Posted by: Steve Vitek | April 16, 2014

Life Is Just A Game Of “Red Lights – Green Lights”


When my sons were still small I sometime used to take them roller skating on Sunday afternoon. I used to love skating with them to forgettable music (Backstreet Boys and Gwen Stefani were big back then), or watching them when they were playing their silly games such as “hokey-pokey”, or “red lights-green lights”.

“I’m a Barbie Girl” was also a very popular song among the juvenile delinquents from 4 to 17 about twenty years ago, until some well meaning but seriously misguided mothers noticed the suggestive lyrics and had it banned – the same misguided mothers, descendents of embittered and unfulfilled killjoys from England called Puritans, who had the legal age for drinking raised from 18 to 21 years in the United States, thus causing an epidemic of binge drinking among rebellious American teenagers.

Why do mothers always have to spoil all the fun for all the kids?

“Red lights-green lights” was my favorite game to watch.

In this game, one kid, designated as “it” plays the role of a stop light. The kids line up at a certain distance from “it”, who, facing away from them, suddenly turns around and shouts “green lights!”. In that moment, the kids start frantically skating as quickly as possible toward “it”. But they must not go too fast and they must pay really good attention to “it” because if they move too fast, they will not be able to freeze quickly enough after “it” suddenly changes his mind and shouts “red lights”.

If you are caught moving on “red lights”, you must go all the way back to the starting line.

Life is just another version of the “red lights-green lights” game. When you are almost at the point where you should claim your just rewards, somebody calls “red lights”, and you have to go all the way back to the starting line.

The translation business is like this too. Nothing is certain in this business. We never know when “it” will change its mind and send us all the way back from the starting line when we were almost at the finish line.

Just like in any other business, “it” has different forms also in the translation business. It can have the form of new technology that supposedly works so well that it can “almost” replace translator’s brain. Or the form of competition from third world countries where human translators are willing to work for so little that their counterparts who live overseas cannot possibly compete with them on price, only on that sometime invisible standard called “quality”.

After Wall Street shouted “red lights” when its fraudulent scheme finally became public knowledge, my business started gradually decreasing and so far it has not reached the almost vertiginous levels of 2007 and 2008.

I believe that the same levels will be reached and exceed again, even if I am caught by “it” moving when I should have been frozen in place.

“Winning isn’t everything …. it’s the only thing” is a popular saying in this country. But is it really true?

The kids who are sent by “it” back to the starting line in the “red lights – green lights” game never protest or argue with “it”. They always go back and continue enjoying the game even though the chance that they might still win has just been greatly diminished.

Maybe they understand something that grownups have forgotten: namely that enjoying the game is in fact much more important than winning … because it’s all just a game anyway.

When you win the “red lights – green lights” game, you become “it” and you then get to play the same game slightly differently: by sending other children back to the starting line, which must be fun too.

Unlike most adults who keep complaining and arguing incessantly about the injustices of this world, children understand that it is all just a game and that the only thing that really matters is whether we are still able to enjoy it.

Posted by: Steve Vitek | April 10, 2014

I Never Dream About My Work Except When I Am Daydreaming


I never dream about my work, which would be dreaming about working on my computer while translating a patent, probably because it is such a routine, mundane and boring task that there is no point in dreaming about it.

I don’t remember a single dream about translating anything during all those decades that I have been translating for a living. Although sometime I do wake up in the morning with a sudden realization that something that I wrote yesterday was a mistranslation, and sometime when I wake up like this, usually too early to be awake but too late to go back to sleep, I even know the right word that I should have used in yesterday’s job for a string of Japanese characters that did not seem to fit together very well.

Last night I was dreaming that I was riding in a car with Hillary Clinton. This is very strange because I never think about her while I am awake. We were going pretty fast towards downtown on a familiar street, it looked like Fulton Street in San Francisco because there was a big green park on the left side. For some reason, there were three of us sitting in what looked like the front seats of a sedan, including the driver, Hillary and me, which is impossible as sedans have only two seats in the front.

I was trying not to stare at her but I was stealing glances, of course, and I remember thinking to myself, man, she sure does not look her age. She looked forty something. She was on her cell phone, and I was eagerly listening, of course, to her part of the conversation. She was talking to her agent about a perfume called “Hillary” and she seemed unhappy about something, but in a guarded, noncommittal way …. and then I woke up and could not go back to sleep.

It probably means that she is running for president. Oh, well, who cares.

Sometime when business is slow I daydream that a major translation job will fall into my lap, a dozen Japanese patents that must be translated pronto, regardless of the rush surcharge. Unlike that ride in a car with Hillary Clinton, something like that does happen to me once in a while, and I am very happy when it does because my financial situation is then suddenly greatly improved within a few days or a couple of weeks.

It has not happened so far this year. I am getting a lot of small jobs, but the longest patent I translated so far this year was a chemical patent from French with barely 10 thousand words in it.

What I need is a long monster patent with numerous extremely clever and imaginative features which are repeated a number of times: first in the claims, then in the background of the invention, in the actual description of the invention, and in the effect of the invention. The longer and the more repetitive the patent, the easier it is to translate and to make money. The longest patent I translated so far had almost 63 thousand words because everything was repeated in every section about 63 times.

I hope to beat this record one of the these days as patent lawyers keep writing longer and longer patent applications in order to cover all bases, which is very good for us, patent translators.

They would not make them so long just because they are paid by the word like translators, would they?

Patents filed in the sixties and seventies were usually quite short, on average about two thousand words or less, which would be about three pages if it is a Japanese or German patent, depending on the format.

Then they got longer in the eighties and nineties, especially patents about chemistry and biochemistry, computers, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and software patents … well, just about in every field.

