Posted by: patenttranslator | November 27, 2015

What Makes Some People Want to Learn Foreign Languages?

Because I was born in a small country, a country that was controlled for more than 40 years by a big superpower before the superpower imploded as they all eventually do, the first foreign language that I started learning in fourth grade at the age of nine was Russian. Although I had no choice in the matter, I remember that I was very excited as a child when I started learning the Cyrillic alphabet and then started learning my first words and putting together short sentences in another language that was eerily similar to mine, although quite different too. It was almost like being in first grade and learning the second time around that the letter “e” stands for the first letter of the word “electricity”.

As a child I didn’t quite understand the point of trying to speak another language. Why bother when you already have a perfectly good language of your own? But I thought it was fun and I was willing to play along.

All children are naturally predisposed to play along while learning another language, although perhaps only up until a certain age. I saw proof of that when about 30 years after my first exposure to a foreign language, my wife tried to teach my son Japanese when we lived in California.

Based on a game that Japanese mothers invented for teaching their language to children who are beginning to understand a language but can’t speak very well yet, she would say to him something like: “Casey-chan no o-hana wa doko desuka?” (Where is Casey’s nose?) She would then start looking at him expectantly, while Casey was looking back at her with a confused, baby look on his face, because at first he obviously had no idea what she wanted from him, as he didn’t speak Japanese, or any other language for that matter.

But then, when she said: “Casey-chan no o-hana wa koko desu, yo!” (This is where you nose is, Casey!) and pointed to his nose (or was it her nose? I don’t remember now) and then said the same words in Japanese again, he pointed to his nose straight away with a big smile on his face because now he knew the answer and he was evidently enjoying the game.

And when after that she started using other Japanese words, o-mimi (ears), o-kuchi (mouth), in the fact-finding part for learning new words after the slightly confusing introductory part of the game, he remembered easily which part was what and started correctly identifying parts of his face and body in Japanese.

It was fun to watch and see in practice that learning a language can indeed be fun. When you are a small child, everything is new and trying out new things is always fun, including learning a new language.

As greedy and dishonest peddlers of mostly worthless language courses noticed this interesting detail about how children’s brains work when it comes to learning foreign languages, some are now incorporating the promise “to activate the dormant part of your brain that makes learning a language fun” in their advertisements. Because our brains are “wired to learn language in 10 days”, all we have to do is “activate this wired part of our brain and we can easily learn any language without really trying”, they say.

Many people fall for this lie if they don’t have much experience with learning of foreign languages. They are then eventually forced with this ingenious but extremely dishonest scheme to spend hundreds of dollars for a mediocre language course on CDs that will be periodically sent to them, because they were told that they were spending 10 dollars for a trial CD and that they were free to cancel the miraculous language course at any point by returning the CD. But as evidenced by the more than hundred complaints in linked in a post called If You Believe That You Can Learn Language in 10 Days You Deserve to Be Ripped Off that I wrote three years ago, it’s next to impossible to cancel your order. Incidentally, since that post had almost 20,000 views so far, hopefully I saved a few people some money that could be used for a language learning method that really works.

Our brains are wired for all kinds of things, but there is no magic cluster of neurons in our brain that makes it possible to learn Chinese or any other language in 10 days without really trying once we activate this dormant bunch of talented brain cells that specialize in learning foreign languages in our magnificent brain, after we have accidentally neutralized its natural ability to easily soak up a foreign language by becoming slothful, plodding adults. Just as it is not possible to become a virgin a second time around, we can’t become innocent children again who can soak up a new language like a sponge soaks up water. When grownups pretend to be innocent children, they generally look pretty stupid because they are obviously faking it.

It is possible to make language learning fun even for adults, but because the brains of grown up people are fully formed, which includes a fully formed part of their brain where their native language resides, adults generally need to use different methods than small children.

Some people, including adults, find it easier to learn languages, just like some people find it easier to draw and paint, or play a musical instrument, or sing, or climb mountains, while some are pretty poor at either of these activities no matter how long they’ve been trying to learn them.

This doesn’t really have anything to do with intelligence per se. Einstein was a pretty smart guy, but he never learned how to speak proper English and his accent was atrocious even though he spent many years in this country. It’s possible that on his deathbed, Einstein came up with an idea that would be even more revolutionary than the theory of relativity and that was what he was trying to communicate to a nurse at a hospital in Princeton, New Jersey, as he lay there dying in 1955. But because he was saying his last words in German and the nurse spoke only English, we’ll never know what those last words were.

On the other hand, some people who are not nearly as smart as Einstein was, perhaps not very smart at all, can learn a new language quite easily and can do that very well in only a short period of time. I have met quite a few people like that, and as far as I could tell, they were no Einsteins.

Once we are not children anymore, the ability to absorb a new language as if through osmosis is gone for good and there is nothing we can do about it. The later in life we start learning a new language, the harder it generally turns out to be to become fluent in it. The cut off age for children who can usually completely lose the accent of their original language after they have moved to a different country is generally around 13 or 14, which is to say around the time when puberty hits us really hard and physical and hormonal changes transforms what used to be a child into what will soon be an adult. Henry Kissinger came to United States at the age of 16 – and that’s why his accent is so heavy even though he spent about seven decades in the United States. I saw and heard him accepting some kind of prize on German TV in German just this week, and his German sounded better than his English, I thought.

I started learning Japanese a very long time ago in Prague when I was 23 years old. I remember that every time when my class was finished, there were two kids waiting there for Haneda-san’s next lesson, a boy and a girl, both about 13 years old. I envied them because I understood that they had a big advantage over me when it came to learning a complicated foreign language – they were much younger than I was, about half my age.

But just because you start learning a language at a young age does not mean that your advantage will last forever. It all depends on what you do with the new language. When I lived in San Francisco, I used to carry my son Andy in a child carrier on my back a few blocks from Anza Street to California Street where Andy’s babysitter lived, a Chinese lady by the name of Mrs. Touk.

The moment I left the apartment on California street, Andy was left alone in a world where everybody spoke only Chinese. I don’t know whether the Chinese people, both the grownups and kids at that apartment played language games in Chinese with Andy, but to my surprise, Andy, who was about two years old, understood what Mrs. Took was telling him in Chinese as I wrote in another post, because when she told him something in a language that I could not understand, he would obediently do what she told him to do. He also called his stuffed penguin toy without which he refused to go to sleep Wawa, which I understand mean “a doll” in Chinese, not penguin. I spent many evenings frantically looking for Wawa in nooks and crannies and under the bed in Andy’s room for several years. Even when we moved away from San Francisco and Andy was no longer exposed to Chinese, the name of his penguin was still Wawa.

Unfortunately, neither Casey nor Andy speak Japanese or Chinese at this point as adults, other than perhaps two dozen Japanese words having to do mostly with Japanese food. What makes little children want to learn foreign languages is that fact that they perceive the actual learning process as a game rather than an onerous task, a game that can be a lot of fun.

The same principle can also be used by adults who can’t really activate cells specially designed for learning of languages that may have been dormant in their brain for a few decades – because it’s not possible. As long as people can figure out how to make the language learning activity interesting and fun, they will be learning constantly and quickly. They will never learn much if they find the activity to be too complicated, difficult and boring.

Some weird people for some reason find this activity perpetually interesting at any age.

Fortunately for me, I am such a person too. It’s not that I enjoy looking up words that I don’t understand. I don’t like having to work for it. But I do enjoy knowing what these words mean once I find out the truth that was hidden to my eyes, ears and brain when the meaning of words was camouflaged in a foreign language, a foreign language that is no longer so foreign to me.

And that is what makes me want to keep learning foreign languages, especially since given that I am a translator, people actually pay me for doing it.

Posted by: patenttranslator | November 23, 2015

Twelve New Customers a Year

This is the result of my calculations of the average number of newly acquired customers per year for the last 28 years, since I started translating as an independent freelance translator in 1987.

This figure is based on the number of files representing customers, listed in a subdirectory which I called “Customer History” and which includes further subdirectories containing scanned files of invoices and other documents and correspondence between my customers and me, be they direct customers or translation agencies.

Most of them will probably no longer be sending me work, mostly for reasons unknown, although in some cases the reason is clear. For example, several of these people are no longer alive. As I scan the files, I Google the names of the people and companies, and if I find an obituary, I print it out and scan it in at the beginning of the file, although I’m not quite sure why I do that. Some sort of digital closure, I guess.

