Posted by: patenttranslator | March 25, 2015

Who Or What Is “A Dear Linguist”?


 
Translation agency coordinators and project managers who send mass mailings to multiple translators sometime have a minor problem with the greeting line in the beginning of their e-mails.

Normally, when a translation agency person sends an e-mail to a translator such as myself, the e-mail will start with “Dear Steve”, or “Dear Mr. Vitek”.

If it is a real e-mail, (as opposed to mass e-mail, a close relative of spam), in English, Japanese, French, or German, it will generally have my name in it (always the last name if it comes from a polite continent such as Europe or Asia, while first name is usually reserved for lowly peons such as translators, chamber maids or dog catchers if the e-mail originates in North America.

But whether the first name or last name should be used is not really what I want to write about in my post today. What I am more interested in is the fact that agency coordinators do not have the time to spell out the name in every single e-mail when they are sending the same inquiry about availability for a job to be done “at your best price” to a dozen translators.

This is quite understandable because each name change would take about 2 seconds, which means that the translation coordinators would need to waste about 24 seconds only to change the name for each of the translators, and then they would still have to waste even more time dispatching each individual e-mail into the Internet so that these mass e-mails would not look like what they are, namely a close relative of spam.

We translators totally understand that it would be unreasonable to expect project managers who have so little time to unnecessarily waste so much time in this manner.

Mass e-mails are so much more efficient compared to the way things used to be done before! In Translation Industry version 1.0, and I am talking nineteen eighties, somebody would actually call and chitchat with me a bit first before mentioning that an actual job needs to be done.

That was definitely very inefficient use of human resources and something needed to be done about it.

In Translation Industry version 2.0, which would be nineteen nineties, I generally knew that the e-mail that was sent to me was in fact sent only to me and nobody else. Somebody had a translation that was meant for myself and nobody else, should I be interested in doing it.

In Translation Industry version 3.0, by which I mean now, the same e-mail is often sent to a whole bunch of hungry, hungry translators to watch them squirm while trying to underbid each other. This is so much more efficient! It will be the early bird who will catch the worm, just like the proverb says in a number of languages, provided that the early hungry bird charges less than all the other hungry birds.

One agency coordinator said to me once, when I dared to I suggest to her that I don’t appreciate this method very much because it looks like throwing a bone to a pack of hungry dogs, that she likes to work with “first responders” in this manner. I’m afraid I told her to remove me from her list of first responders because I would no longer respond to anything originating from this particular source.

Apparently it’s not just firefighters and paramedics who are expected to be first responders these days.

I know for sure that I am dealing with a mass e-mail, a close relative of spam, when instead of being politely addressed in the greeting line by my last name with the prefix Mr., Monsieur, or Herr, or the suffix 様(sama), or even by my first name, which is still fine with me, I am addressed as a “Dear Linguist”, or “Dear Linguists”.

“Who the hell are you calling dear linguist?” I am thinking to myself every time when I read this newly invented salutation.

There are at least two main definitions of what the word “linguist” means:

1. somebody who speaks fluently several languages,
2. a specialist in linguistics, the study of the nature, rules and changes in a language or languages.

I find it somewhat surprising that whether you belong to category 1 or category 2 depends mostly on your native language.

If you are for example a Mongolian linguist, you would be naturally expected to speak a few more languages, probably Chinese and Russian, perhaps even English, not just Mongolian. I doubt that there are many specialists in linguistics at the Mongolian Academy of Sciences who know only Mongolian.

The same is true probably about most linguists in most other countries as well. If you are for example a Dutch linguist, you would be again likely expected to speak a few other languages in addition to Dutch, probably German and English, possibly also French, as a professor teaching the science called linguistics at a university in Holland. I think that you could be still called a linguist if you are for example a Japanese specialist in the Ainu language, which is the language of original inhabitants of Japan who are now mostly extinct. But I doubt that people would call you a linguist in Japan if you spoke only Japanese.

But if your native language is English, you can still be called a linguist even if you can’t speak any other language.

I know this because when I was having a dinner at a restaurant last year with a group of friends and acquaintances, a lady who was sitting across the table from me (at a long table for a group of people) told me that she was teaching linguistics at a local College. So I asked her what languages she knew as I was hoping that we might perhaps share an interest in the same languages.

But it turned out that she really only spoke English, although she did know a few words in French. So she belonged to the 2. category of what the word linguist means, which probably exists only in a few countries.

It may be that translation agencies started using the friendly greeting “Dear Linguists” to make up for the fact that they don’t use names in a mass mailing. They may even think that they are somehow ingratiating themselves to translators, and that “linguist” sounds better than other names they like to call us. Names like “vendors”, or just “All” (as in “Dear All”). Although “Dear All” is still acceptable, “Dear Vendors” would sound really stupid.

But why don’t they call us translators, since that is what we are, I wonder?

Personally, I much prefer the term translator. As I have pointed out above, just about anybody can be a linguist as you don’t necessarily need to even know another language depending on the country where you live and the language that you speak.

I bet cloud workers, who are being groomed by a segment of the “translation industry” to completely replace translators one day soon, perhaps in Translation Industry Version 4.0, are also called “Dear Linguists” in mass e-mails from translation agency project managers. The main difference here is probably that these mass e-mails are sent to hundreds or thousands of cloud workers instead of just to a dozen translators.

And unlike myself and perhaps some other translators, cloud workers might even appreciate being called “Dear Linguists”. After all, “Dear Cloud Workers” would sound really stupid, even more so than “Dear Vendors”. Plus who knows whether cloud workers still have names these days. Maybe all they have is numbers like political prisoners in the gulags in the former Soviet Union, in which case it would be difficult to call them anything in mass e-mails.

Just imagine that translation agency project managers would have to call their translation specialists who happen to be cloud workers “Dear 21,001 ~ 21,999″. Now that would sound really stupid. “Dear Linguists” is definitely the way to go when one needs to address masses of cloud workers who are tirelessly working on demanding linguistic tasks such as post-processing of machine-translated documents, which in some respects may not be that different from the work that political prisoners in the former Soviet Union used to do.

Cloud workers are probably paid about the same as what gulag inmates used to make, which is to say nothing or next to nothing, but unlike gulag inmates, they don’t have to live in miserable camps in extremely cold Siberian climate.

It is probably not that bad being a cloud worker. You can pretty much pick the climate where you want to live, you are free to wear civilian clothes, you are not surrounded by watch towers with barbed wire and armed guards, and you may even be called “Dear Linguist” in e-mails from translation agencies.

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Posted by: patenttranslator | March 22, 2015

Direct Customers Will Make You a Better Translator


 
In my last silly post, I described how based on my own case and the experience of almost three decades, a translator can go about finding direct customers for a small translation business and over time become independent, or at least mostly independent, of translation agencies. This was just one example of how something like that can be done – there must be many other methods that can be used for the same purpose.

I would also like to stress that I see no reason to stop working for translation agencies when a translator works for direct clients, provided that it is a translation agency with a human face that is run by people who understand translation and appreciate translators. Unfortunately, the modern, corporate type of translation agency is based on the ruthless, ultra-crapitalistic concept of profit über alles, i.e. maximum profit at all cost, mostly at the expense of the people who do the actual work, but ultimately also at the expense of its own customers who are expected to simply get used to a much lower standard of quality of the product being provided with all of those wonderful “language technology tools”. This corporate, crapitalistic model is deeply hostile and clearly detrimental to our own interests as independent translators.

The term “language technology tools” would make George Orwell proud. It includes many new glorious inventions of the modern “translation industry”, such as machine translations that are post-edited by humans. This is no science fiction anymore as “the translation industry” has already reached the stage when machines are assisted by humans instead of the other way round. Instead of translators it employs invisible, underpaid or simply unpaid crowd workers and thinks nothing of the evisceration of the beauty and the soul of translation, which is no longer be present in texts that have been processed by algorithms that may easily run amok when computer-assisted tools dictate to humans what is and what is not correct translation.

I think that it makes a lot of sense to ignore the version of reality that the “translation industry” is pushing as a legitimate model of what translation should look like and instead to try to create a different model, a model that would be more fair both to the translators and to their clients.

An alternative model is based on working only with the traditional model of translation agency and, as much as possible, with direct clients.

