Posted by: patenttranslator | August 26, 2015

The Impact of Machine Translation on Human Translators

The complex impact of machine translation on translators is not understood yet, not even by translators themselves.

Many or possibly most translators have been afraid until recently, some of them deathly afraid, that machine translation would eventually wipe most of them off the current list of occupations capable of surviving the Internet era, partly because they have been and still are inundated by a constant stream of press releases and other commercial propaganda generated mostly by merchants trying to sell “customized machine translation system” while promising to save large users of translation a lot of money if they make the switch from human to machine translation.

So-called translation industry would love to turn human translators into low paid post-processors machine translation detritus, or of machine pseudo translation, because there would be mucho dinero for operators of businesses based on the ingenious concept of humans who are forced to “assist” machines, if the concept can be put into practice.

Only time will tell, but I do not believe that it will work, mostly because the resulting product will be necessarily of very inferior quality.

For the most part, such a seismic shift in the “machine-human interface” has not happened for reasons that are obvious enough to anybody who understands what translation is and what it is not. We have been fed the line “although machine translation is not quite as good as human translation, within a few years it is expected to be just as good as ….” blah, blah, blah. While feeding of the same propagandistic pablum to the gullible public will no doubt continue for at least a few more decades, most translators and even some non-translators (“civilians”) have already figured out that this is just another extreme example of wishful thinking.

Sure, it’s possible that machine translation will replace human translators. How can I or anyone else say that it’s not possible? But it’s also possible that smallish hordes of purple, green and violet unicorns are roaming the deep forests of Virginia along the fabled Appalachian Trail. How can anybody say that this isn’t possible either?

Even the general public may be finally catching on and discovering the difference between human translation and machine pseudo-translation because so many people have now had direct experience with machine translation and know by now that while machine translation is a very useful tool, it is not really translation.

MT tools are everywhere, easily accessible for free from any computer, tablet or smartphone. But even people who don’t know anything about translation are beginning to understand that computers may never replace human translators.

Yet, machine translation has already had an important impact both on the supply of work available from our clients, and on the work of human translators, including the work of this patent translator.

Some Materials in Foreign Languages Are No Longer Translated by Humans

As I started predicting already in the last century, the impact of machine translation (more correctly referred to as machine pseudo-translation because only human brain is capable of translating the meaning of words rather than just words), on the work of human translators, has been negative in some respects, and positive in other respects.

As a result of the undeniable progress, despite certain equally undeniable limits of machine translation, some translators now probably have less work than they would have had if machine translation was not freely available on the Internet.

For example, it is very likely, in fact virtually guaranteed, that I and other patent translators are losing some work to machine translation. When relevant patent literature was cited in patent applications as evidence of prior art (existing technology) ten or fifteen years ago, the only way to find out what anything about what was described in the prior art was to have the sources in foreign languages translated.

This is no longer the case because machine translation is at this point good enough to give anybody a good idea of the content of sources in a foreign language. Machine translation is generally not sufficient to describe this content accurately, but the machine-generated descriptions are likely to be good enough to eliminate techniques, procedures and devices that are not directly relevant to a new patent application.

But Highly Relevant Materials Still Need to Be Translated by Humans

Some translation work that used to be done by humans is no longer needed thanks to machine translation. But sometime machine translation also uncovers descriptions of existing technology that are directly relevant to such an extent that a new patent application could be rejected due to a lack of “innovative step,” or so that even an issued patent could be invalidated.

Because it would be too risky to rely on the information contained in the millions of words supplied by machine translation, human translators still need to translate tons of prior art references from foreign languages for their clients. Some clients may decide to rely only on machine translation for prior art research, but they will do so at their own risk.

New patent applications also need to be translated from the original languages to file them for example in English and other languages. These translation are then generally reviewed and filed by patent lawyers here in United States and in other countries. That is why a significant amount of patent documents that I translate are translations of patent application for filing purposes. I haven’t seen any decrease in this type of translation.

Machine translation thus may have reduced or perhaps mostly eliminated translations of largely unnecessary materials, but it may also have increased the need for human translation of highly relevant and crucial materials that might not have been detected without machine translation.

Machine Translation Is Now The Best Friend of Human Translators of Patents

In addition to impacting the amount and type of translation work that is now available to human translators, machine translation has also changed the way some or possibly most human translators work. I now always try to first locate and print out machine translation of every patent document in every language that I am translating, whenever possible.

In some cases it’s not possible. For example, no machine translations are available for older Japanese patent applications or for Japanese utility models (a lower category than a patent application) and because the legibility of these documents available only in PDF format is often poor and sometime quite horrible, conversion to a format accessible to machine translation is not an option. Even if the legibility is good, complicated, similar characters in Japanese patent applications are often misread by software, especially in fields such as medicine, biotechnology and chemistry.

Whenever I translate one of these documents, I am on my own and I feel like I have stepped through a murky window back into 1980s or 90s.

Fortunately, only relatively recent patent documents in these field generally need to be translated, and these can be accessed with the machine translation function available for free on the websites of the Japan Patent Office (JPO), European Patent Office (EPO) and the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO) in dozens of languages.

Post-Processing of Machine Translations of Patent Application Would Be Extremely Counterproductive

Although I print out machine translations first (if they are available,) I never “post-process” or “incorporate” them into my own translations because such a procedure would be extremely time consuming and counterproductive. I only use them as ad-hoc dictionaries, instead of and often in combination with online dictionaries and databases of English summaries of foreign patent applications, such as those available on the JPO, EPO and WIPO websites, and occasionally also with traditional dictionaries.

The only thing that I had at my disposal 25 years ago was an expensive printed dictionary, a book that was already obsolete at the printer’s shop. Fifteen years ago, I started using online dictionaries and English summaries of foreign patent applications. Now I also have machine translation at my disposal.

One implication of the availability of machine translations of patent applications to patent translators is that the threshold for entry into various fields of technical translation has been lowered. I remember that about 20 years, I started translating a medical patent about an ointment …. and gave up my valiant effort after the first 1,000 words or so. There were so many terms that I was unable to find or verify in that patent, Latin names of viruses transcribed into the Japanese alphabet called katakana and names of sea algae hiding somewhere in the Sea of Japan, that in the end I asked a colleague who translated only medical patents to translate it for me. “It’s not really worth your time chasing after these terms,” he told me slyly. And he was right.

But that was 20 years ago, and things have changed. Latin name of viruses, incomprehensible at first when transcribed into katakana, names of rare sea algae, or complicated anatomical nomenclature of human body organs, obscure medial testing methods named after the last names of their inventors, who may have been Dutch, Chinese, or Serbian, again completely unrecognizable once they are transcribed into the Japanese writing system, are instantly and correctly translated with machine translation into English.

And these translations are almost always correct, because unlike translations of common words that may have a dozen alternatives depending on context, there is only one possibility for translating a name, and only two translations of medical terms are usually possible: one in English and one in Latin.

Despite the many fears and apprehensions of human translators about the uncertain future of their profession due to availability of machine translation, the impact of machine translation on the work of this patent translator over the last 15 years has been definitely positive.

Posted by: patenttranslator | August 19, 2015

Stand By Your Translator

It’s an awful feeling when a customer is not happy with your translation. When it happens, it’s easy to feel like a total failure, almost as if everything that you’ve been trying to do until now was wrong but you were so dumb that you failed to realize it.

But even the best translator makes mistakes, and I use the plural here advisedly.