In the first decade of this century patent applications became still longer because in the introduction to the novel solution of the patent they usually list all previous attempts described in older patents to solve the tricky issue that the present patent application will solve flawlessly, while none of the older solution were any good, of course, as they were either impractical, or too expensive (unlike the ingenious solution provided in the present patent application).

But the problem with long patents is that if you need to translate a lot of them, it can get very expensive, especially if you need them in a hurry.

Which may be one reason why I have not seen monster patents on my desk for translation so far this year.

I gave several cost estimates for translating long patents so far this month, and although there has been no response so far, it is only a matter of time before a few long patents will require again my undivided attention.

In the meantime, I can daydream about a few long patents for translation, as well as about other things – but preferably not about riding in cars with politicians, which is something that I would do only when I am asleep, although I have no idea why.


The translation industry, if we want to call it that, has undergone many changes in the last two or three decades. These changes may be invisible to young translators who may assume that the way things are now is the way things have always been.

But I remember that things were very different indeed when I was a newbie translator in 1987. The main difference between the translation industry then and now is that while back then translation industry was still very much about the art and craft of translation, now it mostly about the art and craft of buying and selling of translations – buying as low as possible, and selling as high as possible.

There were no huge translation agencies producing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for their monolingual owners (who by virtue of not knowing any foreign language don’t understand the first thing about translating) every year through thousands of employees in dozens of offices.

I am looking at a list of Top 100 “Language Services Providers” (the newspeak for translation agencies, designed to hide the true nature of the business entities, which is that of a broker), compiled by a company called Common Sense Advisory, Inc.

The list says absolutely nothing about the countless invisible translators who translate and thus create millions of dollars in profit from which the monolingual translation agency owners and thousands of employees of the translation agencies can then live. This profit from the work of these unmentioned translators is also used to pay the rent for the offices, advertising costs, and all other associated costs.

But translators are not important in the modern model of the translation industry and if they are mentioned at all, it will be only in a single sentence on a website which says something like “We work with 3,000 (4,000 …. 5,000 or more) highly qualified translators”.

In the old days, before the advent of the mammoth translation agency model with hundreds or thousands of employees and many offices, small translation agencies, and it is almost comical how small they were compared to the monstrous structures that translators are dealing with today, in fact did try to work only with highly qualified translators because that was the key to survival in a marketplace where quality mattered.

Or so the translation agencies of yester years thought. That was why multilingual operators who were usually running the old type of translation agency were always on the lookout for the best translators out there, translators with degrees and experience in a given field, usually slightly weird people who loved their slightly weird occupation. Once they found such translators, they would work with them for many years, and they would pay them handsome rates for good work, because back then, the people who worked in these translation agencies were still able to tell the difference between good work, not-so-good work, and total garbage.

But all that changed with the advent of the mammoth translation agency model around 20 years ago. Most of the people who are now working in the large translation agency model, called project managers (or PMs for short) can’t really tell the difference between good work and not-so-good work because they almost never understand the languages from or into which something is translated. They can spot total garbage if the target language is in the one language that they do understand, but that’s about it.

The prevailing philosophy in the new translation agency model is that quality is somewhat overrated anyway, which is quite a logical conclusion considering that the people running things in this model, called PMs, can’t really tell a good translation from a bad one.

Quantity, on the other hand, is very important in this translation agency model because quantity can be measured and measured quantity, once there is a lot of it, equals higher and higher levels of profitability.

In addition to increasing the quantity of “production of translations”, another way to achieve higher profitability is to decrease the pay for the people who do the translating bit in the complex transactional process created by the modern and revolutionary translation agency model.

This relentless pressure on rates paid by agencies to translators has been further intensified by judicious use of modern technology by the translation agencies in the new translation agency model.

Internet, computer technology, globalization and the never-ending economic recession (we are not supposed to call it a crisis) are the four prongs of a giant fork used in the modern translation industry model to push the rates paid for translation to those invisible translators who work quietly in the background as low as possible, and then to keep them as low as possible.

This is similar to what has been happening for quite some time to many other white collar professions that used to employ highly paid professionals in a number of fields. As per this article in New York Times from 2003, complicated X-ray images that used to be analyzed by American radiologists who were making up to 350 thousand dollars in United States are now often analyzed by cheap Indian radiologists for 25 thousand dollars a year.

It’s good money for the people in India, and the private health insurance companies and hospitals in United States get to keep the difference in pay because the medical costs in United States have gone through the roof since 2003.

Translation rates are also squeezed by CAT (computer-assisted translation) software which is used by translation agencies to greatly reduce or simply refuse to pay for words repeated in a translation (a concept called “full matches” and “fuzzy matches”). The difference in the cost is again mostly kept by the translation agencies.

A new concept pushed by a brand new model of translation agencies is human-assisted machine translation, which is something that could use a new abbreviation.

HAMT? Or can somebody think of a better and snappier abbreviation?

In the old days, humans used to be assisted by machines. These days, machines are assisted by humans.

Innovative new startups, and new ones are being created as I am writing these words on my silly blog, are based on the concept of crowdsourced editing of machine translation, namely the idea that the minor imperfections of machine translation, such as when they make no sense whatsoever, can be corrected by humans who don’t really need to be translators at all as long as they have some knowledge of two languages, and who should be able to make these corrections on their cell phones for something like 1 or 2 cents per word.

According to a youthful owner of one such startup called “Flitto”, [Machine translation] … “has been unable to shake inaccuracy issues. Nobody uses Google for translating business documents. We believe we can outdo Google in this field. Flitto is a great way to make money with your free time. While you’re sitting in the toilet, you can utilize the time efficiently by translating and earning points”.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems to me that the modern translation industry is now completely dysfunctional.