In this post I will try to briefly describe how a transition from clients, who are mostly just ignorant brokers who know next to nothing about translation, to clients who are the actual customers for your translations is likely to change the character of your small translation business – because that was what happened in my particular case.

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Finding direct clients is no easy task, but it is only the first step. Once you find them, you will also have to figure out how to keep them.

The problem with direct customers is that many of them have the nasty habit of insisting on taking a poor translator out of his or her comfort zone. You can always turn down a job from a translation agency, for example if you don’t know the subject well enough, or even you are feeling lazy. The chances are that the agency will come back to you next time anyway because agencies are used to working with different translators on different projects.

But if a direct client asks you to translate something that you can’t do yourself, can you tell them sorry, I don’t do that? Sure, you can, but will they come back to you next time again when they have a job for you that is more along the lines of what you prefer? Would you continue using the services of a plumber who can fix your leaking sink, but not your leaking bathroom? Probably not if you could find a plumber who can fix both of these eminently important fixtures in everybody’s house that tend to develop a leaking problem every now and then.

I don’t think that translators should try to be all things to all people, which is exactly what most translation agencies try to do. The fact that most translation agencies specialize in “all languages and all subjects” is one reason why they often do such a horrible job. Their motto might as well be:”If we don’t specialize in it, it does not exist”.

But even when a business is specializing in something, in every field there are many sub-specializations. Although initially I started out as a patent translator specializing only in Japanese patents, after about 5 years I started translating myself also German patents, and later I added also French, Russian, Czech, Slovak, and Polish patents, although it was and still is much more work for me than if I simply concentrated only on Japanese.

It took me a while before I was able to “grow” the same connections between the idle neurons in my brain for the same terms also between German and English, and then also for terms in French and other languages that I have been studying for many years. I am still faster when I translate Japanese patents, at least compared to patents in any other language, although German is now a close second.

But what should I do if I translate only one or a couple of languages and the clients start sending me work in other languages as well, you might say?

Well, my suggestion would be to allow the customer to take you even farther out of your comfort zone by learning how to shamelessly exploit other translators who can do the work that you can’t do by yourself – if that is what your client needs. In other words, I am suggesting that if you want to keep your customers, you may have to become a part-time translation agency, or a broker, in addition to being a full-time translator.

Although some translators consider all translation agencies to be inherently evil, becoming a broker does not necessarily mean joining the ranks of the highly exploitative agencies because one can also try to be an honest broker. There clearly is a reason why different kinds of brokers and agencies exist: translation agencies, employment agencies, and real estate brokerages provide services that mere individuals may not be able to provide, unless and until they too become brokers.

Things are a little bit different and more than just a little bit scary when you actually are in the broker’s shoes, but not really that different. Once you establish which translators  can do a given job really well, all you have to do then is pay them what they ask for on time. If you do that, they will try very hard to fit in your translation next time even if they happen to be very busy.

Although I sometime ignore requests from potential customers if they look flaky (I don’t even bother to quote a price for instance if an individual who only seems to have a Gmail address wants me to give a price quote for a project that would cost a lot of money), I almost never say no to an existing customer.

And then there are also ways to turn down a project that takes you completely out of your comfort zone without in fact saying no to a customer. If you ask for a rate that is on the upper end of what might be an acceptable price range for something that you really don’t want to do, a prospective customer will most of the time go somewhere else.

If he does not go somewhere else, just do it. You will make good money and maybe you will learn something useful that you can then add as a new skill to your arsenal of skills.

There are all kinds of tricks that a translator needs to learn when the tables are turned and the translator is now the agency. But I believe that all of that will only make you a better translator, especially when you realize the enormous amount of work that a good agency has to do, and the considerably risk that is often unavoidable.

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Have you ever watched a movie and found the performance of one actor or actress in it so moving and amazing that every time when you surf the channels on your TV and see the name or the face of this actor or actress that you fell in love with, perhaps many years ago, you find it impossible to continue surfing?

Most of us have had this kind of experience. And not just with movie stars. If a carpenter builds a bookcase for me exactly according to my specifications and it looks just the way I imagined it, he is also a star in my mind when it comes to carpentry skills, and I will almost certainly ask him to build another bookcase next time, or maybe a pergola or a new staircase. But if you work only for translation agencies, you can never be a star translator for your clients, even if in fact you are quite a star in your own right based on how well you translate. When you only work for an agency, your clients will never even learn who you are.

As far as translation agencies are concerned, to many of them, translators are the opposite of a movie star or a star carpenter. To them we are only interchangeable, unimportant pieces in an intricate and complicated machinery designed to maximize their profit. How could they possibly see us as creators of anything of real value when in the new “translation industry”, it will be apparently our job to simply “assist machines” by proofreading whatever it is that a machine throws at us to just get rid of the most blatant kinks and mistakes?

They say this is “a new skill” that we need to learn. I say it is a slow and painful way to die.

I hope that translators will not fall for this new hoax the way they fell for the hoax of computer-assisted tools, which were sold to us as a way to increase our income, and then instead used to further reduce translators’ remuneration by forcing translators to accept reduced payment for “fuzzy matches” and no payment for “full matches”, which is nothing but a greedy and extremely dishonest scam.

I believe that the new skill that translators need to learn instead is the ability to find direct clients, perhaps in addition to translation agencies with a human face, but definitely so as to become independent of those who no longer appear to be quite human.

It will be a better world, both for translators and for their clients, if more and more translators start working directly for the people who in fact use their services. You are a better translator if you know exactly what it is that your client wants from you, and if you want to know what it is, you simply have to be able to communicate directly with your clients, who need to know who you are.

Posted by: patenttranslator | March 19, 2015

How Do I Find Direct Customers for My Translation Business?

 

How do I find direct customers? Or failing that, how can I find agencies that pay good rates and on time? What should I do to stop being dependent on pitiful jobs offered at low rates on blind auction sites designed in such a way that hordes of translators must bid against each other until the lowest bid is finally accepted by an invisible customer, often a translation agency located in a third world country serving as an unacknowledged subcontractor of a major agency located in a Western country?

These are questions that many beginning translators are asking their colleagues in discussion groups online, and sometime also on my blog. I’m afraid I don’t really have a good answer to these questions, at least not an answer that would be acceptable to all translators because there are no simple answers to them as we are all very different individuals with very different strengths and weaknesses.

But the realization of an essential fact – called “satori” or “awakening” in Zen Buddhism – could be also a starting point to creating a strategy that should work for many people. What every budding translator, and probably even a few experienced translators, need to ask themselves is this: What are my particular strengths and where are my weaknesses? We should all ask ourselves this question first before deciding on a course of action that would be best in a particular case.

Although I do not have a ready-made answer to all of these questions, I can offer one example of one development of a translator’s career, namely my own, to help to hopefully bring about your own satori moment.

I had to ask myself this question 28 years ago when I was forced, quite unexpectedly, to make a rather sudden career change, very Zen-like, or perhaps not, depending on how we perceive our own reality. I remember that on Saint Patrick’s day in 1987, I was still an employee who could count on a steady paycheck, albeit a modest one. On April 1 Fools’ Day, the joke was on me – I was unemployed, for the first time my life.

It was a huge blow to my considerable ego. Prior to being “let go”, I had about nine jobs in three countries on no less than three continents and in my vanity I was naturally convinced that I was simply indispensable to each and every one of my employers who – in my imagination – had to be crying bitter tears every time when I announced that it was time for me to move on, and several times the moving on involved moving to a different country. But as somebody put it once, the graveyards are full of indispensable people.

I decided that the best way to make sure that this would never happen to me again was to start my own business – without any capital, of course, as I had no money.

My main strength was that I had a lot of experience with analyzing and later interpreting and translating Japanese because I graduated with a major in Japanese studies and in most of a number of jobs I had, I was using Japanese one way or another, sometime along with other languages.

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So now I was a translator, because the only requirement to be a translator was and still is, at least in the US of A, that you say that you are one and that you can indeed translate the things that people want to have translated, whatever they are, preferably, but not necessarily, for less than the other guy. The regulations for allowing hairdressers to legally practice their demanding occupation are much more strict here than business regulations for mere translators.