It’s an indisputable fact that St. Jerome, the man who translated the Bible into Latin 700 years ago, was one of the greatest translators who ever lived.
And yet, most biblical scholars agree that the word “horned” in the following passage from Exodus, was a mistranslation and that the correct translation from Hebrew to Latin should have been “his face shone”:

And when Moses came down from the Mount Sinai, he held the two tables of the testimony, and he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord. And Aaron and the children of Israel seeing the face of Moses horned, were afraid to come near.” (Exodus 34:29–30, D-R)

I am not a biblical scholar, but “shone” makes more sense to me than “horned.” As nobody caught this mistranslation at the time, Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of Moses in Rome has horns.

A mistranslation does not by itself negate the value of the entire translation. Nor does it automatically mean that the translator was incompetent. It only means that out of many possible alternatives, the one that should have been skipped by the translator was in fact chosen.

The truth is, sometimes a client may also take an instant dislike to a very good translation for reasons that mostly have to do with the fact that the client does not understand how translation works.

When translators work directly for a client, they have a chance to explain themselves and sometimes even change the client’s mind. But when translators work for an intermediary (a translation agency), they are generally considered guilty as soon as a client expresses any misgivings about a translation.

Translation agencies should primarily look out for our interests because we are ultimately responsible for their financial success or ruin. They can’t make any money without us. Without us, they’re nothing. But many of them do the opposite – if anything goes wrong, their automatic reaction is: “Shoot the translator!” And they just wash their hands off the whole thing while stiffing the translator.

It happened to me just a few weeks ago when I was asked by an agency to translate advertising text on the front and back of Japanese credit cards. I accepted the translation as a minimum translation job since I was able to translate the text consisting of only a few words within a few minutes.

But the next day the agency sent me a long commentary from the client about my translation. The reason why the monolingual client did not like my translation was that it did not correspond exactly, word for word, to the English wording they had there. The original English information/advertisement must have been the original text that was then translated into Japanese. And the moron client thought that my translation should have corresponded word for word to the original English text if it were any good. But obviously, a pseudo informative but mostly advertising text, however short one, or especially a very short one, must be changed dramatically if it is to work in another language, especially when it passes from a language like English into a completely different language such as Japanese, with all its cultural implications.

The agency wanted me to work with the client and “fix” my translation (for free, by including the additional work in my minimum flat fee since they did not mention any payment.) But I simply refused to touch it because I didn’t see the point of trying to justify myself to a dumb client who knows nothing about translation. The way I see it, if the project manager didn’t understand what was going on – and she didn’t, because she never asked me anything, only ordered me to revise my translation – she too was an incompetent factotum.

So I told the PM, “Please feel free to ignore my invoice.” It was for my minimum flat fee amount, so I figured that it wouldn’t be such a big loss.

But at the same time I told myself that in spite of my offer, if I don’t get paid for my work, I will never work for this PM again. I did not get paid and I will not accept another job from this person again. It is too risky to work for people who value your work at zero dollars and zero cents as soon as something seems to go wrong. There are other people in the same mid-size agency, four of them, who I have been working for already for a number of years and I will continue working for them. I have a feeling that they would have understood instinctively what was really going on, or at the least that they would have insisted on paying my paltry minimum in this case. You can’t simply stiff a translator just because a client has no idea what the word “translation” means.

I was in fact lucky this time because I only lost a few minutes of my time while translating a few words, while I was able to confirm my suspicions about this particular project manager (I already had my suspicions about this person.) Had I accepted a long job from the same PM for another ignorant client, the loss would be much more painful because I would either have to work with an ignorant and arrogant client, or lose much more money.

If arguably the greatest translator who ever lived—and who was later named patron saint of all translators by the Catholic church in recognition of his work—could make a major mistake that later led Michelangelo astray (arguably the greatest artist of all times), when he was creating his statue of Moses, the chances that mistranslation will never happen to you or me are approximately 0.000.

I will contrast the case above with another example of a client who had a problem with my translation about two years ago. It was a translation of a long Japanese patent in an area that I am quite used to after more than two decades of working in this field.
But more than a year after I finished the translation and received payment for it, I received an e-mail from my client, a partner at a major patent law firm. He said that when he took my translation of the long patent with him to discuss technology related issues with the opposition in Europe, the counsel representing the other party pointed out what the opposition identified as problems with my translation.
The issues that the opposition had with my translation were attached to the e-mail, several of them, as the patent was very long.

Let me tell you, dear readers of my silly blog, reading the e-mail and the attachment was pure agony for me, and not only because I’ve been working for this client since the mid 1990s and chances were I was going to lose him now. Fortunately in one sentence, burnished in my memory even now, my client said ” … although I defended your translation vigorously…”

So I responded by humbly apologizing for any problems my translation may have caused and offered to go through the translation with a fine tooth comb, word for word, and address all of the issues that the opposition had with my translation … at my usual hourly rate.

My offer was accepted. I saw that the opposition had a point in some of the objections expressed to my translation, although more than half of them were in my opinion arguing about how many angels can dance on the tip of a needle. But I did not put it like that, of course – I merely suggested that while an alternative interpretation was possible, due to differences between Japanese and English grammar, so was mine.

It took me a long time to read and proofread everything as I was careful in trying to address every one of the points that the opposition made about my translation as diplomatically as possible.

I put five hours of work on my invoice. It took me longer than that, but I decided not to push my luck. And I was paid for the additional five hours of work by the law firm, which keeps sending me work. In fact, I see in my records that in May of this year, about 40% of my income came from the same client who sent me several long Japanese patents for translation.

Some people are smart enough to stand by their translator even when a client raises objections to a translation. And some people think that the best, most convenient and fastest solution is to shoot the translator first, and wash their hands off the whole thing.

It’s a fast and convenient solution, but not necessarily a smart one.

Posted by: patenttranslator | August 17, 2015

Remembrance of Things Past, Part II: Translation Agencies, Mostly

As I continue scanning files of old customers who no longer seem to be needing my excellent services (I am not quite sure why I am doing that, there’s probably some important psychological reason for it, one I do not dare to name), some files I don’t even recognize because the projects and the customers were not very important, while other files trigger an avalanche of half-forgotten memories.

I thought that I finished scanning all non-active direct customers last month, but it turns out that I misfiled some old-fashioned vanilla folders containing sheaves of printed e-mails, contracts, invoices, copies of checks (I make copies of some checks just in case they bounce) and other memorabilia and that the cabinet designated as the last resting place of defunct translation agencies (some of them truly departed and nonexistent, some of them gone to God knows where), still contain direct clients.

From Files for 1995: The Kamikaze Project

I remember this one as if it were yesterday although it has been more than 20 years.

A Federal Express envelope was delivered to my office in Petaluma one day with a long US patent application to be translated into English on a very short deadline. The patent was very complicated, in a field that I ventured into only occasionally. And at that time, I was basically translating only into English because I would have to hire other translators for translations into other languages and I preferred – and still prefer – to translate by myself.

OK, let’s get rid of this customer, I thought, and I faxed a response to the patent lawyer who sent me the letter (fax was the preferred means of communication back then.) I confirmed that although the deadline was very tight, I would be able to finish the project on time, but I quoted a high rate and brazenly demanded a down payment of 50%.

That should do it, I thought. I figured that I would probably never hear from the patent lawyer, for whom I had previously translated several patents from Japanese that year. But I was wrong. The same smiling FedEx guy brought another FedEx envelope the next day. It was much slimmer this time because it contained only a single sheet of paper with a letter confirming acceptance of my conditions and a check for several thousand dollars.

