Posted by: patenttranslator | June 22, 2016

Two Episodes of The Blabbing Translators Show

Recently, I was honored and thrilled to spend an hour talking about my pretty long experience as a translator of more than three decades, if I include the time when I worked as an in-house translator in Prague in 1980-81 and in Tokyo in 1985-86, in addition to working as a freelance patent translator in California and Virginia for more than 29 years up until now.

The “Blabbing Translators” show is brought to us once a week on Wednesdays by its hosts Dmitry Kornyukov and Elena Tereshchenkova, two young Russian translators, one of whom (Elena) lives in Russia, while the other one (Dmitry) lives in Canada.

I think it’s a very good idea for translators to use Internet platforms such as “Blab” to keep exchanging information in this manner, since we can see what we actually look like while talking about what we have learned and sharing our experience with other translators.

Dmitry and Elena are doing a good job as amateur journalists who ask their interviewees very good questions. The “Blabbing Translators” show can be seen and  heard on several platforms: you can download the application for iOS or Android devices, or you can just go on Youtube and find it there.

Instead of framing my mini-post today in two music videos from Youtube as usual, I am framing it in two Blabbing Translators episodes: one is an interesting talk about websites for translators with Simon Akhrameev, another Russian translator who lives in Kyrgyzstan in the city of Bishkek (called Frunze during the Soviet times); the other one is the episode of Blabbing Translators with yours truly.

I should have listened to Dmitry and Elena and prepare myself better. In particular I should have used headphones instead of just relying on the microphone and speaker in my iPad. Instead, after downloading the “Blab” application, I just joined the show on my iPad without headphones, which distorts the sound a little.

So if the two Russian blabbing translators invite you to star in their next show, don’t do what I did and  listen to what they are saying to you if you want to be heard clearly!

Posted by: patenttranslator | June 17, 2016

My Top Seven Moments of Zen

Frog

We all have them, but different people draw inspiration and enjoyment from life’s little moments of Zen from different things.

For Hillary Clinton, it may be the moment early in the morning when she is reading and sending e-mail from her own private Guantanamo that she has built for herself and her e-mails in her basement so that nobody would know what she is really thinking and doing.

For Donald Trump, it may be the moment when he says something outrageously offensive and obviously untrue yet again – and when everyone in the audience cheers loudly for him because they’ve found a hero who dares to speak his mind.

My little moments of Zen may be totally unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but they are dear and important to me.

Mad Patent Translator’s Top 10 Moments of Zen:

Zen Moment No. 1

The moment just before I fall asleep. Because my window is facing a pond, I can look through the semi-transparent darkness and think about the noisy frogs I hear as they are keeping themselves busy doing their thing in the pond below. I see or imagine that I can still see the silhouettes of trees beyond the pond if I raise my head from the pillow, and even the fireflies that I sometimes observe on summer evenings dancing above the pond. There are fewer fireflies here now, while the number of the ticks in the woods behind our house has increased exponentially.

It’s probably a sign of the times. Maybe it’s because of global warming. Fifteen years ago I could see a veritable army of dancing fireflies, then about five years ago they disappeared completely and now they seem to be slowly coming back. I hope they do come back and stay for good. They like to say that California has everything under the sun, but there are a few things that the East Coast has that California does not. California really has no seasons, and it doesn’t have fireflies either, I’m not sure why.

“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

That’s how Christian children used to pray and maybe still do before they fall asleep. I am not a Christian, and I am not a child, so I think about the frogs, trees, and fireflies instead. It works just fine for me.

Zen Moment No. 2

The moment when I wake up in the morning, when it’s not too early yet or too late already for a new day to start.

Older people like myself often can’t go back to sleep if they wake up between 3 and 5 AM and I usually have a headache for many hours when this happens, until I can finally catch some zzz’s to make up for the sleep deficit from the previous night. It feels so good to wake up at the right moment for a new day to start. That may be what all the proverbs about night and morning mean in different languages, such as La nuit port conseil (The morning brings advice, in French), Ráno je moudřejí večera in Czech (Morning is smarter than evening), or the Japanese saying Hayaoki sanmon no toku (早起きは三文の徳 , literally: early rising – three coins, although this is probably closer to the English saying “It is the early bird that catches the worm”.)

Zen Moment No. 3

The moment in the morning when I open my e-mail and see that somebody on the other side of the world who has replied to one of my silly blog posts is saying something really interesting in response, something that would never have occurred to me otherwise. Bloggers are usually not compensated financially, (except for those who have turned their blogs into marketing platforms), nor will they be richly rewarded in Heaven for having labored on their posts on Earth, especially heathens like me who don’t believe in Heaven.

But sometimes they are rewarded early in the morning when they open their e-mail on their smartphone or computer.

Zen Moment No. 3

The moment when I suddenly I feel that I have no choice but to start writing another blog post about a topic that is at that moment so terribly important that I simply have to share it with the world right away, such is the urgency of the moment! It could be in the morning, it could be in the afternoon or in the evening, whenever the spirit moves me, because these moments don’t have a chronological order.

Half the time when I start writing something on a topic that I feel very passionate about, the post ends up being about something else altogether and I abandon the original idea. That’s part of the excitement, you never know where the post will lead you because the motifs and ideas occurring to you are triggered by the words that you are writing and the images that you are seeing in your mind.

Zen Moment No. 4

The moment when I return from a trip, usually a trip abroad. From that moment on I am back in my familiar environment and I don’t have to worry that a stupid mistake like losing a wallet or passport will leave me stranded in a foreign country.

It’s so good to be able to lie down on a comfortable bed or sofa any time I want, take a bath in my oval bathtub, (huge by hotel standards, at least by the standards of those hotels that I can afford), any time I want. I see from my bedroom window that the pond is still there, and so are the trees, and I know that the noisy, horny frogs will probably start again going at it: ribbit, ribbit, ribbit, once it starts getting dark and that, if I’m lucky, I may be even able to see fireflies.

Zen Moment No. 5

The moment when the sky angrily refuses to put up with any more of the oppressing humidity in the subtropical climate here in Eastern Virginia and erupts with a storm bringing with it lightning, thunder and gusts of heavy rain.

I can watch the storm and the rain sitting on a chair either on the front porch or on the back porch, but the storm is often so violent and the rain so heavy that the chair gets wet unless I push it all the way back next to the door.

I wonder where the birds and squirrels who come to our back porch where we feed them are hiding from the rain. Can they find refuge under the branches in the woods behind our house? The frogs in the pond are fine, I’m sure, and so are the turtles who come back here every year to lay eggs in the same place where they were born with a hard shell on their back. If you pick up a turtle, the sly, slow-moving, but not slow-witted animal will piss on you in a brave act of self-defense, which tends to give a bizarre dimension to this particular moment of Zen.

Zen Moment No. 6

The moment when I have just returned from the beach and I am standing in the shower, watching the sand circling the drain before it disappears. I usually try to shower at the beach but you can never get rid of all of the sand that way. “Like sand through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives” was the motto of a TV show that ran for many years although I never watched it except for a few scenes because it was interrupted by too many commercials.

Like beach sand circling the shower drain before it disappears in it completely, so are the days of the lives of those of us whose life is already mostly behind them.

Zen Moment No. 7

I can’t help it, my favorite moment of clarity is the moment when I am translating a patent. I see the familiar format in Japanese, German or another language on a printed page on the left side next to my own translation as it is taking shape on the big monitor in front of me.

The world is starting to take a form that is logical and symmetrical the way it should be, symmetrical like a snowflake, or a sunflower, or human body. There was something missing in this world before, when the message was encrypted in a language that somebody who needed to know what was in it did not understand. Something was missing because there was a hole in the world. But I plugged the hole and restored the meaning of the message that is now finally in the correct language.

In the beginning, I struggle to find the right words as I look at the drawings to try to understand what it is that I should be saying. But if the stars are aligned right, and most of the time they are, after a while I become a secretary taking down a divine dictation from an invisible source in the universe as I am creating something new, something that has not been a part of this world up until this moment, while my fingers do their dancing on the keyboard, like fireflies dance in the darkness of warm and humid Virginia summers.

And they pay me for it!

This is my ultimate Zen, because in that moment, I am restoring the proper balance in the world. And although it lasts only for a short moment, restoring the proper balance by creating meaning out of the total chaos of messages hidden in incomprehensible foreign languages is the best job in the world.

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Posted by: patenttranslator | June 14, 2016

Artificial Intelligence Is a Major Threat to All of Us!

Over the last decade or two, most people got used to the fact that different forms of artificial intelligence are present daily and on many occasions in our life.

We no longer perceive it as quasi-miraculous when the same data that is stored in our cell phone is magically also stored in our tablet although we did not put it there, or that when we watch a Netflix movie on the tiny screen of our cell phone and suddenly decide that the movie is so good that we would like to experience it on a large TV screen, we can simply turn on our TV and watch the same movie from the last scene we watched on the phone because we understand that what is happening is that the same data is now being downloaded from a cloud to a different device.

We also became quite blasé when it comes to many other types of artificial intelligence, such as car navigation, and simply can’t understand it and become furious when the voice coming from our cell phone ends up navigating us to the wrong destination, which does happen occasionally.

Nobody’s perfect, and that includes the omnipresent little fellow that we can call artificial intelligence.

Some of us understand how dangerous it is when so much of our personal data is stored on a cloud when we have no idea who can have access to this data.

And some of us even understand that the artificially intelligent fellow can be kind of dangerous, even kind of very dangerous. Artificial intelligence has been eliminating jobs like the Grimm Reaper for several decades. Think of all the jobs that you have had in your own life. Are they still there, or have the jobs for people like you been for the most part already eliminated by a computer pretending to be interacting with humans just like another human?