It seems to me that people who perhaps know another language to some extent, who have no credentials and no experience in the translating field, are likely to just further mess up the garbage that was originally produced by machine translation instead of fixing the “tiny problems”, for instance when they are working on a mobile phone while sitting on a toilet.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think that the translation industry, with all of its modern tools, from shifting of work away from educated and experienced translators to people in third world countries who may be translating from languages that they don’t understand very well into a language that they have not really mastered, to machine translation and working on a cell phone while sitting on a toilet, is now a complete joke.

I think that the inevitable result of these trends is that the modern translation industry model will be producing mostly just heaps of garbage.

I also think that the best thing that customers who need real translations for really important projects should do would be to stay away from the modern model of the translation industry altogether and work instead only with small translation agencies who still believe in the old model, or directly with translators.

Otherwise, there is a good chance that the translation that they just paid good money for was first processed by machine translation software, and then edited by a dude who says that he knows some German, or Japanese, or Korean, and who was editing the machine-translated detritus on his cell phone while sitting on a toilet.



Posted by: Steve Vitek | April 1, 2014

Why Is It So Hard To Get Rid of a Hardwired Phone Line?


It was very easy to open a new phone line when we moved from California to Virginia 13 years ago.

I just called from California the phone company in Virginia, they gave me a few numbers to choose from, and I had a new phone line in my new house even before I left the old one.

Getting rid of it, 13 years later, was a very different story.

A friend told me that I would be wasting my money if I kept paying the phone company 65 dollars a month for the privilege of having an old-fashioned fixed phone line. Switch to Internet phone, and you will save a lot of money, he said. If you don’t call much, you can have a free line, although you will still have to pay taxes, but that will be only about 5 dollars.

So I spent 200 dollars on an Ooma phone device with a bunch of cool blue lights arranged on it like Christmas decorations. Because we call Japan a lot, I selected a more expensive calling plan – a whopping 10 dollars a month for the new Oooma phone line. So that is 15 dollars with 1,000 minutes of international calling a month, because 5 dollars is added for … taxes. How can taxes be 50% of a phone bill when Mitt Romney paid only 13% in income taxes on 20 million dollars that he made “when he was not doing much of anything”, as he put it? Oh, well, still much better than the 65 dollars plus for the old fixed line. The international calling plan on the fixed line alone cost 10 dollars plus tax, for the same amount of minutes, I think.

I had no idea how hard it would be to port my old number to the new service when I called Cox Communications to tell them that I wanted to discontinue my fixed line.

When I called them the first time, more than two months ago, they told me that I would have to submit a request in writing. So I did so. The mailing address was helpfully on the last bill from Cox Communications for 67 dollars.

After about a week, I received an unsigned formed letter informing me that my number could not be ported due to prior something or other … I don’t remember the exact wording, I just remember that I did not understand what the letter meant.

And unlike my dog Lucy, I generally do understand English.

So I called Cox Communications, and a nice lady working there told me that my number could not be ported because it was on a contract. What contract, I asked her? She started searching for something on the computer, and then she said, that … yes, indeed, it appeared that there was no contract, and that the porting order should be completed without any problems.

About a month after that, I received an e-mail from Ooma telling me that the porting process had been completed. And indeed, my old number, the one I chose from California 14 years ago, was ringing through now on the Oooma phone.

But because it was also ringing on the fixed line, I called Cox Communications to finally cancel the line. I was warned by Oooma that if I do that before the number is ported, the number could simply disappear. Cox Communications put me on hold for about 45 minutes. While I was on hold, I was forced to listen to a prerecorded message with advertisements about exciting services from Cox Communications, which meant that the same messages about all those exciting services were repeated at least 20 times. This must be how citizens of North Korea feel when they listen to a local radio station, I thought. I put the phone on speaker and turned the sound down as much as possible, but still, I had to listen to Cox Communications propaganda over and over again while waiting for somebody to pick up the damn phone.

Then somebody did pick up the phone, after 45 minutes, but this dude was absolutely not interested in what I was telling him. It was almost as if he could not hear me. He kept repeating that Cox Communications had a number of cheaper plans and that one of them would be definitely a much, much better choice for me. Why did you not call us earlier?, he asked me as if what I was trying to do was completely uncalled for and, frankly, stupid.

I had to shut him up, quite rudely, I’m afraid, because he was basically just a live version of the advertising messages from Cox Communications that I had to listen to for 45 minutes before the Cox Communications propagandist finally picked up the phone.

In the end, when I told him that all I wanted was to cancel the service and that I did not want to hear anything about Cox Communications services, he told me that I did not have to do anything and that the line would be automatically disconnected once the porting process was completed.

That’s a relief!, I told him, and hung up on him.

But when the hardwired Cox Communications line still worked a month later, along with the Ooma line, I was naturally feeling that something untoward was still going on in the bowels of the telephone company that does not give up its hostages easily.

And sure enough, a month later I received another bill from Cox Communications for a fixed phone line that I have been trying to cancel for more than two months at that point.

So I called them again, enraged at their insolence. They put me on hold again, but only for a few minutes this time, and when another nice lady came on the line, she told me that the porting request was canceled (she used the passive voice).

Why was it canceled and by whom, I asked the nice lady?

At first she could not tell me the why and the who, either because it was a secret touching upon a vital national security issue, or perhaps because she did not know, but after I posed the same question to her in different variations about 5 times, she told me that something had gone wrong with the paperwork at Ooma and that I would need to find out from Ooma what was going on.

I almost forgot to say that every time when I talked to them, they offered to discontinue the service immediately.

But, unfortunately, they said, they were not sure whether it would still be possible to port the number to my new service if they did so.

A lot of people probably give up when they hear repeatedly this veiled threat because they don’t want all of their acquaintances and friends to suddenly lose their telephone number.