A few of those who are still among the living might still come back, in which case I will create a new active file for them as if they were brand new customers. In fact, one tiny agency that hasn’t contacted me since 1992 sent me a minimum fee job last month. I see in my digital files that in 1992 they paid me $2,581.60.

I have a separate filing cabinet with files of customers that I consider “active”, which means they have sent me work recently. I’ll be scanning those files into my records only if and when I decide to move my office, at which point I will need to get rid of a whole mountain of paper.

The two big filing cabinets in my home office for old customers contain paper files arranged alphabetically in manila folders with printed invoices, purchase orders and other correspondence, such as 1099 tax statements that were sent by these now old, non-active customers to me and the Internal Revenue Service in accordance with tax regulations.

The numbers of course only tell part of the story. Some of these customers who no longer seem to be needing my services were keeping me busy for more than a decade, a few of them since 1987 when I was still only working for agencies, a few more since 1991 when I started looking for and finding direct customers.

Some of these customers sent me only one job, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the one-job wonders are not worth creating a file for them. For example, I see in one of these files a customer who sent me only one job in 2004 and after that only one request for a cost estimate, which wasn’t followed by a work order. But I see that for that single patent job in 2004, a long patent that including figures and flowcharts was well over 100 pages, I was paid 11,200 dollars, which was my winning bid sent to a potential new customer who found my website.

Although it isn’t in my files, I remember that I read in the newspaper that the same customer, a medium size patent law firm, declared dissolution a year or two ago. Good thing I caught that one job from them 11 years ago, before they decided to call it quits.

Several of the patent law firms no longer exist, at least half a dozen of those that are scanned into my subdirectory for law firms. But even when they decide to close shop, the same lawyers sometimes contact me and send me work from another firm, or as sole practitioners.

But I have not dissolved myself yet, despite the hot and humid weather here in the South. I’m still here, easily findable on the Internet, riding merrily along, yippee, yeah, yey!

My current record of new customers from this year also seems to confirm the number 12 as the average number of new customers who normally replace other customers who are lost through natural attrition and/or other, largely unexplainable black magic tricks.

I see that so far 11 new customers found me this year, all of them thanks to my website.

For some reason, there was not a single new customer this year up until May 25, when I finally scored a new one, a patent agent in California who sent me five Japanese patents, if I remember correctly. He mailed me a check within a few days for all of the translations, which was greatly appreciated because I was low on funds at that point, partly because I hadn’t been able to land any new customers for five months in a row. He is a single practitioner, just like me, and unlike corporations, single practitioners usually don’t sit on the money that they get from their customers in advance for translation for as long as possible to improve their cash flow.

The last new customer, a corporate patent lawyer, contacted me about two months ago. I gave him a cost estimate, and waited and waited … to no avail, I thought. But a month later he did eventually sent me twice as big a job than the one I gave him an estimate for, with two long Japanese patents that I finished only a week ago.

So since there have been 11 of them so far this year, if I find one more new customer this year, the average number of newly found customers will be 12 again for this year, which would correspond to the average number during the last twenty eight years.

I think that 12 is probably a magic number, that’s why time is counted in units of 12, although everything else is counted in decimal units. There are 12 months in a year, 12 hours in a day (up until high noon), and then another 12 hours to midnight. If you think of what happened in your life in years of your age that are divisible by twelve, I’ll bet that you will find for some reason events of momentous significance that happened in those years and eventually defined who you are and what you are doing now.

That is why so many languages have the word “dozen”, although this word is much more used in some languages, such as English, than for example in Japanese, where a native equivalent does not exist, or in Slavic languages which have the word, but don’t use it much.

The number 12 is at least as magical as the number seven as far as I’m concerned, probably more so. Otherwise the average number of new customers per year for the last 28 years would have to be about seven. Number seven is a good number too, but clearly, 12 is 70% better than seven. I see from my records that last year I had only six new customers, which is one reason why it was not a very good year for my business.

If I counted the agency that has not contacted me since 1992 (which makes it 23 years!), it would be 12 new customers this year already. But agencies don’t count for the purposes of my equation for replacement of old customers lost through attrition. For one thing, this one is an old customer, regardless of how much time has passed since I worked for them last time. Plus I don’t really count agencies, only direct customers. I can’t count agencies because the moment somebody offers to translate the same thing for half a cent per word less, they are gone.

The worst thing that a translator can do is to rely on only one or only a few clients who seem to have a lot of work all the time. I keep saying that this kind of arrangement is the kiss of death, because it’s true.

Nothing lasts forever, and once the all-important client is gone, you will need about 12 new clients to replace the formerly all-important client who for one reason or another suddenly completely disappeared.

Posted by: patenttranslator | November 19, 2015

Admitted as a Refugee, 8-3-82-NYC

Admitted as a refugee-8-3-82-NYC


More than 33 years ago, I arrived to La Guardia Airport with all of 500 dollars in my pocket as a refugee from communist Czechoslovakia via West Germany. The refugee visa was stapled to page 9 of my Reiseausweis (Travel Document) issued by the German Federal Republic. At that point I had been a refugee for 1 year, 3 months and 2 days and although I was doing just fine, I felt like one ever since the day when I slipped illegally on June 1, 1981, through a porous border from what used to be then called Yugoslavia to Austria.

West Germany already had a refugee problem at that time. But compared to what is happening today, it was a relatively minor problem and the Germans were handling it with their typical efficiency and German Gründlichkeit (thoroughness). When I showed up two days later at the German Immigration Office in Munich, (which is actually called Ausländeramt, or Office for Foreigners in German), and asked an employee in a hallway in German whether I could apply here for political asylum, she inquired about the first letter of my last name, and when I told her that it was “V” (which is pronounced “fau” in German), she looked at some papers, told me that I needed to talk to Frau so-and-so, gave me the correct room number and continued her brisk walk to her own office. All in a day’s work.

From that moment on, I knew I was in good hands as long as I followed procedure. Which I did. I am usually good at following procedure (until I decide not to). I had to go through several refugee camps at first, but two weeks later my application was approved and two months later I was a student in an advanced German language course for “Aussiedler” (emigrants, some of whom were ethnic Germans from Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia, but most were refugees like me).

Six months later I had my blue Reiseausweis (Travel Document), which I valued immensely because of the freedom it gave me. I still keep it as a treasured souvenir and I look at it several times a year when I feel like reminiscing and wallowing in rich nostalgia. I found a job and as I was finally able to travel throughout Western Europe as much as I wanted, meager finances allowing. I traveled with some Slovak and Polish refugees to Italy, Belgium, France and Holland, sleeping mostly in youth hostels, a couple of times under the stars on the beach.

I could have stayed in Germany. I had a job there and would probably soon have been able to find a better one. I was speaking mostly Polish during the day because most of my coworkers were Polish refugees, but after work I was reading German books, listening to German radio stations, watching German TV and after about a year I started to think in German. Contrary to what some people who don’t know this language think, it is a beautiful, poetic and very clever, expressive language.

I was enjoying my newly found freedom and most Germans were extremely nice to me. In fact, I can remember only one old German man expressing to me his general displeasure with all those damn refugees who were invading his country. Perhaps he wanted me to hear it because he overheard my accent. It was at a railway station and he was drunk, so I didn’t say anything. What was there to say?

But although Germans were making every effort to be nice to refugees, or maybe because of that, I had no German friends. And as I didn’t want to stay a refugee for the rest my life, I decided to move to a country where immigration was a well-established tradition and applied for immigration to the United States, Canada and Australia.

By the time I received an invitation to an interview at the Canadian Embassy, my application for an immigrant visa to the US was already approved after my interview at the US Embassy in Frankfurt. Australia never got back to me while I was still in Germany. I couldn’t figure out the national origin of the American embassy representative who was interviewing me in Frankfurt because I had never seen somebody who would look like him in my life. It was only after I arrived in San Francisco that I realized that he must have been what is called “Hispanic”.