There was a scary period of no work at all for several weeks in the beginning of my transformation from an employee to a freelance warrior. But little by little, work started trickling in. For about the first three years, I was working only for translation agencies, mostly agencies located in San Francisco and the Bay Area because that was where I lived and there was no Internet. Once a week or so I would take hard copies of my translations, printed out with a noisy dot matrix printer, on the No. 38 Geary Street bus to a couple of big office buildings on Market Street. Later I would fax the translations, which was kind of a very high-tech thing to do back then, or send hard copies by Federal Express if the agency gave me the Fedex number. It took a few years before a new concept called e-mail caught on, which meant that for a few blessed years, there was no spam in anybody’s e-mail, whereas now, 95% of our e-mails consists of horrible spam.

In the beginning, mostly quite easy translation work somehow ended up on my desk, such as infantile plots of Japanese computer games, which were very simple to translate three decades ago. I am grateful that the force that governs the universe by timing the sequence of all events according to a secret and unknowable plan, which Karl Jung called synchronicity, somehow makes sure that beginning translators usually get the kind of work that even they can handle.

But soon I realized that it was logical and thus much more likely that job security would be found in difficult work rather than in easy work. And the most difficult work that I was struggling with at the time was translation of Japanese patents. One reason why Japanese patents were so difficult to translate was that they were often only partially legible. Several decades ago, Japan Patent Office accepted faxed copies of patent applications and once such a copy was faxed again, it became basically impossible to guess correctly all of the intricate characters that were not clearly legible. Since it took me much longer to translate a thousand words of a Japanese patent than a thousand words of a Japanese computer game, it dawned on me that there would be a lot of competition in the former, and much less competition in the latter type of translation.

Incidentally, today I am translating a Japanese newspaper article that is almost as poorly legible as some of those patent applications from seventies and eighties. Part of the job description of translators still is and probably always will be: they simply have to be magicians.

So that was how I decided, around 1990, to become a specialist in patents, especially since several Japanese translators living in San Francisco told me that they did not like patents.

Although patent translation may sometime seem to be not as much fun as other types of translating work, at least for some people, this field in fact has a number of advantages. Fortunately, I simply like patents, although I am not quite sure why (there is probably something wrong with me).

Another advantage is that unlike in some other fields, it is not that difficult to figure out who the end clients might be.

Many of the end clients are called patent law firms and back in the early nineties when many of them still had no website, you could find their addresses easily in a yearly publication of the US Patent and Trademark Office called “Attorneys and Agents Registered to Practice Before the US Patent and Trademark Office”. So I bought a copy of this publication for about 35 dollars and started mailing letters to offer my expertise directly to patent law firms instead of just to translation agencies. At first I was mailing my letters only to patent law firms in Northern California, later I expanded my periodic marketing campaigns to all states in United States if I saw that many patent law firms were listed in that state in the PTO publication.

Although it was hard work, I kept mailing my letters whenever there was no other translation work, which is bound to happen several times a year even if you have been in business for a long time, up until about 2005, I think.

And that was how I found my first direct clients, or rather how my first direct clients found me. It was much cheaper to do mass mailing campaigns back then because in 1991, a first class postage stamp used to cost 21 cents, while in 2002 it was already 37 cents. Since it costs 49 cents to mail a letter now, the old way of marketing of your services through mass mailings is much more expensive now. You might have noticed that there is much less junk mail in your snail mail, and much more spam mail in your e-mail now.

But just because it is more expensive now to do direct mailing campaigns does not mean that it cannot be done, it only means that the potential direct clients should be selected more carefully.

At the beginning of the year 2000 I realized that instead of relying only on mailing campaigns, which did bring me many direct clients, I should also have a website. So I researched available dotcom domains, I registered about 8 of them, including JapaneseTranslators.com and PatentTranslators.com, and I found a website developer, a young guy who lived just around the corner, who designed my website.

A good domain name is very important, and while it is much more difficult to find a good domain name for a translation business now than 15 years ago, that does not mean that it cannot be done.

As I said, I stopped doing mailing campaigns about 10 years ago, but I still have postcards that I mail to companies if they ask me for a cost estimate when they find my website. It is usually just a few cards, but I usually do that several times a month.

Although nobody seemed to have noticed my new website for about the first three years, the website started working for me even better than the mailing campaigns after about 2004 and at one point, around 2007 and 2008, about 40% of my income came from brand new customers who found out about my services from my website, mostly patent law firms.

I still get a lot of requests for cost estimates from law firms, inventors, patent investors and other parties who usually find my website by typing relevant key words into Google or another search engine, but I noticed that fewer of them decide to accept my offer of assistance than for instance 10 years ago.

I think that this is due to the fact that there is a lot of new competition from low-cost providers of translation services, including for translation of patents. I also think that a large percentage of this work is done in third world countries in places referred to by translators as “Chindia” (China & India), some of the low-price translations are probably a result of “post-edited” machine translations, some are the result of what some translation agencies call “language technology”, which means basically again “post-edited” machine translations, translations obtained at a very low cost from so called “cloud translators” (anonymous, ephemeral beings, who are possibly but not necessarily human, also referred to as “clown translators” by actual translators), from the compulsory use of Computer-Assisted Tools (CATs) aimed at reducing the reimbursement due to translators, and God only knows what other highly sophisticated “language technology tools” are used by some translation agencies these days.

But fortunately, I do have enough work from my old clients, and once in a while I do get new work from new direct clients who find my website, although there may be cheaper ways to have patents translated for clients who don’t care too much about how experienced and competent the translator may be.

I also still work for a few translation agencies that pay me good rates, in fact very good rates considering how horrible the situation is now in the translation market, after the incredible amount of damage that has been caused by the corporate type of incredibly greedy and ruthless translation agencies in the “translation industry” to what used to be a fairly well paid and mostly enjoyable occupation.

In any case, after almost 30 years, I am near the end of my career as an independent translator and in a few years I plan to sell my business (mostly my domain names and the list of my direct clients), retire or semi-retire and work only occasionally for a couple of decent agencies to earn some extra money.

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So this was my story of how this translator eventually started working mostly for direct clients, although I still work for a few translation agencies and plan to continue doing that for many years. The story was not meant as a recipe that can be used by every translator to extricate himself or herself from dependence on low-paying jobs so prevalent now in the so called translation industry.

Each and every one of us has different strengths and different weakness, which means that each and every one of us needs to find methods that will work best for him or her, methods that may be completely different from those that I was using, especially since some of the methods I was using may be obsolete at this point.

But if it does inspires a few people to at least start thinking about how to stop working for the kind of translation agencies that have done so much damage to our profession, the kind that I am railing against in many posts on this blog, and a few more to try to do something to repair this damage, I will have done my job well in this post.

 

It is that time of the year when new telephone books hit the driveways in front of the porches in my neighborhood. Because some people don’t seem to bother to pick them up quickly enough, when it rains they sometime slide down the driveway into the rectangular openings created in the curb for rain water and the phone books may, much to my dismay and no doubt that of the ducks and geese too, end up floating in a pond behind our house.

Here in the Norfolk-Virginia Beach-Chesapeake area of Eastern Virginia, with about 800,000 inhabitants in the southern part, about a million and a half including the surrounding areas, the size of Yellow Pages, which are in a separate book here, has been shrinking every year. At this point they have about a third of the thickness they used to have 14 years ago when we moved here.

In the age of Internet and smartphones, the pool of customers who still need and use printed Yellow Pages is shrinking every year. I gave my own children their first cell phone when they were about 12, and now that they are in their mid twenties, they probably have only a vague idea what the term “Yellow Pages” originally meant, unless we are talking about listings on Internet accessible from their smart phones (I thank God that I don’t have to pay for their phones anymore)!

I always pick up my own copy of Yellow Pages, which is free to subscribers with a fixed phone line, as soon as I see it there on the driveway and the first thing I do is look for my local competition under Translators & Interpreters, located between Transit Lines and Transmission. (Transit Lines, whatever that means, has only 1 listing, while Transmissions has 3.5 pages, if I include 2 full-page advertisements).

There were only three listings for Translators & Interpreters in my Yellow Pages last year and the year before, and I see only three modest (and thus least expensive) listings in the phone book there also this year, the same ones as the last year and the year before. Two of them are translation agencies in Virginia Beach, one of them is a translator, also in Virginia Beach. Judging by his name, he could be German, and judging by the fact that he does not seem to even have a website, he could be an older guy who may be retired or semi-retired at this point and who may be using translation mostly to supplement his other income.