But at that point, I’ve had it, I did not care anymore. I was going to get rid of them even if it would mean that my old number would no longer work. I started yelling at the poor lady (who just works for Cox Communications and probably really needs her job), while threatening to fight back in the following manner:

I told her that I would write a post about my experience with her company on my blog which is read by thousand people every month, many of whom may be Cox Communications subscribers. I also told her that unless the phone line was discontinued, I would contact my local radio and TV station, as well as the newspaper.

And then I asked to speak to the manager.

The manager came on the line in about 3 minutes. She apologized about the oversight.

Oversight? Yeah, right.

But anyway, she said that she was crediting me the amount stated on the last invoice, and that I did not owe anything to Cox Communications anymore.

I was exhausted, but almost delirious with happiness! I stopped Cox Communications, a mighty phone company, from sending me bills for something that I did not want and did not need?

How many people can say something like that about themselves, I wonder?

But that is not all. A week later I received an envelope that looked suspiciously like another bill from Cox Communications. When I opened it, with trembling hands, I discovered to my astonishment that it was a credit for $75.43, for two items called Partial Month Services plus Taxes, Fees and Surcharges.

Maybe they think that people are so stupid that they will only remember how nice and law-abiding the company is in the end to them, when they give us money back that we did not even know we had coming to us, and forget all the ugly stuff before the final act of surrender.

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”, said Gandhi when he defeated the mighty British Empire.

It was almost as hard for me to win my independence from Cox Communications as it was for Gandhi to win India’s independence from Great Britain.

First they ignored me, then they laughed at me, then they propagandized me and threatened me… and then, at long last … I finally won.

I mean, how would they explain another bill for something that I do not want now that they owe me $75.34, including $22 for Taxes, Fees and Surcharges?


Medieval scholars allegedly liked to debate a problem involving the precise number of angels, magical, ephemeral and weightless beings who can be squeezed onto the point of a pin to do some angelic dancing thereupon.

In English, this timeless riddle is usually expressed as “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin”, which is an idiom indicating that a topic of no practical value is being debated.

The algorithm is in fact not that difficult to design and one does not even need to be a theologian or have a computer to do so. If angels are but an expression of God’s Love in the form of concentrated, pure and weightless intelligence, then if an infinite number of angels is asked by the Great Clockmaker to dance on the point of a needle, an infinity (∞) of them will joyfully do so while singing Hallelujah.

Last week a certain translation agency (I will call it agency A) was looking for a near infinity (∞) of Japanese translators to translate millions of words within a few weeks from Japanese to English. Because I am a Japanese translator myself, I received more than two dozen messages from this and other agencies to join the Japanese translators who were already doing the dancing on the needle for a very short span of time given the number of words to be translated, defined to me first as 5 million words, and then as 20 million words.

Unlike angels, translators are not weightless or ephemeral. Quite a few of them are in fact overweight as a result of their sedentary occupation and a dull, monotonous and often quite depressing lifestyle. Unlike angels, translators don’t know how to perform miracles (even though their clients regularly ask for miracles without even realizing it), and their number is limited, because, again unlike angels, they are not a pure expression of infinite love and intelligence.

I was thus one of the finite number of Japanese translators who were pursued with zeal by translation agencies to dance on the tip of the needle last week.

Let’s assume that agency A had 20 million words that needed to be translated in about 3 weeks from Japanese to English. If a human translator can translate about 3 thousand words per day, then the agency would need to find about 333 translators to finish the project on time based on the following formula:

333 translators x 3,000 words a day x 20 days = 19,980,000 words

(For the purposes of this formula, let’s round up the number of words above to 20 million, and let’s say that the agency would need only 1 day to proofread all of the translations).

There are thousands of agencies who would love to jump into the ring and take on this project. And based my experience from last week, many did in fact do just that because I was contacted not only by agency A, but also by at least half a dozen other agencies  working as proxies for agency A.

In addition to being contacted many times by project coordinators from agency A, mostly by e-mail, but also by telephone, I was also contacted by other agencies who were working as subcontractors for agency A and who were trying hard to find 333 translators for some dancing on the tip of the needle of the time. Every time I checked my e-mail box, I found another message about the same project there, and because my phone kept ringing, I stopped answering it.

I was contacted by several agencies from United States (in California, New York, Georgia) and by several agencies from other countries (including Holland, Polynesia, Egypt). The rates offered for this work ranged from 7 cents a word to 20 cents a word. One agency manager told me that they were initially offered 10 cents by agency A, but when he asked for 20 cents, agency A immediately agreed. So some agencies may have been offered more than 20 cents a word, which is still a low rate for an agency for this language combination.

I almost accepted the job myself when one persistent and highly goal-oriented project manager called and tried to talk me into doing it at the high end of the range.

But when I looked at the “Independent Contractor Agreement” that I would have to sign first, I realized that I will never be able to work for agency A again, although I used to work for them for several years many years ago.

The “Independent Contractor Agreement” that this agency was sending to translators a few years ago had about 1,300 words and it was, more or less, a legitimate confidentiality agreement.

This “Independent Contractor Agreement” had over 3,000 words, and it had so many farfetched, outrageous clauses that I would have to cross out first that I decided not to bother accepting any work at all.

The agreements that some translation agencies want independent contracts to sign these days are in fact detailed descriptions of the relationship between a master and a slave.

For example, according to the new agreement, I would not be able to attempt “to influence, directly or indirectly, any subcontractor to terminate his/her employment with the company”, which must mean that I would not be able to say anything about agency A on my blog without having it approved first by the agency.

I would also have to assign “all rights, title and interest” in my translations to the agency, and agency A would have the right to conduct unannounced audits of my facilities, business practices and any other matters relating to the performance of my services.

If I signed that “Independent Contractor Agreement” agency A would basically own me and I would be their slave who has no rights whatsoever.

So I really had no choice but to refuse to be one of the 333 translators dancing on the tip of the sharp needle for the privilege of working on that particular project.