So I hit the phone and started calling translators I knew to find out whether they knew other translators who would be able and willing to work on a rush project into Japanese, and after several hours, I put together a team of five people. I remember that I designed it so that each translator would have no more than about 2,000 words per day for six days, including a Saturday, so that I could proofread and compile everything on Sunday because all we had was one short week to finish the scary Kamikaze project.

One of those Magnificent Five gave up on the project on Thursday. He said that the terminology was so complicated that he simply could not continue at the speed of two thousand words a day because it made him too tired. I coaxed and cajoled the guy into continuing to work on the project, while at the same time I took about half of his job from him and gave it to another among the Magnificent Five who agreed to add it to her portion of the Kamikaze project.

On Sunday, fortified with a bag full of old fashioned, glazed and chocolate donuts from a local bakery in downtown Petaluma and numerous cups of coffee (French roast), I was proofreading the translations of the Magnificent Five until late into the night. I had to fax the finished translation to a patent law firm in Japan, and also e-mail it to the firm because the patent application had to be filed right away in Japan lest the all-important filing deadline be missed. It was Sunday night in California, but already Monday afternoon in Japan.

When everything was finished, I staggered into the quiet, warm California night, walked to my parking garage across the street and drove 20 minutes, first through a dark downtown and then on Highway 101 from Petaluma to my house in Santa Rosa. It was only when I hit the remote to open the garage door and saw that the garage was unusually dark that I realized that the whole time I had been driving without lights, at around 2 AM.

The Kamikaze Project was a success – but I could have easily died in a car accident on that warm California night. It almost did become a true Kamikaze Project worthy of the name I gave it.


Here’s another memorable one – this one was from a tiny agency that sent me a long pharmaceutical translation project 15 years ago. The agency was run by two people, one of them a translator who discovered my considerable talent because 15 years ago I was writing articles for a newsletter for translators in Northern California called Translorial and she used to comment on them.

I am pretty sure that after we lost contact with each other she moved to France and then from France to Australia, unless I am thinking of somebody else … but according to Google, she lives in San Francisco now and her agency still has the same name. But there is no website, only a phone number. She is probably retired now.

I see on one of the scanned pages that I put in large, bolded letters on the bottom of my Past-Due Invoice reminders:


It worked! She sent me a partial payment in response to this subtle reminder within a couple of days and the remainder of the balance followed shortly after that.

From Files for 2006: Don’t Know About Other Translators, But Mass E-Mails Are Not Really My Thing

This file I remember very well too.

It was a tiny translation agency run by a very decent, polite and intelligent couple, the kind of people that must be finding it difficult to survive in the brutal new reality of corporate “translation business.” The husband has a PhD in chemistry, and he would always call first if he had a big job or something that he needed back in a hurry. The wife was the accountant in their small business.

I see from my 1099 Tax Form that they paid me 27,828 dollars for services rendered in 2006. It was lots of pharmaceutical tests, device testing procedures and other BMP (best manufacturing practices) testing protocols that I was translating from Japanese along with several other translators for this couple.

They paid promptly and well, for rush work they paid 1.5 times my usual rate. This is one agency that I should try to keep as a customer, I thought at the end of 2006. But then, in 2007, they put their business up for sale and after a few months it was bought by another translation agency in New York.

But the new owner, who wanted to expand his base of customers in the field of pharmaceuticals and life sciences, was using very different methods to communicate with translators.

The old owner used to call whenever he had a rush job or a big project to make sure that I would be available. It’s hard to turn somebody down when they call you in person. (Incidentally, almost nobody calls these days, everything is done by e-mail now.) Once he called when I was driving on a highway and when I explained to him why there was so much noise on the phone line, he apologized profusely and promptly hung up once I accepted the job, although usually we both liked to shoot the breeze a little.

I see in my files that the closing sentence in one of his last letters to translators said:“We thank you for your support over all these years and wish for each one of you only the very best that life can bring.” And I am sure they both meant it, because they really cared for the translators who were the people responsible for the success of their tiny but very busy company.

They don’t make translation agencies like that anymore.

The first job offer that was sent to me from the new owner of the agency was e-mailed also to a whole bunch of other translators because it did not mention me by name. Nevertheless, I responded and tentatively accepted the translation within about an hour, mostly based on my fond memories of the retired couple.

But the job was gone by then. So I e-mailed the PM (project manager) to express my befuddlement, as I thought that they wanted me to translate this particular material because of my experience with the same type of material over the past few years.

Not so, indicated the PM (her name was Brittany) in her e-mail response: we are in fact looking for first responders. So I told her to please delete me from her company’s database because I was not interested in being a first responder. If I were, I would have become firefighter or paramedic (not a cop, I don’t have the personality for that) decades ago while I was still young and better suited for such a stressful occupation, both physically and mentally.

Her boss, the guy who bought the agency from the nice couple, called me within minutes to apologize for dumb Brittany’s actions. But I’m afraid I was a little brusque with him and after a few words I simply hung up on him. I knew that new company was going to be very, very different from the old one and that I simply did not want to have anything to do with the new people.

I have to say, it made me feel a little bit better to put him in his place like that. From what I see on Google, his company is doing well now: it uses “ISO certified procedures,” it has “an international network of over 5,000 professional linguists” (who must be also professional first responders), and they “leverage their industry expertise and technology know-how to provide streamlined, cost-effective solutions,” while “their industry-leading quality management systems yield better than 99% accuracy and quality.”

In other words, I was right to hang up on the guy. This is not a translation agency that I would want to work for, and even if I did get a few jobs from them at first, after a while they would just replace me with the first and hungriest first responder in their pack of “5,000 professional linguists” who would be much cheaper than this Mad Patent Translator.

I am still scanning files under letter A. With any luck there will be even more entertaining material in my file cabinet where old translation agencies go to die.

An important principle of the corporate production model is that higher profitability can be achieved with better efficiency.

A hundred years ago, Henry Ford, who was incidentally an admirer of Adolf Hitler, greatly increased efficiency in his factories by introducing the first moving assembly line for mass production of automobile parts and entire automobiles. Evidence of the fact that fast moving production lines were not very amenable to a great variety of choices for customers already (and this already at its start) is the following famous Henry Ford quote:”Any customer can have a car painted any color he wants so long as it is black.”

In the 1950s, the restaurant chain McDonald’s applied the mass production model of efficiency to the production of fast food meals based on the principle that every task can be broken down into a series of smaller tasks so that workers, unencumbered by having to follow through the entire production process, could thus work much more quickly. Burger flippers who flip burgers for hours without having to do anything else until a manager rotates them to another position, such as that of egg-frying specialists, are able to flip burgers and then fry eggs faster than cooks or chefs who are entrusted with the task of preparing entire meals.

They are much more efficient because instead of being cooks or chefs who prepare entire meals, they have become burger flipping and egg frying human machines.

The highly efficient corporate production model was eventually also adopted in the communist economic model. A good example of the application of Henry Ford’s and McDonald’s’ highly efficient mass production model is the Soviet style of housing for the happy workers who were living in the communist paradise. Rows of huge, grey, ugly, identical blocks of buildings constructed from prefabricated panels made of stressed concrete are lasting monuments to the application of Henry Ford’s model of efficient production not only in the former Soviet Union, but also in many former Soviet block countries, from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.

It’s hard to tell whether the cheap public housing architecture, typical of the huge “project” style of housing in big American cities, was originally inspired by the Soviet style of housing for a country where everybody was able to breathe completely freely, unlike in any other country: (at least based on the lyrics of the Soviet anthem: “я другой такой страны не знаю где так вольно дышит человек”,) or whether it was the other way round.