My first job after I arrived to San Francisco in 1982 was working as a Visitor Services Representative for the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau. For three years, I sat behind a counter at the Visitor Center in the middle of downtown dispensing advice to tourists while practicing my languages with visitors from all around the world. Is the Visitor Center still there, in the middle of Market Street just below the cable car turnaround on Powell Street? I don’t know, but I think that if it survived the bloody attacks of artificial intelligence on jobs for humans, just one underpaid person may have survived there, perhaps a not very knowledgeable intern or a senior citizen volunteer directing tourists and local residents to a row of computers instead of to good restaurants, Yosemite and the Wine Country. There were generally four other people working with me at the information counter, their jobs are probably gone now too.

There was an elderly, tiny, fragile lady at the main office, her first name was Elisabeth and I think her last name was Edwards although I am not sure about that now. She must have been in her late seventies or perhaps eighties. Whenever a visitor asked a complicated question about the history of the city, we could call her because she knew everything about everything. Everything. Her job must be gone now too. It’s so very good for the bottom line when friendly, caring, knowledgeable, sometime even multilingual people can be replaced by a few computers!

Pretty soon, the only jobs for which people will still be needed at an information center in a major city in America will be mostly just jobs for security guards trying to guess which visitor is hiding a semi-automatic military style attack rifle under an overcoat and employees making sure that the credit card machines are working properly.

In the 21st century, it suddenly became clear to so many employers that human intelligence and human knowledge is overrated and unnecessary! As far as most employers are concerned, computers do a much better job than humans and they do it faster and most importantly, virtually for free. And if a job must be done by humans, it will be done by faceless humans who speak imperfect, accented English and live thousands of miles away, somewhere where one can somehow still survive on a small fraction of a salary that would need to be paid to a human who lives in a place like San Francisco.

It is not just translators whose jobs are threatened by computerization and globalization. Mid-level managers, medical doctors such as radiologists and anesthesiologists, engineers, taxi drivers … all of these jobs are threatened.

When is artificial intelligence coming to get you too? It may not do as good a job as you would, but who cares when it is so much cheaper than overrated and overpriced human intelligence such as …. yours!

Because some of my favorite writers of mysteries have been also paying attention to the danger inherent in the marriage of artificial intelligence with an infinitely greedy corporate culture, it so happens that during the last few weeks I read three books on this very subject.

Two of them are medical mysteries written by medical doctors featuring artificial intelligence in the role of a villain killing people to give a boost to the bottom line, the third one is about a clever algorithm that eventually develops human-like attributes.

Here is a short summary of the three books describing how artificial intelligence is wreaking havoc in our world in general, and in medical technology in particular:

  1. Robin Cook, a writer of medical thrillers, (he started in the seventies and so far he wrote 32 of them and I see that I now have 20 of his books in my extensive library of mystery novels written by various authors), writes in his book “Cell” about an app called iDoc that is downloaded by a greedy private health insurance company to smartphones of its patients, while a tiny chip is surgically implanted under the skin of these patients to communicate with a smartphone app so that the iDoc basically replaces a human doctor. iDoc (fully compatible with Obamacare and eventually required by most private health insurance companies) is better than a human doctor because it constantly measures patient’s temperature and other vital signs so that for example the proper insulin dosage can be instantly injected from tiny storage containers accommodated in the chip into the blood stream of patients with diabetes. In the end it turns out that when the program is designed to act in the most cost-effective manner, the algorithm starts murdering patients who based on the software are too sick to be treated cost-effectively by giving them a lethal dosage of insulin …. which is much more efficient, and most importantly much more cost-effective than trying to treat patients who in the algorithm’s opinion are likely to die soon anyway because they are simply too sick to continue the treatment. The insurance company saves a lot of money, and since all of these people have been sick for a long time, it looks like a natural death.
  1. Michael Palmer, another doctor/author of medical mystery novels, died three years ago at 71 while going through customs at Kennedy International Airport. Given that I am 64, I have to remember to try remain calm in endless lines at useless security checks at airports. He writes in his book called “Resistant”, published in 2014 after his death, about a doctor who uncovers a plot to put in power a totalitarian, proto-fascist government in the United States by a shadowy group of rich, power-hungry people known as One Hundred Neighbors that has infiltrated our institutions and is trying to dictate its terms by threatening to unleash a deadly germ onto the society against which there is no cure … except the cure that can be provided by One Hundred Neighbors if the government accedes to its demands, such as eliminating Social Security, which is a major drain on their wealth. But when both the human and the artificial intelligence employed by the research team working for One Hundred Neighbors fails, there is no way to stop the terrifying germ which literally eats an infected person alive.
  1. The main protagonist of The Kraken Project” by Douglas Preston, which is not a medical thriller, is not a person, but a software algorithm. The novel is about software designed by NASA for a probe to land in the Kraken Mare sea, the largest sea on Saturn’s moon Titan. The probe must contain highly advanced artificial intelligence software capable of learning from events as quickly as they occur and making its own decisions because given the enormous distance between Earth and Saturn, it takes months or years (can’t remember which now) before a command sent by NASA from planet Earth can reach the probe. When the probe explodes before being launched during a lab experiment, the intelligent algorithm given the name Dorothy by its creator, a brilliant programmer by the name of Melissa Shepherd, decides to escape from the probe into the Internet to survive there.

But the algorithm, which can run on any operating system available on the internet, or download itself basically onto any electronic device such as a robot, is now being hunted down by a ruthless, murderous Wall Street banker who wants to capture Dorothy to turn the powerful algorithm into a slave working for Wall Street the way most humans on this planet have been already turned into mere slaves working for big banks and big corporations.

Will Dorothy, the algorithm, which unlike so many humans is capable of learning from its own mistakes and eventually develops a human-like conscience and sensibilities, something that probably cannot be said about hedge fund managers, against all odds eventually survive being hunted down by greedy humans?

You can probably guess the ending of the book, although I am not going to tell you, because what would be the point of reading the book if I did reveal the whole plot?

So if you are worried that artificial intelligence in the form of machine translation is out to get you and steal your job, I hope that the realization that artificial intelligence is after everybody’s job, not just yours, and it is only a matter of time when most jobs will be eliminated by it provides a measure of consolation to you.

Not only the jobs of translators and interpreters are about to be eliminated – most jobs will be probably gone soon no matter what we do – with the exception of the jobs of hedge fund managers, of course, because without them, our civilization would simply stop functioning.

Posted by: patenttranslator | June 3, 2016

Outsourcing Is an Ugly, Dirty Word

At least as far as some translators are concerned, it’s definitely an ugly word.

They say it with the same kind of disdain that most right-wing ideologues in the United States reserve for words like “entitlement” (Social Security is an “entitlement”), or “socialized medicine” (also an “entitlement, and also considered to be a really bad thing in this country, so horrific that it must be resisted at all cost).

Without Social Security, many if not most old people would not be able to afford even cat food. But it is an “entitlement”, so it’s a bad thing anyway, old people be damned. Privatized corporate medicine does not work and is about 50 times more expensive than socialized medicine, which for the most part works much better. But because it is “an entitlement”, it’s better when people suffer needlessly and die prematurely as long as they don’t have to deal with the monstrous “socialized medicine”.

Outsourcing is another word that seems to have an ugly ring to it among many translators. A real translator does not outsource. If he or she is offered a job that he or she can’t do because it is not in his or her language combination, the proper thing to do is to simply say no, just like Nancy Reagan told us (Say No To Drugs!).

Outsourcing is done mostly by greedy shylocks. This is the clear implication of statements by translators who proudly say in online discussions, “No, I do not outsource, I would never do that!”

Whenever I read something like that in an online discussion, I always think to myself, this person is either lazy, dumb, or a combination of the two.

Why do I think so? Because I have been “outsourcing” for more than 20 years. Initially, I too thought that it made sense to simply say no to a customer who was asking to translate something into Japanese, or German. I can translate myself from those languages into English, but not into those languages from English.

It is too dangerous, I was told by other, older and more experienced translators some 20 years ago, so it’s best to stay away from this kind of thing. You should concentrate on what you know best, and that means that you should translate only the languages you know yourself into your native language and say “no” to everything else.

I still remember how an older, much more experienced translator shared this pearl of wisdom with me when I told her that I had recently accepted a project involving translation of a patent from English into Japanese, and that it went well. I translate from Japanese into English, but I cannot translate from English into Japanese. I remember the look of genuine concern on her face when she was saying these words to me. I even remember that at that moment, we were walking through San Francisco’s Chinatown on Post Street.

Well, I didn’t listen to her. Instead of saying no, I started looking around for native Japanese speakers and if there was a request for translation into Japanese, I tried to match the job with suitable translators and then “outsourced” the project to them, proofread it and delivered the final translation to the customer. And then I started doing the same also for other languages from which I translate into English as well, and since I translate from seven languages into English, this means that I can translate, partially by “outsourcing”, from and into fourteen languages. Some of the projects I translate myself and some of them I handle with the dirty “outsourcing” technique.

I am hardly the only one who thinks that it makes perfect sense for a translator to “outsource” translations in this manner. Of course, this can be done only with translations from direct clients. For one thing, it would be dishonest to pretend to a translation agency that you are translating something that will be translated by someone else. Perhaps even more importantly, there would not be enough profit margin for you in such an arrangement if you were working for an intermediary, i.e. a translation agency. But when you are the intermediary, or agency, if you will, who usually works for a direct client for X cents per word, you can ask for 2 x X cents per word for projects in language directions that you cannot translate yourself … and you can generally get away with it and split the remuneration with the translator.

I think that this is how the concept of a translation agency was originally created, before the advent of mega-translation agencies, back when most translation agencies were actually run by translators who understood complicated translation problems, unlike many, possibly most translation agencies today that can be characterized best by the word “clueless” when it comes intricate translation issues because they don’t understand the languages from and into which they are translating.