There are thousands of agencies on this planet who would eagerly accept the headhunting part of the project and sign just about anything to make a buck, and many have apparently done so. But are there 333 Japanese-to-English translators on this planet who can actually do the translating part?

And how many of them are willing to sign such an agreement and dance on the point of a very fine and very sharp needle to make some money, even if for just a few days?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. If you do have some answers, even partial ones, I hope you will share them with the readers of this blog.



Communications between humans are more and more controlled by machines. Call an information number for just about anything and you have to listen to a machine giving you several options to choose from. Sometime without the one option that you really need – to talk to a real person.

It is much more cost-effective when businesses force humans to interact with machines instead of allowing them to talk to another human right away, and put them on hold for 5, 10, or 30 minutes so that they get hung up on while on hold.

More and more communication between humans is controlled by machines. First, it was done mostly to maximize the profits, more recently, to maximize the profits and also to spy on everybody, just in case the people who spy on everybody find something interesting about these unsuspecting humans.


In addition to communications between humans by telephone, machines now also control a large amount of communication that is translated. Millions of people use machine translation every day on the Internet because it is free. They may wonder why is it that the information on a website does not seem to make sense when it is “translated” by MT, but after all, it is free, so there is not much point in getting angry about it.

The latest twist is communication between people speaking different languages that is first translated by a machine, and then massaged by a crowd of anonymous humans (sometime called “engaged volunteers”) who may or may not in fact know two languages, but who definitely have nothing better to do with their time.

Sometime these engaged humans, referred to either as translators or editors, are paid a few bucks, up to 10 dollars an hour.

I would not call them editors, let alone translators. I think that a polite and respectful terms for these thousands of humans in a crowd would be underachievers.

A new startup called Unbable (thanks so much for the link, Phyllis) offers a service enabling “to integrate translation directly into the workflow, [so that] businesses can translate all of their website’s content in a flash at $0.02 per word.  …. Now translating over 30,000 words/day for over 30 customers, Unbabel’s secret sauce leverages artificial intelligence software and its stable of over 3,100 editors (or translators) to translate a website’s content from one language into its customer’s language of choice. First, its machine learning technology translates the text from source into the target language, at which point it uses its Mechanical Turk-style distribution system to assign editing tasks to the right translators, who then check the translation for errors and for stylistic inconsistencies.
Unbabel editors work remotely, via their laptops or mobile phones, on translations, which co-founder Vasco Pedro says provides the key to faster translations. This, combined with the efficiency of its task distribution and administration algorithms, provides a level of efficiency that allows editors to earn up to $10/hour.”

I am trying to visualize 3,100 human underachievers editing on their mobile phones machine translations. You probably you have to be a translator to find this concept hilariously dumb. My guess is that the founder of the new service, who is now looking for seed capital in the amount of 400 thousand dollars, is not a translator. But I think that even a non-translator should know that the display on a mobile phone is so small that trying to edit a machine translation on it in, while working with two languages and typing at the same time is simply not possible. The founder of the new service probably will find the needed seed capital because people believe with religious fervor that technology absolutely can solve every problem these days, including problems with communication between people who speak different languages.

There is not a single problem in this world that cannot be solved by a clever entrepreneur with a clever algorithm.

You just need some good machine translation software, then you feed it a really large corpus of data, and then you throw the results to a really big crowd of underachievers and you will make mucho, mucho dinero in no time at all. Plus the initial 400 K, of course.

Unbable is really cool word, isn’t it? How original and imaginative! The perfect word for a service that will once for all erase the concept of the Tower of Babel from human experience in the modern world!


Will the creator of this revolutionary concept be able to make money? If you remove the letter “b” after the prefix “un”, instead of the word “Unbable”, you will get the word “Unable”.

Something like that can happen very easily when you are trying to edit text on a tiny screen of a portable phone. It takes me forever to type anything on the keyboard of my iPhone because it is such a slow process and I make lots of typos (including on this blog). And that’s when I am just typing a simple sentence, without looking at text in two languages and trying to translate or edit anything. Even on a laptop, I find it hard to translate or edit. I need a good keyboard, a comfortable chair, and most importantly, of course, a good rate.

Without a really good rate, I find it basically impossible to concentrate!

It is likely that thousands of underachieving humans in a huge crowd of fellow underachievers who don’t mind working for 1 cent a word or 5 dollars an hour – the article said that the translations would be sold for 2 cents a word, and that they would be paid up to 10 dollars an hour, which probably means that they would be paid 1 cent a word or that the real rate for them would be 5 dollars an hour – will make a lot of typos like this. Lots and lots of words like “Unable” when what they really meant was “Unbable”.

When customers who want to buy something from a website are fed machine-translated text that is then edited into one huge typo on portable phones by a crowd of human underachievers, they just might get mad at being treated this way and go to a site that they can actually understand, which would be really bad for business.

I have a feeling that after this bold adventure in MT/crowdsourcing burns through the first 400 K, Unbable will need more money again pretty quickly.

Here is a thought: controlling communication between humans by machines for higher and higher profits may have reached its limit. People are getting fed up with the whole concept. I know that I am. Could it be that there is a lot of money in a new and revolutionary approach to communication between humans: instead of relying on the machine-human interface, why not use the human-human interface as much as possible?

If you have cleverly written text that is designed to make people buy a product or a service, people who have the choice to buy it or go somewhere else, have this text translated by a real translator who specializes in that sort of thing.

It may cost more money initially, but as the saying goes, you have to spend money to make money.




I receive e-mails like this from agencies periodically. Last week I received it twice or three times, I am not sure now. I was talking on the phone to a friend who also translates Japanese: he also received it, and he also ignored it.

I have several good reasons to ignore such e-mails. For one thing, this one was from an agency that I stopped working for more than a decade ago because I did not like the way it was treating me.