My sponsor in the United States, an organization financed by donations from private individuals, mostly ethnic Czechs and Slovaks, called American Fund for Czechoslovak Refugees (AFCR), found a bed for me, or rather just a mattress on the floor, in a house on Bernal Heights in San Francisco where I would be later living for a couple of months with about eight refugees from Poland and Czechoslovakia in two tiny rooms while I was looking for work. In Germany they told me that I would be going to New York, so I was studying guidebooks to New York in my studio apartment for several weeks prior to my departure. I still haven’t been to New York to this day, although I’ve passed through its various airport many times.

After the immigration officer at La Guardia collected my immigrant visa that was stapled to page nine, he put a stamp into my German travel document and let me into his country. A guy waiting for me at the airport with a sign that had my name on it said that I was going to San Francisco and gave me the plane ticket. It was a loan, I paid the refugee fund back once I found a job.

Since I didn’t know anybody on the entire American continent, I didn’t care one way or the other which way I was going. I was young (29), fearless and immortal. In other words, pretty stupid.

Pretty stupid and pretty lucky. Within a few weeks I found a job as a multilingual Visitor Services Representative dispensing advice to tourists in downtown San Francisco in English, Japanese, French and German.

At first I was making a lot of stupid mistakes because I didn’t know anything about San Francisco, or America for that matter. I remember once when my ignorance annoyed a certain man who was looking for an answer to what he thought was a simple question, although it was not necessarily a simple question for a recent transplant from Central Europe. The man turned to my boss, his name was Harry, and said:”What is this guy doing here? He’s not even an American”. But Harry just looked at the man and said:”No, he is an American!”

I was not really an American, but I didn’t feel like a refugee anymore either. After about six months I stopped feeling like a refugee because in San Francisco, I was finally pretty much like everybody else. I was still very lonely because in one fell swoop I lost all my friends, my family, my language, my entire old identity. And I knew, or thought I knew, that I would never be able to go back to Prague. In my mind I gave the idiotic regime there 30 to 50 more years. Little did I know that it would collapse in only seven short years.

Loneliness in San Francisco is not such a bad thing when you’re young, stupidly fearless and adventurous because it’s such poetic city, just like Prague. Plenty of things to do and places to go, even if you are on your own.

On Friday night I would be doing my laundry at a Laundromat surrounded by neon signs of Chinese restaurants and grocery and liquor stores as colorful fog was invading the city streets once again, listening to the foghorn from the Ocean mixing with the sound of chimes on porches of former hippies who were now paying their taxes while chasing the dollar like everybody else.

At first I lived out in the Avenues in Sunset District near Judah Street, only a few minutes by the N-Judah streetcar from the Ocean Beach. I used to take the streetcar and walk there by Ocean Beach on the weekend, watching people throwing Frisbees to their dogs, all the way to the Cliff House, and then I would take the bus back on the other side of Golden Gate Park.

Later I found a place on the fourth floor of a little house on Joice Street off California Street just above Chinatown. I saw the lights of the Financial District and the Transamerica Pyramid from my windows on one side, from another big window I could see the wonderfully cool fog rolling in from Mount Sutro, and at night I could still hear the sound of the foghorn from the ocean. The little big city was just at my feet: I could walk to my job on Market Street in less than 15 minutes, or I could take the cable car part of the way. Back then, what they called “Fast Pass” worked on everything, buses, trams, the short metro track within the city, and even cable cars.

Because part of my job was telling local residents and tourists about the many things to do and places to go in San Francisco and Bay Area, I and my colleagues were often given free tickets to concerts, theaters, ballets and operas, as well as amusement parks and other attractions to use by ourselves or to give to friends. The tickets had the price on them, but  with the words NOT FOR RESALE, and the catch was that we always had to give them away the same day. So I had to quickly hit the phones and start calling everybody I knew to make sure that the tickets would not go to waste, which would be a major tragedy.

It turned me into a regular culture vulture and I quickly became popular among my growing circle of new friends and acquaintances who greatly appreciated cultural events at no cost to them. During a period of three years in my first job in San Francisco, I went to a lot of classical music concerts given by famous musicians from all around the world, theater plays, operas, even one Chinese circus with incredible acrobats who looked about 12 years old, and a genuine American rodeo show.

I saw Dvořák’s Rusalka in Czech, the whole series of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen in German with all kinds of special effects, and  other concerts and operas that otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to afford back then because one ticket to the Opera cost 50 dollars. I married the third girl I took to an opera. She actually fell asleep during the second act and I had to wake her, gently, when she started softly snoring on my shoulder. Well, I’m pretty sure it was Janáček’s Její Pastorkyňa in Czech – who can blame her. That opera is very difficult to follow.

San Francisco was quite expensive even back then, but not nearly as outrageously so as it is today thanks to Google and other high tech outfits that have eventually driven out most normal people who have to work for normal wages. Former San Franciscans, the normal people who don’t make an outrageous amount of money mostly for doing something with a keyboard, were turned into refugees in their own city by the Internet.

After I got married, the children came of course, as they have a way of doing. I moved out from the fair city in 1992, a long time before new technology rendered San Francisco mostly unlivable for most people. That little studio on fourth floor on Joice Street that used to cost 500 dollars when I lived there probably costs well over 3,000 dollars now.

When I see images on TV of refugees pouring in hundreds and thousands through the fields and dusty paths in Greece, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia on their way to Germany, it brings back a flood of half-forgotten memories.

In some ways, they have it much more difficult than I did 34 years ago. I was not fleeing a war. I was mostly just looking for answers for myself. I found answers to some of my questions, I am still looking for more.

In some ways, the new refugees may have it easier now than I did all those years ago. Once I made it to the other side of the Austrian Alps, I was all alone in the big wide world, completely cut off from the world I used to know. They are not alone now as thousands of them are pouring across borders in Europe, connected with smartphones to their families back home. Some day, hopefully soon, the war in their own country will end and they can then go back home if that is what they want to do.

But mostly it will be much more difficult for them than for this former refugee.

I know that they will not be welcome in Europe as readily as I was many years ago, and my own country seems to be mostly shutting the door in their faces. People were not afraid of refugees like me back then, but they are afraid of the new refugees now and it’s hard to blame them.

I was able to achieve my goals by following a few simple rules, pretty much along the lines of the stereotypical image of refugees who, although they came to America with nothing, eventually started their own businesses and through a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work became quite successful at what they were doing.

But the old world back then was a very different world and I have to say, I don’t really understand the new one.

Posted by: patenttranslator | November 15, 2015

No One Is Forced to Buy CPD Indulgences?

“No one is forced to attend any seminars, so if people want to, then that is up to them.”

(From a comment in a discussion on a blog of a fellow translator)

If you were paying attention in your history classes, you may remember that during the Middle Ages, the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church were selling “indulgences” that affluent sinners were encouraged to buy to have their sins forgiven by the Church and thus also by God.

Nobody was forcing the well-heeled sinners to buy “indulgences”. Nobody, that is, with the possible exception of Jesus himself because if you failed to purchase sufficient indulgences from Catholic Church for the sins committed while you were still alive, Jesus would be sure to have a word with St. Peter who would then have no choice but to send the person who failed to purchase the required “indulgences” straight to the infernal fires of the innermost circle of Hell, no matter how loudly the poor sinner might be banging on the Pearly Gates.

You could buy “an indulgence” even if you committed murder, although this one was of course expensive, the equivalent of a very expensive car today, a Lamborghini rather than just an introductory Hyundai, Toyota or Ford model, especially if the murder was particularly heinous.
When Bob Dylan says in his song “Masters of War”:

“Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could?
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made

Will never buy back your soul”,

he must have been alluding to this system of “indulgences”.

Clearly, Bob Dylan doesn’t want to understand that money always had and always will have the power to buy everything and anything, but that’s his business.

The growing disagreement with Church practices, which eventually led to several translations of the Bible into several national languages in Europe, resulted in religious wars that lasted for over a century in what became known as Reformation, namely a mostly futile attempt to reform the greedy practices of the Catholic Church. Because the Catholic Church was simply not reformable, at least not in the 14th and 15th centuries, the immorality of the requirement for purchasing “indulgences” as penance for human sins eventually also resulted in the split of the Protestant Church from the Catholic Church.

Although no one was forced to buy “indulgences” from the Pope, if you were Catholic and failed to pay for your sins in this manner, you were sure to go to Hell based on the teachings of the infallible Catholic Church, and some people thought that this was just a bit too much.’