But these are just my assumptions, and they could be wrong.

Somebody from one of these two agencies, I forgot which one, sent me an e-mail last year. They had a job for me, which I would have gladly taken, but the problem was, they needed the translation next day and when I called them from my cell phone I was anxiously awaiting a towing service in downtown Washington DC because I somehow got a flat tire. So I never got to know the agency, and they never got to know me either. Two ships passing in the night as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put it. The image is so powerful that I feel compelled to take the liberty of including the relevant passage in my silly blog post today:

“Ships that pass in the night and speak each other in passing;
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice; then darkness again and a silence.”

I remember that when I lived in San Francisco in the eighties and early nineties, there were many pages of advertisements from translation agencies in my local Yellow Pages every year, including a small listing for my services. It was worth the money then, but it is probably not worth it now as I wrote in this post already five years ago.

It makes much more sense for translators to have a website that can be easily found by Google and other search engines. It is cheaper than a listing in Yellow Pages, and the range of potential customers includes not only people who live in your local area, but potentially the entire planet.

I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the types of businesses that still put a lot of money into advertising in printed Yellow Pages in 2015 in my area.

The traditional types of businesses which, unlike translators, have to rely on a base of local customers, still account for the majority of businesses listed and heavily advertising in local Yellow Pages.

These businesses include:

1. Lawyers
2. Dentists
3. Restaurants
4. Plumbers
5. Movers
6. Funeral services
7. Storage facilities

1. Lawyers’ services in particular are advertised more than any other service in my local Yellow Pages. They are listed under several categories:

53 pages under “Attorneys”, 33 pages under “Lawyers”, and 2 pages under “Counselors” for a total of 88 pages.

2. Dentists finished at the second place, although it was a distant second, with 18 pages.

3. Physicians can be found on 16 pages in my local Yellow Pages.

4. Restaurants are listed on 11 pages, but because there are only a few advertisements on these pages, a lot of restaurants are covered.

The problem that sales managers who try to sell listings in Yellow Pages to local businesses have these days is that as more and more businesses put more and more money and effort into other types of advertising, especially marketing on the Internet, is that if Yellow Pages stop listing businesses that are no longer willing to pay for it, the listings in the phone book will be perceived as incomplete by local inhabitants who know about these business and don’t understand why they can’t find them in their Yellow Pages.

I was wondering whether my business would simply disappear completely from my local phone book when I finally stopped paying for a listing, despite the ominous warnings about the consequences of such a foolish act from the sales rep.

But the listing did not disappear, although I no longer pay for it. Instead, it was only put in the wrong category – and whether it was done on purpose, or simply through ignorance, I will never know.

PatentTranslators.com is now listed under Patent Agents in my local Yellow Pages, between Patches, which lists only one business called ARTISTIC IMPRESSION (I have no idea what exactly it is that they do), and Patent Attorneys – which comprises only one listing of only one firm in Virginia Beach.

So because I am still listed there, and this time in the wrong category, every month I get to talk to several people who have a great idea about something that they would like to have patented – if it does not cost too much. They think that I am patent agent because the Yellow Pages told them so.

I don’t really mind too much, I just explain to them that all we do at PatentTranslators (I always use pluralis majestatis, although I do most of the work myself) is translate patents from foreign languages, rather than translating ideas and designs into applications that can be filed with the US Patent and Trademark Office.

If they ask me for a recommendation for the kind of service that they are looking for, and about a quarter of them do that, I give them the website of a patent agent in Southern California who, as a customer of mine, agreed to talk to budding inventors who are looking for a patent agent.

I seem to remember that when I was still paying for a small paid listing in the Yellow Pages, it was about 80 dollars a month, or about a thousand dollars a year. After about 7 years I pulled my listing because it never even paid for itself.

It was not a good investment for my type of business, namely translation specializing in patents and technical articles and documentation, because there are no local customers for this type of translation from foreign languages where I live.

Your experience may be similar or different, depending on what it is that you translate and where you live, but I feel that I did the right thing by pulling the plug on Yellow Pages years ago.

 

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Why do some translation agencies have to send obligatory translation tests to translators to determine whether these translators should be included in the translation agency’s stable of “linguists” (a word that needs to be further analyzed in another post with respect to how it is currently used by translation agencies), based on the result of an evaluation of the test?

And why is it that other translation agencies don’t need to send tests?

I am also a translation agency, sort of, anyway, since I also send work to other translators, usually in languages that I don’t translate myself. But I don’t need to bother prospective additions to my stable of major talents with no stinkin’ translation tests.

There are two main reasons why I have never done such a thing and never will.

1. As a humanist, I believe that it is wrong … more than just wrong …. evil, to force people to work for free. To stop this evil, a long and bloody war was fought in the United States of America between 1861 and 1865 in which hundreds of thousands of people died and millions more were injured.

And, incidentally, the pro-slavery camp lost.

2. Even if I were just another prospective slave owner who had the misfortune of being born in the wrong century, and there are still quite a few of them among us in any country, the fact is that I am able to evaluate on my own a prospective translator without forcing said translator to labor for free on a stupid translation test just to please me.

Whether a translation agency is able to determine the suitability of a translator for a certain type of work in a certain language without needing to ask for a free test translation in fact tells you whether the people working in the agency know what they are doing, or whether they are generally clueless about the product and the service that they are selling, called translation. (Of course, I have nothing against paid translation tests, and whenever I am asked to do a test, my response is that I will be happy to do it at my usual rate.)

I can usually tell whether a translator is worth trying out on a real job, risky though it may be on occasion, or whether he or she is likely to be a fake, by simply looking at the cover letter and the description of the education and experience of the translator. Because I can read several languages, all I have to do then is to ask for a sample of a previous translation to evaluate that sample. Even if it is a language that I don’t know myself, I can usually understand enough of the source text to be able to match it with the English translation because I often know a related language.

For example, I can match Chinese text with the English text and query Chinese technical terms and their equivalents in the English translation on the Internet because I translate Japanese, I can do the same in Dutch because I translate German, in Italian because I translate French, etc. And since I have been translating patents for almost 30 years, I can generally tell whether a prospective patent translator is likely to have an affinity for this particular field even before I send him or her a job.

It takes one to know one.

I can also proofread the patent translation quite competently …. because that is what I have been doing for almost three decades.

But poor coordinators working in translation agencies that claim to “specialize” in translation from and into every language and in every field generally have absolutely no idea whether the translation that they received from a new translator is any good. That is why they try to hedge their bets by asking every new prospective translator to take a test first. The problem is, the coordinators who are evaluating these tests are not qualified to evaluate the test because they generally don’t know the language from or into which the texts are translated, and often don’t understand the subject either.

If the test translation is close to whatever it is that it will be compared to by a coordinator, it must be a good translation. If it is not that close, it must be a bad translation.

But if the translations that the coordinators are relying on are problematic, the coordinators will have no idea about the problems, and it could be impossible and often counterproductive to try to explain to them where the problems are. In any case, they got the sample from their boss and their boss makes no mistakes.

It is also of course quite possible that if your translation is better than whatever it is that the coordinator is using, your translation will be deemed faulty, although it is the other way round.

There are some coordinators who may not know the language in question, but because they are very intelligent and have a lot of experience, they can instinctively tell a good translator from a bad even without having to rely on their knowledge of foreign languages.

Some people are smart, and they pick up things that they need to know about translating, even though they may be handicapped by being monolingual, by substituting other abilities that they may have, the way blind people use their superior sense of hearing and smell.

But smart people usually do not stay with corporate translation agencies because …. they always pay very little to the people who do the actual work, which would be the translators and the coordinators. If they like their job and are good at it, they usually leave after a while and start their own small business.

So there you have it. If you don’t mind being a slave who has no choice but to work for incompetent people, by all means, do the test every time you are asked for one.

But if you value your work and your time, my advice would be to offer a sample of your work instead.

Your offer may be rejected, but the thing is, if a translation agency is not even competent enough to handle a sample of your work, do you really want to work for them?

 

We have all been trained since a young age to think that precision of computerized production systems combined with a strict observation of industrial standards automatically equals high quality. This is a general principle that is spot on when it comes to some products. For example, there are no computer chips hand-crafted by individual computer chip makers because the processing techniques involved include hundreds of processing steps and each of them requires extremely high precision. Fortunately for people like me, every of these hundreds of step is described in patents issued in a number of languages, and chip manufacturers have been fighting over perceived or real similarities between each of these steps for several decades already and hopefully will continue to do so for a long time.