The project managers would routinely and on purpose underestimate the word count to cajole me into accepting a job over the weekend, which then turned out to be 6 thousand words instead of the mere 3 thousand that I did accept.

So they would simply lie to me to get the job done. Repeatedly. Who cares about a poor translator who is tearing his hair out in desperation? If the job is not finished on time, it will be my fault and I will not be paid a dime.

This agency used to be OK when it was just starting out about 20 years ago. But the bigger it got, the more onerous its demands and the more devious and inconsiderate its practices became.

After somebody with a British accent called on a Saturday morning at 5 AM asking me whether I can take on a long French chemical patent for delivery by Monday, I’ve had it with their reckless disregard for my well being. Never accepted a single job from them after that rude awakening on Saturday morning. But apparently, somebody working for the same agency knows that I am still here, translating Japanese and other languages.

This type of translation: 5 million words by Tuesday – and I am only slightly exaggerating, I think the e-mail said that it was 5 million words in 3 weeks – is in fact a perfect fit for the new type of the corporate agency structure.

In the old days, by which I more than 20 years ago, no agency would accept such a job order because it would be impossible to ensure even a minimum level of quality. And the customer would have no choice but to listen to reason.

But quality is no longer important. Speed is. Speed and profit.

We are living in a new age of technological miracles and the “translation business” has been changed profoundly by new technology, resulting in demands for ever greater speed and ever higher profits. Anybody with a perfunctory knowledge of how to connect a PC to Internet can start a translation agency, and anybody with a perfunctory knowledge of two languages can call himself a translator.

There are thousands of outfits out there calling themselves “translation agencies”, or better yet, “LSPs”, and possibly millions of people calling themselves “translators”. Many of these agencies don’t know much about languages, and often the same could be said also about the translators.

Modern translation agencies these days love jobs with impossible deadlines because if they get them done, and somehow, they do get them done, they stand to make a lot of money very quickly. And that is the reason why they are in business: to make a lot of money as quickly as possible!

Since there are thousands of people calling themselves translators on this planet, why not use as many of those who have no choice but to work for a miniscule rate to get such an impossible job done?

The new type of modern translation agency uses translators as modern researchers use tiny, self-propelled machines called nanobots for various applications in medicine and industry. The purpose of millions of nanobots, who are self-replicating and have a certain amount of autonomy, may be to devour and thus eradicate a certain disease.

The purpose of hundreds of nano-translators working on a 5-million-word job is to devour 5 million words in a certain language and somehow transfer them during this process into another language.

Nano-translators (nanolators?) too are self-propelled and they too are allowed a certain amount of autonomy. Unfortunately, they are not self-replicating. But fortunately, translations agencies are self-replicating! The guy who e-mailed me on behalf of a large American agency was in fact working for some other agency based in Europe.

Before a chain of events is set into motion whereby thousands of nano-translators (or should I start using the word nanolators?) are unleashed on 5 million words like bacteria on a rotting carcass, two or three brokers often spring into action as middlemen channeling the work to hungry nanolators.

Everybody in this parasitic chain makes profit, while the smallest profit goes to the translator at the end of the chain, and the highest profit obviously goes to the mighty agency at the beginning of the chain.

Nanobots are self-propelled machines who are not able to think for themselves, but who do have a certain amount of autonomy. Nanolators, also known as translators, are also allowed a certain amount of autonomy, but very little, about as much as nanobots.

One of the offers to become one of the dozens of nanolators attempting to devour the 5-million-word job and somehow convert it during the process from Japanese into English came with two “Independent Contract Agreements” that I would have to sign first if I wanted become one of the countless nanolators. The longer one had over 3,000 words, and among these words was an article titled “Prohibition Regarding the Use of Google Translate or Other Tools”, according to which the self-propelled nanolators must agree not to transmit any files to external or web-based software (such as Google Translate).

The reason for this prohibition to use machine translation stated in the contract was the potential for breach of confidentiality, but I wonder if this was the main reason for such a prohibition.

After all, if one can use machine translation to translate millions of words from one language into another and then quickly edit them so that they would make some sense, you don’t really need to be able to know two languages.

One language would be enough. Or possibly even half a language, if you can run the text through a machine translation program first. So the prohibition to use Google Translate, which I understand is now becoming a fairly common clause in “Independent Contract Agreements” a certain type of translation agency is now making thousands of nanolators sign, is probably the only criterion designed to guarantee, in addition to confidentiality, also that the thousands of nanolators in the database of modern translation agencies are in fact translators who know at least to some extent at least one and half language.


Posted by: Steve Vitek | March 21, 2014

The Old and the New Version of Synchronicity


I don’t know whether god exists. Some days it seems like a really absurd proposition. Most days, in fact. Although there are days when god’s existence seems almost …. provable.

But I do know that synchronicity, or meaningful coincidence of two seemingly unrelated events, as defined by Carl Jung, does exist.

When I woke up this morning I had in my head a few notes written by J. S. Bach about three centuries ago. I don’t even remember it now, it’s one of those compositions that I know but don’t remember the name of it. Oh, now I have again, but I still don’t know the name, just that it must be by Bach.

And then, when I turned on the little HD radio and my computer as I do every morning, the notes that I could not get out of my head for about 10 minutes, or since the moment I opened my eyes, were playing on the radio in that very moment.

The radio continued playing the melody exactly from the note that I heard in my head before I turned it on.

The radio is generally tuned to a classical music station in  Norfolk, so one might say that this is not such an incredible coincidence. But I think it is. Out of millions of things that could have been on the radio in that moment, this melody by Bach was synchronized precisely in that moment both in my head and on the radio.


Although synchronicity is out there, most people are unaware of it, because it is an almost imperceptible and seemingly unimportant part of our existence, but mostly because it is impossible to capture and properly define. But still, it is everywhere, it penetrates through all of us and all of our lives, although we don’t even notice it, just like the thousands of neutrinos passing through our body every second which we don’t notice either.