More than half a millennium later, the American Translators Association is now encouraging translators who are “ATA-accredited” to attend various kinds of seminars to be granted continued professional development points (CPDs), because without CPDs from these seminars, these translators will not be able to maintain their “ATA-accredited status”, ATA’s equivalent of sending translators to hell (with a small “h” in this case, I think), for failing to purchase ATA’s indulgences called CPDs. I’m not sure how exactly these things work in the UK, but I hear they have a similar system there too.

The ATA continuing professional education points (or CPDs) are indulgently granted, albeit mostly in small numbers, for just about anything.

I am told that you can get CPDs for things like listening to people who explain to you how to eat properly (as a translator), how to get paid by payment-forgetting translation agencies, how to maintain the proper spirit, posture and weight by practicing yoga (as a translator), or how to purchase a special table so that you can stand up while translating instead of sitting down like normal people do when they are working, and various other revolutionary concepts.

And of course, you can get CPDs for seminars about how to use absolutely indispensible computer tools such as Trados, and about proper techniques for post-processing of machine translation detritus. It’s all about continuing professional development of translators. And since the mission of the American Translators Association is to make sure that its members are well prepared for present and future challenges, this naturally also includes the obligatory use of Trados and expertise in proper post-processing techniques applicable to machine pseudo-translations. If you don’t use Trados and don’t even know how to post-process pseudo-translations, how can you even call yourself a translator, huh? Go and get some CPDs so you can sleep at night.

Fortunately, even just listening to me is worth a few CPDs. After I once gave a talk by Skype to a regional ATA section, I found out to my surprise that the translators who listened (with baited breath?) to my introduction to the mysteries of translation according to the Evangelium of Mad Patent Translator were also granted some CPD points.

I felt honored and humbled at the same time.

I will be surprised if the CPD situation does not eventually result in the equivalent of religious wars and a major split in the translating profession in United States and possibly also in other countries.

I just hope that I won’t end up like the quarrelsome Bohemian reformer Jan Hus who was first excommunicated and then condemned as an obstinate heretic for his preaching against the immorality of “indulgences” to be burnt at the stake at the Council of Constance in 1415.

Jan Hus came to Constance to defend his teachings (he was famous for fiery sermons against greed in a little church, which you can still visit when you go to Prague along with other tourist traps as the restored church where he used to preach is still there), and also to defend himself against the charges brought against him as he was assured safe conduct by the Emperor, whose name was Sigismund, as the Emperor’s word obviously meant something. What he didn’t understand was that although Sigismund would never go back on his word, he only meant safe passage from Prague to Constance, not including also safe passage from Constance back to Prague.

I think that the contradictions behind the granting of CPDs by several translators’ associations to members of some associations are one reason why there is already a split occurring among translators. Beginners flock to seminars, most of which require payment of a fee, so that they could be indulgently granted CPD points in recognition of their efforts to zealously educate themselves in a manner approved by the ATA here (and I am told that a similar system is practiced also by the ITI in UK).

Most experienced translators, however, not only don’t give a damn about CPDs, they think it’s a total joke, and as far as I can tell, one reason why they are leaving the ATA in droves is that they just can’t bring themselves to participate in silly seminars without which they would be unable to maintain their ATA-certified status.

Just like the immorality of the Catholic Church so well illustrated by the invention of “indulgencies” more than half a millennium ago led to a split in the Church, the silliness of the requirements for “CPDs” as practiced now by the American Translators Association is thus causing a split among translators.

I think that ATA should do something about this problem, preferably get rid of this newly invented system of “indulgencies for translators”.

Unless ATA does so, I think that it will become a home mostly just for beginners, also known as “newbies”, who are always warmly welcomed by the association, while more experienced and more established translators will be shunning the institution that was established more than half a century ago.

And because history tends to repeat itself, the more experienced translators who don’t agree with the system of “indulgences” for translators may at some point start their own association of translators, or join existing associations in other countries that don’t have silly rules that are really hard to swallow – unless you are an inexperienced, naive newbie who just blindly and unquestioningly trusts an established authority.

There are at least two ways how a freelance translator, which is to say a translator who is not an employee, can make a living. He or she can work for a translation agency, or he or she can find his own clients and work for them directly, without the intermediary of a translation agency.

Both “modes of operation” have advantages and disadvantages.

One advantage of working for an intermediary is that translation agencies are easy to find. In fact, they are constantly and actively looking for new translators. On the one hand, they are swamped every day with dozens of new résumés littering their e-mail boxes from people who want to work for them. Because of that, there is apparently a whole new protocol for contacting translation agencies to make sure that they will notice you. I don’t really know much about things like that because at this point I don’t contact agencies myself. But I do know that I have to delete new résumés of translators many times every day, most of whom are hopeless cases who I would not trust to walk my dog Lucy, although she is a very smart and very gentle dog.

So, if translation agencies, or even individuals such as myself receive so many résumés every day, why do the agencies keep looking for new translators? Yes, you guessed right, because they are looking for somebody who will do it for less. It is the nature of the beast – a translation agency’s profit is what is left over after the translator is paid. If the translator charges less, the profit is higher.

There was a time when it made very good sense for translators to work only for translation agencies. Back in the eighties, (I started translating part-time, in addition to my regular office job, in 1982 and then became a full-time freelance translator in 1987), basically all translation agencies were very small operations and most of them were run by translators, or former translators, or people who at least knew some language or something about languages.

Back then it was possible to establish a really close, personal relationship with an agency, especially if you happened to translate a difficult language in a field that was in demand and the agency was getting a lot of work in that language and that field. If your rate was reasonable, which is to say that the profit margin was satisfactory to the intermediary, there was really no reason for the agency to try to replace you by a cheaper translator, especially since the longer you were translating the same materials for the same clients, the better your translations were getting with every passing year.

A very important ingredient of the business model back then was that a very good quality of the translation was a must: that was why the agencies were actively seeking out only the best translators and why they were willing to pay handsome rates for very good work. But in the business model of modern corporations, quality is mostly just an afterthought, as the three most important elements of the new, corporate translation business model are:

1. Greed
2. Totally Shameless Greed
3. Absolutely Limitless Greed, (even if it should mean the end of the world, as in “Après nous, le déluge“).

Around the start of the new millennium, a new, corporate translation agency model started emerging and taking over what was then fittingly named “the translation industry”, a model that cares about one thing and one thing only – maximum profit.

While during the last century and during the centuries before, most of the intermediaries still really cared about the quality of the translations delivered to their clients, partly because they mostly were translators themselves and thus, unlike the new captains of “the translation industry”, they could in fact tell a good translation from an average or bad one, things started changing in the twenty first century when corporate mass production started being aggressively and mercilessly applied not only to a whole range of products such as production of meat and fruits (which then for some reason became tasteless), or toys (which then became poisonous), but also to production of translations in “the translation industry”.

“The translation industry” did not hesitate to include the hilarious application of the manufacturing standards of the Industrial Standards Organization (ISO), originally designed for manufacturing of products such as bricks, mortar, and diapers also to so-called “ISO-certified translations”.

Fortunately, the corporate translation model is not the only model in existence in what is now called “the translation industry”. Just like quite a few independent restaurants are still surviving among bland corporate restaurant chains in monotonous, almost identical shopping malls in the United States, and some of these small restaurants are doing very well, specialized translation agencies operating based on the model of translation agencies of yesteryears still do exist even in the era of “the translation industry”.

Some are probably doing very well, although the pressure of aggressive mega-agencies on the traditional model is strong and unrelenting. So much so that many of these agencies have simply thrown in the towel and either sold their business to a large agency, or they basically started imitating the corporate agency model and some are even more ruthless and greedier than large translation agencies.

The second “mode of operation” for a provider of language services, (which is a translator, not a translation agency), is a translator who works only or mostly for direct clients.

Direct clients are much more difficult to find than translation agencies. Unlike translation agencies, they are not actively seeking translators. They just have a job that needs to be done and it is up to an individual translator to figure out who these direct clients are and how to get the work from them instead of getting the same work for much less money through the intermediaries.

As far as I can tell, most associations of translators are almost completely useless when it comes to helping translators find direct clients.