Imagine, for example, the following scenario: Let’s say that you are a medical translator who has been translating articles from medical journals for a direct client, for example a pharmaceuticals company, from Spanish and French into English for several years now. The client obviously likes you and trusts you because the company has been sending you the same type of projects to be translated into English from Spanish and French for a number of years.

But all of a sudden, this client has a different project for you: translations of summaries of the same articles from the same medical journals into Spanish and French, which is something that you cannot do yourself.

What should you do? It’s quite a dilemma, isn’t it? According to many purists among translators who are convinced that “outsourcing” translations to other translators is a filthy practice unworthy of a genuine translator (in fact on par with “crowdsourcing”), you should simply say to the client, no, sorry, I don’t do that, the way Nancy Reagan taught us to say no to drugs.

The other option is that you accept the project but tell the client that you have to charge 2 x X cents per word instead of 1 x X cents a word because you need to share the bounty with qualified translators.

If you say yes, the client will probably go along with the higher cost because you have already proved your worth to the client if your expertise is more important to the client than the cost.

If you say no, what is the client likely to do? Well, he or she will probably go on the internet, click on one of the advertisements from mega-agencies because they usually come up at the top of the page and the project will be handled by a project manager who most likely does not know anything about the field of medical translation and who does not understand the languages in question either.

And if the client gets used to the mega-agency, the projects that you used to translate yourself may after a while disappear too.

If we now change the translation field and language combination, this imaginary dilemma was a real dilemma that I was facing myself about eight years ago. At that point, I was swamped with very profitable Japanese patents that I was translating myself and I did not want to bother with projects into other languages. I don’t need this hassle, I thought to myself. I will just say no to the client.

But in the end I said yes,  asked for a substantially higher rate, and when the rate was accepted, I started looking for suitable translators with experience in the field.

I am so glad I did that all those years ago, especially since I don’t have nearly as many Japanese patents for translation at this point. But the projects that I “outsource” into other languages that I cannot translate myself, projects that I organize and proofread, have been coming from the same client several times a month (who might have been tempted to defect to another agency had I said “no” back then).

At this moment, I in fact have no work, which is why I have time to write another silly blog post this morning. I sent my cost estimate to a client yesterday and if it is accepted, that project will keep me busy for about a week. But even if my bid is not accepted (it was for several fairly long patents, and the client of my client might say no to the cost), I still have four translators working on six projects in two language combinations that I cannot handle myself thanks to the fact that I said “yes” to a project that I did not really want to do when I was busy translating myself.

So even if my cost estimate from yesterday is not accepted, and even if no other work comes through the pipeline in the meantime, I should have enough money to pay my bills from the translations that I “outsourced”.

I think I made the right decision when I dared to ignore conventional wisdom and ventured beyond my comfort zone all those years ago, don’t you agree?

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

P.S.

I just checked my e-mail and saw that my bid from yesterday was accepted.The little engine that could, called PatentTranslators.com, is now firing again on all cylinders.

 

Today’s guest post is by Attila Piróth, a very modest guy with a PhD in theoretical physics, who is also known as Einstein’s Hungarian Translator. Attila lives in Bordeaux, France, where he last year very ably organized The Third International IAPTI Conference (International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters) in which I had the great pleasure to participate. This article was also published on the Translation Tribulations blog by Kevin Lossner.

Comments about FIT’s position statement on crowdsourcing[1]

Crowdsourcing is certainly a very effective term; calling some of the practices it enables “digitally distributed sweatshop labor” – for this seems like a much better description of what’s happening on crowdsource-for-money platforms like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk – wouldn’t accomplish half as much.

Evgeny Morozov[2]

Digitally connected mobs will perform more and more services in a collective volunteer basis, from medicine to solving crimes, until all jobs are done that way.

Jaron Lanier[3]

In the past few years, crowdsourced translation and machine translation have received a great deal of attention. Both are frequently called “disruptive technologies”, and are claimed to drive growth for businesses. Professional translators are often advised to get used to the idea that machine translation and crowdsourcing are “here to stay” and to adapt “to the changing landscape of the profession”. Machine translation post-editing is frequently cited as a new “niche” for translators.

The topic choice for the two FIT position statements thus reflects important and interesting realities. However, in its stated role as the “voice of translators worldwide”, FIT should not shy away from discussing some crucial issues that go beyond the simple technicalities presented in the paper. And if FIT is to reasonably call its paper a statement of position, it should dare to state one.

Finding a consensus on the more contradictory aspects will not be easy within FIT. The socio-economic issues that lie at the heart of the heated debates around crowdsourcing and machine translation boil down to the conflict between value creation by independent professionals and value extraction by those who own certain technologies (e.g., MT), linguistic resources (e.g., TMs) or platforms. Once again, we are faced with the labor versus capital debate – which is perhaps one reason why the corporate side likes to use the term translation industry. Effectively, crowdsourcing and machine translation aim to ensure the necessary ingredients for the industrialization of an intellectual activity, and (by redefining expectations) to propose alternatives for the scarcity of the required competences. This is precisely why both trends have attracted major capital investments.

Example: Duolingo is a language-learning website that received 15 million dollars of capital funding at an early stage of its development. The core idea as represented to students was to teach languages through translation exercises. The more advanced the learner, the more difficult the sentences to translate. Peer-to-peer voting provides feedback on the participants’ performance. Courses are free, because the core idea as represented to financial backers is that the company generates its income by selling the translations produced by the crowd. The patchwork translations thus provided were meant to be sold to major content creation hubs – gawker, huffpost, etc. This “disruptive” model would thus enable the translation of a huge amount of text (for which “there would have been no traditional budget”). If one consults individual professionals such as language teachers and journalists, they will also add that this platform creates competition not just for translators but for them too – thereby disrupting several professions at once.

This model gives a clear translation-related example to the main thesis of Douglas Rushkoff’s new book, Throwing rocks at the Google bus: how growth became the enemy of prosperity.[4] Crowdsourcing does not enable a sustainable professional career for those who perform it: crowdsourcing is fundamentally a winner-takes-all scheme, in which the only real winner possible is the entity that owns or controls the platform. As the casino business knows, the house always wins.[5]

In the introductory quote, Evgeny Morozov calls crowdsourcing “digitally distributed sweatshop labor”. Given that recent reforms to the French labor law have lead to massive protests, this is also an opportune moment to assess the sort of legislative treatment this digitally distributed sweatshop labor receives.

The short answer is: it is entirely overlooked. Crowdsourcing’s diffusely distributed nature – it is literally everywhere and nowhere – seems to cast an impenetrable veil that obscures it to any physical jurisdiction.

Consider a brick-and-mortar bookstore, which, to increase its profit, invites volunteers to unload the delivery trucks, fill the shelves, clean the floor, etc. The volunteers bear their own costs and have no protection with regard to health, safety, work hours and insurance; they contribute because they identify in some way with the company and its products, and may hope to be offered some kind of paid work eventually.[6] In most countries, that has long been against the law: the company should hire the workforce, pay them at least the minimum wage, pay the various contributions/taxes after the employees, etc. When a company makes a profit, workers are paid, and the state also gets a share in the form of taxes and other contributions.

Over the past several years, many brick-and-mortar bookstores have been driven out of business by a virtual bookstore that has developed one of the most sophisticated platforms in the world: Amazon. As explained in Wikinomics by D. Tapscott and A.D. Williams,[7] hundreds of thousands of volunteer programmers participated in the “collaborative effort” to build the Amazon platform – which debuted as a bookstore, then added consumer electronics (bankrupting Circuit City and Best Buy), and only continues to grow and diversify.

Since the boom of the digital knowledge economy, numerous volunteer ‘community’ projects have been launched under the banner of “harnessing the unused intellectual capacity of the community (the cognitive surplus[8]) for the benefit of all”. But who will extract that ’cognitive surplus’? Will the resource extraction models developed in the 20th century for oil, gas, minerals etc. be followed – with notional ‘competitors’ forming close alliances behind the scenes to control ownership of the resources? Cognitive surplus may be even more attractive to mine than physical resources because there is no sovereign owner and there are no cross-border issues requiring negotiations, contracts, royalties or trade agreements. But are nations really OK with having their workers deliver free, untaxable labor to, among others, private foreign interests?[9]

A typical example is when major IT companies can slash customer support costs because an enthusiastic user community is at their disposal to provide peer-to-peer help for free. IT giants like Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Symantec, etc. all benefit from such volunteer help. For these companies, the potential to use unpaid labor in handsomely paid (or even publicly subsidized) projects is not some kind of unexpected but fortuitous glitch: it is a system feature by design.

A perfect example along these lines is the ACCEPT project, in which crowdsourcing meets machine translation. Through this project, the EU generously offered a million-euro check to US digital media companies Symantec and Acrolinx and French translation company Lexcelera to cover some of their machine translation R&D costs. One of the promises these companies made was to scale up the volunteer operations of Translators without Borders (TwB), a nonprofit organization that they control,[10] and whose actual work is completed by unpaid contributors sourced from all over the world. Thus, although the charitable efforts of the volunteers constitute the most publicly visible aspect of this apparatus, certain companies represented at the top of the hierarchy also benefit much less visibly by deriving privatized profit from free socialized labor.

In a remarkable article (http://translorial.com/2011/01/01/crowdsourcing-socialism-media-2-0/) published over five years ago, the Northern California Translators Association (NCTA) unveiled the real character of crowdsourcing. That analysis – and hopefully the present one, too – shows that the translation profession is not isolated: it is as strongly affected by social (media) trends as any other profession where telework has become the norm. Legislation lags seriously behind technology, and to close that gap, representative bodies of freelancers have to act.

A “position statement” by an international federation of professional associations can be a good step in that direction – but as noted at the outset, such a paper will accomplish little if it fails to take a clear position.

