Céline Graciet, (No. 5), whose last post, ominously titled “Freelancers: should you be insured against loss of income”, is dated January 16, 2014. Maybe she became insured against loss of income and stopped working and blogging too for good measure. Or maybe she entered a convent somewhere in England and one of the obligations of her faith is that she must not speak to anybody, which would preclude also blogging. (I saw a talk show on German TV yesterday in which one Dutch woman described how she did just that and then did not speak to anybody for 7 years, except for fellow nuns to whom she was allowed to speak in French for a few hours every Saturday. She spoke beautiful German but sometime she would get the gender of the noun wrong, which made me feel good).

Jill Sommer, No. 4, does not really blog much anymore either, she just sends to her followers cartoons about translation and grammar and such once a week. This kind of continuity is better than nothing, I guess, but I miss her posts.

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas said, “When one burns one’s bridges, what a very nice fire it makes.” But I don’t believe that it is really true. We usually try to burn our bridges when we are still very young because we don’t want to live like everybody else, especially if it means living just like our parents lived.

But when we are a little bit older, we sometime discover that the bridges that we tried so hard to burn down are still there, and we then cross them back again to the world that is waiting for us on the other side of the bridge.

A burning bridge does make a very nice fire. But the poetry of a beautiful fire can last only for a very short time. And the truth is, we can never have enough bridges, and when we burn them down, for example by no longer posting on an abandoned blog, an important connection to our past, present and future is suddenly lost forever.

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