For example, although the ATA (American Translators Association) has a database of translators who are paying members of the association, the ATA is not and to my knowledge and has never been engaged in active outreach to offer services of its members to direct clients. As I have been a member of the ATA for almost two decades, I have received some work over the years from my listing in the ATA directory. But all of it was from translation agencies. In all those years, I have never been contacted by a direct client such as a patent law firm, which is my typical direct client. Direct clients have no idea that there is such a thing as the ATA directory of translators.

This arrangement is of course very convenient for translation agencies who are considered “corporate members” for the purposes of some associations of translators in some countries (although they are obviously not translators), but who are wisely prevented from being members of an association of translators in most countries – because they are not translators and their interests are in many respects diametrically opposed to those of translators.

The main problem with looking for and finding direct clients is that there is no single, convenient recipe that would be applicable to every translator, or at least to most translators.

Various newly minted experts now give seminars and webinars and write books on this complicated subject (I call them “part-time translation gurus”). There are so many of them now that a whole new industry has been created for the prophets of translation boom and doom (boom if you listen to them, doom if you don’t).

Some of them may be occasionally prognosticating and predicting future very well and provide really useful information, or at least they are doing it in an entertaining manner. But the way I see it, most just try to figure out how to make a buck in this manner, possibly because they can’t really make it as translators.

There is no single recipe for how to go about finding direct clients because every specialized translation field is in fact a subcategory of many other specialized fields, such as advertising, or what used to be referred to as belles letters (writing of books, including novels and other types of books), or scientific and technical research and development if we are talking about technical translation, or medical research when the subject is translation of patents about pharmaceuticals or medical devices, etc.

And when it comes to clients in so many different fields, it’s different strokes for different folks.

A different approach to finding new direct clients is necessitated not only by the type and characteristics of the field of this direct client, but also by the location and the type and personal characteristics of the translator. A different approach to this demanding task will thus be suitable for an extrovert who lives in a large metropolis, rubbing shoulders with her potential direct clients, while a very different method would be probably much more appropriate for an introverted translator who lives in a small town or in the country. As I wrote in an earlier post, there are at least three types of translators and these different types translators would probably need to be looking for direct clients differently.

But there are also some commonalities that all translators share. One of them is that translators need to advertise their services to direct clients. As New Testament puts it (in King James Bible translation): “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.”

This to me means that translators need to advertise their expert services directly to direct clients instead of just being satisfied with being listed along with hundreds or thousands of other translators in some directory, such as the ATA directory, or the Proz directory, etc.

If you really want to give light unto all that are in the house, what better way is there than creating a website with content that is tailored exactly to the needs of your customers? A blog can also help to direct your potential direct clients to your excellent services, although my blog is mostly just a vehicle for sharing my thoughts with other translators rather than a means for finding new clients. But even so, my blog works for me indirectly by improving my ranking on Google and other search engines.

If you hide your light under a bushel and if you look for work in all the wrong places – such as translator auction sites, or corporate translation agencies, while using a free, throwaway e-mail that will immediately tell your potential clients that you are an amateur, without even having a real website …. well, working through intermediaries may be the default mode and the only mode of operations for you.

This mode of operation, when one can only work through intermediaries, may still work for some people, although less so than in the old times before the advent of the extremely aggressive type of corporate mega-agency. In fact, when I am ready to retire, I plan to sell my business and continue working on a much limited scale, as a typical, part-time translator slave who works only for translation agencies. But even then, I will try very hard to identify the small, traditional type of translation agency and work only for this type of agency.

Because as far as I am concerned, working for the modern type of corporate translation agency is a fate worse than death.

Posted by: patenttranslator | November 6, 2015

What really matters is what is happening in our heads

Translators are surrounded by nonsensical and complicated propagandistic notions defined using specialized terminology that has been generated by “the translation industry” in the last two decades or so to emphasize the indispensability of this particular industry for … the very survival of humankind, I suppose.

The industry no longer refers to translation agencies as translation agencies. They renamed themselves about a decade ago and henceforth are to be known solely by the acronym LSP which nobody outside of “the translation industry” understands. As far as I can tell, there is only one possibility: the great minds of so-called translation industry created this acronym, which stands for Language Services Provider, to hide the fact that they are in fact mere brokers of language services and not the actual providers of language services, who are the translators that work for these agencies.

The interesting thing is how quickly some translators have adopted this nonsensical acronym and seemingly delight in throwing it around in online discussions without giving a second thought to its meaning. When you use the right acronyms, you belong to the right club.

A lot of terminology that is used by translation agencies, and then willingly and eagerly adopted by translators, makes no sense to Mad Patent Translator. (Could it be that the madness clouding my mind is ordinary insanity rather than divine madness? Perish the thought).

The notion and the phrase “editing of machine translations”, for example, seems more than inaccurate to me. Completely insane would be a much better way to put it.

How can you abuse language by calling retranslation “editing”? Here is a sample of a machine translation of a Japanese patent dealing with mechanical engineering techniques that I am translating this morning:“In the cylinder 1 is cylindrical, in portrait cylinder for generating ice to the inner wall. Depending also Ri the inner wall goodness in and the child to cool the peripheral portion of the out outer, upper and lower tubular outlet and face it fixed the junction marks La Nji the upper Hawa managing 2 and the lower housing.”

Even this particular machine-translated gibberish is very useful for my purposes because a quick look at the machine translation answers a number of questions a translator might have. But clearly, no amount of editing would create a real translation from these words. Human brains were not designed to “post-edit” nonsense that can be produced only by machines. How can you abuse humans by asking them to engage daily in such a futile effort as “editing” of the detritus that is left by machines when they are done with mechanical processing of human language? There ought to be a law against this kind of abuse of humans by other humans who use machines to inflict torture in this manner.

I edit human translations all the time. But when I edit translations by human translators, I simply look for typos, omissions and inconsistencies, because those are real translations produced by really good translators, not artificial, nonsensical constructs generated by a computer with an algorithm. The mental process taking place in my head during the editing process is very different from what goes on in my head when I look at machine translation. As Rudyard Kipling might have put it, had he been exposed to machine translation, “Machine is machine, and human is human, and never the twain shall meet”.

Just about everything in the so-called translation industry is so transparently fake now that the entire industry resembles politics at the highest level of government.

Here is a title of a translation seminar I saw somewhere today: “Quality metrics for measurement of translation quality with crowd-sourcing”. When you throw a huge number of words at an anonymous crowd to save money by circumventing real translators and then ask the crowd to please translate the words, either for free or for next to nothing, what kind of quality can you possibly expect? To use the word “quality” in this context is really a bad joke. Even if we were to measure “the quality of translation” of experienced and well-paid translators, and even if it were possible to design “verifiable metrics” for this purpose, how can we ignore the fact that the only true measure of quality is the satisfaction of clients who pay for the translations? By definition, it’s a highly subjective criterion.

Application of universal quality metrics to quality of translations makes as much sense as applying universal quality metrics to other intellectual processes and activities, such as writing of detective novels, or even better, romance novels. It is generally easy to tell a really bad novel: the readers will get tired of it after a few pages, never finish the book and then in won’t sell.

Similarly, it is very easy to tell a really poor translation. But universally applicable, measureable and verifiable quality metrics for identification of really good translations? There is no such thing. Despite the fact that there are no “objective metrics”, pointy heads in the “translation industry” insist that they’ve found a universal quality standard and that there really are universal quality metrics that should and must be used to measure translation quality.

And by chance it so happens that the same pointy-headed experts are selling a webinar series, and it must be our lucky day because we can buy the entire course from them right now and participate in their webinar for only a few hundred dollars.

When the old leader of North Korea died, whatever the name of the father of the current North Korean leader was (I call the son the Chubby Leader), immense, overwhelming, incessant and extremely realistic grief of a half a nation divided by a demilitarized zone and a common language was on display for TV cameras for all the world to see how much the North Koreans love their leaders.

If you as a citizen of North Korea should somehow not be completely despondent for days, weeks, or perhaps months while mourning the passing of one dear leader of a new Korean dynasty, at the very least you would be sent to a reeducation camp. On the other hand, some or perhaps most of the sadness and despondence in the faces of the people exposed to the most pernicious propaganda on this planet seemed very genuine.

When people are exposed to propaganda for a long time and nobody offers an alternative to that propaganda, they will ultimately start believing what the propaganda claims, no matter how nonsensical those claims may be.