But enough of this crazy talk about synchronicity and neutrinos, and let’s talk about something even crazier – the connection between synchronicity and translation.

I believe that there is a direct link between translation and synchronicity. If something existing in one language is important enough to be translated into another language, and this important something is not translated, one link that could have been synchronized with other events and occurrences is suddenly broken and although the earth keeps turning around its axis as if nothing happened, the course of human events may have just been altered in unpredictable ways.

A translator’s role, or at least one of them, is to make sure that these links interconnecting all the things seen and unseen by human eyes create a continuous web of knowledge, comfortably enveloping our world like a hammock that comfortably envelops a weary traveler on a ship making its way through the rain forest on the Amazon river.

What would have happened if Egyptian hyeroglyphics had never been deciphered by Jean François Champollion? Would the history of human civilization have been altered in ways we can’t even imagine?

Or perhaps it would not have mattered at all?

Did we really need to find out what was in the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian law code written about three thousand and eight hundred years ago? And can we really translate something that was chiseled in stone or written on clay tablets when we can’t run it through Google Translate first?

Is this kind of travel through time even possible, or are we fools to believe that the translators who translated these ancient texts knew what they were doing?


Regardless of what is possible or impossible, the priorities of our civilization have clearly changed dramatically when it comes to our attitude to knowledge of foreign languages and what needs to be translated. A hundred years ago, every child studying foreign languages in the little town where I grew up was studying Latin and Old Greek.

Even 50 years ago, when I was a child going to the same school in that little town, I was still studying Latin, and later some Old Greek as well. But the percentage of children who are encouraged or forced by their teachers and parents to study “dead languages” in any country is much smaller now, probably miniscule.

The emphasis is on modern languages, especially languages important for technological development, such as English, Chinese, Japanese, and German, and now also Korean.

Machine translation is now routinely used on the websites of European Patent Office, Japanese Patent Office, and World Intellectual Property Organization for instantaneous machine translation between dozens of languages, while human patent translators, including this one, are kept busy as well.

And of course the NSA is hiring people who are fluent in Middle Eastern languages … and can’t find them because they need to be US citizens.

There was a point in history when the knowledge of a foreign language was a means that people were using to learn from Suetonius and Thukidides and other Roman and Greek historians what went wrong in these highly developed ancient civilizations, and why is it that in the end an advanced civilization always seems to be defeated by a seemingly inferior culture, as Greece was conquered by Rome and Rome was conquered by Vandals.

But this kind of learning is not really a part of our highly synchronized or highly asynchronous world, depending how we look at it. We are now mostly interested in information about technology, and about the latest designated enemies, real or imaginary ones.

That, and how to make more money from all that information, of course.

So that is what translators translate these days in the modern world, a world that is very well synchronized in just about every language and just about every country when it comes to technical information, and information about you and me.

There is a lot of money in synchronizing of information in order to create a new type of synchronicity that it can be monetized. Two killer apps of our age, Google and Facebook, are based on the concept of monetization of synchronicity.

In our world, the old concept of synchronicity can be acknowledged, if it is acknowledged at all, only as a wild theory of some crazy Swiss psychiatrist who practiced analytical psychology a hundred years ago.


I like to observe the ZOO that congregates on the back porch of our house where we leave food for little critters who live in the bushes and trees behind the porch and the little garden.

You can see what the backyard looks like if you click on the “About Me” button above. On nice days, we put the good stuff like bread crumbs, crushed nuts and peanut butter on a couple of feeding stands placed in the garden, but it has been snowing and raining so much during this winter, unusually cold and long for Eastern Virginia, that most of the time we just leave the food for them on the floor of the porch.

This gives me an opportunity to observe the hungry birds and other animals from a distance of no more than a few feet. And while I am observing them as I am sipping my coffee or stuffing my face with excessive quantities of unhealthy food, they too observe me with great interest while they eat the food that we shared with them. Mostly birds come there, such as wrens, sparrows, thrashers, mourning doves, warblers, blue jays, cardinals, woodpeckers, mocking birds, plus two squirrels and one tiny mouse.

Once in a while a bigger animal wanders into our backyard, rabbits in the spring, of course, and a few deer. We have too many deer in Virginia now and they often come into contact with humans because the subdivisions are slowly pushing them out of their old habitats. After a while, when we start recognizing them, we give the birds names. Our favorite cardinal with the brightest red coat is named Pete and his offspring is Little Pete, although he is just as big as Pete now.

If we start recognizing the rabbits as well, we will probably call them Mopsy, Topsy and Flopsy. If a deer starts regularly frequenting our little oasis and feeding station for animals in the backyard, the deer would be probably called Rudolf. We are not very original people.

Two falcons are often cruising the skies above, but the little birds know that they are safe while they are on our porch or on the ground of the little garden.

The birds also know exactly when they are supposed to be fed and they await the joyous event every morning around 7:30, excitedly chirping away in avian languages that I don’t understand. Most of them don’t seem to mind sharing the food with other birds, although the bigger ones sometime get a little aggressive around the little ones.

But not nearly as aggressive as very important people tend to get around less important people.

The two bushy-tailed squirrels with very sharp teeth never attack the birds and peacefully devour peanuts, peanut butter or bread crumbs next to their winged and beaked colleagues, without trying to enrich their menu with some meat.

The squirrels like to provoke my mean-looking pitbull Lucy because they know that poor Lucy has no chance of catching them as several trees are just a few yards away. Sometime I let Lucy off the leash as I think that she is grateful for a little exercise and some excitement in her life. Whenever I do that, she waits for several minutes under the tree and puts her front paws as high on the tree trunk as possible as if she could climb it, or as if she were daring the cheeky squirrel to come down.