What probably happened was that a powerful synergistic effect was exerted back and forth across two different economic and ideological models, which in spite of many differences also shared some similarities.

Large translation agencies also applied the corporate mass production method to what is called “the translation industry.” But unlike the original creators of McDonald’s production method, or the mass production model of efficiency for the Soviet style housing for enthusiastic builders of a future society where everybody is provided for according to his or her needs, or creators of American-style cheap housing for the tired, poor, huddled masses, translation agencies say that their translation production method is the only legitimate way to translate anything, and that it in fact results in a higher quality of the final product thanks to added value and additional services.

So let’s take a look at the some of the claims about added value and additional services that are typically supplied by translation agencies.

1. Unlike Mere Translators or Small Translation Agencies, Only Large Agencies Are Able to Coordinate Large Translation Projects

Ehm …. but mere translators such as myself are also able to coordinate translation projects, and some of them are pretty large and continue for years.

I started coordinating projects involving a number of translators, sometime in different languages, let’s see … in 1994, and it’s a part of my job to this day. I believe that I can do it better than your average translation agency project manager, typically a kid who does not even understand the language in which the documents being managed are written.

I also happen to know a number of other translators who are also coordinating large translation projects, some of which have continued for a number of years, because I myself have worked for them.

So this claim is false. You don’t have to be a translation agency to coordinate a large translation project. In fact, a translator who understands both or several languages of the managed project and who has experience relevant to the field of the project will by definition do a much better job managing a complicated job for several translators than your typical translation agency project manager.

2. Only Translation Agencies Are Equipped to Use ISO-Certification or EN-Certification

This claim is absolutely true – but what does this particular claim really say?
The ISO or EN certification models is a set of rules originally designed for manufacturing industrial products. It is possible to design a set of techniques and rules for manufacturing products, such as cars, or even of meals such as hamburgers … but the product called translation is created in the brain of a human being. An educated and highly experienced translator will most of the time produce a good translation. An inexperienced and poorly paid one, who is much more likely to be used by a large translation agency due to the low cost, is likely to produce a poor translation, possibly containing many mistranslation that can never be detected with methods that were designed for mass production of industrial products.

Certification for thinking processes taking place in the heads of people called translators, who may or may not know what they are doing, is obviously nonsense. However, since so many clients don’t know much about translation, it is a popular and useful advertising gimmick.

To say that the accuracy of translations is guaranteed because a translation agency is using a certain method is to be dishonest in the extreme in order to fool prospective customers.

3. Unlike Mere Translators, Only Large Translation Agencies Are Able to Manage Huge Multilingual Projects

This claim is in fact true.

Although I do have a lot of experience with management of translation projects, an update of several hundred pages of a printer manual into 16 languages, for example, is not something that I would be able to handle.

Maybe I’ll eventually learn how to manage also these projects, but why would I want to learn to do so when projects likes this represent only a very small percentage of all the work out there, probably less than 1 percent?

Although I have been working for several years on ongoing projects involving translation of patents from or into just a few languages, namely languages that I can understand, I ignore requests to bid on patent translation projects involving translation of patents into many languages if the project is too big and includes languages that I can’t understand myself.

When you specialize in something, by definition, you have to turn down work in a field that you don’t know, or if this is a project that you would not be interested in for other reasons.

Just like fast food restaurants represent a reasonable dining option if you don’t mind eating mystery meat and French fries that taste so good (although you know that they’ll make you fat), the corporate translation production model is in fact a reasonable option under some circumstances.

But both of these options should be used sparingly. I like Burger King, but I eat there only a few times a year because I know that those burgers and fries are not really good for me.

I wonder how many customers of large translation agencies realize that the translations produced based on the corporate translation model are not really good for them.

Posted by: patenttranslator | August 8, 2015

A Dream Or a Nightmare, the Choice Is Ours

“My boss recommended I reach out to you for translation of the attached document. The file is in Japanese and needs to be translated into English. I was hoping you would be able to provide me with some sort of a quote for the translation of the document.

Please let me know your rates for this and also your availability.”

This was an e-mail received from a translation agency a few days ago. It was clear to me that the agency coordinator, or project manager (PM) as they are called, had absolutely no idea what was in this “Japanese document”. Whenever PMs call something “a document,” which is most of the time, they do so because they don’t know what’s in it. Naturally, how could they know what’s in the “document” when the “document” is in a foreign language? They are just PMs and nobody should expect them to actually have some understanding of the “documents” that they manage.

Because the PM did not ask me for “my best rate,” I answered the e-mail by quoting a price, per word rate, and turnaround time. (It is best to simply ignore requests for a “best rate”).

The time was 4: 30 PM. There was no answer that day. Maybe they only work until 5 PM, I thought, like normal people (read: non-translators) do.

There was no answer the next day in the morning either. I was thinking of asking the Project Manager, who had no way of even estimating the cost of the project without the assistance of somebody like this Mad Patent Translator, whether her mother never taught her that it is polite to thank people when they do something for you, especially if they do it for free. But then I figured, to hell with them, I have better things to do.

But the PM finally answered this MPT, after almost 24 hours:

“Hi Steve,

Thanks for the reply on this.
Do you mind me asking what the specific amount of English words is based on?

Of course it is quite difficult to determine a word count for the Japanese [No, it is not very difficult if you know what you’re doing], without manually going through each page. Also in regards to the rate of 0.XX cents per word this seems a little high compared to other vendors, would it be possible to do this for between 0.XX-0.XX cents per word?”

(They wanted me to translate it, but for about 15% less than what I normally charge to translation agencies, which is quite a bit lower than what I charge to direct customers).

So I answered thusly:

Hi [name of the PM]:

Oh well, if you can’t afford me, that’s OK too.

And don’t call me “a vendor,” I don’t sell hotdogs.

Have a nice life!

S. V.”

Why would I want to teach them how to estimate the word count in English for Japanese patents when they can’t even pay my rate? Since the method that I use in fact has several caveats (because the word count depends on the type of the document and the kind of words and characters that the writer is using,) I am not sure that they would be able to understand it anyway.

I expected that the only response to my short e-mail in which I protested the application of the crass capitalist term “vendor” to a translator would be a frosty radio silence after such a cheeky e-mail, but contrary to my expectation, the following response appeared in my mailbox within a few minutes:

Hi Steve,

My apologies if I offended you by using the term vendor, I did not mean for it to come out in such a way that was demeaning. [How did she expect it to come out then?, I wonder].

Of course we try to source the best available price for our clients, and after discussing this with my boss, he has assured me that your rate of 0.XX cents per word would be more than acceptable for such an accomplished translator. [Accomplished or not, I’ve got bills to pay].

This project has not yet been given the go ahead, but if it does are you still available and willing to work on this document?[There is a comma missing in this e-mail.]

Please let me know when you get a chance and again my deepest apologies.

[name of the Project Manager]

With a chuckle, or a snigger, or a cackle or whatever other name can be used for this particular activity that I enjoy so much, I graciously accepted both the apology and the offer of the job, should it pan out, (the apology was accepted unconditionally, the job conditionally,) as follows:

“Apologies accepted. At this point I have work for about a week, but I will try to fit in your translation if the project is a go.”
Best regards,
S. V.”