Professional associations whose member base is comprised solely of individual professionals are in a much clearer situation than those associations in the FIT family that also admit corporate members. The former should accordingly step forward and raise the issues that are omitted from the FIT paper and negatively affect their membership base. Raising these critical questions may ultimately mean that no FIT-wide consensus can be reached about crowdsourcing (or machine translation). But that is a much healthier outcome than remaining a silent signatory to the current position statement – and hence tacitly agreeing that there is nothing to see here and we should all move along.

Attila Piróth

Acknowledgement: Some ideas presented above have emerged or crystallized in conversations with colleagues, in particular with Vivian J. Stevenson, who also read the manuscript.

[1] http://www.fit-ift.org/?page_id=4355.

[2] Evgeny Morozov, To save everything, click here. Penguin, 2013. ISBN: 978-0241957707.

[3] Jaron Lanier, You are not a gadget. Vintage, 2011. ISBN: 978-0307389978.

[4] Douglas Rushkoff, Throwing rocks at the Google bus: how growth became the enemy of prosperity. Portfolio, 2016. ISBN: 978-1617230172.

[5] “The bigger, centralized solutions offered by corporations with traditional, extractive, and monopolistic strategies are more attractive to investors, who are themselves betting on winner-takes-all outcomes.” D. Rushkoff, ibid.

[6] Interestingly, this kind of effort looks similar to sweat equity. According to Investopedia (http://www.investopedia.com/terms/s/sweatequity.asp), “Sweat equity is contribution to a project or enterprise in the form of effort and toil. Sweat equity is the ownership interest, or increase in value, that is created as a direct result of hard work by the owner(s)…” The difference is that with unpaid crowdsourcing, the owners get the equity increase while the crowd contributes the sweat for free with no guaranteed return. Appearing on Stephen Colbert’s talk show in March 2014 (http://www.cc.com/video-clips/bjwnn1/the-colbert-report-jaron-lanier), Jaron Lanier gave a brief overview of his book, Who owns the future (Simon & Schuster, 2013, ISBN: 978-1451654967), and noted that “…we talked ourselves into this weird double economy, where if it’s about stuff, we believe in markets, if it’s about information, then we think it should be shared, it should be open…”. He also outlined a possibility of how those who contribute to the improvement of Google Translate could be rewarded through a micropayment system that logs the reuse of individual contributions.

[7] Don Tapscott, Anthony D. Williams, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. Portfolio, 2006. ISBN: 978-1591841380.

[8] See for example Shirky, Clay, Cognitive Surplus. Penguin, 2010. ISBN: 978-1594202537.

[9] This is especially interesting in view of the various tax minimization strategies that have also proliferated with globalism. Many of the same corporations that stand to benefit from a given nation’s cognitive surplus can sell back into the same population while enjoying minimal exposure to the domestic tax system. While all this is legal, it nonetheless poses a clear potential strain on any national economy.

[10] For a detailed criticism of the ACCEPT project and the conflict of interest in Translators without Borders’ board, see http://www.translationtribulations.com/2014/11/translators-without-borders-accept.html.

Posted by: patenttranslator | May 26, 2016

Most People Don’t Really Want To Know Anything About Translation

One morning when I was trying to figure out whether I should have one piece of Toblerone (sugary, relatively cheap Swiss chocolate) or two as a snack to go with my first cup of coffee, I got so mad at the nutty world that surrounds me from the moment I wake up that I had to write a blog post about it. I wanted to immortalize that frozen moment of impotence to do anything about all of those semi-truths and damn lies that we are conditioned to accept as normal.

I remember that I had an irresistible urge to write, so I brought my cup of coffee to my computer and wrote another silly post. It is one of the most viewed posts on my blog and it’s not very difficult to figure out why.

It’s popular because it’s not about translation. Translation is barely mentioned in it, only in the introduction so as to create what in writing jargon is called “a hook” – a gimmick to draw the reader into an article. When I want to write about translation, I try to find a hook that is not about translation for the “preamble”, for instance a personal experience, such as a recurring dream or something similarly inane.

And if a post is not about translation because I want to write about something else, I try to somehow find a connection to translation, or at least languages at the beginning of the post … and then I can write about anything I want.

The truth is most people don’t really want to know anything about translation, that’s why blogs about translation have very limited viewership. The more I try to analyze translation in my posts, the less likely they are to get read, especially when I think that I am bringing up very good and interesting points. If I decide to write something about anything other than translation, the chances are that the post will eventually boost my statistics big time.

To test my theory, I ran statistics for all my posts (more than 600 of them in a little over six years), and sure enough, the top three posts really have nothing to do with translation (although I always use “the translation hook” in the introduction).

My top three posts in terms of exposure to eyeballs are:

1. If You Believe That You Can Learn a Language in 10 Days You Deserve to Be Ripped Off
2. Relative Advantages and Disadvantages of Being an Employee Versus Being a Freelancer
3. How Many Calories Are There in One Section of Toblerone Chocolate?

 

Even though these three posts have very few Facebook “likes” and one of them has just one sad LinkedIn “share”, they eventually generated more views than posts about translation.

I think the reason these posts are read many times just about every day is that they contain information that is difficult to find elsewhere.

The following mechanism is probably at work here:

Somebody wakes up, and this somebody, still bleary eyed and groggy, is making the first cup of coffee for the day and he or she is trying to figure out whether to have one section of Toblerone chocolate, or whether it is safe to have two of them. So this hypothetical person looks at the obligatory information on the wrapping which is supposed to list the number of calories and realizes that it is impossible to find this information from what the corporation has put on the wrapping. After Googling the sentence in the title of my post, the hypothetical somebody ends up on my translation blog.

As this keeps happening quite a few times just about every day, more and more non-translators end up reading my translation blog accidentally in this manner.

There are all kinds of laws here in the United States stipulating that full disclosure of facts is required for all kinds of things. But these laws are often circumvented, or rather complied with in such a way as to make them meaningless.

For example, the disclosure at the end of an advertisement on radio/TV is read/shown so quickly that it is basically unintelligible; we are forced to click the “AGREE” button when we do just about anything online, although none of us reads the three thousand words describing what we are agreeing to (it would be easy to put it in 100 words, but it is safer to hide it in 3,000 words), etc.

The result of laws designed to make as much relevant information available to consumers as possible is often that the relevant information is hidden from us – and as Edgar Allan Poe put it in one of his stories (The Purloined Letter), the best way to hide anything is to hide it in plain sight.

If we have to read two, three or more thousand words in small font containing the information that we are looking for, most people will just give up trying to find it.

Last week I was looking for a translator for a relatively short excerpt from a patent about a medical device into French. I translate medical patents from French myself but I cannot translate them from English to French (although I can proofread the translation).

The translator who I normally work with on patents to be translated into French said that he was unfortunately unavailable. He said that he did not have time because his in-laws were visiting, although I suspect that the real reason was that he does not like the terminology that one needs to know for medical devices. Who can blame him.

The second translator said that this was not her field and suggested a colleague, which was very nice of her. She probably also dislikes patents about medical devices, which is a common phenomenon among translators.

The third translator, the one who was suggested by the second translator, wanted one cent more per word. Greedy as I am, I did not like it, but I was tired of being turned down so I said OK. Then she sent me her Terms of Service: 2,386 words in font size 6.5 after conversion from PDF format.

That got me mad. She could easily have said what she wanted to say in a couple hundred words and put it in font size 12 so that I would be able to read it. But, no, she had to do it this way! I will never work again with Translator No. 3, I thought to myself.

But I also thought to myself, wow, Translator No. 2 is a really smart girl. (That’s what I thought to myself, anyway. I hope it’s not too sexist to call somebody “girl” in one’s thoughts, especially if one has no idea how old she really is).

If you are a translator who does not want to deal with a certain type of text, the way to turn down a job while keeping the client is as follows:

  1. Suggest a translator who is good but charges 1 cent more than you, and
  1. Make sure that this translator is difficult to deal with, for example does not accept PayPal (even if the customer offers to pay the PayPal fee), has Terms of Service running well over 2,000 words, preferably printed in the smallest possible font), etc.

Good job, Translator No. 2! No wonder you have a PhD!

This is absolutely the way to do it because this guarantees that although the job will be done by somebody else, the customer will gladly come back to you next time with a translation that is more to your taste.

Incidentally, there are 1,332 words in this post, 1,054 fewer words than in the Terms of Service mentioned above.

At least I did not use font size 6.5.

Posted by: patenttranslator | May 20, 2016

Are You a Translator Or a Stakeholder and What Is the Difference?

 

A stakeholder or stakeholders, as defined in its first usage in a 1963 internal memorandum at the Stanford Research Institute, are, “those groups without whose support the organization would cease to exist.”[1] The theory was later developed and championed by R. Edward Freeman in the 1980s. Since then it has gained wide acceptance in business practice and in theorizing relating to strategic management, corporate governance, business purpose and corporate social responsibility (CSR). A corporate stakeholder can affect or be affected by the actions of a business as a whole.

 (From Wikipedia)

Stakeholder is a term that some associations calling themselves professional associations—and translator associations are among them—have been using for quite some time to describe all members of an association. This includes those who do not provide the specialized professional services that are at the core of an association of professionals and that other members are able to provide, but for a number of reasons want to be members of the association anyway.

Some translator associations do not allow non-translators to be members: they admit only people who really are translators and who can prove that they have the relevant education, credentials and experience to practice their profession for a living. Other associations will gladly admit as a member in good standing anybody who is willing to pay a yearly fee to the association.

If you wanted to, you could even register your dog as a translator with some translator associations. For example, you could call your dog Lucy Woofwoof, say that she translates Japanese to English and English to Japanese and upon payment of the membership fee, Lucy Woofwoof would become a member in good standing.

It so happens that our dog Lucy is a very smart dog as she understands both Japanese and English (to the extent that canines bother to learn a language required for communication with humans). Could she become a member of a translator association?

I really don’t see why Lucy should not be accepted by such an association, either as a translator or a stakeholder.