But is the industrial production principle, which is based on highly precise and measurable standards, applicable to all products? And can the quality of services, all services, be measured on the basis of rules and standards that were originally designed for processes used in industrial production?

Antonio Stradivari, the famous violin maker, died almost 200 years ago, even before the initial phase of industrialization was in full swing, which is to say before machines started being introduced on a large scale into the production process. He only used his hands, his eyes and skills acquired over decades of working with wood in combination with what could be called quite primitive tools, namely very sharp knives, to produce the instruments that he was lovingly crafting. Yet, while a good violin made with the best of what modern computerized technology can offer in a modern industrial production line may cost perhaps a few hundred dollars, a violin made by Stradivari, if you can find one that is for sale, which is not very likely, would cost several million dollars.

The best violins are still made by violin makers who use their hands, eyes and skills acquired over decades of work in combination with primitive tools like knives by craftsmen in little towns in a number of countries, not by industrial production lines. There is something that a computerized, extremely precise production line will never be able to create. It is called soul, and only a human being who is deeply in love with the craft can give a soul to what used to be a piece of wood.

The best sounding violins are those that have a piece of the soul of the violin maker in them, because the only kind of immortality that most humans can probably aspire to is when we leave little bits and pieces of our soul in the world around us. Architects and bridge builders, composers and writers, teachers and translators, chefs and cooks, these are just a few examples of many professions that require a great deal of love and soul from professionals who take pride in their vocation.

I am not so sure that I could say the same about some other professions. Some require mostly just greed and complete lack of concern for the welfare of the society. The profession of Wall Street bankers comes to mind.

In just about every aspect of human civilization, we can find products that can be and are now made by machines, including ingredients that we put in the meals that we eat.

Many countries are rightfully proud of their culinary tradition and they intend to preserve it for future generations. Interestingly, what this usually means, whether we are talking about the cuisines of Japan, Italy, or France, is resisting industrialized production methods.

Because France is one of such countries, the French government enforces culinary standards in restaurants and bakeries in France. Restaurants and bakeries in France must clearly indicate to customers whether their meals and baguettes were made from scratch (“fait maison” in French), or prepared from cheaper, mass-produced frozen ingredients for foods that are manufactured based on the industrial style of production line, which must be indicated in the shop window by a picture of a cute little penguin or a snowflake.

It is much cheaper to put mass-produced ingredients into an expensive restaurant meal and many chefs are no doubt trying to get away with it. But people have noticed and started complaining and these chefs have a problem now in some countries, such as France, and Italy too, I think. I have never seen anything like a picture of a cute penguin in a restaurant or bakery or doughnut shop window here in the United States, so maybe the chefs and cooks don’t have these kinds of worries here. The penguin may be cute, but it tends to turn customers away, because that is not what they want, at least not in Europe. If the chef and cooks cheat and are caught, the restaurant or bakery will be hit by stiff penalties.

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The globalized “translation industry” is presently trying to turn this principle on its head. If you listen to them as they advertise their services, the narrative being sold to customers who don’t know much about translation is based on a claim that the quality of their translation can be guaranteed because it can be measured with industrial-strength measurement tools (that were originally designed for mass manufacturing of products)?

They proudly display on their websites certificates stating that their quality control is in compliance with ISO this or ISO that, without giving a second thought to the fact that the letters ISO stand for Industrial Standards Organization, and that the quality control methods that were created by this organization were designed for measuring the quality of methods used for producing products ranging from relatively simple mops to really complicated computer chips.

It so happens that translation from one language into another is a very complicated process involving human thinking rather than an industrial production line. It is a process that is not very well understood because we still know very little about what is going on in human brain, including the process that takes place in the brain of a human being called translator, which is to say that it is a process that cannot be standardized in the same way as one would standardize manufacturing of mops or computer chips.

Just like the quality of a violin or a meal prepared in a restaurant depends on how good and experienced the violin maker or chef is, the quality of a translation depends on how good the translator is.

End of story.

Most people would probably agree that using industrial standards to measure the quality of human thinking is really a stupid idea. Of course it is a stupid idea.

But apparently, it is not a stupid idea when it comes to advertising of translation services. Let’s face it, most customers know even less about how translation works than they know about how all of the systems under the hood of their car work.

So the translation industry is busy creating and throwing around new slogans using words like “language technology” and “technology tools”, by which they mean things like computerized methods for universally enforceable procedures and terminological databases and the use of machine translation, which makes the translation process “efficient”. To confuse customers as much as possible, they even stopped calling themselves translation agencies many years ago and became first “Language Translation Companies”, and later “Language Services Providers”, although it is obviously not them but translators who provide the language services. Sometime they also call themselves “Computer Services Providing Companies”, and new nomenclature aimed at further confusing customers is no doubt just around the corner.

They don’t talk much about the translators who work for them. If these translators are mentioned in their propaganda at all, it is usually in a single sentence claiming “We have thousands of highly qualified translators” (at our beck and call).

But who are these highly qualified translators? If you go for example to a website of a law firm, a prominently displayed link on the site will take you to a list of professionals who work for the firm, from partners to associates and paralegals, including a detailed description of their education and experience. For some reason, no further specific information is available about the thousands of highly qualified translators who are apparently eager to work for large translation agencies. Because they are considered by brokers to be just a tiny, relatively unimportant part of big, wise and extremely precise machinery, they are anonymous, invisible and unidentifiable. All you see on the websites of most translation agencies are pleasant, photoshopped images of sexy, smiling young people posing as translators.

Only websites of very small translation agencies, which are usually run by the translators themselves, or websites of individual translators proudly describe the qualifications, education and experience of the translators.

Wouldn’t it be nice if all of those agencies claiming to practice strict quality control methods that are allegedly enforced in their Industrial Standard Organization-certified translation processes were required to show pictures of cute little industrial robots hard at work on an industrial mass production line on their websites, just like restaurants and bakeries in France must display pictures of cute little penguins in the shop window if they use frozen ingredients in their meals a la carte and in the sugary cakes they sell to their customers because it is much cheaper, faster and thus more profitable than having to make everything from scratch in house, the way meals are hopefully still prepared in good restaurants?

 

I already wrote several posts on the subject of how often obviously smart and educated people completely misunderstand our noble profession.

This fact was reflected for example in an e-mail which I received about a year ago from a patent lawyer who was looking for the best possible candidate for a complicated patent that he needed to have translated. The requirements contained in the e-mail did not guarantee at all that a well qualified candidate would be found for the job at hand. In fact, they more or less guaranteed that a candidate who would meet all of the requirements listed by a potential client, if one could be found, would most likely not be a very good translator as I am trying to explain in this post, which was incidentally also translated into Russian. (As you can see, I am very proud of the fact that my silly posts have been translated into at least half a dozen languages so far).

It should not be surprising that our clients often do not know what does a translator make. I am an expert at picking a good translator because translating and organizing and managing translations is what I have been doing for the last three decades, but I don’t know how to pick for example a plumber, or a car mechanic, or a dentist either.

I do know that the worst possible method to pick just about any professional is to pick one based on an advertising, especially when it is also offering a discount. I found out this the hard way when I needed a crown replaced when I lived in San Francisco 30 years ago.

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As I was walking to work down Sutter Street near Union Square one day 30 years ago, I picked up a flier from some kid who was giving out to people fliers offering a discount of some kind for dental services. So I went inside the tall building from the thirties on Sutter Street, which was full of all kinds of small and large businesses offering professional services, and found the dentist’s office. The building look exactly like the building from the film Maltese Falcon in which Humphrey Bogart was playing the cynical private eye Sam Spade. It might have been the same building.

The dentist was a very nice, affable guy, I still remember that his first was Tom and the name of the perky blonde dental assistant who was helping him with my crown replacement, which was not such a complicated job, was Heidi …  actually, now I remember, it was definitely, Gretchen, not Heidi. She had no accent, maybe her parents were German.

The problem was, Tom was a horrible dentist. When the crown fell out the first time, I figured I would give him the benefit of doubt and I let him replace it again. After all, I did not know any other dentists. When it fell out the second time, I started asking around for dentist recommendations and that is how I found a really good Chinese dentist based on a recommendation from somebody named Donna, a friend of a friend. The crown is still there – thank you so much, Donna!

Although giving out fliers to people passing or driving by was common practice in the pre-Internet days 30 years ago, these days this kind of advertising seems to be used mostly by large tax preparation services, pizza joints and fast food restaurants.

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These days, marketing and advertising is in one form or another on just about every Internet site, in our e-mail (95% of our e-mail is spam), on commercial TV and radio stations, in our phone …. just about everywhere we look, somebody is trying to sell us something that we don’t need and don’t want, from soap and medications (legal but deadly drugs, so deadly that corporate lawyers decided that every drug commercial must include warning about side effects, horrific as they are, to cut down on litigation costs), to cars and presidents.

One day, entrepreneurial undertakers will figure out how to put glowing advertising slogans into cadavers about to be buried and how to sprinkle them in Benetton colors on the ashes of the dearly departed.

In America, marketing and advertising is slowly killing the soul of the country. About 15 years ago, under pressure from senior citizens, the US Congress in its wisdom designed a system for stopping unsolicited telephone calls by creating the Do Not Call Database where you could register your phone number to stop unwanted telephone calls. It worked for a few years – after I registered my number, the onslaught of unwanted phone calls was reduced to a trickle. But Internet rendered the Do Not Call Database largely irrelevant now because all the assorted peddlers, tricksters and fraudsters have to do now is to pick a new virtual telephone number on the Internet.

The phone is ringing incessantly again on some days, and since everybody has a call ID, most people prefer not to answer their phone unless a legitimate name of a real person or company is displayed on the call ID. The practices prevalent in the phone soliciting industry in our computerized age are so savagely ruthless that the industry seems to be intent on killing its own business model.

To maximize efficiency, automated dialing systems are used now to determine at what time a live person is most likely to answer a phone. Because there is nobody on the other end when a person answers a phone, only a long, ominous silence is heard. Especially old people who do not always understand how the digital universe works are often scared by this because it looks like stalking. It is stalking, but who gives a damn. Once you answer your phone at a certain time, the system will store the time in the database with your phone number because that is when marketing of soap, medications and presidents by real people, generally poor souls who can’t find a real job, will start.

This is a very efficient system, so efficient that the marketers rarely do get to talk to a live person. In fact, it is so efficient that based on the law of diminishing returns, the phone marketing industry should one day kill itself in this manner.

Some people think that there are many signs the end of this world coming, sooner rather than later, and that these signs are plain to see if you only keep your eyes open.

Some people think that legalization of marihuana is such a sign, some people think it’s gay marriage. I think that our civilization will in the end be killed by advertising. Advertising started by doing its best to kill off fixed phone lines first. I still have a fixed phone line for my business number, but I don’t answer it unless I recognize the name on the call ID as that of a legitimate person or company and I find myself using my cell phone instead whenever possible. From fixed phone lines, the advertising business moved to e-mail, which became a useless, hateful chore as most of us try to delete the e-mails as quickly as possible instead of reading them. The result is that sometime we inadvertently remove important messages.

If advertisers are allowed to move from wired phones and e-mail to cell phones and text messages, they may eventually succeed in eliminating also cell phones as an efficient means of communication in the same manner as they did wired phone lines and e-mail, and rather than legalized marihuana or gay marriage, that will be the end of our civilization, because civilization cannot survive in a society in which people can no longer communicate with each other.

*****

So I don’t use any advertising anymore. I have my business website and I am listed in the ATA database of translators, which still works as I wrote in another post. I also strategically place key words into my silly blog posts because these may be picked up by Google and other search engines, hopefully leading potential customers to my business website.

But that’s it. I don’t want to pollute this world with any more advertising. I think it has more marketing and advertising that it can handle already.

I believe that the best form of advertising is still when you do good work, because if you can do that, your customers are likely to recommend your services to other people the way Donna recommended her Chinese dentist (whose name I unfortunately forgot, except that I remember that it was one of those phony-sounding English names that Chinese and Jewish immigrants of certain generation used to like to give to their American children).

And I always thank profusely, usually by e-mail, a customer who recommends my services to another customer, because I think that unlike just about any other type of advertising, this is the kind of advertising that this world in fact needs.

 

Exactly five years ago, another translator told me “Steve, you should have a blog”. I don’t remember whether she said it at the Baker’s Crust restaurant in Greenbrier here in Chesapeake, Virginia, or whether the sentence that launched my silly blog appeared in my e-mail, but that is not important.

The important thing is that I listened to her, went to WordPress.com and figured out how to create a new blog, including that the format that I wanted to use should be framed in two Youtube videos, one at the beginning and one at the end. After all, some people may share my exquisite taste in music, and those who don’t do not need to click on the videos (though they don’t know what they’re missing)!

At first, nobody seemed to have noticed my blog during the initial months when the prospects of another blog on such a pedestrian subject as “translation” seemed somewhat uncertain.

I remember how deeply moved and touched I was one Saturday morning 5 years ago when the blog view count suddenly jumped from something like 163 to something like 167 within a few minutes. Wow, some people must be reading it, I thought to myself, my chest swelling with pride. I was not quite rubbing my hands with glee, but I was very close to it.

Then one Sunday evening I received a first blog comment praising my lofty and inspiring thoughts and elegant style. It hit me like bolt of thunder – I remember thinking, wow, I did not know myself that I was so good. It took me a whole day before I realized that it was a spam comment from some lowlife who was trying to sell fake medications by leaving spam comments on blogs.

But after my blog was listed in alphabetical order under P for PatentTranslator’s blog on the ATA (American Translators Association) Blog Trekker list of translation blogs, the view count started growing. Out of gratitude to the ATA because the ATA Blog Trekker was the first major site that listed my blog, I wrote quite a few posts over the 5 years filled with scathing criticism of inane articles in the ATA Chronicle. But of course, I do it out of love for the profession. I just want the Chronicle to finally try to do better!

From about the third year, my posts started being listed on blogrolls of other blogging translators and also quite regularly on topics for discussion posted on the Proz site by Romina (I’m afraid I forgot her last name). That got me even more views than the ATA Blog Trekker. Out of gratitude to Romina, I started mercilessly criticizing Proz, and she stopped for some reason including my posts in her food for thought.

Then my silly blog about all things translation plus anything else that momentarily tickled my fancy, including my son’s amazingly gentle pit bull Lucy who was so far featured in about half a dozen posts, was listed also in the LaRassegna list of blogs and the number of my followers kept growing. Not exponentially, but quite significantly.

Incidentally, when you have accumulated a certain amount of followers, some of them will be unsubscribing themselves, probably because you say something that they find so offensive that they just cannot …. countenance it, that is the right word, I think. It breaks my heart every time it happens, but I guess it comes with the territory.

My biggest coup in terms of how many views my silly blog generated in one day and how many new subscribers I then gained within a few days came on April 6, 2012, when I wrote my inspired post “Translator’s Dementia (TD) – What It Is and How to Recognize the Signs”. That post had almost 2,500 views in one day, to date it has more than 2K likes on Facebook, and the last comment about it, praising my acerbic wit, of course, was received yesterday.

Interestingly, with the exception of my scholarly analysis of TD, the most popular posts on my blog generally have absolutely nothing to do with translation. For example, a very popular post that I wrote just before Thanksgiving in 2013, titled “How Many Calories Are There in One Section of Toblerone Chocolate”, had 1,130 views in January and 705 views so far in February of this year, while another off topic post under the nasty title “If You Believe That You Can Learn a Language in 10 Days, You Deserve To Be Ripped Off”, which I wrote in October of 2012 and which had almost 20,000 views so far, had 373 views in January and 285 views so far in February of this year.

Clearly, what must be happening here is that people are typing into a search engine the words contained in the title of the post and that is how they find my blog. I am particularly delighted about the continuing popularity of the latter post because the way the so called “Pimsleur approach” to learning of languages is marketed is nothing but a very nasty scam, very costly to poor victims who fall for it, namely people who want to learn a foreign language while knowing absolutely nothing about foreign languages and naively believing that there is always a simple shortcut for everything.