The leaders of the so-called translation industry understand that the task facing them is to control the thought process happening in our heads, and I have to say that so far, they have been doing a very good job of it.

Posted by: patenttranslator | October 28, 2015

There Are Certain Limits Beyond Which Right Cannot Be Found

In my last post, I discussed (among other things) an economic theory with the fancy title “Blue Ocean and Red Ocean Market Strategy”. I mentioned a new technique related to pushing rates down for translators. Some project managers (PMs) of one translation agency are trying to weasel out lower and lower rates from translators because the translation agency allows PMs to keep the difference between the rock bottom low rates of the translation agency and an even lower rate, if the friendly, entirely sympathetic and apologetic, but very persistent PM is able to convince a translator to accept them.

I saw on social media that based on the experience of several translators, a number of translation agencies have in fact adopted this method and many of them use various ingenious methods to make sure that translators will be paid less and less over time.

1. The PM, who is always very friendly and cheerful, (plenty of exclamation marks, smiley faces and emoticons in an e-mail), pretends to be convinced that the translator’s previous rate was in fact lower because she somehow misremembered what the previous rate was. But, if the lower rate is not acceptable, the job may go to a different translator because “we don’t have the budget for it now” and there’s nothing that can be done about it.

2. The PM simply asks for a new lower rate, for example 20% less, and then proposes a tempting rate that is “only 10%” less than what the translator used to charge in the hope that the translator will jump at the chance.

3. A variation of the “we don’t have the budget for it” technique is when the PM says something like, “Look, this is a large, continuous but low budget job and we have a number of translators working on it. We can pay you x cents per word on this job because you’re such an excellent translator, but everybody else is getting x cents – 15%.” It’s invariably a lie – everybody is getting the same low rate.

These and other variations of dishonest and deceptive haggling techniques designed to force translators to accept less for their work seem to be currently very popular in the so-called translation industry.

There is nothing wrong with a broker, such as a translation agency, trying to secure the best possible conditions for a brokered deal, which is in fact one possible definition of a translation project of a translation agency. The agency organizes the project, the translators contribute their work and the broker takes a cut, namely what is left over once the workers are paid.

But as Horace put it, “Est modus in rebus, sunt certi denique fines quos ultra citraque nequit considere rectum” (“rectum” doesn’t mean here what you might think; the quote means something like “There is a proper way to do everything, and then there are certain limits beyond which right cannot be found”. Apparently, Horace knew two thousand years ago what CEOs of modern corporations seem to have forgotten: that even greed should be exercised with moderation.

It’s important to keep in mind that because the translation market is extremely fragmented, there is no such thing as “the going rate” for a certain language or subject as very different rates are paid in different market segments and each of these segments has its own “going rate”.

For example, generally very low rates are paid on online translation auction venues where many translators try to underbid for the same job. Higher rates are often paid by specialized translation agencies, and even higher rates can be obtained by translators working for direct clients if there’s no commission to be paid to a middleman.

Like many other translators, I am both a translator as well as a translation agency. I see from my receivables that last month, for example, about 40% of my income was generated from projects that I organized in my capacity as a specialized translation agency owner, 60% was from my own translations, and the situation is very similar again this month.

But I don’t need to swim with the sharks in the murky waters of the red ocean markets, either as a translator, or as a small translation agency owner.

Unlike the project managers of the translation agencies mentioned above, I am not actively trying to make more money by trying to force translators to accept less money for their work. Unlike some translation agencies, I don’t boast that I have “databases listing thousands of qualified translators”.

I am perfectly happy to have only two or three translators available for a certain type of project, usually a patent project that I can’t handle myself. I value translators’ willingness to work for me very much. The projects that I have for them are often continuous, highly specialized projects and it takes a while before the translators learn everything that they need to know to keep delivering very good work. I want to keep them happy while they are working for me and pushing their rate down would not make them happy.

When I initially accept a translator’s rate, I do so because I am satisfied with my own profit margin and don’t need to keep increasing it by decreasing the compensation for translators – although it would be difficult for me to pay more, since that would mean that I would need to ask the same client for more, or accept a smaller profit margin for myself.

Over the years, I did stop working with a few translators, even very good translators, as I was able to replace them with other, equally qualified translators who charge significantly less.

But I can think only of three such cases in the last 10 years or so, and I assume and hope that these relatively expensive translators eventually figured out, as I did, how to position themselves in a blue ocean market segment that pays them the kind of rates that they deserve.

So remember, dear reader of my silly blog, when somebody suddenly starts haggling with you over your rate, a rate that used to be perfectly acceptable in the past, perhaps with one of the techniques mentioned in this post, the question you should probably be asking yourself is:

Do I really want to swim with the hungry, insatiable sharks in the dangerous, murky waters of the Red Ocean, or shouldn’t I instead try to figure out how to navigate the much safer and much more transparent waters of the Blue Ocean?

Posted by: patenttranslator | October 22, 2015

The Blue Ocean, the Red Ocean and the Yellow Ocean

One frequent translator complaint that I notice on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Linkedln) is how much translators detest the patronizing attitude toward translators by some project managers (PMs) working for certain translation agencies.

The worst offenders for poor treatment of translators, who are often much older and much better educated than the PMs, are usually very young recent college graduates who can’t find another job and are thus favorite hires for PMs of translation agencies (excuse me, LSPs!), especially the large ones, because they can be hired on the cheap.

One such former PM of a large translation agency, (hint: it’s been in the news a lot recently due to major internecine troubles in the company among its two partners who are fighting each other tooth and nail in court to the delight of translators), shared this little tidbit with translators eager to find out more about the company’s innovative production techniques: the company’s project managers are given a low starting base line for a rock bottom rate to be paid to translators, with a special incentive for the project managers – if they’re able to cajole a very naive or inexperienced translator into agreeing to accept even less for his or her work, they’ll get to keep the difference between the company’s rock bottom baseline rate for a given project and whatever rate the project manager is able to convince the hapless translator to accept.

This is obviously very important motivation for the young PMs who typically receive a miserable salary from the agency, which might be one reason why they’re so exceedingly friendly when they contact translators. When they e-mail us, (sometime they even call, although not very often because you can send mass e-mails to a whole bunch translators at the same time), they act as if they’re our best friends in the whole wide world! They always refer to us by our first name, although often they are young enough to be our daughters, even granddaughters in my case (most of them seem to be female). This type of arrangement creates a kind of invisible tip, similar to the visible tip that guest in restaurants leave for the waiters and waitresses.

The big difference here, of course, is that it’s up to a guest in a restaurant to leave a tip: big tip if the service was fast and expertly delivered (by a pleasant and cute waiter or waitress), or no tip if the waiter or waitress was obtuse and the service was slow and lousy. But the tips left for PMs of such translation agencies are shelled out by underpaid translators, often beginners, unknowingly and unwittingly.

It’s also a good illustration of how the corporate translation agency model is very efficiently designed to squeeze as much work for as little money as possible not only from the translators, but also from PMs. Tips are considered part of the official remuneration of waiters and waitresses in restaurants who even have to pay taxes on tips nowadays, which is the reason their hourly wages are so low. I’m not sure whether agencies pay a tax on tips that translators unwittingly leave for PMs at such a translation agency … they probably do … the agencies would never do anything so completely amoral, or even illegal, would they?

What these PMs don’t seem to realize is that this little scheme with tips for project managers who can talk translators into accepting lower rates will ultimately push their own salaries down, meager as they are.  It will push their own salaries eventually even lower, because just like translators, they too are considered to be another expense that must be minimized to ensure maximum profit for the owner of the agency. Lower and lower rates will over time also result in lower and lower qualifications of translators and thus also lower and lower quality of their translations, but that doesn’t seem to be a concern.

But most translators are not really that stupid (at least I hope so). They realize that PMs who are trying to schmooze them up to accept even lower rates are not really their friends.

Their friends are translation agencies who pay decent money for good work, and promptly, and most importantly: direct clients. They aren’t really looking for friends, only for good customers who will help them pay their bills.

The voracious greed driving the translation industry model is unashamedly obvious. The translation industry’s research groups promoting “strategic planning” keep coming with new “studies” based on largely unverifiable, self-serving projections, with titles like “The Translation Market Is Worth 37 billion Dollars” – and look at the huge slice that this incredibly smart agency has been able to bite off the big translation market pizza!