I am not just giving the example of my dog Lucy in jest. I read about a Slovak interpreter living in the United Kingdom who a few years ago enrolled her pet rabbit, his name was Jajo [pronounced “yayo”, which sounds like “hate it” in Japanese, although the pet owner probably doesn’t know that], as a qualified interpreter with a mega-agency that held and possibly still holds an exclusive contract with British courts for providing expert interpreting services in Midlands in protest against slashed fees paid to interpreters. Jajo was successfully enrolled as a qualified interpreter (and not just as a mere stakeholder who would be allowed to be a stakeholder-member of a professional translator association even if it were a completely monolingual rabbit). I am sure that Jajo did understand some Slovak and some English, so the brouhaha in the British press might have been just a tad exaggerated given the lax standards in some translator associations and in the “translation industry” in general.

It seems clear that the non-translating members of some translator associations are often referred to by such associations as “stakeholders” because we can’t really call them translators if they do not translate.

Judging from the Wikipedia definition of the term (everybody’s favorite resource because it is free and heavily favored by Google and other search engines), the term stakeholder was developed to describe “corporate business practices” and “corporate governance” in the 1960s and then “gained wide acceptance” in the ‘80s.

It is a word stemming from corporate culture that we all love so much. In a world in which corporations are people (and in fact they are much, much more important than mere people in our world and rightly so because they run everything and without corporate approval, nothing can go forward), we naturally need new words reflecting a new culture, handy new words like stakeholder.

Stakeholder is a very popular word in our corporatized world because it can basically mean anything you want it to, although it mostly means anybody who can make money from the work of other people, usually by investing some money first.

A different type of stakeholder also comes to my sick mind, the kind of stakeholder that was popular about 15 fifteen years ago when I used to watch a TV series with my children about vampires called Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Buffy was a sixteen year old perky blond girl who learned from a wise teacher with a British accent who just happened to be a highly experienced vampire slayer how to hold and strike a wooden stake the right way in order to thrust it into a scary vampire’s heart with precision and great force so that the evil vampire would then instantly turn to dust. That is why the word “stakeholder” sometimes makes me think about Buffy and her coterie of vampires.

I know, it is kind of infantile of me, but I sometimes miss the show, Buffy’s many skills and the look of blissful concentration on the faces of my children when they were still small while they were watching Buffy’s battles with vampires, quietly anticipating what Buffy’s next move might be.

But in fact, there is something about vampires who, although they have supernatural powers, and are about to be slayed by Buffy (unless they somehow manage to slay the teenager first), and stakeholders in translator associations have in common: they simply do not belong to our world.

At least I don’t think so. Vampires who drink human blood for sustenance, (because otherwise they would die, for real this time), do not belong to the world of mortals. And though they many be genuine humans, monolingual stakeholders (who do not translate and thus cannot make a living by translating and would go broke if translators refused to work for them), do not belong to associations of translators either. Isn’t it obvious that only translators should be able to become members of an association for translators? After all, these associations are not called “associations of translators and assorted stakeholders”.

The explanation of the term “stakeholder” in Wikipedia says, “A corporate stakeholder can affect or be affected by the actions of a business as a whole …” and corporate stakeholders in translator associations can certainly affect and be affected by the actions of, or other types of members of the association, which is to say, translators.

But according to the same definition, “… stakeholders, as defined in its first usage in a 1963 internal memorandum at the Stanford Research Institute, are those groups without whose support the organization would cease to exist.

Is that also true about associations of translators?

I don’t believe so. As I already stated, while some associations of translators will accept anyone, possibly even Jajo the Rabbit or my gentle and smart dog Lucy, some translator associations do not accept non-translating stakeholders, and as far as I know, they have not ceased to exist.

On the contrary, they seem to be doing very well, possibly because they understand that just as there really is no place for vampires in the world of the living, there is no place in associations of translators for stakeholders who need us because they make profit off of our work.

I am pretty sure that if vampires had associations, and they probably do, they would not be admitting mere mortal humans as members in good standing because vampires and humans do not really have the same interests at heart. The humans would probably try to infiltrate associations of vampires only to learn how to kill them better. Their interests are thus clearly not very compatible, and neither are their hearts, which is why one needs a special kind of sharp wooden stake and a special technique to pierce a vampire’s heart and turn it to dust.

So why do some “professional associations of translators” pretend that we are all one big happy family of “stakeholders”? Why do they pretend that since all members of this big happy family naturally have the same interests, it is perfectly fine when non-translating “stakeholders”, such as translation agencies and government bodies, or really anybody at all, can be members of the same association that advertises itself as an association of translators?

 

Today’s guest post is an interesting analysis by Ken Kronenberg of several issues in the current corporatized version of “The Translation Industry” that we all love so much. It was originally presented at the 20th Annual NETA (New England Translators Association) Conference at UMass Boston, May 14, 2016. I thank the author for letting me publish it on my blog.

Good afternoon, I’m glad to see you all. Before I start, let me congratulate the organizers of this conference for a job very well done. From 1997 to 2003 I chaired the Fair Committee, as it was then called, so I know what dedicated volunteers it takes to make an event like this look seamless. I also know about the esprit that develops among them and about the glow of satisfaction once the event is done. I hope that some of you in the audience will consider joining the effort next year. I encourage you to give your name to any of the members of the Conference Committee.

The editor of a psychiatric journal asked me last year to translate a 2000-word newspaper article from German. It arrived with something I had never before seen for such a small translation — a carefully lawyered contract, containing this stipulation: “You understand that we may make changes to the translation without your approval.” The subject matter was very interesting — a first-hand account of a therapeutic session with Sigmund Freud that had only recently come to light — and I wanted to do it. So I assured the editor that I viewed such translations as collaborative efforts and that I would not want it published until everyone was satisfied with the final product. But I also made clear that I could not put my name on a translation that had been altered without my consent. When I sent back the contract, I deleted that clause and inserted my own: “Any and all changes will be made solely on the basis of consultation.”

He and his lawyer accepted this wording. It turned out that they were nervous because a previous translation of the article had been rejected as faulty and too literal. They liked mine. Even so, the collaboration contained a lesson for me. I had rendered one key turn of phrase differently from the rejected effort, and when the client asked me to review that difference, I had to admit that in this particular instance my freer translation had skipped past an important nuance.

That whole episode got me to thinking about collaboration in translation — the theme of today’s conference — and why I have come to value it so highly. There is something enlarging and transformative about it, I hope to show, both for our work as translators and for our growth as individuals. When I began my career in translation almost 25 years ago, I accepted any work that came my way, most of it from the few agencies that responded to the rather thin résumé that I mailed out. As I parlayed my experience as a respiratory therapist in the 1970s and early 1980s into something of a medical translation specialty, I was able to target my marketing more narrowly. Later I added patent translation to my professional quiver. At the time I was still mostly thinking of translation as the act of rendering a source text faithfully in the target text.

That changed in 1996, when a young German woman tore a tab off a flyer I had posted at Harvard Law School and contacted me about translating some immigrant letters in her family’s possession. That little pull tab led to my first work of interpretive translation and, from there, to my first piece of real collaborative work. As I translated the letters, I entered into a richly imagined relationship with a family of 19th-century immigrants from a German town near the Dutch border. The experience was so vivid that I wondered sometimes how much I had really come to know the writers; perhaps I was fooling myself thinking I had. But now I think that was the wrong question. Even in our flesh-and-blood relationships, in our relationships with our spouses and old friends, we can never absolutely “know” them — we can only know who we imagine them to be over time. Of course, in this “paper” relationship, my subject, Theodor van Dreveldt, could never reach out across history and respond to me or create his own corresponding image of who I am. So there was no way to know how “correct” I was or wasn’t. My image of him, along with my translation of his words, would always be just one interpretation. Nonetheless, I learned from that project that for me, the act of interpretation is the core of what makes translation beautiful and satisfying and vital.

And as it turned out, that wasn’t the end of it. While I was working my way through the letters, a book began to form in my mind. I broached the idea with my client, a descendant of Theodor and the father of the young woman who had contacted me. My fax machine went off at 4 the next morning — he was delighted. He flew me to Germany, where we spent a week discussing German history, his family, even his service in the Wehrmacht during the war. He showed me the old houses I had so far only read about and told me the back-story of the letters — how a Catholic priest and his housekeeper had come to have three children, and why two of them had felt forced to leave repressive pre-revolutionary Germany. He also financed a two-week research trip to Missouri and Illinois. The collection of letters published by the University of Nebraska Press in 1998 was my first book translation. It was the result of the relationship of trust that had developed between us. My work on the van Dreveldt history taught me a great deal about how important collaboration can be for the fuller sense of story it gives to a translation. But the trust that develops between a translator and an author working in collaboration can affect the content of a work as well. Several years ago I translated a book about Latin as a world language. I have only a rudimentary knowledge of Latin and even less of its history. Because I couldn’t do the kind of filling in that we tend to do automatically when we know a subject well, I was acutely aware of gaps in the argument. If only there were examples, I found myself thinking, I would understand this better. I also noticed that the author kept repeating his arguments, and that the very fact of the repetition made them seem less convincing than they really were. Examples! I’d think again. They’d give me so much of a better understanding and allow me to cut out some of this excess verbiage. I described my experience of the text to the author and asked him to consider adding some concrete examples. I told him that I thought these would make his points better than abstractions, however often repeated. It turned out that he had wondered about this while writing the book, but had concluded that examples would require too much prior knowledge of Latin to be of any use to a non-Latinist reader. But it was not hard to persuade him that the opposite was true. He ended up adding several well-placed examples. Our collaboration allowed me to produce a better translation of a better book, which, in English, enjoyed a level of success that astonished both author and publisher. One reviewer even commented on how greatly the translation improved on the German version.