In every negotiation, everything depends on who needs whom more. The size, income levels, ethnicity, skin color, gender …. none of these things matter nearly as much as whether you need the other party more than they need you.
I could certainly use the particular translation that was offered to me in this manner, subject to approval of the end client, of course, because I will have quite a few additional bills to pay on top of the usual ones that I have to pay every month: such as airplane ticket from Norfolk to Bordeaux and back next month because I will be going to the IAPTI III Conference in Bordeaux in a few weeks. I have not bought the ticket yet, and this patent translation job would basically pay for it.

But I don’t like to haggle and be treated like some kind of cheap domestic help who may charge no more than what the next cheap domestic help factotum is charging.

There are in fact thousands of translation agencies offering the same thing (“translations”) to customers, big and small, who need to have “documents” translated, generally because these customers can’t make money without a really good translation. And there are probably only about a dozen translators living on planet Earth who are experienced enough and know both Japanese and English and who can translate a long, complicated biotechnology patent so that both the agency and the translator will be paid for the translation, and so that the end client can go on making money based on the information provided in it.

My life would be a nightmare if I allowed thousands of PMs working for thousands of translation agencies to treat me as just another “vendor” among dozens or hundreds of other “vendors”. I would have to haggle about the price and live in fear that even if I give in, my price might still be higher than what other “vendors” are willing to take, and I would have to work long hours, including on Saturdays and Sundays, without any additional compensation for overtime.

Or life can be a dream, or as close to a dream as it is possible in real life, if I am in charge of the terms under which I sell my experience, my skills and my time to people who are in need of the same, because to a translator, being able to do the kind of work that I do at rates and at a pace that I consider fair is a dream come true.

Two weeks later I received the same long patent for translation from the same translation agency at the rate that was in my original e-mail response.

For some reason, a different project manager was assigned to handle the project.

Posted by: patenttranslator | July 31, 2015

Three Things That Baffle Me to No End in French Movies

I’ve been trying to learn French since I was fifteen, which is about two centuries ago.

At this point, I would still describe myself as an advanced beginner when it comes to understanding colloquial French. So I try to watch French movies as much as possible.

I have several movie packages with my cable subscription, but they keep showing the same dull American “action movies” and I’m sick and tired of the car chasing scenes, special effects and blood and gore in movies that are clearly designed for an audience with an IQ below seventy.

So I watch French movies instead based on the theory that even if it is a dumb movie, and it often is, it will be good for something because it should be good for my French.

I’ve lived in a number of countries on three continents, but I never lived in France. I started learning the language in high school, but I only visited France twice as a tourist. So there is a lot of things I don’t get about the French culture when I watch French movies or TV series (I try to watch Plus Belle La Vie sometime when I am not busy), such as:

1. How the French keep kissing each other on the cheek.

Men and women kiss each other on the cheek, while men still mostly shake hands, though not always.

I get that every culture has different customs.

Mongolians add butter to their tea because it’s cold in Mongolia and they need the calories in the harsh climate. Eskimos rub their noses when they greet each other, mostly to show that they come in peace, although the real reason may be to make sure that their noses have not fallen off yet in the cold winters beyond the Arctic circle. The Japanese bow deeply to each other and keep their head down for a precisely specified time period depending on social status.

And the French keep kissing each other on the cheek. OK, I don’t really have a problem with that. The Japanese have a bowing culture because they are very conscious of the social order, and the French have a kissing culture because it is a nation that puts more emphasis on tenderness than the proper social order, I get that.

No big mystery there, but why do they sometime kiss each other on the cheek only once, but sometime twice or three times, and sometime four times?

And both kissing parties always seem to know exactly how many times it should be done and precisely at what interval. Should one of the kissing parties linger on the other person’s cheek for a split second longer, it would spoil the natural effect of the whole kissing procedure and the result might be somewhat awkward. For example, instead of kissing each other four times according to the proper rhythm demanded by the vibrant French culture, they might end up doing it only twice or three times, which would probably qualify as anti-social behavior.

But that never happens, at least not in French movies that I have seen.

2. How they keep drinking red wine on every possible occasion.

Regardless of the time of day, the French just ask each other “Tu veux prendre un verre?” (literally, “You want to take a glass?”), and they either go straight to a cupboard in the kitchen where they have a bottle of red wine waiting for them already uncorked and started on, or if they are outside their home, they go to a restaurant and drink red wine. And they never drink white wine in movies. They may be asked by a waiter whether they want white or red, but they always go for red.

They drink it with or without a meal, and then they get up from the table and drive somewhere in their “bagnole” (car) usually a Peugot, sometime a German car, typically a Ford if the person driving the car is about to be ambushed or meet with a tragic end in some other fashion.

Based on what I see in French movies, it must be legal for French people to drive after they have been drinking their national libation of choice even if they have just finished off a whole bottle of red wine.

They even give red wine to children (which would be a major crime here in US) if the kids ask for it in French movies, although sometime they just pour a little bit of it into the glass and fill the rest with water for the French enfant terrrible.

3. How they keep drinking beer from tiny glasses that seem to be wine glasses, but a bit shorter.

I see it in movies all the time, and it actually happened to me too. Every time when I ordered a beer in a French restaurant, they brought it to me in one of those funny little glasses that look like wine glasses that should be recalled for safety reasons because they are too short. You could easily knock them over when you have a few beers in you. That’s why in Germany, they drink beer from a big solid “Stein”, which literally means “a stone” because the glass is as heavy as a stone. In France, they drink beer from diminutive wine glasses instead. What a perfect symbol for a terrible clash of incompatible cultures!

I once bought a set of glasses in Walmart that looked exactly like the French beer glasses, just for the heck of it. These glasses must have been made in China by Chinese people, who simply ignored proper specifications for glasses that white devils may use in America, to try drinking beer that I usually have with my dinner like the French on the theory that it just might make me more fluent in French.

But one day, when my son happened to stop by while we were having dinner, he looked at me with an astonished look on his face and said “You drink beer from a wine glass”? It was the same look he gave me when he me asked one day “You wear pink socks”? No, I don’t were pink socks!!! The socks were originally ochre, but because they too were made in China, after I threw them in the washing machine with some other items of clothing, they became pink and I didn’t really notice.

So I stopped wearing pink socks and drinking beer from those defective wine glasses because you never know who might stop by and catch you doing something silly like that.

After a hiatus of more than three decades, I’ll be in France for about a week at the beginning of September for The Fourth IAPTI Conference in Bordeaux.

I’ll probably have a list of a few other things that baffle me about the French people for you by September.

See you in Bordeaux! I’ll have a teaser booklet of my posts with me – ask and you shall receive!

When you buy a new house from a builder, just about anywhere in the United States, the house will come with a landscaped front yard. There will be a nice, lush green lawn in front and some trees, bushes and even sprinklers are often also included in the price. But only in the front, because the front is what people see when they have to make a decision about whether to finally buy, or keep looking.

The back of the house usually has no landscaping, only a lot of mud, temporarily administered by little birds, merrily chirping as they hop around looking for tasty worms. You can generally tell how well the new house owners are doing economically by how long it takes them to landscape the back of their new house.

Builders say they do it this way so that customers can customize their landscaping.

When you later finally buy new landscaping for your new house, there are often big differences in the prices offered by different companies. Shortly after we bought our house 14 years ago, we were offered a free price quote for new landscaping in our muddy backyard by a major landscaping company in our town. I often see trucks with this company’s logo on the road, and whenever I see this company’s workers putting in landscaping for new house owners, they’re all Mexican, except for the foreman, who is usually the only white guy on the crew.

We agreed to take a look at the free price quote, which came with a simple drawing explaining the future design, a rather generic one.

But because we thought that the price was a bit steep, we talked to people who knew other people and eventually we hired three guys who were able to do the landscaping for us for quite a bit less, based on our own design, which was very different from the generic design we were offered by the big company. You can see a part of the landscaping in our backyard if you click on the “About me” tab above.

We also talked to a foreman of a crew who was building new houses here and he agreed to bring his crew with a cement truck in the evening to pour the concrete patio and walkways around the back of the house.

Our two children were joyfully watching the interesting spectacle with utter fascination, observing five or six strange dudes, (they were all white back then, not a single Mexican among them), pouring concrete and creating fancy shapes from the concrete with tiny pebbles on top according to my wife’s precise specifications. When the job was finished, my son Casey, who was about 10 at the time, tried to bounce his ball off the still-wet concrete. I remember it so clearly because I see the round depression in the concrete walkway every morning when I take our dog Lucy for a walk.

We saved about 40 % on landscaping costs, and got the exact design that we wanted (or rather that my wife wanted) because we did not go with the big company.

Big companies have all kinds of expenses that small companies or freelancers generally do not have.

Big companies have to pay for sales people who are looking for new leads or “prospects”. The sales people usually work on commission. If they don’t find a new job for the company, they get nothing. But if they do find new work, the commission is usually generous.

Big companies have several layers of managers who must make sure that the workers who do the actual work do everything according to the company’s rules, without stealing or engaging in inappropriate behavior, such as sexual harassment of coworkers or bringing a dog to the office. There are so many layers of various managerial workers in the intricate structure of big companies that people are finally beginning to notice that many of these jobs are completely useless.

According to some economists, most jobs in our modern economy are now useless, which is to say that they do not create any real value for the client.

Above the considerable number of people who are doing mostly useless jobs, on top of the pyramid of useless jobs created in a big company, high above the low paying jobs of workers who in fact produce real value, sits a company owner who functions like a huge vacuum cleaner sucking in a big chunk of the money that will go to only one person.

I may not have been thinking about it quite in these terms at the time, but I think this is why the second bid was about 40% lower when we decided to get another price quote from people who were not working for a big company.

In large translation agencies in what is now called the translation industry, there are also many useless jobs and a lot of wasted overhead with no benefit to the customer.

Every large translation agency employs a fleet of sales people. I don’t know exactly how these sales people work. I do know that their job involves identifying suitable targets, people and companies who need something translated, (like patents, for example) preferably on a regular basis. So the cost quoted to a customer of a large translation agency will have to cover expenses for sales people who look for new clients by making cold calls to suitable clients, or even flying to another city or country and staying in an expensive hotel prior to a meeting with an important potential customer.

If they can find suitable customers and make them sign on the dotted line, then sales people are invaluable to the translation agency.

But from the viewpoint of the customer who just needs documents translated, they create no value whatsoever.

Large translation agencies nowadays also employ various experts who have a number of different jobs and tasks in the new economy, which is based on a system in which most jobs are useless. The agency needs an advertising specialist for Internet marketing, so if you type for example “patent translator” into Google, in addition to my silly blog (Diary of a Mad Patent Translator) and my website (at — which will be displayed on top of organic listings because Google somehow figured out that I really am a patent translator — mostly large translation agencies will be displayed in paid listings on top and to the right of organic listings.

Translation agencies these days also need public relations specialists who regularly produce commercial propaganda called press releases to be distributed both by online media and by dead tree media.

Other PR specialists must spend at least some of their time following discussions of translators in online venues such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. I know this because whenever I lurk on a discussion of translators on social media, it is generally only a matter of time before a PR person representing the translation agency being criticized raises strenuous objections.

Translation agencies also need many so-called PMs, or project managers. This is a job that arguably does create value for the actual customer. Well, inarguably, this job does create value for the customer, but only if the PMs know what they are doing. Unfortunately, based on my experience, this is rarely the case.

It may be due to the fact that I mostly translate a weird combination of languages (Czech, Polish, and Japanese). But even when I translate other, more common languages (German, French and Russian), project managers that I deal with usually don’t understand a single word in the language of the project that they’re managing, which is one reason why they can easily mismanage the project, typically by assigning the project to the wrong translator to begin with.

So the rate charged to a customer of a large translation agency will also have to cover the salaries of project managers whose job it is to organize the work, the way a foreman of a cement pouring crew must organize the work. Unfortunately, unlike said foreman, translation project managers are often not qualified to do their jobs properly.

Because a large translation agency must pay all of the costs I listed above, in addition to many other costs such as expensive office rent, there is generally not that much that is left in the end for translators, as they’re not really considered that important in the intricate organizational structure of most large translation agencies.

The landscaping company whose bid was too high for my taste 14 years ago is now trying to solve the problem of the cost of worker’s wage by hiring cheap undocumented migrants. Translation agencies, big and small, but mostly big, try to solve this problem by outsourcing work to people who are able and willing to charge less, much less, than what an educated and experienced translator would be charging. We can thank the Internet for this now that it is available in countries where labor is dirt cheap in comparison to North America or Western Europe.

We did the right thing when we rejected the free cost estimate from a large landscaping company 14 years ago and instead decided to directly hire the people who do the actual work.

Not only did I save money by doing so but I think that we also received better quality of work.

And so would customers willing to look for translators who specialize in the type of translations that they need, instead of trusting a large translation agency … because it has a large advertisement on the Internet.

Two days ago I decided that I needed to create digital copies of all of my client files as a part of a general downsizing of all of the stuff that I own, which George Carlin would describe by the Japanese word ガラクタ (“garakuta”, crap, junk, useless stuff) had he found out that they have this word in Japanese.

At some point I plan to sell our house and find something much smaller. When we moved from Northern California to Chesapeake in Eastern Virginia 14 years ago, we needed a big house for 4 people (my wife, myself, two sons, three dogs: two dachshunds and a German shepherd/beagle mix, plus an Australian bearded dragon lizard). In fact, one big reason why we moved here was that we were able to trade a much smaller house in expensive California for a much bigger house in Virginia.

But the dogs and the lizard died quite a few years ago, and the children moved out a few years after that. They still have their garakuta in the closet in their room, but we hardly see them now.

So the house is way too big now for just two people and one dog.

When the time comes to move again, this time I will try to get rid of most or all of the furniture, including what is in the two rooms in our house that I use an office, either in estate or garage sale, or by giving it away. Computers and printers too will go to the GoodWill store. Not sure what I will do with the many books and dictionaries that I have. Will I be able to part with them? Only time will tell.

When the time comes, I plan to keep only one laptop with my files on it, plus a few USB sticks. Well, maybe an external USB fixed drive too, we’ll see. The idea is to be as free and careless about the future as I was when I immigrated from Germany 34 years ago to America, an entire continent where I did not know a single living soul, with 500 dollars in my pocket.

They say that the time to travel often is when you are young because you can travel lightly when you are young. I agree with that, and I have certainly done my part to prove it true. But when you are old is also a good time to travel, preferably often and lightly. Just like when you were young, nobody really needs you that much as nobody really depends on you anymore when you are old.

In my office I have three filing cabinets containing files on each and every client who entrusted me with precious documents for translation over the span of more than 28 years.

That is almost three decades of paper files that need to be converted, little by little, into PDF files!

I divided the files in the filing cabinets as follows:

1. Active Clients (including direct clients and translation agencies). These are important files because the information in them pays all of our expenses. I will only start digitizing these if and when I have a concrete plan for moving.

2. Inactive Translation agencies, and

3. Inactive Direct Clients, mostly patent law firms and patent law departments of various companies.

The files are just printouts of my invoices, client contact information and printouts of messages exchanged over the years with the clients, arranged chronologically in vanilla folders, which are obviously arranged in alphabetical order.

I started by digitalizing my Filing Cabinet 3, namely Inactive Direct Clients.

Digitalizing, which is translated into French as “à la recherche du temps perdu”, means that I take out a bunch of files from the cabinet, look at them, remove staples and stubs of checks, Christmas cards and similar items with non-standard dimensions that might confuse the scanner (sometime I make a copy of these things too if I decided to keep a memento), and stick a stack of pages into the scanner.

Clients who do not fit into one scan in the scanner, which can accommodate about 50 pages, get their own folder with several subfolders in it, each covering 2 or three years of invoices and communication with clients. After less than 2 days I am now still in the middle of letter C and so far I have 4 separate subfolders for clients who kept me busy for years in the Inactive Client folder on my computer.

The oldest direct client that I scanned into my digital memories so far is from 1991. It was a law firm that was sending me for 2 years handwritten test reports for translation from Japanese for a lawsuit involving pharmaceuticals. Once I went to their offices in San Francisco to pick up a check from the paralegal who was coordinating the project. Could not wait 2 more days for mail delivery. She had a Japanese name (both first and last) but she did not know any Japanese. She looked to be about 18 years old and she was very, very pretty. Was that why they hired her? She is probably a grandmother now. The law firm stopped sending me work after a little over two years and then I saw in the San Francisco Chronicle that the law firm was dissolved.

Another old customer, who ultimately defected to greener pastures after sending me work from 1993 until 2009, was the legal department of a large multinational corporation. At first they were sending only Japanese patents, and then they added German patents as well. I must have dealt with 6 or 8 paralegals there who worked for 6 or 8 patent lawyers. Towards the end, I started to deal with a librarian instead of paralegals. I remember that I disliked the last librarian. I don’t remember exactly why, but I do remember that he seemed somehow unprofessional.

This customer’s file was so big that I had to put it into two manila folders while the company was still filed among current customers. So now I have two manila folders with a lot of paper in them, but both are in the filing cabinet for Inactive Customers.

Most companies get only a single PDF file, but I am creating separate directories for companies that dumped me after many years of working with me, further subdivided into subdirectories organized chronologically, mostly because I can put only 50 pages at a time into my scanner.

I put a couple of customers in both categories, Inactive and Active, because one manila folder would not hold all the paper. One of them, which still keeps sending me work at least every other month, forgot to pay an invoice for last month’s work. I did four jobs for them but, but they paid only for three. Their accounting department is very easy to get hold of (which is not a very common occurrence), and they told me to expect the check within the next few days. They even apologized.

Another patent law firm kept me busy for two years, in 2007 and 2008, when each year they accounted for about 15 percent of my income. It was again a lawsuit involving pharmaceuticals, with lots of patents and articles from medical journals, mostly in Japanese, but some also in German. I have not heard from them since 2008.

In cases like this, I generally look up the lawyers that I used to deal with in that company on Google and send them a post card. I had a special post card printed to offer my services, or reintroduce myself as the case may be, in this manner.

When I do my Googling, I see that most of the time the patent lawyers that I used to work for moved to another company, sometime created a new company, often becoming partners in the new company. I send them a post card too because they would probably remember me, although who knows whether the post card will be delivered by their secretary.

So far I have scanned files of old customers up to the letter C. Hopefully, it will take months before I finish the whole filing cabinet, because that would mean that I am getting very busy again.

But if I am only moderately busy, that is OK too, as I have created a new activity for myself with the scanning project. Remembering things past as old client files are turned into digital memories feels a little weird sometime because it inevitably brings back memories of other events and occurrences connected with the same time period.

Like when I came home from the office one day and my son, who was about 7 at the time, told me excitedly:”We have a new dog, her name is Lena” and there was this big dog who kept running in wide circles around the swing on the green grass in the backyard for such a long time. My wife rescued her from the SPCA in San Francisco and because she was kept in a cage for such a long time, she just had to keep running for a change because it felt so good.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is famous for having said “you cannot step into the same river twice”. But this is only a fragment of what he said two thousand and five hundred years ago, nobody knows the whole sentence or paragraph.

I think that the rest of the sentence following the words “panta rhei” (everything is in flux) says that you cannot get the same client hooked twice.

I am going to try to prove him wrong.

When American films tell a story that is set in a foreign country, the actors and actresses in those movies often speak a slightly funny version of English with an accent that is supposed to correspond to the language of the country where the story is based.

The first time I noticed this peculiar phenomenon was when I saw the film “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” sometime during the eighties. In that film, it did not bother me that everybody spoke English with a slightly phony Czech accent. After all, Lena Olin, who plays Sabina, is Swedish, Juliette Binoche, who plays Teresa, is French, so they naturally have a European accent when they speak English anyway.

Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays Tomas, a Don Juan who can’t make up his mind which woman he really loves, is English, but I thought his Czech accent was pretty authentic. They must have all been taking lessons in how to speak English with a fake Czech accent, and they were very good students.

I thought the world on the screen in which everybody spoke English with the same accent that I have when I speak English was perfectly acceptable and plausible …….. what could be possibly wrong with a world in which people speak English with the same cool accent that I have?

But I had a different reaction when I saw recently the film “The Book Thief” – a film about a Jewish refugee who is hidden in a house of a German family in Nazi Germany and who is being red to books stolen for him by a German girl.

I just found it so strange that Geoffrey Rush, Sophie Nélisse or Emily Watson would be speaking English with a fake German accent. Somehow the simulated German accents in that film struck me as implausible and phony to such an extent that I could not concentrate on the plot of the movie.

Why is it that in American movies set in foreign, far-away and exotic countries (such as communist Czechoslovakia or Nazi Germany), actors whose first language is English are forced to adopt a fake foreign accent?

After all, we as viewers understand that what we are watching is not a documentary. Or at least some of us do. So the fictional people in the fictional story would in reality (if it were a real story) be speaking Czech or German without a foreign accent, wouldn’t they?

Or could it be that most people whose first language is English think that people in other countries speak a language that is basically very much like English, expect it has a funny foreign accent, such as German, French, or Russian?

If the film director wanted to make the story more realistic and plausible, to me, anyway, he would need to force Lena Olin, Juliette Binoche and Daniel-Day Lewis to learn to speak Czech in that movie, and Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson would need to learn fluent German, preferably with a Bavarian accent. The obvious problem, in addition to demanding that actors really learn how to speak a foreign language instead of only learning how to speak their own language while faking a bit of a foreign accent, is that there would have to be subtitles, and American audiences definitely do not like subtitled movies.

In fact, I remember only one subtitled film that I saw here 33 years ago in a movie theater in United States. It was a beautiful, very non-Hollywood Spanish film that I saw with this girl, what was her name …. Nanette, on Polk Street in San Francisco 33 years ago.

And the movie theater was almost empty.

The language problem here is probably with the audience rather than with the actors. Many actors are very talented when it comes to languages, regardless of their nationality or first language, although few would be able to rise to the occasion the way Bruno Ganz can do it, a Swiss actor who can speak so many languages so effortlessly. I saw and heard him in films speaking French, Italian, English, and of course also his native German. My favorite movie with Bruno Ganz was Bread and Tulips (Pane e tulipani), where he plays in an immigrant from Reykjavik who speaks archaic Italian learned from Petrarca’s sonnets about Laura.

Unfortunately, most young people know him only from the Hitler parodies on Youtube.

If you saw Sophie’s Choice, another great movie from the eighties, Meryl Streep speaks English in that movie with what I thought was very authentic Polish accent, and when she was actually speaking Polish and German in the film, I could not detect a trace of foreign accent in her pronunciation in either of these languages.

Am I the only one who finds it disturbing that film directors think of us, their audience, as little stupid children who need actors speaking to them in a fake foreign accent if the story takes place in a country where people speak another language?

Pseudo-realism is how Hollywood fakes authenticity these days. Although, it could do a much better job. Most of the time, when the American or English actors do say a few sentences in a foreign language in a big budget movie, their accent is so thick that what they say is understandable only if you can read the English subtitles.

Why can’t they spend some time to learn how to pronounce a few words close enough to the original language so that the words would be understandable? Especially when they pronounce a few Russian words in dozens of movies in which a Russian is invariably the bad guy who will be in the end humiliated and defeated, those few Russian words that are pronounced by a native English speaker sound more like a mixture between Chinese and Hungarian than Russian.

The answer is, of course, that nobody cares about what Germans, Russians, or the French might think about the actor’s accent. Even if the words are so badly mispronounced that they are completely incomprehensible to people who actually speak the foreign language, the only audience that the film director cares about are people who speak only English.

Authenticity is unimportant not only when it comes to pronunciation of words in a foreign language. The same is true about what is called “ethnic” restaurants.

Ask any Japanese person whether the sushi sold at that sushi place in downtown tastes like real sushi in Japan, and they will laugh at you. Of course it doesn’t. For one thing, where do you get fresh fish for you sushi in downtown, unless it is downtown Japan? There must be very few places where one can get this particular ingredient in this country, and without it, sushi is no longer sushi, I am told.

That’s right, I can’t really tell authentic sushi from fake sushi either, although I can tell really horrible fake sushi, which is what they sell in most “sushi” restaurants in Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, where sushi is mostly prepared by cooks from the Philippines or China.

If the ethnic cuisine is truly authentic, it would be popular with immigrants from the original country, but not with the locals.

So the chefs and the cooks have to adjust their culinary masterpieces to please the palate of the locals if they want to offer “ethnic” menu in a restaurant that will be popular not only with expats, but also with the locals. McDonalds in China probably does not really taste like McDonalds in America, and you can have good Czech beer with your chicken wings at the KFC in Prague – otherwise the locals will stay away from spicy food that comes only with Coke or Sprite.

I can understand all that and it does not really bother me that an authentic “ethnic” restaurant is usually not really very authentic when it comes to the food on the menu.

But foreign accents faked by actors who can only speak English in American movies bother me for some reason.

I will probably need another 33 years in this country to get used to that.

Yesterday I deposited for the first time a check to my checking account by signing it, snapping a picture of the front and the back of it and pressing on the button that said “Deposit” on the screen of my phone. When I checked my account balance on the same smartphone this morning, I saw that it grew by 80 dollars and 50 cents, the amount of the check I deposited as a test yesterday.

And then, when I was checking the balance on my other checking account (I always try to have a plan B for everything), the dumb machine refused to recognize my password (although it was correct) and threatened to lock me out after a third unsuccessful attempt. I will have to go to the bank and ask them to straighten the stupid machine out.

Ah, the mysteries of processing by silicon-based intelligence.

But still, I am amazed at the progress in the technology of moving money around, amazing technology that somehow passed me by as I simply did not realize that there was another alternative to depositing a check through an ATM, other than paying a visit to a human teller in the bank. Since this technology has been around for more than five years and it is very convenient, both of my children must be depositing checks in this manner now, on the rare occasions when they still deal with checks.

While people of my generation still somehow manage to live a meaningful life outside of a cell phone, our children’s cell phones are their whole life. That is where their friends are, as well as their music, directions for getting from one place to another, gossips and petty fights on Reddit and Facebook, cool photos of cute puppies and girls in seductive poses on Instagram – in one word … just about everything that matters to them.

Since there is an application for (just about) everything on a smart phone, including ways to move money from an antiquated piece of paper called check to your bank account, people naturally expect that there would be also a smart phone application for moving meaning from one language to another.

And most people believe that there is a smartphone application like that, of course. Except that there really isn’t. It only looks that way. There are applications for moving words automatically from one language to another. Some of them are quite good, most of them are free, and all of them are very convenient.

But there is no application for moving the meaning of these words from one language to another. In order to create meaning, a human must be somehow involved in the creation of the new meaning in another language, just like a human must be involved in the creation of new human life.

Two humans, in fact must be involved in order to create new life, one of each sex. Various technical means exist to modify to an amazing and to my mind slightly disturbing extent the manner in which either of these two humans of different sex may participate in this creation of new life; but still, two of them are needed for something like that.

In the interconnected and transparent world, which is now full of new dangers, there is a way to move within a few seconds exactly 80 US dollars and 50 cents, which is what was written on the check that was delivered by snail mail to my mail box, for a translation of the Polish text of information on the website of Polish embassy in a European country about a certain civil procedure. OK, if you must know, it was about what kind of documentation is required for marriage. I suppose I can say that since translation of an Internet page is not really a confidential matter.

Embassies of different countries have all the information that people often need conveniently provided on a website page, usually in at least two languages. But since this embassy did not have this information on its website in English, and it was needed in that language, a human translator had to translate it.

I am sure that the two people who ordered this translation first used machine translation to “translate” the words into English. It is just a text file that can be easily translated with GoogleTranslate, which does a pretty good job when it comes to translating words.

But the problem is, it does not always do a very good job when it comes to translating meaning, because machine don’t understand meaning. They understand numbers better and faster than humans, but without humans, they have no idea what these numbers, or anything else for that matter, in fact mean.

If the application for depositing checks through a smartphone sometime interpreted a check amount being deposited as 80 dollars and fifty cents, and sometime as 805 dollars and zero cents, it would be completely useless. Several safeguards are employed to prevent errors like this. The amount is written both in numbers and in words, and the smartphone will reject a picture if the words and numbers are not distinct enough for the machine to read it. Everything is done automatically without any human intervention, until the point when a human at a bank somewhere makes a decision about the meaning of the transaction, namely that the entire transaction makes sense and is probably legitimate.

Which brings me back again to the magic word “meaning”.

It is relatively easy for a bank employee to determine within a few seconds that the check that I deposited yesterday with my phone was genuine and that the amount is correct. The amount of the check is clearly visible in the photo, both in words and in numbers, and the bank’s computer must also have the information that I generally deposit a check from this particular customer of the bank’s customer, a small translation agency that pays me incredibly fast (within a week) every couple of months.

But it is very difficult to determine whether a smartphone application that “translated” words from one language to another managed to move the actual meaning of the words in one language into the other language as well.

You cannot do it by simply looking at the text in the source and target language only for a few seconds to make sure that this particular transaction makes sense.

You have to look both at the source and the target language, and you have to understand the meaning in both of these languages to determine whether the result makes sense. Sometime it does, but often it does not.

And when it does not make sense, which is likely to happen about half the time, sometime less and sometime more than that depending on the complexity of the text and which languages we are talking about, you have to retranslate the entire text from scratch by using a human brain for this particular task. Which is expensive because it takes a long time and a certain amount of knowledge and expertise that not that many people are likely to have.

Although there are smartphone application for just about everything now, moving meaning through a human brain is the only way to make sure that the original meaning will be moved safely, intact and in good shape to another language.

And I doubt very much that this will ever change.

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