The squirrel, we did not name him yet, as we can’t tell whether it is a he or a she, is observing Lucy from a thick branch with an amused look and a highly provocative demeanor.

One big problem is that the woods behind our house have become infested with great multitudes of ticks, which is why I don’t let Lucy off the leash anymore so that she could roam freely through the woods as she used to not long ago. She would always come back after a while.

I think that nature uses ticks, spiders and venomous snakes to fight back against humans who keep trying to destroy as much of what is left of nature as quickly as possible.

It is clear to me who will win in the end. We, humans, don’t stand a chance against the combined forces of nature and animals.

Eventually, humans will be pushed out by nature and animals to smaller and smaller habitats where they may still be able to survive, for a while. And once they are gone for good, the planet Earth will finally start recovering from an infestation by humans, which, fortunately for the Earth and the animals, will have lasted only a few thousand years.


Digitization of information has been exerting enormous influence on many professions for several decades already, to the point of virtual elimination of many of them, in more than just one meaning of the word virtual. Switchboard operators were the first to go, followed by bank tellers, travel agents and many other professions in which mostly highly repetitive and relatively simple tasks were required.

It has been reported that there are about 17 percent fewer tax accountants in business now, as opposed to only a few years ago, as more and more people are able to figure out and use tax accounting software on their own.

Several forms of digitization of information are exerting important influence also on the translating profession in the 21st century. Machine translation obviously comes to mind first, as so many translators fear it, needlessly in my opinion, as do translation memory (TM) technologies and other relatively recent technological developments.

What kind of influence are these technologies at this point having on our profession? Should we fear them, or should we embrace them? And if we do not embrace them unequivocally and enthusiastically, are we then not simply modern-age Luddites?

These are very complicated questions, and I don’t pretend to have answers to them. But of course, I do have lots of opinions on these issues that I would like to share with you on my blog.

I think that digitization of information is both enhancing our abilities and making our job easier in ways almost unimaginable only a few years ago, while at the same time it is also encroaching upon our profession and possibly making some of us irrelevant, just as it is thinning the ranks of prosperous tax accountants.

In this post I will shortly mention what I see as positive influences of digitization on our profession, and then I will try to outline also a few negative influences in a later post.

I will start with what I see as the positive influence of digitization of information as it is reflected in my daily work. Translators of course existed before digital information was flowing through the rivers and oceans of Internet, in fact, we have been here for millennia before the invention of the typewriter.

A big difference between then and now is that for at least twenty years, translators have had direct access to vital information about the materials that they are translating. To translators, this information is all-important context. It is hard to imagine for us now how translators 30 years ago were able to translate at all without the life-saving context, accessible now within a few seconds through  any search engine.

But in addition to having access to information, thanks to digitization translators can also convert and manipulate information that used to exist only in the form of black and grey, often poorly legible blobs by using very simple and inexpensive means.

As I wrote in a recent post, I can now use software that came free with an inexpensive, multifunctional printer not only to print, but also to scan and convert figures to TIFF or PDF or other formats for inclusion in my translations, and to convert PDF files to MS Word files in 27 languages, including Czech, Danish, Dutch, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, UK and US English, French, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, traditional and simplified Chinese and other languages.

Any fellow translator/translation agency hybrid (translator who also runs a small translation agency in addition to translating) will understand the importance of the capability to digitize and quantify information that up until recently was available only as print on paper.

Unlike some translators, and definitely most of those who mostly work for translation agencies, I do not use translation memory tools such as Trados because I consider them expensive and mostly useless and counterproductive for the purposes of translating patents from a number of languages. But I can understand why so many translators love these software tools. Some translators love them so much that they can basically write about nothing else but these wonderful tools on their blogs …. for years!

While some translators are convinced that machine translation (MT) will soon push our profession into oblivion, I see machine translation mostly as a very useful tool that works quite well for translators, but not very well for people who know only one language. After more than a half century of development, MT now mostly eliminates the need to translate information that did not really have to be translated, and discovers information that does need to be translated by human translators, and I doubt that this pattern will change in the next fifty years.


I still use a tax accountant and probably always will. I’d rather pay somebody who will do it for me, although I could save money if I bought the software and learned how to use it. But as long as the tax rules remain as complex as they are now, I simply don’t want to bother with the whole thing at all.

It is possible that more tax accountants will be made unemployed by tax software in the next few years, but I think that most of those who are really good and are still in business at this point will probably be doing just fine for as long as people have to pay taxes.

And the same is true about human translators. While anybody can use cheap and free software to convert almost any document to a file that can be then translated by a different kind of software called MT, these new technical capabilities are tools that are not that useful in the hands of monolingual people.

The full reality of our world is and always will be too complicated for machines and software.

Although we have robots that are doing very useful things, such as building cars (and soon we will have robots that drive our cars, we are told), as well as evil and unnecessary things such as clandestinely and illegally scouring the Internet dragnet style for information about everybody and their grandmother and her dog, I doubt that a robot that would do a relatively simple task, such as cutting your hair, will be developed in this century.

It sounds like a pretty simple and straightforward idea: instead of telling a hairdresser how you want to have your hair cut, why not just input all the information into a computer’s memory and then transfer it to a device armed with a comb, scissors, and that little buzzing machine they use to cut the hair in the back either in a straight line or in a rounded pattern.

If somebody could invent a machine that can do that, and do it well, the patent holder would stand to make a lot of money from this invention.

But how likely is it that this relatively simply device will be invented  and hundreds of thousands of people who are earning their living by cutting people’s hair will be forced to learn a completely different skill and work in a different profession?

And even if it were possible to invent such a machine along with a completely automated hair cutting process, would we even want to live in a world that is populated more by machines than by humans and controlled by machines, software and robots to such an extent that actual human interaction is just an afterthought?

Older Posts »



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,135 other followers

%d bloggers like this: