Posted by: Steve Vitek | July 27, 2014

A Gaping Hole in the Curriculum for Translation Studies

 

When I was a university student, many, many years ago, I thought that the approach to teaching of foreign languages at my university was skewed too much toward the endless study of somewhat ephemeral and apparently useless subjects. For example, if your major was the French language, you needed to memorize first a lot of facts about French literature from middle ages to 18th century, if your language was English, you would have to deliver a seminar work on Beowulf, and if you were majoring in Japanese, you would need to study also the basics of classical Chinese and the complicated grammar of classical Japanese language called bungo.

Most of this knowledge would be completely forgotten within a few years after graduation, with the exception of a few of these students who eventually became teachers of the same subjects again, generally as university professors.

I knew even then that these were worthwhile and interesting subjects to study (especially classical Chinese was really interesting). My main objection was that the kids who were studying these languages, including myself, did not speak very good French, English, or Japanese, which to me meant that the university had the priorities completely wrong. When I said as much all those years ago to one of my favorite teachers, he told me:”You will have the rest of your life to try to learn a foreign language and become really fluent in it. But the only time when you can learn all of these seemingly less important things is while you are still studying here”.

I know now that he was mostly right, and I was mostly wrong. But I did have a point too. A few years after graduation, 5 to be exact, I was working as an in-house translator in Tokyo for a small Japanese company that was importing BMWs to Japan. One of my Japanese colleagues at the company majored in German language at Waseda University, one of the most prestigious universities in Japan. But when I tried to have a conversation with him in German, I found out that he did not understand even very simple German sentences. He told me that most of the time they were just analyzing German grammar at Waseda (in Japanese) instead of learning the actual language. I had the same experience also with a Japanese friend of mine whom I met in San Francisco and who majored in German studies at Kyoto University, also a prestigious Japanese university. He could not speak German at all.

The approach to teaching of foreign languages at many universities, probably most of them in any country, has always been heavy on theory (grammar, history, literature), and light on practical knowledge (mastery of the language). And it may even be for the best, provided that the graduates eventually do learn the languages from which they are supposed to be expertly translating after graduation.

But I think that a practical approach to teaching of foreign languages at the university level should also include advice and counseling about career choices for students who are about to graduate. There are many things that one can with do with a degree in languages. And one of them is working as a specialized, self-employed translator.

Most young people who study languages probably do not give much thought to their eventual career after graduation. They study languages because it is something that they are really passionate about. If they were equally passionate about making a good living, they would probably have chosen dentistry, accounting, or law instead of languages.

It is possible to make a good living as a self-employed translator, depending on your language combination and specialization – if you know how to go about it. But is this a subject that is included in the curriculum at colleges and universities? When I Googled it, there was no shortage of advice offered from a number of source, some of the very questionable. But I did not see any links to this kind of “career planning” offered as a course at a university.

The job market and career choices that new foreign language majors are facing now must be very confusing in these turbulent times. The traditional employment model, based on the employer/employee relationship, is becoming so diluted in the brave, newly globalized world that it may even be on its way out after about two centuries during which it this was the predominant employment pattern.

There are many things that inexperienced translators who are armed only with a brand new diploma should know about.

They should know that they are facing formidable obstacles in the modern job market, obstacles that did not exist when I was young. The public naively believes that in a few years, most human translators will become obsolete as they will be replaced by miraculous translating machines, just like most bank tellers were replaced by miraculous money dispensing machines. Most people do not understand the simple fact that a major limitation of machine translation is …. that it is not translation. Most people are led to believe that machine translation is similar to human translation, that it will be getting incrementally better until it is as good as human translation, and that this ultimate result is just around the corner. That is what they have been told by various assorted snake oil salesmen (people who sell “language technology” for a living) for at least two decades now, so it obviously must be true.

They should know that the corporate translation agency model in the so-called translation industry is based on a predatory relationship in which translators are viewed as easily replaceable, cheap hired help, neatly captured in endless databases containing thousands of worker bee translators, rather than as highly valued experts in their fields. Somebody should explain to them how things work in that part of the translation market and tell them that there are alternatives to the predatory corporate translation agency model and what those alternatives are.

They should know that depending on their language combination, they may be facing competition from countries where most people must survive on a few dollars a day and how translators can deal with these and other problems resulting from globalization.

They should know that there are many specialized “niches”, or fields of specialization where the potential for earning is generally better, such as financial translation, technical translation, or patent translation, and what are the prospects for future developments in different specialized translation fields.

They should be taught the basics of running a business as a self-employed translator. It takes years before a new translator can become confident that his or her particular model is financially sustainable.

There is a whole range of subjects that should be and probably are not taught on colleges and universities to people who are about to graduate with a degree in language studies.

Associations of translators generally do a very poor job of making sure that their members have access to useful information of this kind because they are mostly run by translation agencies. This will be inevitably the result in countries where both translators and translation agencies are allowed to be members of the same “association of translators” because translators’ interests are often diametrically opposed to those of the translation agencies, and the agencies have more money and thus wield a lot of power in such organizations.

Some bloggers emphasize the need for established, experienced translators to mentor young, beginning translators. But this kind of mentoring is probably not going to help a whole lot of people who need access to up-to-date information about their profession.

It would best if the issues and subjects that I am mentioning in this post were discussed as a part of the curriculum at colleges and universities where young people are majoring in a foreign language. Knowledge of this kind in the hand of new translators might eventually start shifting the power away from greedy brokers back to highly educated, specialized translators who are in fact the real language service provider.

I think that it would be really good for our profession if such practical courses were offered as a part of the curriculum at universities where foreign languages are taught, but I don’t think that this is the case at this point.

 

A potential customer inquired a few days ago whether my cost estimate for translating a patent application from French to English would include also charging for words such as “and”, “a”, and “the”. I always feel like responding by saying “only if you want me to include these words in my translation”, but I never actually do that. It is not a good idea to antagonize potential customers.

So let’s consider his question. If the translation cost is based on the word count, is it reasonable to charge the same amount also for simple words like conjunctions and articles?

The word count (or character count, or line count or page count) is a handy quantifier because it can be easily verified. That is why most translators base their cost on one of these quantifiers. But even when they charge by the word, translators are not really charging for the translated words – they are basically charging for their time. If I know how long it will take me to translate 2,000, 3,000 or 4,000 words, I also know how much I will be making per hour.

Some people say that it would be more fair if we could charge by the hour. I would not mind doing that, but I basically have to charge by the word because most translators charge by the word, or by the project – most translators also have a minimum charge for short translations, and some will simply ask for a flat fee for a given project.

What our clients may not realize is that the handy per word quantifier hides a lot of freebies that most translators generally offer to their customers, i.e. a lot of additional work for which we do not charge extra fees.

I just finished translating a fairly long chemical patent from Japanese to English. It was mostly straightforward work for me because I must have translated thousands of patents like this one. Although I charged my lower, non-rush rate, which is reserved for customers who give me enough time to work on their project, I was still making about 600 hundred dollars a day without working too hard.

So I am not complaining. But translating is not just about words. It is about making sense of things. Words are the most visible ingredients of what goes into every translation, but there are many other ingredients in every translation.

Here are few examples of some of these other ingredients that I simply threw in for free in that particular patent translation.

1. Long chemical terms count as 1 word

How many words is “2-(meth)acrylamido-propyltrimethoxysilane, 3-(meth)acrylamido-butyltrimethoxysilane, 4-(meth) acrylamido-hexyltrimethoxysilane”? It looks like about 20 words, but Microsoft Word counts it as 4 words. Who am I to argue with the wise and almighty Microsoft Word? I just accept the MS Word count, which would be in this case the same as the count of these 4 words:”the, “a”, “and”, and “not”.

2. Chemical patents have a lot of formulas which may throw off formatting

These formulas must be scanned and pasted into the text. It generally does not take a long time to do that, but it does take time. And when there several formulas on the same page, it may throw off the formatting, and once something goes wrong with the formatting, I may have to waste a lot of time trying to fix it. This is a problem especially with Japanese which takes up less space on a page because 2 Japanese characters on average correspond to 1 English word.

Because most people don’t charge an additional fee for scanning and formatting of chemical formulas, I don’t dare to add an additional charge either.

3. Chemical patents often include very long and very complicated tables

It is much easier to fit a few Japanese characters into the rows and columns of a table in Japanese than to fit the corresponding English words in a table in English. For example, “重合度” (jūgōdo) means “degree of polymerization” in English. The word “polymerization” alone is about 1.5 times the size of all the three Japanese characters in this chemical term. Recreating a complicated table that was originally in Japanese in English can be a nightmare, especially since MS Word always for some reason sadistically messes up the final formatting of complicated tables.

This particular chemical patent had one complicated, full-page Japanese table in “landscape” orientation in which the words ended up being nonsensically truncated in English by MS Word. After 3 unsuccessful attempts to recreate the table in MS Word, I created it in WordPerfect, which did a much better job, but because I had a file in MS Word, I printed it out and scanned and pasted it into the text as a graphic file.

The table was very important as it was the main proof of the claims of the patent, so I had to keep the same format in English. Because I inserted a graphic file to make sure that everything in the table will be instantly understandable, I did not charge anything for several hundred words contained in that table. Plus, of course, I could not charge anything for the three unsuccessful attempts to create the table in landscape format in MS Word either before WordPerfect saved my life once again.

4. Foreign words transliterated into Japanese may be very difficult to ascertain

There are several reasons for this. When foreign words are transliterated into Japanese, they often become unrecognizable unless you know precisely what they mean. For example, “sexual harassment” becomes “seku hara“, “power harassment” becomes “pawah hara“, etc. Well, the meaning of “seku hara” and “pawah hara” is obvious enough, but the meaning of technical terms adopted from foreign languages and then butchered beyond recognition courtesy of the Japanese language may be less obvious, especially since I don’t necessarily know from which language the term was originally imported. The foreign word could have been in German, or French, or Dutch or another language rather than English.

These foreign words transliterated into one of the Japanese alphabets called katakana can be found relatively easily with a search on the Internet … except when they are misspelled in Japanese. And they are often misspelled in Japanese patents because Japanese chemists and patent agents don’t particularly care about the correct spelling of foreign words in Japanese. For example, I remember a Hitachi patent agent who was consistently misspelling the word “analog”. It should have been written as “anarogu” in Japanese, but the esteemed benrishi was instead writing it as “anaguro“.

Patent agents do this kind of thing all the time. If the foreign word was originally for instance a Dutch or German name, for example of a Dutch or German (or French, or Russian or Polish?) chemist who invented a new method in chemistry, it takes forever to find out what was the original word if it is misspelled in Japanese.

5. Every language and every subject has its own unique challenges

Every translation from every language has its own challenges, and the more different the language is from English or the language into which one translates, the more challenging the translation is likely to be. Overcoming these challenges is also what makes translating so interesting.

Johann Sebastian Bach once famously said:”It is very easy to play any musical instrument. All you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself.”

The same is true also about translation. It is very easy to translate anything into another language. All you have to do is know which keys to touch on the computer keyboard to formulate the right words in another language, just like J.S. Bach knew exactly which keys to touch on an organ’s keyboard to play one of his fugues.

This knowledge is what translators are being paid for, not the simple or complicated words that they are typing while translating.

I can understand it when a client asks a question such as the one in the title of my post today. But when a translation agency insists on discounts for “fuzzy matches” or “full matches” in repeated words or repetitive passages determined by means of software, that makes me really mad. I would never work for a translation agency that does that.

Although discounts may be in order in case of repetitive documents, for example updates of printer manuals or communication software, these discounts should be determined ahead of time based on an agreement between a translator and the client, not based on software controlled by the agency. The translator must be in control at all times, not some software in the hands of a dishonest broker.

Insisting that the ingenious principle of so called “fuzzy matches” or “full matches” should be applied to all translations is a criminal concept which is known in law as “theft of labor”. This kind of fuzzy thinking is very different from a naive question of a customer who is asking whether a translator should also charge for words such as “and”, “a”, and “the”.

 

 

In a previous post titled Seven Unmistakable Signs That A Translation Agency Is A Fake, I listed some of the most telling signs of an agency operating based on the rules of the corporate translation model. Many agencies clearly belong to this category, but definitely not all of them, although to my knowledge, the business model of all large translation agencies is at the present time based on the principle of blinding, insatiable corporate greed.

In this business model, translators are considered easily replaceable, cheap hired help (Kevin Lossner calls them HAMPSTeRs, I call them nanolators, among other choice titles), not as highly educated and highly valued professionals who must be paid and treated accordingly if you want to keep them motivated to work for you.

Large translation agencies are typically owned and run by monolingual people who know nothing about translation per se. While they may not know anything about foreign languages, they know how to maximize their profit, generally at the expense of the busy bees who are working for them. These people are very good salesmen who would be able to make very handsome profits for example by selling refrigerators to Eskimos, I’ll give them that. But still, because the only business they understand is the business of making money, I consider them ignorant parasites who are generally unable to add value to translation. Their main contribution is that they add to the cost – a lot.

So how can a poor translator tell that a translation agency does not subscribe to the holy credo of the corporate translation agency model?

I think that there are several signs that a translation agency may be based on a different model, a model that competes mostly on quality rather than mostly on quantity and price.

I will list seven such telling signs indicating that a translator may be dealing with another kind of translation agency, the kind that is in fact sabotaging the corporate translation mold by using the many weaknesses of the corporate translation model, which is in fact a relatively new phenomenon, only about two decades old.

1. The Translators Are Paid Very Quickly

I work for three such agencies, one mails me a check immediately when my translation has been delivered, one pays within a few days, and the third one pays me on the first and fifteenth of the month, by a transfer to my bank account. These are the only translation agencies that I still work for on a regular basis. The fact that they pay so quickly is very healthy for my cash flow given that some of my customers let me wait five to six weeks before they finally pay me, especially large patent law firms. The stack of bills that would accumulate in five weeks while I am waiting to be paid would be otherwise very thick and all of them would be past due if I did not have clients who pay very quickly.

2. The Translators Are Paid Good Rates

What is a good rate is of course eminently debatable, but you know what is a good rate for you. If your rate is accepted immediately, without haggling and without stupid tricks that not even a somewhat intelligent dog would fall for, such as “full and fuzzy matches” based on advanced CAT mathematics (although many translators fall for these tricks), you are being paid a good rate.

3. The Translation Agency Is Often Run by Former or Current Translators

Unlike the salesman and saleswomen in the corporation translation model, the people who manage the translation business in this model actually know a lot about translating and foreign languages. That is why they don’t need for example to do what ignorant brokers who know nothing about translation have to do, such as give “translation tests” to translators. Once current or former translators take a look at a résumé and send a prospective translator a short, paid job, they can tell easily whether they have a winner, a pitiful plodder, or a total loser.

4. The Translation Agency Specializes in Something Rather Than in Everything

The corporate translation agency model “specializes” in everything and anything as long as there is a potential for major profit in it for the agency. These outfits translate financial materials, patents, they do “transcreation”, subtitling and interpreting, from and into all languages. And why not when they don’t need to know anything about the languages from and into which they are translating, let alone the subjects that the translators will be dealing with. Their motto might just as well be “If we don’t specialize in it, it doesn’t exist”.

But there are also translation agencies that do specialize in only a few defined areas, such as patents and technical translation, or financial translation, and the best ones usually only translate from a few languages, namely those that the people who run the agency understand.

5. Confidentiality Agreements Are in Fact Confidentiality Agreements

Confidentiality agreements did exist two or three decades ago, before the advent of the corporate translation agency model. But they were only a few dozen words long because these were in fact confidentiality agreement whose purpose was to ensure that confidential information will not be leaked out to third parties by dumb translators.

Recently I was contacted by a translation agency interested in finding out what I would be able to do for the agency’s bottom line. The “Confidentiality Agreement” had almost seven thousand words, and the payment terms were “60 days net”.

Needless to say, I told them to take a hike as I did not want to waste any more time with them.

6. You Are Not a “Dear Linguist” (They Remember Your Name)

I used to translate validation protocols for tests of new pharmaceuticals from Japanese to English for a tiny, highly specialized translation agency, run by a husband and wife team. Sometime it was hard work as some of the documents were handwritten, but fortunately, they were mostly written in a neat handwriting. The husband, who had a PhD in chemistry, was the proofreader, and the wife was in charge of accounting. They paid me very handsome rates, especially since they paid 1.5 times my usual rate for rush translations, defined as work on Saturdays and Sundays or more than about 2,000 words per working day.

Then the elderly couple retired and sold their business to another translation agency. The change in the attitude of the new owners toward translators was really striking. Shortly after the transfer of ownership, I received an e-mail asking about my availability for a small translation addressed to a “Dear Linguist”. When I answered the e-mail within about 10 minutes, the project manager in this new agency that in fact paid among other things the old owners also for information about my services informed me that the translation was already assigned to another translator. When I asked how was that possible since I responded to the first e-mail very quickly, the project manager told me that the work is assigned first to “first responders”. I told her to delete me from their database of translators because I would never work for the agency again. The owner of the agency actually called me, apologized for “an oversight” and tried to pacify me to keep me working for him, but I just gave him a piece of my mind and hung up on him.

When you receive an e-mail addressed to a “Dear Linguist” or a “Dear Translator”, the agency does not really give a damn who will do the translation because the e-mail is sent to several warm bodies to find out which one of them will bite first and quote the lowest rate.

7. Personal Accountability Is Not a Problem in a Small Agency

When you work for a translation agency that is based on the corporate translation model, it is very difficult to ask questions and solve problems because the tasks are divided, distributed and delegated to different people who may not understand what the problem is, or who may prefer not to make themselves available if there is a problem. For example, if a payment is not received on time, it is generally very easy to establish what went wrong if you are dealing with an agency consisting of a husband and wife team.

But when you deal with the large, corporate translation agency type, you may not even know how to contact the accounting department, and even if you do that, they may or may not get back to you within a reasonable period of time with a reasonable explanation.

Part of the advantage of this structure – from their viewpoint – is that nobody is really accountable and responsible for anything. As usual, an advantage for them is a disadvantage for the translators.

Given that the translation model of some, or possibly many, small translation agencies is diametrically opposed to the large, corporate translation model (paying good rate and on time instead of peanuts in 60 days, real specialization instead of “specialization in everything”, absence of incredibly long agreements designed to turn translators into subservient, cheap hired help, emphasis on the qualifications and capabilities of individual translators instead of emphasis on the profit margin and on the bottom line über alles), one could say that the translation agency model described above is sabotaging the corporate translation model.

But that’s not how I see it. We should not forget that the large translation agency model is a relative newcomer, while the old model, described above, has been pretty much the norm for a very long time. Thirty years ago, large translation agencies simply did not exist. It was only the advent of Internet that made it possible for brokers who don’t really know anything about translating to start businesses, small, not so small and huge, called translation agencies.

Small, specialized, accountable translation agencies may be sabotaging the corporate translation model, but they are not sabotaging the translating profession. It is the large, corporate translation model that is sabotaging what not so long ago was a promising and rewarding occupation. This model is also the main reason why the quality of so many translations is often so poor.

Translators who refuse to work for the corporate translation behemoths are thus playing a small but important role in helping to restore a healthier balance to the translation market, healthier not only with respect to the incomes that we are able to achieve as translators, but also with respect to the quality of translations that can be provided by individual translators and highly specialized translation agencies to their clients.

Posted by: Steve Vitek | July 14, 2014

The Bulk Translation Market Just Got Even Bulkier

 

“URGENT!

Can You Speak English? Can You Speak another language?

WE HAVE A JOB FOR YOU!

Thousands of people online are discovering how doing simple translator jobs from home can be very profitable! See how they’re making money doing this by signing up now!

LIMITED POSITIONS JOIN TODAY
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Work with established, REAL companies and individuals.
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START GETTING PAYED [sic]

Fill out the form to get started translating and receive other money making opportunities!”

[From a website promising translation work to people who "can speak English and another language"]

I often talk in my posts about the sad situation in the “translation industry”. You don’t really have to know anything about foreign languages to run a translation agency. In fact, if you look at the background of the people who are running large translation agencies, many if not most of the “leaders in the translation industry”, at least those whose first language is English, are proudly monolingual brokers.

If you asked them whether the knowledge of what it is that they happen to be selling is a requirement to be a “leader in the translation industry”, this is what would probably think, although they would not say it in so many words:”Foreign languages are for the dumb worker bees who have no choice but to work for us, we are smart entrepreneurs and bold innovators. We don’t need no stinkin’ languages!”

A car salesman who cannot drive a car would be a major anomaly in the car selling business. It might make selling cars to customers difficult. A certain familiarity with the product, in addition to the certain je ne sais quoi that every salesman needs, is a given in the car selling profession.

Things are different in the translation selling profession. Many if not most of the salesmen and saleswomen in this line or work would be completely clueless about another language than their own.

But even these boldly monolingual salesmen and saleswomen of translations may eventually learn a few things about foreign languages. For instance, they might eventually learn the word count in English is about 20% higher than the word count in German due to numerous compound nouns in German, or that 2 Japanese characters, including kanji, hiragana and katakana, usually equal one English word, if they sell the honey that is produced by their worker bees by the word. Or if they don’t want to waste their genius on learning something about the product that they are selling, they might hire a few multilingual people to help with the management of translation projects – at the lowest paid positions, of course!

But a new breed of intrepid translation selling entrepreneurs is now entering the noble profession of translation brokers. These people not only realized that you don’t really have to know anything about foreign languages to sell translations, they even go one step further. They promise to be able to provide well paid work for people who really don’t need to know much about languages (or anything else) either as long as they “can speak a foreign language”. If you click on the link and enter your e-mail (a fictional one will do), you will be treated to several stories of anonymous translators (they will show you inspiring pictures, but no names) who make from 92 to 128 thousand dollars translating at home.

You too can make this kind of money, the blurb says, in the comfort of your home, if you “can speak a foreign language”. All you have to do is pay them 72 dollars to access a database of companies that can’t wait to start sending you highly profitable translation work.

But wait, that’s not all. There is a special sale on, today and only today you can become a member for 36 dollars! So why wait? Start making a six figure income right now!

Anything goes in the bulk translation market, and this is just another layer of the same market. Let’s try to identify some of the layers exerting downward pressure on translation fees in the bulk translation market.

1. Translation agencies in Chindia, but also for example in some countries in Europe, have been hammering the rates paid to translators for more than a decade now. There are countries where one can live on a few dollars a day. Why not base rates paid to translators worldwide on what one needs to survive in these countries? The textile industry has been doing exactly that for decades. A few hundred seamstresses have died horrible deaths, burnt to crisp in fires or buried under rubble, but the profits are absolutely worth it.

2. Blind translation auction sites online have been depressing translation rates for about the same period of time. When dozens of translators compete for the same job offered by an anonymous source (anonymous because the rates are so low that the agency might be ashamed to reveal its name) by trying to underbid each other, the rates are not much better than Chindian rates.

3. Many translation agencies are trying to acquire new customers by falsely promising them “technological solutions” such as machine translation or computer-assisted translation tools that will help them “save a great deal of money” on translation, or completely eliminate the need for expensive human translators. These technical solutions do save money – to customers who don’t mind receiving garbage instead of real translations.

4. New enterprises are being started (with other people’s capital), based on the idea that anybody who “knows another language” can start working for a new “translation platform” on the Internet and translate from home on a laptop or even on a smart phone, for example while sitting in the bathroom. What an ingenious multitasking concept … n’est-ce pas???? It must have been invented by a compulsive iPhone user (albeit clearly a monolingual one). The people who start these projects are not really crazy – after all, it’s not their money. Before the inevitable collapse of the enterprise, there is a good chance that a lot of the original capital invested by “angel investors” will remain in their pockets.

I could probably come up with more examples if my mind worked better this morning (or maybe you can). People are incredibly gullible these days when it comes to scams for selling translations and anything to do with foreign languages, which seems to be especially true about English-speaking countries where most people know very little about foreign languages.

As I wrote in another post two years ago, there is a company advertising something called “Pimsleur approach to learning languages as a revolutionary new method for learning a language, any language, in 10 short days and without really trying. The advertisements say among other things that our brains are “wired to learn a language in 10 days” and all we have to do is “activate this wired part of our brain”, which is something that somebody called Dr. Pimsleur figured out years ago to come up with a revolutionary new method to learn a language, any language, in 10 short days and without really trying. Selling this miraculous language learning method must be a very profitable business because I see it advertised on the Internet constantly.

***************

So does the bulk of the bulk translation market weigh heavily upon the shoulders of this patent translator, you might ask? Hmmmm …… no, because it really has nothing to do with my work.

Last week I was translating a long legal brief from German, 14 thousand words. It was full of long, impenetrable German sentences in which one German patent lawyer was destroying (and thus showing off his brilliance) the technical and legal argument of another patent lawyer representing the opposition in a lawsuit over very complicated details of data transmission between mobile stations and base stations.

The technical part was easy for me, the legal part was more challenging. But at this point, after 27 years of almost daily practice, I can handle both parts of a complex legal and technical argument in German, Japanese, or French.

I am starting this week so far with two Japanese patents about optical systems using old liquid crystal technology. I haven’t started translating yet, but this kind of thing is usually a piece of cake for me.

I don’t know what other subjects the week will bring, but I am looking forward to it. The bulk translation market probably does exert some influence even on translators who have been working in their particular niche markets for many years, but this influence is mostly indirect and temporary.

After the dust has settled, highly specialized translators will still be here, long after most of the layers in the structure of parasitic and ignorant brokers, who seem to know so much about how to make money, and yet they don’t even know how to spell the past participle of the verb “pay”, has been erased from memory by the passage of time.

 

Posted by: Steve Vitek | July 10, 2014

The Tumult and Turmoil in the Translation Industry

 

The “translation industry” (hereinafter “the Industry”) has been in tumult and turmoil for more than a decade now. When one compares the situation today to what was “normal and expected” 20 or 25 years ago, the difference is breathtaking.

Breathtaking, sad, and discouraging.

Translators are definitely living in interesting times, as per a purported Chinese curse (“May you live in interesting times”), which is in fact an English proverb rather than an evil curse from the Orient since according to Wikipedia, the closest Chinese saying would be:”宁为太平犬,莫作乱离人” (níng wéi tàipíng quǎn, mò zuòluàn lí rén) which means “better to live as a dog in an era of peace than a man in times of trouble.”

Nobody is really talking about what is happening in the Industry, at least not officially, if you discount a few mad bloggers such as myself and heated discussions on discussion groups of translators. And translators are reaping the harvest of a decade of official silence and indifference. As one commenter on my blog (Shai) put it, ” …. many professional translation practitioners are now paying the cost of a decade of silence and indifference as a result of the activity of many charlatans/opportunists who established a narrative that many buyers were exposed to.”

If you read the ATA (American Translators Association) Chronicle, nothing untoward is happening in the Industry. In a typical ATA article, translators will receive for example copious advice from a translation agency operator on how to prepare a perfect invoice that meets with her approval, or on how to “better integrate” machine translation (MT) and computer assisted tools (CATs) into our daily work. The rest of the magazine is filled with advertisements from the NSA and companies selling indispensable tools such as Trados.

Oh, and we are often also told, in the ATA Chronicle, but also on blogs of translators, that “customers have come to expect discounts for fuzzy matches”.

Which is a lie. I have been working mostly for direct clients since the early nineties and not once was I asked by a customer for a discount based on advanced level mathematics courtesy of a CAT. Some customers may in fact do that, but most only know about four-legged CATs called Blackie, Fluffy, and Tiger. But translators definitely are asked all the time for discounts based on a weird concept of what is known in the Industry as “fuzzy matches” and “full matches”. As another commenter (Peter) on my blog put it, “so-called CAT tools are the biggest hoax ever perpetrated on the translation community.”

Although you could also say that wage theft is not such an outlandish  concept, depending on your perspective. It has certainly been practiced for centuries and it is now more popular then ever.

What has been happening in the industry for at least the last decade is a concentrated effort to harness and leverage technology and combine it with modern business management methods to maximize the profits of translation agencies at the expense of translators.

While a decade or two ago, most translation agencies were trying to identify highly educated and experienced translators and keep them busy working on their team by paying them handsome rates because the good reputation and loyalty of  the customers of the agency depended on the skills of its translators, the new management method sees translators more as easily replaceable, low skill workers, comparable to burger flippers at McDonalds who are invariably paid minimum wage.

The hunt is on for the cheapest translator who can in theory do the work of an experienced and highly qualified translator, but for a fraction of what such a translator would be charging. This is again a sincere and flattering imitation of the corporate business model.

Large corporations found out a long time ago that the cheapest workers can be found in third world countries. That is why they first moved their factories back in the eighties and nineties to Mexico, then more recently from Mexico to China, and now, as the Chinese giant is rising and demanding better pay, they are looking for a new territory where labor is plentiful and where it could be even cheaper.

Where will they go next? Vietnam and the People’s Republic of North Korea look good at this point.

Translation agencies, large and small, but especially large, are thus imitating the corporate model that is based on squeezing as much work for as little money as possible from workers who in this case are sometime called translators.

I used the word “sometime” because one of the new promising technologies is “crowd sourcing”, also called “clown sourcing” by translators, an innovative technique and technology that renders translators completely unnecessary. Why use expensive translators who have completely unnecessarily studied for years or decades languages and various complicated subjects such as chemistry, medicine or law when you can instead send in the clowns who are much cheaper?

Based on the concept of “crowdsourced translation”, anybody who has some knowledge of a second language can be a translator, and translating can be done easily even by a dude sitting on his throne in the bathroom, pecking away on his cell phone. People like that would deliver even higher profits than the cheapest translators anywhere in the world since they could be probably talked into working for free.

Or if not for free, than at least as cheaply as possible. Here is how one commenter (Shai again) describes the business structure in the brave new world of modern translation agencies:

“Contrary to common belief, not all agencies are working with end clients; there are a lot of hand-downs and some agencies mainly serve bigger agencies. Those at the top funnel the work in, pass it down to a regional agency, who in turn pass it down to a local/”single-language” agency, who might even pass it down to another agency before it reaches the “translator” who will actually to the translation part of the work.

These are the broker types of agencies who have taken over large parts of the low bulk market. in the last decade or so. While anyone can easily declare themselves to be a translator, it is even easier to declare oneself an “agency”. At least when one is calling oneself a translator, one should be able to produce something that looks like a translation (and I’m not even talking about pure frauds who don’t know any second language and just use Google Translate for that), whereas to become an agency, one doesn’t need anything more than a cheap laptop. One can then use free services, or setup a cheap website and the agency is good to go. This gave rise to the bedroom/dorm room/kitchen table brokers who use the Internet and bidding platforms to directly compete with the independent translators for work coming through agencies (while exploiting the fact that so many translators prefer to hide).

The result of this inefficient structure is that even if the end client has paid $0.30, $0.40, and even $0.50 per word, after the chain of brokers has taken their cut, the client gets a $0.05 worth of core service. The rest goes to fund the brokers’ overhead and bonuses, apartments with a view, and business litigation.

When working with an intermediate, it is not about how much one is willing to pay and the quality of service one seeks, ultimately it is all about how much the intermediates pay and what quality of service they are structured to offer.”

The logical result of this tumult and turmoil is a constant pressure on rates that many translation agencies are willing to pay to translators, especially agencies following to corporate business model, which would probably include all large translation agencies.
The market segment that I was just describing in my post is also referred to by some translators as the bulk translation market. This is where most beginning translators start, and some will stay there forever.

But there is also a premium translation market, which is where translators and translation agencies who want to survive these tumultuous times, translators and translation agencies who strive to offer quality that is based on education, experience, expertise and dedication to the best possible level of service, need to be.

It does not take a genius to see that economic survival in the bulk translation market will be increasingly more and more difficult, if not impossible. And if that is where you still are, you too may soon be roadkill.

 

When a tree falls in a forest and there is nobody around to hear it, does it make a sound? There are two possible answers to this old philosophical riddle, depending on how we define the concept of “making a sound”. If it is defined as something that is perceived by human ear, than the answer is “no” if nobody heard the falling tree. If it is defined as the vibrations and waves caused by a falling tree, then the answer is “yes”.

When translators complain about low rates and shady and repugnant practices of some translation agencies on their blogs and discussion groups, does it make a difference? The answer to this relatively new riddle, which is more practical than philosophical, depends among other things on how we define the term “complain” and the term “make a difference”.

Not so long ago, almost nobody would have heard the voice of a lone translator crying in the wilderness because her invoice has not been paid for the last three months. All she could do would be perhaps to e-mail or call a few friends to warn them about another dishonest company, but that was about it. Her voice did not carry very far.

But things have changed. Although as we learned in our Latin class, “Vox audita perit, litera scripta manet [a voice heard perishes, a written letter remains] was true centuries ago, it has never been more true than now when words that are written by somebody who is complaining on LinkedIn, for example, can be instantly read by thousands of people on their PCs, laptops, tablets and smart phones.

The written words that we leave on the Internet will stay there practically forever. A negative comment about somebody’s business practices may over time translate into many lost sales opportunities.

It is not just negative comments of other people that can cause damage to the bottom line. Short-term savings driven by greed can sometime also result in long-term losses because unlike in the past, the sound that a falling tree makes on the Internet may now be heard by many people and for many years.

A translation agency operator was recently looking for translators who would be interested in translating the text on his website into several foreign languages in exchange for a vague promise of potential work sometime in the future. He did not have to wait long because there are thousands of translators (mostly would-be translators) out there who are in fact willing to work for nothing. So he saved several hundred dollars by taking advantage of these people.

I wonder whether this person realized that every time when a new potential customer searches for information about his company, every such potential customer may find out also that this particular company is saving money by making people work for them for free.

Most companies understand that what people say on blogs and social media is very important because it can have a positive or negative impact on sales. That is why every company now has a corporate blog and tweets and posts on Facebook, and every company now has to pay their own employees who are basically PR people whose job it is to try to create a positive image of the company on the Internet.

The problem with the corporate blogs is that nobody reads them because the people who are paid to periodically post something positive about the company are usually unable to come up with something that people whose attention span is generally quite short would be interested in reading.

But still, even bland and boring corporate blogs help to drive sales when the key words contained in them are picked up by web crawlers of search engines such as Google.

***************

It so happens that as I was writing this post, I received an e-mail from a translation agency (like many translators, I suffer from so-called compulsive e-mail checking disorder, one of the signs of a pernicious modern disease called translator’s dementia).

The e-mail said among other things this:

I’m contacting you as I’m recruiting for a new project with one of our major clients.

Strong medical translation experience is required for this project. The work is on-going from this client. The volumes for projects we are already receiving are expected to increase whilst we have also won new studies from the client for this language combination.

And this was my brief response to them:

When I searched for information about your company on the Internet, I came across a lot of very negative comments of translators about your company’s business practices.

I am not interested in working for your company.

Have a nice life.

***************

When a tree falls these days in the endless green forest we call Internet, the question is no longer whether somebody will hear the sound of the falling tree, but how many hundreds, thousands, or millions of people will hear that sound, and for how many years the sound will reverberate through the Internet.

 

Like everybody who has a website, I receive tons of junk e-mails every day. Because my website offers translation services, a good portion of these junk e-mails is from “translators” who would like to work for me.

99.99% of these people seem to have absolutely no experience in the field that I work in, they also have absolutely no idea what kind of translations I specialize in (hint: the website is at http://www.patenttranslators.com), and about the same percentage of these e-mails is written in such horrible English that I would not touch these “translators” with a ten foot pole even if they claimed to have relevant experience.

I am also often asked for advice for prospective translators by my neighbors and by people I meet when they find out what it is that I do for living. It seems that there are many people out there who “speak several languages”, and quite a few of them either have no job, or they hate the job they have and would like to do something else for a change.

Officially there are no barriers to entry into the translating profession, at least not here in the United States. You don’t need to have a degree and/or experience in anything, all you have to do is say that you can do it, pay a small yearly fee to the City Hall for a generic business license and you are in business.

Which must be one reason why the quality of translations vary so greatly and why a big percentage of what passes for and is sold to clients as translation is really horrible garbage.

But there are also other reasons for this sad, sad, state of things.

I also receive junk e-mails from translation agencies, often located in third world countries, but sometime right here. The last one, from California, said this:

Dear Linguist:

We would like to inquire about your interest in an Editing/Proof assignment.

PROJECT INFO:

The subject: Technical
Wordcount: 10000 words target aprox
Languages: Japanese into English USA
TRADOS: no
Format: MS Word
Budget: 350 usd aprox

Thank you for your time and consideration. We look forward to your reply.

So not only are there hundreds of thousands of people who think that they can translate out there, but there are also tens of thousands of agencies who are trying to use the really cheap human starting material of the product called translation in order to make very good profit with the following simple and ingenious method:

1. If you have an inquiry from a potential customer, bid a very low price to underbid all potential competition.

2. Find an extremely cheap translator (usually a beginner, or somebody located in a low-cost country, a third world country if possible).

3. Find a highly experienced and reputable translator who in fact knows what s/he is doing and make him or her edit the initial translation at a very low rate, although somewhat better than what the actual translator would be paid.

This method could work if the people working in or running the translation agency actually knew something about the subjects and languages that they are translating. But because most of them translate “all subjects from an into any language”, they in fact don’t know anything about anything.

The translation agency wanted me to proofread a translation from Japanese and accept “the budget” without being able to see and examine the translation first, which is also called “to buy a pig in a poke”. Incidentally, according to Wikipedia, (everybody’s favorite resource for anything and everything because it is free as it is based on work done by people who work for free), this idiom, which originates in the Late Middle Ages, refers to the practice when low-quality pig meat was sold to careless customers on the market in a bag, namely customers who did not bother to carefully check what was in the bag (or poke). When pig meat was scarce, while cats and dogs were not, the meat that the poke contained was often dog meat or cat meat.

A highly specialized translation agency which specializes only in certain fields and certain languages may be able to identify a talented beginning translator and turn him into a really good translator by supplying such a translator with translations in a given field after a few years.

This is how things used to work when I was starting out as a translator almost thirty years ago. To this day I am grateful to the translation agencies who gave me a chance to become a highly specialized translator when I was a total beginner.

But that is not how things work now.

Based on what I have seen, most of the translation agencies who translate “any language and any subject” have no idea what subjects they are dealing with, especially if the coordinators working in the agency don’t even understand the languages that they are “managing”, which is often the case.

But since based on their business model, they still need make a buck from anything and everything having to do with the translating universe, they use the method outlined above in the hope that things will work out in the end and the resulting translation will be of acceptable quality.

Sometime things do work out, but most of the time they probably don’t when you try to use a cheap translator in combination with an inexpensive editor, while you yourself are unable to evaluate the resulting product.