If my post helped to open the eyes of 10,000 people out of the 20,000 people who seem to have read it and stopped them from wasting hundreds of dollars on this scam, I think that it should count as atonement for my many misdeeds in this life, and as I have done some good in this world, I hope that Saint Peter will take it into consideration when he hears me banging on the Pearly Gates.

Probably like most bloggers, whenever I finish a post, I am convinced that this is absolutely the best post I wrote so far, much better than all the previous ones. In other words, I have no idea which of my posts may not be so bad and which ones are less than mediocre.

But I generally find out soon enough what was it that I wrote from readers’ reaction to each post, by which I mean mostly how many people share the post on Twitter and Facebook. But not always. Some posts are “sleepers”: nobody notices them at first, but lots of people will see them eventually. How all of this happens is another thing that I have not been able to figure out so far.

Maybe I will know more in another 5 years of new exciting adventures in the blogging universe.

 

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
Søren Kierkegaard

There was a time when the only thing that this poor patent translator had at his disposal was an expensive, non-interactive, inanimate object made from dead trees called dictionary. I still remember the times when I had to print documents for translation that were faxed to me from Japan among other places on curly thermal paper which often rendered Japanese characters illegible. The only thing that I could use to figure out the technical terms were overpriced dictionaries, which were generally obsolete by the time they were published. One (1!) such Japanese dictionary set me back 800 dollars in 1991.

I still have all of my dictionaries arranged in bookcases lining the walls in my office and in the hallway and sometime I still use them, but not very often. It is much easier and faster to use online resources mentioned in the title of this post and in contrast to paper dictionaries, online resources are free and they are generally updated very frequently.

Online resources available to patent translators include also search functions that can be accessed for free on the websites of the Japan Patent Office (JPO), European Patent Office (EPO), German Patent Office, French Patent Office, etc. A post that I wrote about these resources in 2010 is based on a chapter that I wrote for the Patent Translation Handbook published by the American Translators Association in 2007. Some of the information in that post and the Patent Translation Handbook is outdated by now, but I believe that most of it is still applicable and useful.

Like most translators, I prefer to use different online dictionaries and online resources, and I use different resources depending on which language I am translating.

Most translators by now probably have had plenty of experience with GoogleTranslate (GT). Regardless of which language I am translating, I usually go to GT for a first basic reference for a term that I plan to be using in my translations of patents, or technical articles and other documents.

However, translators need to be careful when they are using “free” machine pseudo-translation tools available online, or even paid tools, such as Adobe file conversion tool, which is what I use to convert long documents in PDF format to MS Word format, mostly to estimate the word count to provide a cost estimate.

Since there is no such thing as a free lunch, these free tools are not really free. Whenever we use a “free” tool, information about what we are doing online is generally the product that is being sold to other people, mostly for advertising purposes (or at least I hope so). Since translators don’t know who can have access to the information that they input online, they must be very careful when using pseudo-translation and file conversion tools. As described for example in the English version of the Japanese newspaper The Yomiuri Shimbun, confidential E-mails to a client and other documents that were translated by a careless lawyer through a free online service have been leaked onto the Internet and are visible to the public.

There is no need to worry about the text of published patent applications, because once they have been published on a website such as the JPO, EPO or WIPO website, they are in public domain. But texts of unpublished patent application may not be disclosed through a “free” online machine pseudo-translation service, or through a paid file conversion utility, because such an inadvertent disclosure could cause major problems for the translator.

Unless the document being translated is already in public domain, translators who use free machine pseudo-translation tools online need to carefully anonymize every document first by removing all names and any other identifying information from the document.

With the exception of music files on my i-Pad and i-Phone (where the operating system does not really give me any choice), I don’t store any of my files in the Cloud because I have no idea who will have access to my files. Even if the company offering Cloud storage promises complete confidentiality, they could be lying, or the files could be hacked. Of course, my computer could be hacked into too, but there are simple measures that I can take on my own to try to prevent such an eventuality when I am in control of the files. If I store my files in the Cloud, I am as helpless as passengers flying in a plane with malfunctioning engines as far as the confidentiality of the information in my files is concerned.

But let’s get back to comparing machine and human translations available on Google Translate, Linguee and the WIPO website.

Google Translate

The use of GoogleTranslate offers several advantages. First of all, everything is very fast. I can use a single keyboard to type words that I want to bounce off GoogleTranslate in several languages, including German, French, or Russian, and GoogleTranslate will generally figure out the correct accents and fix my spelling mistakes. With Japanese and Czech, I generally load a Japanese or Czech keyboard into the computer’s memory first. Given how complicated typing in Japanese and Czech can be, it is faster to use a special keyboard for these languages.

The advantage of GoogleTranslate is that while it provides machine translation, or machine pseudo-translation, which is probably a better term to use because what a machine offers to a human reader is not really a translation, unlike previous machine translation systems that were based on an unmapped minefield consisting of grammatical and syntactical rules combined with a dictionary, GoogleTranslate instead attempts to identify a previous translation that was done by a human and that closely matches the source text for translation.

I found this approach to be incredibly effective on many occasions, for example when I was translating Japanese laws and statues, because most of the text is usually completely identical to the previous version of the law and all I have to do then is to copy and check identical portions and add the new text.

But even this approach can often result in completely and hilariously nonsensical mistranslation when the match identified by the software is a mismatch, which the machine does not know. Since machines obviously don’t know anything as they just do what they were programmed to do, they can be trusted about as much as presidential candidates, by which I mean that you have to assume that what they are saying might be true, but there is also a good chance that everything they say is a lie.

In a larger portion of machine-translated texts, there will always be mistranslations, which may be difficult to detect even if you know the original language and impossible to detect if you only know the target language.

When I threw the German term “Verstellweg” that I was not sure about in a patent translation that I was working on at GoogleTranslate, I got back: “adjustment”, “adjusting”, “adjustment path”, “displacement” and “displacement path”, along with definitions of the words in English and German, which I did not really need. Most of these terms would kind of work in the patent I was translating, but “adjustment range”, which was in my opinion the best translation for this particular design, was not listed.

Linguee

Unlike GoogleTranslate, Linguee is an online dictionary search engine, not a machine translation engine, which means that instead of translating (or pseudo-translating) whole chunks of text, it displays existing translations of words that human translators may be looking for in different contexts. Incidentally, I find it interesting that the concept of Linguee was developed by a former Google Employee.

Just like GoogleTranslate, Linguee can be used for many languages, including Japanese, Russian, Czech, German, French, etc., and it also guesses, usually correctly, the proper spelling in other languages when I use US English keyboard for example to write text in Russian or Japanese.

This is very convenient, but I find it slightly creepy. If things continue like this, nobody will be able to remember how to spell anything in a few years. Why bother when the machine does it for us? Especially with languages using a very complicated writing system like Japanese or Chinese, young people probably already forgot how to write properly characters since their computer or smart phone remembers all those complicated characters for them. Human brain remembers only what it needs to remember, that is simply how it works. It is almost as if our brain had its own brain that does not really listen to us that much.

When I threw “Verstellweg” at Linguee, I got back 34 examples of sentences using this term in different contexts. Each example is provided as a full sentence in both languages with the queried term highlighted, which makes it easy to quickly scan all the examples to find the best possible match.

The great advantage of Linguee is that unlike GoogleTranslate, it provides a great deal of context which would not fit into the design of a machine translation engine. Just like in life, context is everything also in translation, and thanks to the simple and effective design of Linguee, searching for alternatives is usually quite fast.

I really, really like Linguee.

Summaries on The WIPO (World Intellectual Property Office) Website

I have been using this website for many years, longer than GoogleTranslate and much longer than Linguee. While the European Patent Office (EPO) website can be searched only in English and the Japanese Patent Office (JPO) can be searched only in Japanese or in English, millions of patent publications contained in the WIPO database can be searched in many languages, including English, German, Japanese, Russian, etc. A search for a term in a foreign language will usually identify English abstracts of many patent documents containing an English translation of the term in German, French, etc. Because complete summaries are displayed, even more life-saving context is contained in the summary.

However, sometime there is no English summary and only a summary in the original language will be displayed, presumably because a translation is not available yet.

The English summaries are usually quite good, but not always. This is probably due to the fact that WIPO sends these summaries for translation to various translation agencies and while good agencies will work with really good translators who do good work, other agencies may use really lousy translators who are generally much cheaper.