So what gives collaboration its vitality? I think it’s that shared critical thinking draws author and translator into a cross-fertilizing relationship. And that it’s the process of querying that is the best generator of such thinking. If nothing else, our questions make clear to authors that their translators are paying attention. My queries are often very simple: “What does this mean?” “Can we say it like this?” “This statement doesn’t seem to follow from what you said a few pages ago. How do you want to handle this?” I’m no longer surprised that academic authors, the kind I work with now, tend to be telegraphic in their writing. Most of them are so familiar with their own thinking that they omit key steps, not realizing that they’re leaving blanks that most readers won’t be able to fill in. Some are in love with their own writing style and execute sometimes unintelligible pirouettes. It’s not always easy to get them to take the real world (that is, their readers) into account in their writing. But most of them eventually come to recognize that their audiences end up understanding them much better when they use me as a representative reader. As they do, a powerful relationship of trust develops between us.

Here’s another example. I’ve had a working relationship with a Munich psychiatrist for more than fifteen years. My first translation for him was a book on attachment theory, which was so successful in its English version that a second revised edition followed a dozen years later. As I went on to translate his articles, book chapters, and books, he came to count on me to call to his attention details that he had missed; I do this routinely now, noting any changes and additions in my comments. Once he sent me a talk intended for students about to enter his field. In it he named two mentors whose importance to him I knew from his other writings, but here he made only perfunctory mention of them. I was surprised, and I pointed out that he was missing an opportunity to inspire his audience of young people as he had once been inspired himself. He agreed, and two days later sent me a moving account of how these two people had influenced him to take up the work he was now doing. And that was the piece I ended up translating for him.

Of course, my attempts to form a collaborative relationship don’t always pan out. I had a rather magisterial author once who refused to engage with my e-mailed queries, leaving them to his staff. One query that went to the heart of a central argument was met with stony silence. All I could do was provide a faithful translation of what I was given, with all its faults. Was this a failed relationship? In one sense, yes. But in its own way it too contributed to my growth as a translator and a thinker. The experience of “rejection” became part of my larger understanding of that book and its limitations. It also gave me insight into books more generally, particularly the truth that, while all authors do their best to display their strengths to their readers, some of them hide their weaknesses. Even at best, all texts are written from a particular perspective, and it is incumbent upon us, as intelligent and responsible readers, to probe the limits of that perspective.

Now, you may be saying to yourselves that the kind of thing I’m talking about is something other than translation. But I would argue that translation can be more than unadorned fidelity to a source text. Here the collaborative model of translation diverges from what I call the agency model, which I will discuss momentarily. Obviously, this distinction does not mean that a translator gets to make things up. On the contrary: in collaboration, the author is there to vet all changes and clarifications, which must be made with his or her full engagement. But we do well to remind ourselves periodically that getting a sense of a text in its entirety and intervening when necessary to convey that sense are both processes integral to translation. They are also integral to a translator’s own growth and expanding possibilities.

However, the kinds of critical interactions I’ve been talking about are almost always precluded in the agency model. Often this is because the material to be translated just isn’t thought to warrant it, and indeed it may not. But more often it’s because agencies routinely deny translators access to authors for fear of poaching and for fear of unprofitable delay — both legitimate concerns from their perspective. In addition, some translators don’t want that sort of interaction, seeing it as peripheral to their job and a drag on their efficiency and therefore on their earnings. But to what extent does the narrow agency model limit how translators come to think of their work and of themselves? More explicitly, should translators consider themselves copyists? co-authors? or something in between? Certainly, different types of texts require different techniques and different mindsets, but must we necessarily define our relationship to translation only in terms of the creation of a faithful copy of a source text in a target language? In the agency model of corporate translation we probably must.

Here’s an example of what can happen when collaboration is stifled by an agency. A number of years ago a German agency asked me to translate a psychiatric article. The translation was difficult partly because the German was abstruse and partly because the author insisted on writing part of it in fractured English — translating it was the equivalent of post-editing bad MT output. When I couldn’t figure out what he meant, I asked the agency for permission to contact him directly so we could hash things out together. I offered to sign a separate non-compete agreement to short-circuit the agency’s likeliest reason to refuse. No dice. So I had to send my queries through the project manager.

Translators complain all the time about how unsatisfactory this sort of arrangement can be, and so it was in this case. The author’s responses required another set of responses from me, and then another set after that. Few agencies look kindly on this kind of thing; they tend to see it as a waste of time, and it’s all too easy for them to interpret it to mean that the translator doesn’t really know what he or she is doing. In this case, it was even worse than that: with all the versions floating around the PM got confused and mistakenly sent the author not my final translation, but a preliminary draft. The angry author refused to pay for what was clearly unpolished work, and guess who was blamed. Luckily I was able to show that I had sent the final version, along with an e-mail receipt to prove that the PM had in fact received it. So it worked out OK in the end. But the whole mess would never have happened if I had been allowed to form a working relationship with the author. But the larger point is: If we are independent professionals, how come the agencies get to set the terms of our working relationship?

There are other more subtle ways by which the agency model discourages translators from developing their own ways of working with clients, to say nothing of developing their own clienteles. At one point in my career, I was trying to establish a base of medical clients. I figured that an agency that paid me $0.13 per word was probably charging its client between $0.25 and $0.35. If I charged $0.20, I’d be earning almost a third more than the agency paid me, while saving the client something as well. At the time I was translating a lot of articles for one agency; the client was a large pharmaceutical company that was doing a literature search for a drug it was developing. In other words, the authors of the articles were not the agency’s clients. They were investigators, scientists, and academics who published in many journals and had no connection with either the agency or even the company. Some were very good writers, and I wanted to contact them directly. It would have had no effect whatsoever on the agency’s arrangements with the pharmaceutical firm. But the wording of my contract with the agency was ambiguous enough that I wasn’t sure whether this would be allowed. Whom could I ask? Certainly not the agency. In hindsight, knowing more about contracts nowadays, I probably should have plowed ahead. But at the time I was sufficiently spooked to give up my plan. In effect, the agency model tends to straitjacket translators into a narrow vision of a subordinate relationship and to place obstacles in the way of a fuller, more autonomous vision. This has implications that go beyond our work as translators, as I will try to show in a minute.

Over the years I have come to realize that the dividing line between commercial and literary translations is neither hard nor fast. I now see what I’ve come to call “literary documents” and “utilitarian literature” as the end points of a continuum. This realization came when I translated an expert opinion in a patent infringement case. I knew nothing about the technology involved, but the writing was so careful and the document so well structured that I could follow the author’s logic right along with his perfect grammar and syntax. And it was a thoroughly compelling read; I wanted to see where he was going and whether I really would be able to follow him to the end. It occurred to me at the time that one sign of excellent writing — of a certain sort — was that one could translate it without necessarily understanding the technical particulars. This particular opinion had been written for a high-stakes purpose, and for more than one reason it called for a “literal” translation. There was nothing allusive about it, nothing that pointed toward some abstract vision beyond the author’s concrete exposition. Nor was it the kind of poetic work that presents a translator with seemingly untranslatable constructions or sensibilities, or sound patterns difficult to replicate in another language. Nonetheless, this opinion, however purely functional in purpose, was literary in execution.

There are many kinds of literature. I now consider that fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and the scholarly works that I now spend much of my time translating may all be viewed as “literary documents” insomuch as they document or record the thoughts, emotions, or accumulated experience of an individual as expressed at a particular moment. They may be more or less artful, but they are all documentary of an author’s mind. Collaboration with the author provides a pathway into that mind.

Utilitarian or functional literature, on the other hand, is often produced by committees or corporations, and seldom reflects a single person’s point of view. This is the kind of product that forms the mainstay of many translators’ daily work life because it permits us — so far — to earn a reasonable living, while the translation of literary documents is poorly, even laughably, remunerated. Still, although it may not be “literature” in the conventional sense, corporate writing profoundly influences how we use words, how we think, and even how we imagine our roles in society.

Furthermore, however well or badly these documents are written, their legal, medical, or financial implications may have a real impact on people’s lives. Translators are often the closest readers of such documents and so are in a unique position to examine critically the implications for society of the words that corporations choose to further their interests, and of the purposes to which those words are put. Whether or not we as translators can do anything about these choices, our awareness of them is in itself valuable and constitutes an important and under-acknowledged reason for taking translation seriously. We can choose to see our source texts as nothing more than the raw material of our small businesses. But we can also use them as a starting point for critical questioning of the larger social and economic context in which we work and live. When we do, translation becomes “political” in its largest sense — a civic act. Unfortunately, because the agency model emphasizes the view of translation as a technical skill in which turnaround speed and fidelity to the source text are the highest good, an overtly critical approach to utilitarian literature has been slow to develop. Yet the more mindful we are of our relationship to translation itself, its purposes, and our understanding of ourselves as professionals and citizens, the more likely that this could change.

For instance, the deliberations of ethics committees are frequent assignments for those of us who translate medical material. It’s comforting to imagine that these groups police clinical trials, ensuring that they are conducted with the interests of the participants at heart, to say nothing of the interests of eventual consumers of the drugs or procedures   under investigation. But ethics committees are not as reliably ethical as we might wish. The pharmaceutical industry (the most profitable industry in the US), has repeatedly shown itself to be less interested in health than in profit; clinical trials that demonstrate adverse drug effects, for example, may be suppressed in favor of trials that yield the desired results.

The failure to disclose financial conflicts of interest in medical journal articles is a well documented problem, and there is little reason to believe that journals published in other languages are somehow immune. Another example: almost all of the physician panelists who recommended lowering the cut-off numbers for diagnosing diabetes, high blood pressure, bone thinning, and high cholesterol were paid by the companies that stood to benefit most from the massively increased prescription rates that resulted.2 Even assuming they were correct in their recommendations (and there are plenty of questions about that), realities such as this example should make us very wary when we read even the most authoritative-sounding promulgations of medical “truth.” Does this mean that we shouldn’t translate such articles? Of course not. Few if any of us are equipped to evaluate specific conflicts of interest or research results. But is there any reason why our mission as professionals and our larger one as citizens shouldn’t include examining and, when necessary, questioning the larger context of the source texts that we translate? As translators we may not be able to do anything in any immediate sense to influence Big Pharma (or, for that matter, High Finance, which almost collapsed the world economy in 2007-2008). We can, however, encourage our own critical understanding of the way the world works and make use of this awareness elsewhere in our lives.

I don’t want to be disingenuous about this. Although thinking critically about larger contexts is a vital skill, the pressure to make a living means that translators themselves are not insulated from conflicts of interest. Here’s a personal example that is painful in more ways than one.

When I was still struggling to establish a clientele of my own, I got a much-needed break: a friend recommended me to one of the principal attorneys of a patent firm. Between 2004 and 2010 I translated about 50 patent applications for that firm. I couldn’t complain about the pay: $0.20 per word. Every patent brought in between $500 and $1200. I thought I had it made. Then one day the principal attorney called and asked me to change a phrasing. I looked at the German and looked at the English and told him that I really didn’t see that the sentence could be interpreted the way he wanted. He insisted. After a struggle I made the change. I found the interaction deeply disturbing, and I’m sure you can guess what happened: the firm never contacted me again. I had shown that I did not identify sufficiently with the company’s interests, so I was no longer useful.

That experience taught me a lot. It showed me clearly that although “high-risk” translation — that is, of material likely to become involved in litigation — may pay the most, it is also most likely to raise ethical questions, both for the corporations and for the translators whom they “encourage” in support of corporate goals. These are issues that each of us must face and resolve for ourselves; my encounter with them was one of the reasons I quit doing patent translations.

But even when translators are willing to take the risks of high-risk work, we are not the ones who reap the rewards. The enormous sums of money that are spent on translation do not mostly accrue to us. Agencies talk a lot about high quality standards, and the better ones do attempt to maintain such standards. But the functional documents that are the staple of the agency-based translation industry are a high-volume business. Agencies end up fostering, albeit sometimes against their own better judgment, a certain get-it-in-get-it- out mindset in their translators. But at the same time, per-word rates are dropping, forcing translators to work harder for less pay. The lowered rates we have all observed are not only the result of market pressures. We know of at least one conference of agencies a few years back where agency heads bragged about their record profits and traded tips on how to persuade translators to accept lower rates. More recently a former “linguist services provider” boasted on her LinkedIn page that she had been “Ranked number 1 in negotiating rates with translators and reducing translator costs.” Now there’s a claim that requires no translation! The use of CAT tools, translation memories, and other computer aids is promoted less to empower translators, but to make them interchangeable “vendors.” The increasing agency use on machine translation, post-editing, crowd-sourcing, and other such supposed “shortcuts” put further pressure on translators to work faster and faster just to maintain a decent standard of living.

No wonder we translators are so preoccupied with the wish to develop client bases of our own. But as my “firing” by the patent firm shows, this path is not an easy one.

Furthermore, to enter the “premium” (as opposed to the “mass”) market, as some of our very successful colleagues encourage, requires subject expertise and superior writing skills that develop only over many years. However successful we are or aren’t in freeing ourselves from the agency model, therefore, we should never stop checking up on ourselves and on what our work is doing to us. Is it enhancing our growth or stunting it?

Because in this harsh new world, in translation or outside it, we need the fullest armamentarium of life skills we can develop — the skills of relationship, for example, and of autonomy, and of discernment. We have to take care lest the habits of deference and literalness that agencies foster infiltrate other aspects of our lives. What kind of lives are we working toward? Ones that require deference and the shelving of critical judgment, or ones that encourage us to question and contribute and shape?

The translation landscape today has almost nothing in common with the one I broke into almost 25 years ago. The technological changes have been breathtaking, but crucially they have enabled those who are best positioned to control those technologies to increase centralization and automation, which has led to profound shifts in the way translation is done and profits are distributed. Specialization is one of the last refuges of a skilled translator, and with it comes the possibility of true collaborative work. Yet the adverse trends that are driving many of us to specialize — the demands for speed and for an instrumental approach to translation — are precisely the same ones that may discourage us from developing the critical skills we need for meaningful collaboration and the professional and personal confidence that comes with it. The increasingly fragmented nature of the agency-based translation process may not benefit either our translation or our larger capacity for thoughtful engagement.

Regardless of where an independent translator makes his or her home on the continuum between “utilitarian literature” and “literary documents,” in the final analysis we are all piece-workers in a gig economy that leaves us isolated and alone, vulnerable to the dictates of others, with no solidarity to fall back on. This is as true for translators like myself who work for university presses as it is for medical translators working for agencies or patent  firms, and even for those who work on banking and financial documents. Of course, some literary translators subsidize their avocation with other kinds of employment, often in an academic setting. But most of us working translators, particularly those who specialize in functional documents, work within a corporate marketplace that is increasingly indifferent, even inimical, to our needs. We know all too well how detrimental the structural changes engineered by those at the top of the pyramid have been. Per-word rates are dropping.

Despite constant exhortations, fewer and fewer of us can raise our rates and make them stick. Crowd-sourcing, machine translation and post-editing, data mining of language corpora, outsourcing to developing countries, cattle calls, consolidation of agencies into fewer and fewer mega-players, translation portals that turn translators into cogs in a corporate machine — all these have exerted downward pressure on what we can successfully charge, while agency profits soar. Even as I speak there are undoubtedly translation agencies making themselves more attractive buy-out targets by trimming translator costs. If these trends continue, the rates for functional literature may soon approach the low rates paid for literary documents. All the more reason that, as we strive to gain the subject expertise that allows us to attract direct clients, we should give some thought to the different sort of engagement required when working with direct clients. We can’t let the agency model in which we have been trained discourage our capacity for meaningful collaboration, for questioning the texts entrusted to us, and for vigorous back- and-forth. These are skills that we need, in translation and out.

It is undoubtedly true that until we have a national — maybe even an international — movement of working translators whose mission is to advocate for the interests of working translators, our situation isn’t likely to change. Such a movement is not going to happen overnight. Some of us will manage to fight our way to a workable living anyway; some may choose to, or may have to, leave translation altogether. Still, no matter how we earn our livings, no matter whether we translate novels, financial prospectuses, or drug company inserts, no matter whether we specialize or whether we don’t — we can keep reframing how we view ourselves. We are not merely tools in someone else’s hands. Even in our work with agencies, we can demand the right to work directly with authors whenever we deem it appropriate. It may not be granted, but to strive for it is to stake out a position from which we can begin to address some of the adverse trends currently roiling   our profession. To strive for that is to foster our own autonomy. That is an ideal worth embracing.

1 See, e.g., https://www.cspinet.org/new/pdf/unrevealed_final.pdf. Regarding Vioxx, a major case, see, e.g., http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/04/15/AR2008041502014.html. This is also interesting:         https://newrepublic.com/article/121964/theres-more-one-kind-conflict-interest-medical-research.

2 H. Gilbert Welch, M.D. et al. (2011). Overdiagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health. Boston: Beacon Press, p. 24.

 

Translating patents from foreign languages into English can be a very expensive proposition. The high cost of patent translations, which may run to ten thousand and sometimes even tens of thousands of dollars, may seem like an insurmountable obstacle when for example a dozen patents need to be translated for information about relevant prior art.

There is no perfect remedy for solving the question of the cost of patent translations because translation of technical documents (such as patent applications) is labor intensive and takes time, especially if it is a long document, and some patent applications are very long indeed.

So what are the possible solutions for the high cost of patent translation?

1. Free Machine Translations of Patents

Free machine translations of patents have been available for a long time, about two decades, from several sources, including the EPO (European Patent Office) website, JPO (Japanese Patent Office) website, WIPO (World Intellectual Property Office) website and from other free resources.

Even when a machine translation is not available from one of these sources and only a PDF file can be found (for example if it is an old Japanese or German patent or utility model application), a PDF converter can be used to quickly convert the PDF file to digital form.

I use Adobe’s PDF converter which works quite well—although only for a limited number of languages—and costs 20 dollars a year. I can also run the converted file through a machine translation program such as GoogleTranslate or Microsoft Translator (Bing Translator).

The results of machine translation will vary, of course. The term “machine translation” is in fact a misnomer because what we are really getting from these and other machine translation programs are “machine pseudo-translations”, a jumble of words assembled and agglomerated based on algorithms, which means that the results are usually full of mistranslations. The result may in some cases even be an absurd and unusable text that seems to have been written by a madman, as I have described in many posts on my blog; for example in the post titled A Brief Comparison of Machine Translation and Human Translation.

But machine translations are still often helpful, and in any case, unlike human translations, they are generally free or cost next to nothing if ordered from a supplier of machine translations.

Machine translations (or pseudo-translations) usually make much more sense if the original document was written in a language that is similar to English, such as German, Dutch or French, while with languages that are very different from English, such as Japanese or Chinese, it may be very difficult to figure out from a machine translation what is in fact stated in the text in the original language.

Also, if a PDF file is converted to digital form, even the slightest mistake in the conversion, which often happens with old PDF files with poor resolution, will often make the machine pseudo-translation completely incomprehensible. Unless the legibility of the original Japanese patent application is perfect, the conversion is likely to generate inaccuracies in the resulting conversions to complicated Japanese characters because even the smallest change in the strokes of a character will result in a mistranslation. For example, the character  議 [“gi“, meetig] may be misread by the software as 護[“mamoru”, protect].

Nevertheless, machine translation can be a great help compared to the situation two decades ago when human translation was the only option.

2. Rush Rates and Non-Rush Rates

I see in my files that one long patent application about medical technology that I translated from Japanese some time ago had 62,817 words once I translated it. Since a good patent translator can translate 2,000 to 3,000 words a day, the translation of a single patent application by one translator would in this case take about a month, considering that at least two days would be needed for proofreading. If the translation is split between several translators, the result is unpredictable because even if the translators try to cooperate with each other with respect to the technical terms that they will be using, this cooperation could be quite problematic, especially when the translators do not have the same education, skills and experience, which is often the case.

Although splitting long patents between several translators is sometimes unavoidable, I believe that this solution should be used as a last resort, only if there simply is not enough time to make it possible to have the same translator translate the entire patent.

I remember that when I was one of several potential translation suppliers submitting a bid to a patent law firm for the long patent about medical technology mentioned above, I asked in my bid for a deadline of three weeks in exchange for my non-rush rate, which is significantly lower than my rush rate. My bid was accepted at the non-rush rate and I was able to finish the translation at a pace consistent with the limited amount of mental energy that is available to mere humans and that is required to produce good work. Since the amount of the mental energy that is required for concentration is not unlimited, the daily output in numbers of words that even a good and highly experienced patent translator can produce per day is in the real world also limited.

Because accepting a longer deadline for a translation project is one way to lower the cost of a translation project, when I am asked to provide a cost estimate, I always quote two prices: one for what I call “rush” and one for what I call “non-rush” translation. Agreeing to a reasonable deadline, (which takes into account the fact that most human translators can be reasonably expected to translate only a limited number of words per working day), is thus one way to limit the cost of the translation project.

3. Translation of Claims and the Text in the Description of Figures Only

This is yet another method that can be used to limit the cost of translations. Many clients who would balk at the price of, say, two thousand dollars, which is what it might cost to translate a single patent application of medium length, will not hesitate to spend about ten percent of that for a much shorter translation that will give the reader in most cases a much better idea of what is contained in the original patent application than a machine translation, which may be very misleading, because by definition, it is likely to be riddled with mistranslations and mistakes.

Yesterday, for example, instead of translating an entire patent application from Japanese, I translated only the claims and descriptions of Japanese text accompanying the figures at the end of the document, including the text describing the numbered parts in the explanation of figures explaining preferred embodiments of the invention.

Although the cost of this abbreviated translation was only about 10% of what it would have cost to translate the entire text of the patent application, the translation of claims and of the text explaining the figures was sufficient to provide a good idea about the essential design of the invention.

Although none of the solutions proposed in this post are ideal or perfect, one or several of them may still work if the budget available for translations is limited. What is important is to have access to a translation agency that specializes in patent translation or an individual patent translator with a lot of experience.

Generic translation agencies that claim to specialize in patent translation (in addition to every other field under the sun) do not really specialize in anything.

One look at a website on which a translation service claims to have hundreds or thousands of highly experienced translators available immediately to translate any subject in any field from and into any language is generally a good indication that this translation service is just a broker who probably has a lot of expertise in one thing and one thing only: how to buy low and sell high.

 

Drunk Monk

In a blind wine tasting that took place forty years ago in France and later became known somewhat ironically as “The Judgment of Paris”, the underdog, California Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons defeated the undisputed king of the best wines in the entire world up until that point, namely France’s Burgundy and Bordeaux vines.

I remember that 20 years ago on the 20th anniversary of that historical victory of America over France, I saw on my local TV station a program celebrating this major victory of the California wine industry (everything’s an industry now, including charity and religion). The commentators and witnesses of the event on TV were still, 20 years later, somewhat giddy over the historic victory over France.

They were talking about French oenologists who were sipping wines from unlabeled bottles and then spitting them out (which I find horrifying and barbaric) and who were saying things like “now we’re talking”, in French of course, because they thought they were tasting French wines. At the time I was living in Santa Rosa, California, which is located in Sonoma Wine Country and was able to visit over a period of almost a decade quite a few wineries in Sonoma and Napa Wine Country. I was feeling appropriate patriotic pride about the victory of California wines two decades ago, although I was only a relatively recent Californian, having lived there since 1982.

The French wine experts who gave the first prize to Napa wines, (while convinced that these wines were from France), were guided by their sophisticated taste buds, sense of smell, and experience of many years. They might have been wrong about the origin of the wines, but in their judgment they were right about the most important thing: the quality and taste of the heavenly libations.

You don’t really have to be a specially trained wine industry expert to appreciate the difference of quality of different wines. Anybody can tell the difference between two different wines. I remember that shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall 27 years ago, the bums that one could see drinking wine and beer since the morning in downtown San Francisco switched for a while from big bottles of cheap, fortified California wines to a sweet Bulgarian table wine called Mecha Krv (Bear Blood) in Bulgarian.

Bear Blood was sold only in smaller bottles and has a lower alcohol content, but it was clearly a superior wine for about the same price as far as the bums were concerned.

The blind tasting that takes place every day hundreds of times in “the translation industry” is organized somewhat differently, but has basically the same purpose as wine tasting: to try to ascertain the quality of translations.

I am talking about obligatory translation tests that are administered en mass by translation agencies, especially but not only by large translation agencies, to translators or would-be translators who want to work for these agencies.

Although these tests are now accepted by many but not all translators as a necessary ritual, or hoop to be jumped through, two or three decades ago this was not the case. This is because two or three decades ago, there were very few large translation agencies claiming that they specialized in everything and that they were able to translate equally well “all languages and all subjects”. Most translation agencies back then did in fact specialize in something, which is to say only in certain languages and subjects.

Agencies that in fact did develop expertise in a limited number of languages and subjects, nowadays often deprecatingly referred to by “the translation industry” as “single-language vendors” or something like that, did not need to send a test translation to prospective translators who are naturally expected by the “translation industry” to do these tests for free because agencies who knew their stuff were able to evaluate suitable samples of past work of prospective translators.

That is no longer the case with many of the translation agencies in “the translation industry” who automatically send a test to new prospective translators as they have no ethical problem with trying to force people to work for them for free.

Under certain circumstances, I am not necessarily against the practice of doing free tests, although I see plenty of problems with an arrangement in which people are asked to work for free as if it were the most natural thing under the sun.

When I was a beginner, I remember that I once refused as a matter of principle to do a free test in 1989 for an owner of a small translation agency in San Francisco, as I am and always have been against free labor which I consider to be an essential principle and ingredient of slavery.

But the guy called me to his office on Market Street and explained that he was bidding on a project involving translations of boxes of German documents for a law firm, and the firm had asked for a free test. So he asked me very nicely whether I would be willing to do the test while pointing out that the potential payoff could be very significant. I still thought that it was unfair, but once I was given access to relevant facts, I agreed to do the free test, the agency got the job, and the job kept myself and two other translators busy for about half a year.

Under similar circumstances, I think that a free test is defensible, although a more classy agency would pay the translator from its own funds, which has happened to me once or twice.

My impression that there are not very many classy agencies left in “the translation industry” these days has been reinforced by what I read on social media, mainly that the demand for a free, obligatory test is now very common and most translation agencies seem to require such a test as part of normal procedure.

It is clear why large translation agencies need to have these tests: since they translate all languages and subjects, project managers who handle the translations are unable to evaluate samples of prior work on their own as they cannot be expected to know all languages and all subjects. In fact, from what I read on social media, most of them don’t seem to know any language besides English, or any subject either for that matter, as most of them are young, recent college graduates who are often monolingual and who mostly work for low wages.

So, unlike the cultured French oenophiles, and unlike the thirsty bums that I used to see in downtown San Francisco decades ago, who really knew their stuff when it came to deciding which wine is better, project managers working these days for “the translation industry” have no choice but to compare an existing translation supplied to them by the agency management to test prospective translators.

In this respect, the blind testing (or blind tasting) of translations in “the translation industry” is very different from wine tasting, because the people doing the testing of translations themselves have no idea whether the test translations are good, or not so good, or pretty bad. In this respect, project managers are blind, deaf, and one could perhaps say, almost brain-dead.

If the sample translations they are using are riddled with inaccuracies, which sometimes happens, project managers will not really know about it if they don’t understand the languages. Even if they by some miracle do know both languages, would they dare to raise the issue of an inaccurate translation sample if the sample was supplied to them by their boss as a good translation? Probably not because that would mean that their boss is incompetent, which as we all know happens all the time.

All they can do is try to match the sample translations returned to them by translators to the sample translation supplied to them by management. If it is a close match, it must be a good translator. If the match is not that close, it must be a bad translator.

Although the current practice of requiring automatically free translations from prospective translators is not very reliable when it comes to establishing the quality of translations and weeding out bad translations, it is very useful and very effective from another perspective.

A translator who is willing to work for free on a sample, sometimes a very long sample, is a translator who is likely to be grateful to have any work, even work at very low rates.

This is probably one of the reasons, or perhaps the main reason, why the requirement for free labor to be provided first by the translator on a translation sample is so common, although the translation is then unlikely to be evaluated by a person who would be capable of making an evaluation of translation quality.

The testing of translators by “the translation industry” is thus a certain kind of a reality show, one where what is supposed to be real is in fact fake if you take a close look at the supposed reality. The real motive behind the show lies somewhere else.

The main problem I see with blind tastings of translations by “the translation industry” is that the people doing the tasting (or testing) of translations are unable to ascertain much from the samples.

In a singing, beauty, cooking or dancing competition, or in any other kind of competition so popular nowadays on reality TV shows, the audience is generally always qualified to judge the results, although different people may pick different winners; that is why these reality shows are so popular.

But relatively few people can tell the difference between two translations.

In the translation industry, people passing a judgment on the quality of translation tests are often unable to decide which translation is good and which is bad, especially if the agency “specializes” in all languages and subjects.

But it does not really matter too much because “the translation industry” is a different kind of a reality show in which the unstated purpose (finding pliant warm bodies willing to work for a few pennies) may be much more important than the stated one (finding a translator who can pass a translation test).

Credits: The Drunk Monk picture is from a Wikipedia entry about Blind Tasting.

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