I ignore these offers of editing work for two main reasons:

1. The rates for editing are invariably so low that this kind of work is not really worth my while.
2. I would have to be really dumb to make what I learned over a number of decades in my line of work available to some translation agency by editing translations done by other people, often translations of inferior quality.

So I only edit translation that were done by translators who are working for me.

An individual translator who has been specializing in a certain type of translation for a long type, who is usually relatively expensive, is much more likely to do a very good job than an inexpensive translator who works for one of the thousands of agencies using the method described above.

Translators who do really good work exist too. Unfortunately, most of the time they have no idea how to find their own direct clients and direct clients are unlikely to find them since most of the time they don’t even have a website.

 

Posted by: Steve Vitek | July 1, 2014

The Dead Boy Is Now Selling Mops

 

Every day I have a strange compulsion to check out a disgusting website.

Well, it’s not really so strange, and it’s not really a compulsion either. I go to weather.com because I want to know what the weather is going to be like today.

Weather.com probably has a new advertising manager now who really has a knack for what works best in advertising. Of course, the best thing to advertise just about anything is sex. Or at least it used to be, for a long time.

Use a suggestive picture of some naked or semi-naked really pretty (or really ugly, makes no difference) female, or even male as long as it is a celebrity engaged in something that looks like an adulterous act, (true or false, makes no difference), and people will definitely want to see it. A whole industry has been selling millions of copies of glossy magazines for decades now based on this simple principle.

I don’t really have a problem with that and when I stand in the checkout line at the supermarket, I sometime pick up a copy of one of these magazines and look for a few seconds at the pictures and scan the articles. After all, I am no celebrity, and nobody would want to see me naked, so I am pretty safe in that respect.

Weather.com does not use pictures of naked celebrities to get people to click on them, perhaps because so many other websites and publications do that too and they want to distinguish themselves from the rest of the eyeball-hungry crowd. My theory is that a new advertising director, who must have put in place a new, more effective and more family-friendly advertising policy recently at weather.com, discovered that dead children work almost as well as sex when it comes to the number of mouse clicks and that millions of eyeballs of consumers of products and services will be glued to a picture of a child who died, preferably a gruesome death.

The more gruesome the death of the child, the better for the number of clicks. Last week they used a picture of a pretty blue-eyed, blond girl, very young, maybe 7 years old. I did not click on it because I did not want to know how she died, but the text under the picture said that she died while on vacation in a summer camp.

This week they have on the site a picture of a cute blue-eyed boy, about 3 years old, who died of heat exhaustion because his father left him locked up in a car on a hot day. Again, I don’t know the details of the story because I did not really want to know them. I think that the story was also in my newspaper and probably also on TV, but I am not sure because I try not to read or watch things like that.

I try to look for real news when I drink my first cup of coffee in the morning before I start working, but something like that is getting harder and harder to find these days in my newspaper. There must be something wrong with me if knowing exactly how horrible the death of a little child was is not something that I want to know, while most people do want to know every little detail of the story.

But I did click on the picture of this blond boy who is dead now, although he is obviously very much alive in that picture, because I was wondering what product or service did weather.com make the dead child sell. Nowadays when we click on a picture introducing another scandalous story about a naked or at least a semi-naked celebrity, or better yet a dead child, we don’t get the story right away, of course. First we have to watch for anywhere between 5 to 20 seconds an advertising clip. The picture is just the bait, the real product is the advertisement.

So I found out that the dead boy was used by weather.com to advertise a mop. Well, I suppose you could say that in this way his death, gruesome as it was, was at least good for something. The boy must have sold a lot of mops after he died, which probably helps the economy. Or at least it makes money for people who own a lot of mop shares.

Because the premature death of a young, beautiful person evokes in us such powerful emotions, it was often used as a theme by a talented artist to create something beautiful.

Taj Mahal, perhaps the most stunningly beautiful palace on this planet, was built three and half centuries ago as an expression of love of an Indian emperor for his wife who died much too soon. Edgar Allan Poe wrote his poem “The Raven” as an expression of the incredible sadness that the premature death of a beautiful young woman evokes in most human beings. Maurice Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infante défunte” was inspired by a similar theme.

In our enlightened age, we are more practical than lyrical. We simply use dead children to sell services and goods, like for instance mops.

 

 

Translators are often exposed to messages, sometime clearly stated, sometime subliminal, “to increase their productivity” by using various nifty “translation technology tools”. We are told that if for example we start using voice recognition software (such as Dragon Naturally Speaking), or start post-editing chunks of text that were “translated” by software, or using this or that CAT (computer-assisted translation tool), we will become much more efficient and make more money because we will double or triple our translating speed.

Is this really true? Well, the bit about using post-editing of machine translation to increase your translating speed is obviously nonsense. As I wrote about it in my last post and many other posts, I am not going to waste more time on this subject in this post.

Although I myself never tried voice recognition software, several translators who are using it have only or mostly positive things to say about it. But the interesting thing is, most of them only started using it when they had no other choice when frequent and repetitive typing resulted in carpal tunnel syndrome.

As most readers of my blog know, I am not a proponent of CATs and I will probably never start using these tools either. Although I do think that they must be suitable for some types of translations because many (but by no means all) translators are so enamored of these tools, I also agree with the opinion of a guest blogger who called them “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the translation community” on this blog.

Translators who refuse to adopt the latest slew of “translation technology tools” are often ridiculed as silly technology haters. Is that really what those of us who are not exactly early adopters of latest technical “aids” are, just because we believe in old-fashioned translating methods that are based on specialization and constant learning about the subjects that we are translating, a methodology that has been used successfully since the times of St. Jerome about 1,500 years ago, instead of believing that the miracle of technology will miraculously double or triple our translating speed?

Consider the Source

The first thing that I would like to say in response to such characterizations of translators who refuse to jump on the bandwagon would be: Always consider the source! Who are the people who call us technology haters because we are not buying this or that nifty tool that would be so great for every translator? Who do they represent and why are they saying what they are saying?

They generally represent the corporate wing of what for lack of a better name is called “the translation industry”. This is the same translation industry that first sold translators on the notion that they will be able to easily translate ten thousand words a day, instead of only two or three thousand, if they start using Trados. And once enough translators fell into the trap, the same “translation industry” introduced new handy notions called “full matches” and “fuzzy matches” which are widely used in order to extract huge discounts from translators when the same or similar words are repeated in the text.

Most of these translation technology evangelists, if you will (although I think that translation technology propagandists would be a more appropriate title), are not really translators and many of them have only a rudimentary understanding of what translation is really about. Most of them run translation agencies, or they sell tools or services to the translation industry, including expert analyses of present and future business trends, a highly profitable science that has been practiced in ancient Rome by people called “haruspeces” who  were able to divine future from entrails of sacrificially slaughtered animals. (I think it was Cicero who famously said that he could not understand why a haruspex does not laugh when he sees another haruspex).

While it is in the interest of the “translation industry” to make translators work faster, it is not in the interest of the same industry to help them to make more money because the more money a translator makes, the less is left over for the brokers.

And although they like to call themselves “Language Services Providers (LSPs), the translation industry is an industry of middlemen and brokers. That is the real reason why they came up with the acronym LSP in the hope that it would over time replace the more honest term “translation agency”.

Different Translators Work Differently

What works for one person very well may not work at all for somebody else. We are all different people, with different strengths and weaknesses and different inclinations. Some of us translate only from one language and mostly in a relatively narrow field, some of us translate from several languages and in a number of fields. Some people work best in the morning, and some can pull an all-nighter when necessary.

How we work and what tools we use is really nobody’s business. People who try to tell a translator what CAT must be used are not really interested in the particular expertise and skills of that translator, they are just looking for an obedient worker bee.

I don’t tell the plumber what kind of wrench he should use to fix my leaking kitchen sink, and he would probably get really mad at me if I did. I just want him to fix it at a reasonable price. The result is what counts, I leave the choice of the tools up to the professionals.

Some people work very fast and some are not that fast. But just like it is a bad idea to demand that a certain set of tools should be used by every translator, it is also a bad idea to expect the same standardized method with a standardized output, measured in words, will be best for every translator.

Instead of Trying to Increase Your Speed with a New Tool, Try to Increase Your Rate

I know, something like that is easier said than done. But it can be done. It can be done because the translation market is so incredibly fragmented. While it is very difficult to ask for more money for the same work from the same customer, it may work with another customer, especially when a new customer is an end client rather than an agency.

It is also a fact that different translation agencies pay very different rates. Those that try to dictate to translators exactly how they should do their work, including what kind of tools they should be using, generally pay the lowest rates because they don’t see translators as professionals who deserve to be paid accordingly, but mostly as easily replaceable help that should be naturally as cheap as possible.

It makes sense to work instead for those who are much more interested in our education, experience and expertise rather than in what kind of technical tool we are using because people like that generally also pay much better rates.

Don’t tell me what tools I should be using. What tools I am or I am not using as a translator is nobody’s business.

The second part of the clearly stated or subliminal messages telling us that we should double our translating speed with this or that tool, which is never included in these messages, not even subliminally, is that if we in fact do double our speed, the people who are trying to sell us on this or that tool will insist on paying us half as much for our work as they used to and on keeping the profit from the increase in our productivity for themselves.

Posted by: Steve Vitek | June 25, 2014

Machine Translation Is Not Translation

 

In spite of what various snake oil salesmen and saleswomen have been trying to make us believe for many years now, machine translation (MT) does not make it possible for translators to increase their productivity by incorporating MT into their normal translating workflow. The general public generally does not yet understand it, but most translators at this point do understand that the main problem with machine translation is that machine translation is not translation.

MT is a translation tool, just like a dictionary or a bilingual database on Internet, but it is not translation. A bilingual, context based-database on Internet, with whole sentences, sometime accurate, but often not, and even with whole paragraphs that look like a real translation, would be a better description of MT than adding the word “translation” after the first accurate descriptor “machine”.

Sentences processed by MT sometime make sense, and sometime they make no sense. What is even worse is that sometime something that looks like it makes perfect sense is total nonsense. This is why MT cannot be used by translators to “increase their productivity by integrating MT into their work process” as those who need to sell this “linguistic technology” to gullible clients would want us to believe. It takes such a long time to separate the wheat from the chaff during so-called editing of MT, especially when chaff can at first glance look like wheat because “editing” of MT always involves a lot of retranslating, a conditio sine qua non if we want to avoid mistranslation.

But many companies have invested so heavily in machine translation in the hope that eventually they would be able to save the money that they used to have to pay to humans called translators that at this point they may be trapped in a labyrinth of illusions of their own making. (My heart goes out to them, of course).

MT has been 5 years away from becoming “almost as good as human translation” for so long now, at least for the last 5 decades. At this pace, it will still be 5 years away from this resplendent goal for at least the next 5 centuries.

As somebody who has been translating patents from Japanese, German, French and other languages into English for 27 years, I appreciate MT for what it is – an extremely useful tool for translators and non-translators alike. But from my viewpoint, MT is a most wonderful tool especially for translators.

I remember the days when there was no MT in the eighties and nineties. Not only that, the legibility of documents was often horrible when after a second or even third generation fax, Japanese characters that were originally beautifully clear and crisp became but poor shadows of what they used to be, like shadows of ideas on the wall of Plato’s cave.

Digital copy has then finally put an end to this particular torturing of translator’s eyes and brain, and MT has later made it still easier for translators to do their work, for example by quickly locating possible translations of technical terms, or even the correct pronunciations of personal and geographical names, which used to be very difficult to ascertain in Japanese before easy access to MT for the most part solved this and other problems.

At the beginning of 21st century, I consider myself very lucky because like everybody else, I now generally have access to clearly legible copies of documents in foreign languages, especially patents. And before I start translating a patent, I generally print out an MT version of the text in Japanese or another language because it helps me with my work. MT helps me in the same way that a specialized dictionary or a specialized online database helps, but it does not do my work for me.

I look at the printed text quite a bit when I start translating because at that point, I am still formulating in my mind the terms that I will be using, and suggestions from the MT tool are often useful (although they can be also misleading).

If it made sense for me to “edit” the MT-processed text and pretend that it is my own work – hey, I would do it myself! Why not if I could work faster and make more money in this manner?

But it so happens that things don’t work like this in translation, because, as I said at the beginning, while machine translation is a very useful tool, it is not translation. If I tried to edit the MT text, no matter how much and for how long I tried to edit the damn thing, the editing process would necessarily introduce abominations conceived in the brain of a machine into a human translation to such an extent that I would lose all of my clients very quickly.

The only real solution for all of the problems inherent in machine translation is a retranslation.

This is something that is difficult to explain to people who don’t know much about translation, especially since expecting that technology will keep delivering new fantastic miracles to us on a daily basis is deeply rooted now in the very essence of our so-called civilization.

But as more and more people now have direct experience with MT as it is available to anyone for free with access to a computer, tablet or smart phone, I am hoping that fewer people will be giving me the uncomprehending look that I sort of became used to over the years when I try to explain to non-translators why MT is a gift to human translators rather than a curse that will eventually do away with my profession.

As most people have already used MT on their own, or will be using it soon, more and more of them will hopefully start understanding what MT is and what it isn’t.

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