Do dentists’ associations have research groups publishing market studies titled “The Global Teeth Market Is Worth 74 Billion Dollars?” Or do accountants’ associations have studies saying “The Global Market for Tax Haven Schemes Is Worth 148 Billion Dollars?”

On second thought, they probably do, except that they put it in much less obvious terms than the so-called translation industry. This is the world we live in and there isn’t much that one can do about it.

According to marketing gurus W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne who published a book titled Blue Ocean Strategy in 2005 with an expanded edition published in 2015, there are two kinds of markets in the modem world. If I understand the central thesis of the book correctly (I haven’t read it, I only read reports about the book on the Internet), the term Red Ocean is used for markets where the supply often exceeds the demand and service providers thus must fight for available work like sharks fighting over food so that the blood from the vicious fights of the sharks has turned the ocean red.

But there are also Blue Ocean markets, where crystal clear water appears to be blue. There are no sharks in this pristine market environment and companies and individuals who are able to create a strategy leading them safely and reliably to Blue Oceans can charge much higher rates for their services and products than their counterparts who concentrate all their efforts on the food supply available in Red Oceans.

I think that there is some truth to this economic theory, although for the most part these fancy new strategies seem just like an application of new fancy verbiage to pretty evident situations. Translators who work only or mostly for large translation agencies are clearly fighting for survival in the worst kind of Red Ocean market imaginable.

Translators who are able to ignore the Red Ocean environment and instead focus their marketing efforts only on direct clients and small, specialized translation agencies (which are often run by their colleagues), are working in the Blue Ocean environment based on this terminology.

I would add that thanks to the so-called translation industry, there is now also a Yellow Ocean environment, an environment that has been created by greedy translation agencies, and also by translators’ associations happily parroting the propaganda of the so-called translation industry.

According to what the industry and some translators’ associations are telling us, the so-called translation industry is our friend, and new, nearly miraculous technological solutions of the so­ called translation industry, such as ISO (Industrial Standard Organization) certification, human post-editing of machine translations, crowdsourcing, cloudsourcing and highly efficient management of translation projects in which individual translators are treated as countless and faceless humanoids efficiently organized in a database and forced to jump through as many hoops as necessary to achieve maximum project efficiency and maximum profits, are really good for the translators.

But just like the newly created scheme of tips extorted from poor translators by poor project managers, none of these technical solutions is exactly good for us.

If most translators’ associations don’t tell translators that these schemes are really bad for them—and at this point they sure don’t do that—they’re helping to create a Yellow Ocean environment: an environment in which the big, hungry snake of the so-called translation industry has eaten up translators’ associations like little, helpless froggies.

And the big snake with a ravenous appetite, having ingested the little froggies, has been excreting its poisonous propaganda and pissing into the crystal blue water for so many years now that the formerly pristine waters of the Blue Ocean have been turned into a Yellow Ocean not only for translators, but also for their clients.

Posted by: patenttranslator | October 19, 2015

Continued Reeducation Points: For Obedient Stepford Wives?

On the day of the 2008 presidential election I was very pleasantly surprised when I saw that my son, who had just turned 18, was one of many young people waiting patiently for over an hour in front of a local church where people go to vote in my neighborhood. Churches and garages also serve as part-time shrines to democracy in America because that’s where people often go to vote, under the watchful eye of volunteers, mostly senior citizens.

In San Francisco California, I used to vote in a garage. In Chesapeake, Virginia, it was in a church. In fact, I was more than pleasantly surprised when I saw so many young people lining up and waiting to cast their vote, I was elated. Finally, things may start changing in this country if young people start paying attention to what is going on, I thought to myself.

It was only this year that I found out in a conversation with my son that the real reason why he voted was that he got extra points for voting in a class that he was taking at a local college. He didn’t really believe that voting for Obama or McCain would make a difference, he just did it for the points. (It so happens that the then 18 year-old was right. Nothing changed whatsoever).

Is it a good idea to give college students extra credit points to vote for candidates preapproved by corporations financing elections, when these are the only candidates who have a chance at being elected? I don’t think so. I think that what the teacher really did was take away from the students the only power they had – it was no longer within the power of the kids to stay home in the absence of a candidate who would represent them.

Incidentally, neither of the final presidential candidates in 2008 even mentioned the biggest problem these kids have had then and have now, which is that student debt has reached astronomical dimensions and by now has surpassed all credit card debt. You wouldn’t need to give students credits for voting if a candidate that would actually want to do something for them was allowed to run for president and had a chance at being elected. But because both parties and both candidates were then and are now generously financed by Wall Street, student loans have very high interest rates and refinancing at a lower interest rate is prohibited by law.

Isn’t the much celebrated “invisible hand of the free market” great?

Is it a good idea to give translators “continued education (CE) points” for participating in conferences, seminars and events that the translators might otherwise choose to ignore if they did not found them particularly useful? I think it’s an even worse idea than giving kids extra credit point for making them vote for a candidate who they don’t trust. But some associations of translators, in particular the American Association of Translators (ATA), with about nine thousand members, and the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) in UK, with about three thousand members, think that it’s an excellent idea.

First of all, who or what makes these august bodies, ATA in the United States and ITI in the United Kingdom, qualified to assign special points for continued education of translators? I don’t know how exactly things work on the other side of the big pond, but I know a little bit about how they work here.

The answer is: nobody and nothing. ATA simply declared itself an arbiter of what is and what isn’t continued education of translators, because it is the ATA. Period.

This is the same ATA that has not been able, in more than two decades, to put in place a “keyboarded exam” for translators who want to become “ATA-accredited”, although I understand it spent well over a hundred thousand dollars while trying in vain to figure out how to solve this insolvable problem. ATA members who want to participate in this exam must write their translations with pen on a piece of paper the way it was done last century and the centuries before.

The same organization, so well known for its organizational genius, also decreed that translators who go to the trouble of passing an examination have to do so by scribbling their translations on a piece of paper the same way these things were done several centuries ago, must participate in various seminars and events in order to hold on to their title of being “ATA-certified”, as explained on ATA website: “Currently certified members will have to earn and keep track of continuing education credits, as determined by ATA, in order to maintain their certification credential. Certified members are given three years to accumulate 20 hours of credit.”

Now, some continued education credits can be obtained relatively easily, for instance by attending a meeting of a local ATA chapter. It just so happens that Mad Patent Translator himself gave a talk by Skype to a local ATA chapter in Washington, DC a few years ago, and every participant was awarded continued education points for simply listening to me (I don’t remember how many points they were given, nor did I know about this arrangement in advance).

Apparently, it’s not that difficult to obtain these points, as they are generously awarded (among other things) for holistic seminars conducted by relatively recent translators who explain, probably mostly to newbies and people who need just a little bit more self-confidence, how to maintain a positive outlook – not an easy task if you’re a translator these days.

I also understand that basically all you have to do to receive your quota of “continued education points” is attend the yearly ATA conference. That sounds pretty simple, until you see how much the conference costs now. Here is this information, again from ATA’s website:

Early Registration (by September 25)
ATA Member Non Member ATA Student**
Full Conference: $485 $660 $240
Saturday Only*: $245 $330 N/A

Standard Registration (after September 25)

ATA Member Non Member ATA Student**
Full Conference: $630 $860 $310
Saturday Only*: $315 $430 N/A

Late Registration (after October 16)

ATA Member  Non Member ATA Student**
Full Conference: $945 $1,285 $465
Saturday Only*: $475 $645 N/A

It’s $485 for ATA members or $660 for the rest of the world, early registration; $945 for ATA members who register late, and $1,285 for non-members who register late.

Phew, given the additional cost of airfare, hotel and incidental costs, one would think that translators make about as much money as plastic surgeons, n’est-ce pas? Some people who live off the work of translators make as much or more than plastic surgeons. But very few translators do, if any.

One would not know it from official ATA statements and from the ATA Chronicle magazine (self-described as the Voice of Translators and Interpreters), because only articles reflecting unambiguously pro-corporate views of “the translation industry” are accepted for publication in the Voice of Translators and Interpreters, but a volcano of discontent is erupting on social media, discontent with the current status quo of ATA, which officially stands for Association of American Translators, but in my opinion might as well stand for Association of Translation Agencies given the grip corporate bodies have on ATA’s agenda.