Once in a while I find that the summary that is provided in English along with a summary in a foreign language sort of explains the main principle of the patent publication, but complicated terms that I am looking for are completely missing in English because a dishonest translator simply did not bother to translate the complicated terms. On the one hand, I think that is unforgivable for translators to behave this way, but then again, given how much (or rather how little) they may be paid by some translation agencies, and how little time they may have to translate a large number of abstracts in order to pay their bills, I would blame more the translation agency than the translators.

When I threw my test term “Verstellweg” at the WIPO website, I got back 608 hits. While this sounds like even more context, the problem is that trying to identify correct English translations takes a long time because only the word in German is highlighted, and sometime when I click on the German text, the summary is not available in English.

I find myself using the WIPO website much less now, mostly because it takes such a long time to find what I am looking for among the hundreds of documents displayed. But the WIPO website is still a very good resource for me, and often I do find on it the answer to my question when my search was fruitless on GoogleTranslate or Linguee.

**********

Unlike two or three decades ago, translators now have many online resources that can be used to find correct terms. However, this does not mean that thanks to the availability of abundant resources, just about anybody who knows a foreign language can translate just about anything.

In order to translate and do it well, you still have to be a translator first.

I remember how Tom Petty was describing in a documentary about his music the primitive method that he was using to learn new songs when he was a teenager in the seventies in Florida. He said that he used to sit in a car listening to a song that he liked on the car cassette player while stopping it every few seconds to write down the lyrics and try out the guitar riffs on his guitar.

It is much easier for teenagers these days to learn how to play songs because everything can be simply downloaded from the Internet. But just because they can download what they need in a few seconds does not mean that this will turn them into talented musicians.

And just because there are many online resources available to translators these days, that does not mean that just about anyone can become a translator.

Whether you want to be a musician or a translator, you have to have the music in you first, because otherwise it is probably not going to work.

Posted by: patenttranslator | February 18, 2015

The Well-Balanced Lifestyle of a Self-Employed Professional

 

When I lived in Prague, I used take tram No. 20 at around 8:20 AM, Monday through Friday, to Hradčanská metro station to change there to the metro which took me straight to my job at Václavské naměstí (Venceslaus Square). It was not a bad commute. For about 30 minutes I was lost in my daydream until I emerged safely from the metro. One day, the tram driver whose job it was also to announce the stops – this was Anno Domini 1980 – said (in Czech): “Ladies and Gentlemen, the next stop is Vořechovka, your tram driver today is Prof. Dr. so and so, CsC” (candidate of sciences). People were laughing and looking at each other with an odd expression on their faces.

A lot of former university professors were washing windows and driving trams in communist Czechoslovakia in the eighties after they got fired from their original jobs for “anti-social attitudes”. I never heard Professor’s funny announcement again. Either he was prevented by management from performing his morning comedy, or, more likely, he got fired even from this job.

For many years I used to have a recurring dream that I was still riding the tram No. 20 to Hradčanská metro station. Fortunately, I have not had this dream for quite a few years now.

When I lived in San Francisco, I used to take the N-Judah metro train to my job in downtown on Market Street at Powell. These tram drivers too had to personally announce every stop. They were often black, a lot of black women among them who probably were not university professors. There is a lot of comedic material surrounding commuters on public transport in San Francisco that the drivers could have commented on, for instance by cracking a joke about whatever happened to hippies at the Parnassus stop near Haight street, but I never had the pleasure of riding a tram driven by a Whoopi Goldberg on the N-Judah line. The trip was quite pleasant and it took again about 30 minutes.

When I lived in Tokyo, I had to take a bus first to Oizumi Gakuen train station, then the Seibu train line to Yamanote line in downtown Tokyo where I had to transfer one more time and get off at Shiba Daimon train station. The train was so crowded that I had to start positioning myself closer to the exit from the car two stops ahead of my stop. The trip took 90 minutes, which was about the average time for commuting in Tokyo. By the time I got to the office where I worked, I was already exhausted.

******

In addition to long, harrowing commutes such as the one I still remember vividly from the time when I was a salaryman in Tokyo, the imbalance in the daily life of most employees includes also many other seemingly obligatory workplace ingredients, such as an idiotic boss who must be pleased or at least placated, silly office politics, constant backstabbing among fellow employees and the like.

In contrast, the lifestyle of a self-employed professional can be much more peaceful if it is well designed so that it is properly balanced. First of all, you can commute to work in your pajamas if you so choose and nobody has any right to criticize you for that, with the possible exception of your spouse. (But who cares about that!)

If you have children, that again tends to complicate things. Since children always get in the way no matter what you do, renting an office may be advisable for a period of time to try to maintain the proper balance in your life. I was renting an office, first in San Francisco for two years and then in the Wine Country for 8 years, until my children were in their early teens. Once they are teenagers, all children naturally lose any and all interest they used to have in everything and anything having to do with their father. This means that it is finally safe again to move your office back home.

When your children eventually move out of your house, and thanks God they eventually do that although it takes them almost two decades, you should probably have a pet in your home office, preferably a dog, when you are finally allowed to join the happy ranks of fellow empty nesters.

Unlike children, dogs are not in the least disruptive, they let you work as much as you need to, or read or watch TV, or waste time on the Internet as much as you want to without asking you silly questions, messing with your computers and making unreasonable demands on your time.

Once in a while your dog will bark when another dog is being walked by your house to let the other dog know that this house is already occupied and managed by a mighty and crafty canine.

Otherwise, your dog can stay perfectly still for hours even when he is not sleeping. And he usually is sleeping, or keeping a careful eye on things while half asleep. Only a dog can do that! All you have to do is feed your quiet, considerate friend and walk him three times a day. This is easy enough to schedule around your working hours and it incidentally also helps to keep you fit.

Employees must commute to their workplace regardless of the valuable time lost in this manner and the cost involved. How many years of my life would have been needlessly lost to commuting, at three hours a day, five days a week, had I been living over the last 28 years the life of an employee in Japan? That’s 15 hours a week x 52 weeks x 28 years = 21,840 hours, or 910 days, or almost 3 years.

You can’t have a well-balanced life when you have to live like that simply to pay the bills.

Since self-employed professionals get to choose the apartment or house in which they live and work, they can do so while paying attention to the principles of feng shui, the Chinese philosophical system for living a well-balanced life in harmony with the world and the universe.

Like most people who are not Chinese, for a long time I thought that feng shui was a bunch of silly superstitions. But one day about twenty years ago when I was translating a Japanese technical paper on the influence of micro-magnetic fields on the resolution of powerful electron microscopes, I realized that feng shui is addressing basically the same phenomena as the scientific article that I was translating. Just like focused beams of electrons are influenced by micro-magnetic fields generated by the design of the microscope and ambient conditions, universal energy called “chi” in Chinese, which is flowing through our house and our world, is influenced by macro-magnetic fields created by heavenly bodies, mountains, tall buildings, and the design of our house and the things in our house.

Although the Chinese figured out all of that already about 3,500 years ago, most people in the West ignore the delicate science of living in harmony with the world at their own peril.

You don’t have to carefully study feng shui to make sure that the universal energy (and your life force) is allowed to flow freely through your sumptuous mansion or modest abode, while your life force is not allowed to unnecessarily escape from your house, because the basic principles are quite simple.

You can use your cell phone to make sure that the main entrance to your house is oriented toward the South, that the entrance is not facing directly the main stairs (universal energy does not like that), and your own eyes to make sure that your house is not directly intersected by a tall church spire or a tower that can be seen from your windows.

The last requirement may be difficult to satisfy if you live in Paris near the Eiffel tower, or in central Prague, which is said to have a hundred towers. But then again, most self-employed professionals do not live in Paris or Prague, and those of us who do can consult an experienced feng shui practitioner who will gladly advise us for a modest fee on how to place strategic objects in our house to maintain a free flow of universal energy through our working environment and thus deflect detrimental influences that can block positive developments in our life.

A well balanced living and working environment is of course only one part of what a self-employed professional needs to live in harmony with the world and the universe.

The people who we allow to live in our world, willy-nilly at times, are the second important component of our life and work. We often do not have as much control over this component as we think we do.

The clients who we decide to work for are the third important component of our work, and to most self-employed professionals, their work is their life.

But that would be a subject for another post.

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