The unhappiness with ATA on social media is palpable. Here is a sampling of views expressed on social media recently:

“ATA should be actively working to advocate for translators and interpreters, and not simply keep quiet and misinformed about the issues, or tiptoe around issues while avoiding them, or writing empty platitudes when it cannot avoid direct questions.”

“Today, unfortunately, most gateways to the profession are controlled by that industry and serve as reeducation camps. The associations, which are the first place for budding and even more experienced translators to turn to for help and guidance, spew corporate propaganda and depict a reality in which there is no market outside of agencies. There are courses that under the moniker of “CPD” and the pretense of professional advice are all about preparing the “students” to start a fleeting career as modern agency slaves – including advice to be positive and accept everything with a smile, even when you can barely pay the bills.

And here is my favorite comment, which inspired me to write today’s post:

It’s a sad tale of a slow decline into obscurity. ATA is invisible to the public and to clients, and the tag line, adopted during the height of the PREVIOUS PR and media program, of “The Voice of Interpreters and Translators,” is just a cynical reminder of how that voice has gone completely silent. Sad, really.
And honestly, people, if you want to change this, for the love of all things holy, please stop standing up in the General Meeting of Members on Friday morning and PRAISING this level of incompetence and grand foolishness. I get that the first law of ATA today is to smile like a good Stepford wife and never disagree or cause waves, but it’s precisely that behavior that has resulted in widespread contamination of the association.

Depending on who is awarding continued education points and for what, continuing education points may really be continued reeducation points, awarded to reluctant voters, or to obedient Stepford wife-like  translators after a successful lobotomy has been performed on their original, less educated brains, which are now being continuously replaced by a superior and improved product through continuous reeducation.

During my first job after graduating from university, I was working in 1980 and 1981 as an in-house translator for the Czechoslovak News Agency (ČTK) in Prague. Communication technology back then tended to be big, heavy, noisy and very expensive. Before there was Internet, giant antennas on the roof of the ČTK building on Opletalova Street, near Václavske naměstí, constantly received news feeds by radio from other news agencies, such as UPI (United Press International), Reuters, AFP (Agence France Press), TASS (Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union), Kyodo Tsushinsha (Kyodo News Agency from Japan) and others.

In the main room of the translation agency, more than a dozen translators (including myself) were laboring in the translators’ pool, sometime referred to as “robotárna” (sweatshop), staring at the latest miraculous technology: computer terminals and perforated sheets of paper with articles from dot matrix printers, while translating news from several languages 24/7 in three shifts (although only one translator was on duty at night from midnight until 8 AM).

Five years later, I was translating during my spare time for a small translation agency in the house where I lived (in addition to my regular job with a small Japanese company as an in-house translator) on a small portable Japanese typewriter placed on a kotatsu, with my feet stuck inside the kotatsu to keep them warm during cold winter months.

The lightweight and super cool typewriter (for its time) had a built-in thermal printer and small one-line display as well as a tiny memory that came in handy for occasional translation projects, mostly from Russian. The small agency was my only client. When I finished the translation, I had to take the bus to the metro station and then the metro to the agency’s office, an hour and a half each way, to deliver a hard copy. There was no Internet yet and most people, including translators, were using “smart typewriters” similar to mine, which were only slowly being replaced by another marvelous invention: dedicated word processing systems built into a device that looked like a bulky typewriter connected to a small green monitor.

Thirty years later, I now work in a spacious translator’s office in my home in Eastern Virginia, equipped with three desktops and two laptops, several printers and a fast Internet connection.

Everything got so much better and easier for translators, thanks to the incredible progress of technology during those three decades, right?

Well, not necessarily. The miraculous progress in communication technology and office automation technology, in conjunction with the ubiquity of high-speed Internet changed our lives profoundly and dramatically. Translators can now check their e-mail on their smart phone and deliver translations from a laptop to anywhere in the world.

But the many ways that translators have been empowered by technology represent only the shiny side of the brightly shining moon of technology that is fully visible everywhere in the modern world. On the dark side of the same moon, out of the view for most people, are the dark truths about how technology can be used to manipulate people.

It all depends on whether we are able to use technology for our own purposes, or whether we allow others to manipulate us by using technology against us and our best interests.

Back in 1985, the translation agency in downtown Tokyo must have seen it as a serendipitous happenstance when, a couple of months after they received my resume while I was still looking for a job in Tokyo, they landed a sizeable Russian to English translation project. I may have been the only person they knew in the entire metropolitan area of Tokyo, where millions of people still commute to work under indescribably horrific conditions every day, who could have done that translation for them because I was physically present not far away from them.

Today, the same translation agency, if it’s still there, will also have many more choices now as it probably has a database of translators, most of whom live in less expensive places and thus can charge less than Tokyoites, even temporary ones. The agency’s client, probably a company also located in Tokyo, will also have many more choices and it would not necessarily need a local agency for the project. It can easily send the translation for example to an individual translator living in a different country.

It’s a different world now, changed by technology, for better in some respects, but not necessarily only for better, because technology is often also used against us. Technology can be used by translators, but it can be also used against translators who may not be paying enough attention to notice how it’s used against them.

Technology can help us to establish and maintain a relationship with a new client, when we’re in control of this technology and when we’re able to use it for our own purposes, for example by having a website that can be found by new clients, or by fine-tuning keywords on a website with a well planned SEO (search engine optimization strategy), or by making sure that the social media platforms available to us for fun and business, such as LinkedIn or Facebook, contain information that may help prospective clients locate our services.

But here is an example (from a junk e-mail that I received several times already this week) of how technology can be used both against translators and people who are looking for a capable translator:

Find translators the smart way! – The search engine where you can easily compare translators’ offers in over 70 languages and sort them by price, quality and delivery time. All calculations are made using our smart-learning algorithm (patent pending) and are based on your specifications.

• Expand your Daily Translation Capacity.
• Expand your Number of Languages & Availability.
• Expand your Translator Database.
• Easy Cost Comparison.
• Save Time & Money. No hidden fees!
How does it work?
1) Upload almost any file.
2) Choose languages and fields of expertise.
3) Compare quotes and choose the offer that fits you best.

Join Smartlation’s Marketplace Today, for FREE!
Never waste time again in the online translation jungle. Simply use for the most cost-effective translation solutions.

If you click on the link, you will be greeted by a stock photo of a cute teenager looking at her smartphone and the words:

Human Translation Marketplace
Find & Compare the best offers for you
Watch How it works

• Upload File
• Filter Offers
• Done!

That’s it, folks! You can see on the website that the pretty girl is ecstatic about what she sees on her smartphone, and you will be too if you entrust your project to this or that site. The job will be done in a jiffy and just right in this or that Human Translation Marketplace because “all calculations are made using our smart-learning algorithm (patent pending) and are based on your specifications” (what specifications? I thought it was just: “Upload File”, Filter Offers, Done?)

When you search for love in all the wrong places, you’re likely to get hurt. And when you search for translators in all the wrong places, namely a sand castle built on “a smart algorithm”, you’re likely to get garbage. The rates that you’ll pay for the translation will probably be reasonable, or even on the low side. But the quality of the same translation when a cheap human is picked by an algorithm on a Human Translation Marketplace (which to me sounds like an antebellum slave market) is going to be atrocious.

There is no smart-learning algorithm (patent pending or not) that will result in a match made in heaven between what a person who is looking for in a good translator and the offerings of yet another Human Translation Marketplace, among dozens of other “platforms” and “marketplaces” in 70 languages. It’s just a lot of marketing baloney. A scheme that may either make somebody a lot of money as intended, or more likely, turn out to be a complete waste of a lot of money.

The algorithm for a match made in heaven would have to make it possible to read your brain, and not even the NSA can do that (yet, although they’re trying very hard to do just that).

Fortunately, there already is a good search engine that lists translators based on their language combinations, expertise and experience – at least those translators who bothered to create a websites and pages that are visible to search engines. Unlike with the Human Translation Marketplace, you do have to use your own brain and do your own thinking when you use that search engine. But it usually works very well.
You know, the search engine that, in spite of the fact that its name was a typo, has been so far beating most other search engines when it comes to finding what it is that you are looking for … the one called Google.

Older Posts »



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,779 other followers

%d bloggers like this: