Posted by: patenttranslator | October 9, 2015

The Finky Hoofa Moment, Or Once a Foreigner, Always a Foreigner

Sometime in 1982, shortly after I arrived to America and found my first job (a nice office job that didn’t pay much money but didn’t require that much from me either), I decided to take a stroll on my lunch break on Fifth Street in downtown San Francisco, south of Market Street. It wasn’t very far from where I worked and I had another 15 minutes to kill and wanted to see what treasures might be hidden in that direction.

It dawned on me within a few minutes that it wasn’t a very good idea to take a stroll down Fifth Street in that direction, especially dressed as I was in tie and jacket office uniform.

I don’t know what Fifth Street south of Market Street looks like now. Based on what I read about the housing situation in San Francisco, it may very well be a favorite location for high-tech Internet company headquarters, but back in 1982 it was a dirty street giving off bad vibes, full of liquor shops and small convenience stores selling beer, liquor and sandwiches with big bars on their windows, where sidewalks were stinking of urine among other pungent smells.

Suddenly, a big black man who was walking down the street accosting people and asking them questions noticed me and started walking towards the strange white dude, (me) who must have wandered into this neighborhood by mistake. I didn’t like it one bit. Is he going to mug me? I was thinking to myself, but there was nothing I could do. But instead of asking for money, the man asked me something that I couldn’t figure out, although I understood perfectly well every word he was saying.

He said to me: “Look, man, I’ve got 10 pounds of cheese here. Can you use that?” Given how scared I was, he had to repeat it three times before I finally shook my head and told him that, no, I didn’t want 10 pounds of cheese. “Why didn’t you say so right away, man?” said the angry cheese seller and walked off to look for another potential buyer.

At that time I thought the man was for some reason offering me some kind of a historic drug deal and that cheese must have been a code word for some kind of drug. It was only later that I realized that man really did want to sell me 10 pounds of cheese when I read in the newspaper that Ronald Reagan decided to end the poverty problem in America by distributing 560 millions of pounds of surplus cheese to poor people. It didn’t do much to alleviate poverty, but it certainly went down well with the Farm Lobby, and it is certainly also true that cheese is healthier and much more nutritious than cake.

A reader of my blog, originally from United States who has been living in Prague for 12 years now (thanks for the term, Melissa), calls what happens to foreigners who think they’re perfectly fluent in the language of their adopted country and then run into a problem that no local would encounter “the finky hoofa problem”. No matter how long you’ve lived in another country, how fluent you are (or think you are) in the language of that country, and how well you understand local culture and local habits, or think you understand it all, you are bound to keep having problems with words and concepts that locals absolutely believe that everybody should naturally understand unless they are terminally stupid.

She was explaining how there was this one Czech word that she couldn’t understand in Czech conversation, she called the word “finky hoofa” (you can insert any unintelligible word for finky hoofa here). “So, excuse me, but where is this finky hoofa?” she asked some locals, not wanting to admit that she had no idea what it meant. “What do you mean, where are the finky hoofas?” came the incredulous and scornful answer. “Finky hoofas are where they’ve always been, right over there!” But the problem is, even when they point to you where finky hoofas supposedly are and finky hoofas are indeed staring you in the face, you will not be able to see them unless you know what they are.

It’s not only words, but cultural and historical concepts and well known traditions of local lore that are extremely self-evident to locals who just can’t believe that anybody could be so clueless as to not even know what these things mean.

When I lived in Petaluma, 40 minutes north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge in light traffic, I used to stop in the morning for a bear claw at a local coffee house supplied by a local bakery, to go with my coffee and New York Times before I started working in my cozy office two blocks down in the McNear Building in downtown Petaluma. If you saw the film “American Graffiti”, although the story supposedly takes place in Modesto, it was filmed in Petaluma and the north entrance of McNear Building is at the foot of the main downtown drag where majorly bored teenagers drive up and down each and every Saturday night in that movie. I used to enter the building from the southern entrance, close to the coffee shop.

There would usually be at least half a dozen older men sitting there discussing sports, and they would suddenly become very quiet, watching me suspiciously as I placed my bear claw order. I felt the heavy weight of foreignness upon my shoulders every time in that finky hoofa moment as I had no idea whether they were talking about baseball or football, or whatever other game they were discussing that everybody else except me watched the day before. I don’t care about sports, so I never dared to say anything except to announce my order. Although I became a US citizen a long time ago in January 1989, nine months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, I will always be a foreigner here since I don’t even know whether the guys are discussing baseball or football, not to be mistaken for “soccer”, the only sport that I used to enjoy playing as a kid and watching on TV, which nobody gives a damn about in this country.

British-born actress Emily Blunt had her own finky hoofa moment after she became a US citizen. “I became an American citizen recently, and that night, we watched the Republican debate, and I thought, ‘This was a terrible mistake. What have I done?'” she said, tongue in cheek, to a reporter. As many Americans failed to understand that she was joking, in what could perhaps be called a reverse finky hoofa moment on their part, seen from the viewpoint of Americans who didn’t see the comment for what it was – namely a joke, and a pretty good one in my book.

The reaction on Twitter and other social media to her comment was swift and overwhelmingly negative. So much so that she later had to apologize for her joke about her US citizenship. “It was so not the intention to hurt anybody or cause any offense, so I really apologize to those that I caused offense,” said Blunt on NBC’s Today. “It was just an offhand joke. I think I’ll probably leave the political jokes to late-night or something.”

Posted by: patenttranslator | October 4, 2015

All Is Fair in Love, War, Business and Politics

Several years ago, as I was sitting in a car dealership’s office in Virginia Beach, buying a new car, I had to keep repeating “No, no, no, I don’t want it!”, “No, no, no, I don’t need it!” to a young, inexperienced sales woman who was trying in vain to sell me some kind of magic coating for my new car.

She had a simple job: wring out more money from a customer by selling him something that he doesn’t need, and that probably doesn’t work anyway.

I forgot the name of the magic coating, but I do remember that it would have cost me 800 dollars in addition to the price that I had already agreed to pay for the car. After each of my “no, no, no” answers, the sales woman kept furiously coming back at me with the words “acid rain, acid rain, acid rain”, which she kept repeating as if it were a Buddhist mantra. If I didn’t buy the special magic coating for 800 dollars in addition to the price that I had already agreed to pay, acid rain would ruin my car within a few months. She threatened me pitilessly.

There is no acid rain in the Virginia Beach area because most of the heavy industry jobs have been exported by maximum profit-oriented corporations a long time ago along with the horrible pollution, including acid rain, to China and India. Besides, my car is parked in my garage most of the time when it rains. The magic coating was just a useful profit ploy that the car dealership was using to fatten its profit margin based on the threat of imaginary “acid rain”.

People wonder why Volkswagen put software that cheats and beats official emission standards in its diesel cars. But every corporation constantly and incessantly lies and cheats in our modern business culture. The German company simply did it to gain a competitive advantage over other companies.

We lie and cheat … as long as we can get away with it, at least for a while until we cash out. That is the main principle of modern business. Since Volkswagen got away with it for a long time, it must have made a ton of money thanks to this lie. The main sin the company’s leaders and managers committed was not that they lied, tricked and cheated, but that they got too cocky and as a result, they got caught. They should have created cheating software that would be undetectable and everything would be in perfect order.

Most modern business methods are based on some kind of trickery and deception. All you have to do is take a quick look at the advertisements in your mailbox. The prices quoted on offers that I keep getting in my mail, for instance to switch my Internet, phone and TV service to one of only two companies offering these service bundled for one price in my area, are a big lie.

There is no real competition in many key business areas in the United States, only a duopoly of two companies offering basically the same thing at the same high price, just like in modern American political machinery.

The two Internet, phone and TV service providers quote a certain price for these services without mentioning the additional monthly rental fees for the equipment that you have to rent from them at a horrendous cost in perpetuity, and of course, without mentioning substantial taxes. If they say that the price is 59 dollars and like most people you have TVs in more than room, the real price is likely to be well over 100 dollars. Plus the price quoted is only for the first year, and only if you sign an agreement for two years, which means there is no relationship between the real price and the prices quoted in the advertisements. If you fall for this trick, the real price will be double what is stated in the advertisement, perhaps more, because the advertisement is a big fat lie.

The so-called translation industry is also very good at trickery, cheating and lying, although it’s not very hard to catch them in the act if you know what to look for. But you would have to know how things really work in real life and since most customers have no idea how translations are really done, translation agency marketing managers are free to say just about anything they want on their companies’ websites.

Some translation agencies say on their websites that their translations are double and triple checked by several highly qualified translators before the final, perfect and completely flawless product can be delivered to the customer, as I wrote in an article published in the ATA Chronicle many years ago. For one thing, this method doesn’t work as I wrote this in the same article. And since it would mean that not just one, but three highly qualified and thus also expensive translators are either well compensated for their work, or for some reason don’t need to be paid at all, the statement is about as true as an official result for an emission standards test of a Volkswagen diesel car.

Corporate translation agencies also proudly state on their websites that they “have” for example 3,500 (to pick a number on the low side) experienced and highly qualified translators (they often call them “linguists” for some reason these days) at their beck and call, 24/7. Are there even 3,500 experienced and highly qualified translators living on the blue planet that is polluted so much with mendacious advertising? I doubt it, although I have no doubt that there are more than 3,500 “linguists”, possibly “350,000 linguists” on this planet who are available and eagerly waiting to finally land a translation, any translation, by a translation agency, any translation agency.

But the real question is, if you “have 3,500 linguists” in your database, how can you possibly know which one of them can in fact translate and which one is no good? Or maybe you have a special kind of database that remembers everything for you, so that you don’t really have to remember anything, or even know anything about anything?

That must be how it works.

Another useful trick is “ISO certifications standards” for translation agencies. These standards were originally designed for industrial processes, such as shoe or diaper production. Although ISO standards, developed by the International Standards Organization, were designed for manufacturing industrial products, corporate translation agencies decided to proudly apply this label to their daily activities. Here is how one such agency summarized what this certification means for this agency:

ISO 9001:2008 Certification requires strict operation standards based on eight quality management principles including:
1 – Customer Focus
2 – Leadership
3 – Involvement of People
4 – Process Approach
5 – System Approach to Management
6 – Continual Improvement
7 – Factual Approach to Decision Making
8 – Mutually Beneficial Supplier Relationship

Note that the propagandistic verbiage says nothing about requirements for translators, such as their education, experience, specialization, etc. This is in fact what matters when it comes to translation quality, what kind of ISO-certified method is a translation broker using to shuffle around paper makes no difference whatsoever.

This is obviously nothing but major BS that puts communist propaganda to shame. The eight quality principles of standards, originally designed for production of industrial products such as shoes or diapers, are about as applicable to translation as they would be applicable to the writing of romance or spy novels.

Only a good writer can write a good book, because the writing process takes place in the writer’s head. And you need a really good translator for a really good translation because the translating process again takes place in the translator’s head.

What kind of management processes a broker advertises on the company’s website is completely irrelevant to the issue of translation quality, especially because most of these brokers know so little about translation that they could not tell a good translation from a bad one if it bit them in the you know what, and also because they need to use translators who charge as little as possible to keep their profit margin as big as possible.

But because different kinds of certifications designed for industrial standards are a very useful advertising gimmick, ISO standards are often featured prominently on translation agencies’ websites.

Since all is fair in love, war, business and politics, much of the information we’re being fed by corporate businesses capitalizing on the ignorance and credulity of their customers is really misinformation, or, to put it in layman’s terms: a big fat lie.

The recent revelation about Volkswagen’s special software designed to cheat on emission standards is only the tip of the iceberg. Our modern business culture in the globalized and corporatized world is so addicted to trickery and saturated with untruths and lies that the old Latin saying “Caveat emptor” (Buyer beware) is now more true than ever.

Posted by: patenttranslator | September 30, 2015

On the Relative Irreplaceability of Translators

A core principle of the so-called translation industry is the notion that all translators are easily interchangeable and replaceable.

Project managers working for translation agencies have databases containing dozens, hundreds, or thousands (or at least that’s what translation agencies say on their websites) of translators who may be called upon by an agency depending on the particulars contained in each entry, (especially based on how much they charge). Because some of these translators may have moved (or may even have died) by the time they are needed for a particular project, many project managers send mass e-mails these days to multiple prospective warm bodies when a real project suddenly materializes.

In a system based on the operating mode described above, mass e-mails certainly save time. But this is not a system that would work for me, as I don’t consider myself part of the so-called translation industry anymore.

An alternative approach is based on a very different concept and principle, namely that a really good translator is not easy to replace. In fact, most of the time a good translator is almost irreplaceable. This principle and belief that I share with many, or perhaps only some modern translation agency owners, is not based solely on my vanity as a translator, but on logic and experience.

When a translator who has been working for the same client on the same type of translations for many years suddenly becomes unavailable, the replacement, when and if found, is likely to be at least somewhat deficient. Even if the new translator is good and experienced, he or she will lack client-specific knowledge that the translator who has been working for the same client for years has accumulated over many years.

Of course, each and every one of us is replaceable in the long run. As somebody put it, I think I read it in a British spy novel, “Graveyards are full of indispensable people”. But when a good translator must be replaced, there is a learning curve, sometime a long and painful one, and the resulting quality of the replacement translations may vary, at least during the initial stage.

The relevant knowledge is not as easily transferable in the translating profession as it is in some other professions because the knowledge is client-specific. When you need to have your garage door or water heater replaced, you need a professional repairman who knows a lot about garage doors or water heaters. But the repairman doesn’t need to know anything about you and your business. He already knows how the water heater or garage door will be used.

On the other hand, the first thing that a translator needs to ask himself or herself is:”How will be this translation used by the client?” Even though most translation agencies generally don’t tell translators much about the purpose of a translation, (perhaps because they don’t know or don’t care), we have to keep the purpose of the translation in mind when we are translating.

Just like we may not be easily replaceable to our clients, our clients are also very hard to replace, the good ones, anyway, which once again makes the issue of relative irreplaceability of translators extremely relevant when we want to go on vacation.

I remember that in the early 1990s, before most people started using the Internet, I tried to simply not worry too much about the business I may have been losing while I was traveling. When I came back home, there was a stack of unanswered faxes in my fax machine that I had to deal with to try and salvage a couple of jobs if possible.

But back in the 90s I was working mostly for translation agencies, and since most of them operated on the principle that every translator is more or less easily replaceable, it was not such a big deal.

As I started working mostly for direct clients, not being available for work, even during a relatively short vacation period, became a much bigger problem. Most translators probably try to solve this problem by trying to find a partner who can be trusted to replace them competently if a rush translation is needed. But in my case, the situation is complicated by the fact that I translate from seven languages (although most of the time it is just two or three of them), and also the fact that I am a one-man translation agency when I am working on projects that I cannot translate myself. Success or failure of the mission when I work as a translation agency, and this is now an important part of my business, depends on how much I know about the subject matter, the client, and the translator.

I gave up on trying to find a suitable temporary replacement partner years ago.

Before cell phones were turned into personal computers, I used to log into my e-mail account from “Internet kiosks” at airports, and check out Internet cafés in Europe, first thing after breakfast, to at least stay in touch with my clients by e-mail while on vacation. Are we really on vacation when we have to check our e-mail constantly?

Translators are considered as quite unimportant in the grand scheme of things, if they are given any thought at all. That so-called translation industry is trying to replace them by “crowd-sourced” amateurs which is just another piece of evidence clearly showing how little the so-called translation industry understands about translation.

Translators are not considered to be important in the grand scheme of things by anybody … until the guy or girl who did the last translation so well suddenly becomes unavailable, for example because he or she joined the ranks of other indispensable people in a graveyard who no longer answer their e-mails.

There are crowds of people in this world calling themselves translators who are hungry for work and eager to take on any translation project, sometime at any price. But the problem is, since only a very small percentage of them can do the job well, it’s very hard to replace a good translator when a complicated project suddenly becomes a very urgent task and the translator who used to do this project very satisfactorily suddenly becomes unavailable. The relative irreplaceability of translators then becomes very evident for example when a translator dares to take a few days off and go on vacation, although this is something that, unlike translators, most other people can do every year without worrying much about anything.

Threats and Challenges-IAPTI III Picture

I’ve often been told that I need to get out more. In the 28 years that I’ve been an independent technical translator, I’ve been to three translators’ conferences: in 1991 it was the Second IJET Conference in San Francisco and in 1997 the 38th ATA Conference, also in San Francisco. For those who don’t know, IJET stands for International Japanese-English Translation Conference, and ATA stands for American Translators Association.

Truth be told, I participated in the those two conferences mostly because back then I lived in San Francisco, or 45 minutes away at the time of the ATA conference. This time around, I decided to give a presentation at the Third IAPTI Conference, held September 3-7 in Bordeaux, France.

What are the chances that your airplane will be diverted to a different airport, the guy sitting next to you will barf on you and once you arrive to your destination after a day’s delay, your luggage will be lost, all during the same trip? For most people, probably only slightly higher than winning a lottery. But if you are me, the chances are much better as described in my previous post.

IAPTI stands for International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters. It’s a young association, established on September 30, 2009 (St. Jerome’s day), in Buenos Aires, Argentina, “… as a vehicle for promoting ethical practices in translation and interpretation and providing a forum for discussing problems typical of the globalized world, such as crowdsourcing, outsourcing, bad rates and other abuse” (Wikipedia). The First IAPTI Conference was held in 2013 in London, England and the Second IAPTI Conference in Greece, Athens last year.

Typical of a young association, the conference attendees were also young, much younger than me. I saw perhaps only two other people who might have been in my age group (I am 63). The rest of the attendees were a much younger crowd. I like being around young people as one of my goals in life is to never really grow up. Translators came to Bordeaux from every continent except Antarctica: from South and North America, Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia.

I Missed Some Presentations because I Arrived Late

Because I arrived one day late, I unfortunately missed some of the presentations that I wanted to see, and my own presentation had to be moved to the next day (thank you so much, Marta Stelmaszak, for graciously agreeing to swap your time slot for mine). It was also not easy for me to concentrate on the presentations I did attend because there were so many people there in the lobby of the Mercure Chateau Chartrons Hotel that I wanted to talk to, some of whom I have been talking to regularly on Facebook and through e-mail for several years although we never met in person up until the conference in Bordeaux, and there were some who I met for the first time at the conference.

Arriving late one day made me miss Kevin Lossner’s presentation on how to use new technology to increase productivity, which could not have been about post-processing of machine translation detritus, which is what the so-called translation industry often means by the term “language technology”. I missed Sameh Ragab’s session on how to be prepared for computer disasters and data loss. My own system is based on simply having several completely interchangeable workstations in two different rooms and saving all data on storage devices, but maybe I could have learned a few new tricks.

I also missed Tony Rosado’s talk about how to set one’s fees. I don’t know how I could have done that – I must have been so engrossed in passionate discussions with other translators in the lobby of the hotel that I forgot about the time.

But I was able to listen to several other very interesting presentations, such as the entertaining talk by Joao Roque Dias titled “Welcome to scammers’ world: Where nothing is what it seems”. I now have a much better picture in my mind of how the scams involving translators work.

Another interesting presentation, by Lukasz Gos, was titled “Contracts with agencies – outsourcing translation or outsourcing risk?” and the presentation by Felicia Negru (from European Union’s Directorate General for Translation) about bidding on “Contracts for Translation Services and EU Institutions” was also very interesting, although having heard the presentation, I decided to stick to bidding on patents for patent law firms and not to bid on EU contracts (too much red tape for my taste).

Two Japanese Translators Gave a Presentation at IAPTI III in Bordeaux

Because I mostly translate Japanese, for me the most interesting talk was given by Warren Smith, a fellow Japanese translator who called his presentation “Multimillion-dollar freelancing: Efficiency engineering in translation”. Since I was able to talk to Warren prior to his session in the hotel lobby, I know that the presentation that he gave at the Third IAPTI Conference was only a small part of a much bigger presentation that he had given at an IJET Conferences for Japanese translators. He had to tailor his presentation in Bordeaux to make it suitable for a different audience. I also understand Warren submitted a proposal to give this presentation at the ATA Conference to be held in November in Miami and that his proposal was turned down.

I would really like to know why it was turned down, because although his method is not suitable for my purposes, it is a very ingenious one that many translators may want to duplicate.

Warren’s method is geared toward doubling or tripling the amount of words that most experienced translators can generally produce per day, which tends to be around three thousand words (in my case). I have days when I can translate up to about five thousand words, but only when I am under the gun, and I am usually exhausted the next day.

Warren dictates his translation using specialized software and hardware, while walking around, or sitting or lying down in a specially constructed chair that looks more like a hammock on wheels than a chair. He uses a special mouse and a number of other special gizmos to speed up the translating process.

My Own Presentation Was Pretty Long, But Hopefully Not Too Boring

I called my own presentation “Threats, challenges and opportunities for translators in the modern version of corporatized translation industry”.

After an introduction, I started talking about how different the translation industry was when I was starting out as an independent translator in the mid 1980s in San Francisco. It was a very different world for translators back then, the Internet did not really exist yet and there were no big translation agencies. Most agencies were very small, and unlike with mega-agencies today, they were usually run by people who themselves were translators and who, unlike the brokers of today, understood foreign languages and potential problems hiding in most translations. They also generally paid translators well because their business strategy depended on finding the best translators and making sure that they would continue working for their translation agency.

After that, I briefly talked about Donald Phillipi, a well known Japanese translator and early pioneer of technical translation from Japanese whom I met in San Francisco in 1986 and whose example I later tried to follow by becoming an independent translator myself.

The Incredible Changes in So-Called Translation Industry Are Evident from “Non-Disclosure Agreements”

After that, I tried to illustrate the incredible changes in the so-called translation industry by citing examples of recent clauses from so-called Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) of some translation agencies, which nowadays can run to seven thousand words and can include clauses such as these:

1. A clause forcing the translator to acknowledge that no payment will be provided for a translation unless the translation agency deems in its wisdom the translation to be “satisfactory”, whatever that may mean.

2. A clause forcing transfer of materials subject to copyright protection from the translator to the translation agency, i.e. to the broker, rather than to the actual client who pays for the translation.

3. A clause stipulating that the translator, who is on paper an independent contractor, must agree not to discuss any negotiated compensation received from a translation agency with anybody else, including other translators, lest she be in breach of contract.

4. A clause that says that a translation agency has the right to conduct “unannounced audits” of translator’s premises (i.e. illegal raids on a private house), perhaps to make sure that the translator is not spending too much time with her family, or on Facebook, or eating the wrong kind of food.

5. Or even a clause that stipulates that the translator must provide remote access to her computer so that the translation agency could spy on her, ostensible to check whether “security software has been installed correctly” on the translator’s computer. Such spying capability would obviously be very useful if the translation agency wants to know who the translator’s other clients are, how much they pay, what kind of projects she works on, etc. Moreover, all other NDAs with all the translator’s other customers would be instantly invalidated if a translator agrees to such a clause because the agency insisting on such a clause could be also be privy to confidential information of the translator’s other clients, both direct clients and translation agencies.

When one translator in the audience asked me whether such clauses and conditions would be even legal in most countries, my answer was that to my knowledge there is only one country where these clauses would be perfectly legal: North Korea.

My Own Strategy Has Been to Let the Internet Work for Me Instead of Against Me Since the Year 2000

Toward the end of my speech I talked about my own strategy for staying in business and maximizing income, which is a little different from Warren Smith’s strategy for maximizing output as an independent translator. Since the early 90s, my own strategy has been based on becoming less and less dependent on translation agencies and working mostly for direct clients (although I still work regularly for a few translation agencies).

Up until about ten years ago, I was finding new clients mostly by sending direct mail to prospective leads at patent law firms. I must have sent thousands of letters in this manner to patent lawyers, starting with California and then basically broadening my mailing campaigns and applying them to every state in the United States, whenever I had free time to do so.

That was how I found my first direct clients in the 90s, and some of them are still sending me patents to translate to this day. Since the year 2000, I switched to a different strategy by making sure that prospective clients who need patents translated into English would be able to find out about my services through the Internet and Google.

The first step to that end was securing a suitable Internet URL for my business. I didn’t even know how to do something like that 15 years ago, but back in the year 2000, my Internet Service Provider was a tiny company in Silicon Valley that was run by two young guys. So I called one of them, his name was Tracy and he sounded like a teenager, and he told me how to secure several suitable domain names for my business, in particular my main domain name, I then asked a neighbor, who was a young website designer living just across the street, to create a business website to my specifications.

Nothing really happened for the first few years with my website, but from about the year 2003, Google started noticing my service and I started receiving offers to quote on patent translation projects from various sources, mostly patent law firms. I started tracking how much I made only from these new customers every year during the first ten years (it was a pretty nice bundle but I am not going to tell you how much it was here – you should have gone to the Bordeaux Conference).

This is how I am dealing with the threat posed by mega translation agencies to what used to be a very enjoyable and interesting profession and a fairly comfortable lifestyle before the greed and ruthlessness of some of these translation agencies changed the conditions under which many translators are living now.

Instead of allowing other people to use the Internet against me, which would be happening for instance if I had to bid against many other translators on projects from anonymous cheapskate clients on “marketplaces for translators”, I let the Internet, and in particular Google and other search engines, bring prospective clients directly to my website.

This is just one of several methods that translators can use to find new clients, especially direct clients. It may not work for everybody, but since it has been and still is working for me, it just could work for you too.

The alternative may be to simply learn how to live under the miserable conditions that have been created for translators mostly by mega-agencies in the so-called translation industry.

P.S. I would like to thank Danielle Gehrmann from Linguawise in Australia for allowing me to steal her picture of my presentation in Bordeaux from her Twitter account.

Empty Delta workstations at Atlanta Airport on the left

Empty Delta workstations at Atlanta Airport

“Ladies and gentlemen, this airplane is being diverted to another airport. In a few minutes, we’ll be landing at the airport in Augusta, Georgia,” said the captain’s voice from the speakers. At first I thought it was a joke, especially since the diminutive Vietnamese lady sitting in the seat next to me was smiling at me just as sweetly as before. But it was no joke, and she was smiling because she didn’t understand English very well.

After a few minutes we landed at a tiny airport in the middle of green countryside. We were told that we were free to get off the plane but if we had checked luggage, it would continue to the ultimate destination – without us. And that there would be absolutely no connections to other destinations from this airport. Despite the threat, or maybe because of it, I saw that some people were getting off the plane and walking to the main building, probably to try to rent a car.

But I couldn’t have rented a car to my destination from Augusta, GA, because my destination was the Third IAPTI Conference in Bordeaux, France. IAPTI stands for International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters, and I had to get there on time because I was one of the speakers at the conference.

As the plane full of nervous, angry and fearful passengers sat on a tarmac runway in Augusta, GA, for over an hour, the diminutive Vietnamese lady deftly appointed me her designated interpreter. I do not speak Vietnamese, but she may have somehow intuited my profession and decided to communicate with an incomprehensible world through me. When she asked me the second time: “We go Atlanta?” I did get the meaning of the three words, which sounded like Vietnamese to me, including the rising and falling tones typical of that pretty language. So I put the palms of my hands together to indicate a Buddhist or Christian prayer (I was going more or less for the Dalai Lama pose). The Vietnamese lady smiled again and nodded her understanding. Then she called somebody and gave me the phone. “My Daughter in Dallas,” she said. I was slowly getting used to her accent by now, although the word “Dallas” was understandable only after she showed me her transfer ticket. So I explained what was going on in English to her daughter and gave the phone back to her so that she could finally receive an explanation in Vietnamese.

After more than an hour of waiting, the airplane finally took off heading back to Atlanta. Upon arrival, I immediately started looking for TV terminals with information about flight delays, hoping against hope that I would perhaps somehow still be able to make it to Brussels that evening. But within a few minutes I realized that since everybody’s flight was delayed due to an earlier rain shower over Atlanta, everybody was sent somewhere else and their flights had to be rebooked. Many people on domestic flights may have been able to catch another plane within a few hours, but people on international flights were not so lucky. After I took the train from the domestic terminal to the international one, I discovered that I would have to wait in a long line of tired and despondent people zigzagging through a dreary waiting hall area.

Only some of the available workstations were manned by Delta agents who were taking their time rebooking travelers from missed international flights. Although there were about 15 workstations available, six of them were closed, see photo above, which meant that progress in the long waiting line was very slow. Fortunately, the man standing in front of me was a German engineer from Bosch whose job was to install Bosch machinery in different cities in the United States. Since I’ve been translating Bosch patents for many years, I was able to ask him a number of questions about his job during the almost two hours that we both spent waiting in line.

The travelers were tired, nervous and grumpy, but the Delta agents were relaxed. You could tell that rebooking travelers who have missed their flights and sending them to hotels in Atlanta was something they were used to, routine for them. Another indication that this was no emergency for Delta Airlines was the fact that the company did not even bother to open the remaining workstations in the booking section, probably because it didn’t want to pay additional overtime to more agents. It’s cheaper to simply let dead-tired and nervous people wait another hour to find out their fate, especially since at that point they’re so demoralized that they’re unlikely to protest.

When It Rains It’s Obviously Your Fault So You Have to Pay for Your Own Damn Hotel

When I finally made it to an agent, it was already after midnight. I was told that I would be flying next day, about 24 hours later than originally scheduled, and that they would give me a voucher for a discounted hotel in Atlanta. That was how she put it. When I asked the agent whether Delta would pick up the tab for the hotel, she told me that Delta pays for a hotel in situations like this only if the delay is the company’s fault. And since it was raining, the delay was obviously my fault, not Delta’s fault, and therefore I had to pay for accommodation myself. She said the cost of the discounted hotel was 69 dollars, but it turned out that the real price that I had to pay was 85 dollars (including tax). The discount at the “discounted hotel” was 10 dollars, the hotel desk clerk later said, the same discount that I always get at any hotel. Whenever I ask at a hotel whether they have a discount for me, I always get 10 dollars off the listed price, usually the senior citizen discount.

I was hardly in a position to argue with the Delta agent, so I just stood there waiting for the computer to accept my new itinerary; tired, hungry, thirsty, sweaty and dirty. At that point I had only made it from Norfolk to Atlanta, which is probably less than 500 miles.

“Airline Victims” from Delayed and Rebooked Flights Are an Important Source of Revenue for Airport Hotels

When I finally had my new tickets in hand, I was sent to find a shuttle bus to my hotel – not an easy task at a huge airport. Once I exited the airport, I found a number of shuttle buses at the transportation hub in front of the airport; among them were a few that were run by cheerful black drivers who were patiently waiting for “Delta victims” (as the drivers themselves jokingly put it) to make their way through the airport to their buses, without any assistance from Delta. One of the drivers was from Nigeria (I recognized his accent because I used to have a Nigerian housemate in San Francisco) and the rest sounded like locals judging from their Southern accents.

Since my pajamas were somewhere at some airport, I had to sleep naked, but Delta did give me a small bag with a tiny toothpaste container which didn’t even have enough toothpaste in it for even one brushing, and a blunt razor that didn’t do much for my appearance when I tried to use it to shave in the morning. When I took the shuttle bus back to the airport the next day in the afternoon, the driver told me that what happened to me is a frequent occurrence at the Atlanta airport not only when it rains, but also when it snows. It clearly is a good way for hotels near the airport to maintain a healthy occupancy rate, and for bus drivers to be gainfully employed, so nobody really seems to mind the frequent occurrences of interrupted travel at the Atlanta airport. The travelers themselves do mind, I am sure, when they suddenly find that their plane has been diverted to a different airport. But there is nothing they can do about it as they are totally at the mercy of the airport management and the airline.

The Fortune Cookie from my Chinese Lunch in Atlanta Did Not Tell the Truth

After wasting a full day in Atlanta, I was finally on my way to France the next day. Instead of going through Brussels, I went through Paris based on my new itinerary. I was hopeful that I had already had my share of calamities on the first leg of my journey from Norfolk to Atlanta, especially since the fortune cookie from my Kung Pao chicken lunch at the airport said, “Your luck will change from today”.

But that too turned out to be just wishful thinking.

I was sitting between two French guys during my flight with Air France from Atlanta to Paris. Unlike most other airlines, Air France generously offers free wine and cognac to all passengers. I asked for red wine twice, and for cognac once to help me forget the vicissitudes of my journey. The guy sitting next to me also had red wine twice, followed by two cognacs. But he shouldn’t have had the second cognac because after the lights were turned off as people were trying to get some sleep, he threw up. He was able to catch most of the copious amount of vomit that came out of his mouth into some kind of a bag, but not all of it, and even though he tried to wipe off the stinking mess from the floor beneath him and me as much as possible, the stench remained with me for the next six hours until I was finally able to get off the plane in Paris. He never met my eyes, and without saying anything, he just kept looking in the other direction. I never said anything to him either because I kind of felt sorry for him.

The fortune cookie failed to anticipate one more misfortune that befell Mad Patent Translator in France: I was able to make the connecting flight from Paris to Bordeaux, although just barely, but my baggage was lost. The only item of clothing that I had with me that was not quite disgustingly dirty was an extremely ugly T-shirt that I bought for 16 dollars (plus tax) at the Atlanta Airport (it may or may not have been slightly vomited on – I can’t be quite sure because that incident occurred when the airplane was plunged in darkness).

The fortune cookie from the Kung Pao lunch at the Atlanta airport must have been referring to better luck in the cards for me only after I arrived to the hotel in downtown Bordeaux where the conference was held.

I was surround by so many friendly faces of so many people in the lobby of the hotel, faces of people I have never met, although I recognized them from their Facebook pictures, saying, “Hi, Steve” to me, shaking my hand and hugging me in my garish, dirty, stinking T-shirt promoting the convenience of Atlanta airport in the hotel lobby that I was pretty sure that my luck would indeed change from that moment on, just as the fortune cookie predicted.

And my luck did finally change. Air France delivered my lost luggage to my hotel several hours later, I delivered my presentation to a room full of translators from several continents the next day, and I had a great time during the rest of the conference. I will have to describe my impressions from the IAPTI conference in another post because this one is too long already.

I realize that some people may object to my comparing in the title of my post today being stranded at Atlanta airport to being a refugee, which is a much more serious situation.

I happen to know from personal experience that being a real refugee is indeed a much more serious situation, partly because I myself was a real refugee many years ago when I was a young man as you can read in this post.

But precisely because I was at one point a refugee, I just couldn’t resist the comparison, political correctness be damned. If I am counting correctly, I have flown to Europe with Delta Airlines nine times in the last two decades or so. Out of these nine times, Delta Airlines managed to lose my luggage three times. Being without your luggage in a foreign city on another continent is more than just a little like being a refugee. To Delta’s credit, they always delivered the luggage either the next, or the same day in the case of France, to my hotel.

But at this point I am weary of taking Delta or even going through Atlanta. Next time when I go to Europe, I will try to take a different airline and I will try to arrange my flight to go through JFK, La Guardia, Newark, or Charlotte airport, especially since you can never tell whether it’s going to rain.

I don’t really need the kind of refugee experience that Delta Airlines is dishing out, apparently regularly and quite unscrupulously, to its paying customers.

Even though my journey to Bordeaux was full of obstacles and unexpected dangers and surprises, I know that despite the tragicomic flip-flops of my trip, the journey was well worth it. I am now raising in the comfort of my home a glass of Bordeaux wine to the success of the last IAPTI III Conference in France, while looking forward to the next conference of the real translators without borders to be held, hopefully next year, in a yet undetermined country and location.

Posted by: patenttranslator | September 10, 2015

Will the American Translators Association Survive the Year 2025?

In the 1970s, I took the “wagon-lit” train from Prague to Moscow and back three times to work with Russian students on construction of new production facilities for a “kolchoz” (collective farm) in a little town called “Mednoye” on the river Tvertsa between Moscow and Leningrad. Three weeks of work were then followed each time by a week of sightseeing in Moscow and Leningrad.

I worked every summer as an exchange student in different countries in the Soviet bloc (and once I was even allowed to go to Southern France to my utter delight and amazement) because this was the cheapest way to travel back then for a penniless linguistics student. So I traveled to USSR three times because I wanted to know how the things worked back in the USSR as the Beatles put it, and also because I loved (and still do love) Russian language and culture.

My Russian did improve and I did find out many interesting things about how the big country called the USSR worked back then in the 70s.

For example, I realized that most intelligent and educated people distrusted and ignored official media and instead listened to Western stations available on their radio’s short waves in Russian. Once, during my last trip to the USSR at the end of the 70s when I was working for the same big collective farm, I overheard two Russian students discussing some thorny issue with passion. “And just how do you know that?” one of them asked his discussion partner. “Golos eto govoril” (The voice said so) answered the other one. “The voice” in this case meant Russian broadcasting of The Voice of America, one Western source of information that, although it was obviously state propaganda too, supplied much more reliable information than the official Soviet media. The reference to “The Voice” seemed to have settled the issue. If “The Voice” said so, it must have been true.

One of the Voice of America programs the Russian students who I was working with were listening to on their radios was a serialized reading from Andrei Amalrik’s essay called “Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?” The essay was written in 1969, just after the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet tanks (with a symbolic presence of a few troops from other Warsaw Pact countries) by Andrei Amalrik, a Russian writer and dissident who was eventually exiled in 1976 and died shortly after that in a car accident in Spain in 1980.

It was an unforgettable experience for me to watch the faces in a group of Russian students who were listening with great interest to Amalrik’s essay booming in Russian from the speaker of a big transistor radio placed on a wooden table outside the kitchen so that everyone could hear the broadcast.

Amalrik did not live to see the breakup of the Soviet Union, but he was off in his prediction of the ultimate demise of the Soviet state by only eight years, although he obviously picked the date as a reference to George Orwell’s famous novel “1984”.

Amalrik believed that the Soviet empire would collapse because unlike Gorbachev, he thought that liberalization and democratization of the Soviet state was impossible. He said, for example: “If … one views the present “liberalization” as the growing decrepitude of the regime rather than its regeneration, then the logical result will be its death, which will be followed by anarchy.”

I am paraphrasing the title of his essay in the title of my blog post about the American Translators Association today because, although ATA is obviously not the USSR, I see certain similarities between the former Soviet state and the present association of American translators.

The Soviet Union did not live up to the promises and ideas upon which it was based. I believe that the same is true about the American Translators Association and that is why I dare to question its prospective longevity in my post today.

According to ATA’s mission statement on its website, “The ATA was established to advance the translation and interpreting profession and foster the professional development of individual translators and interpreters”.

However, the paragraph just underneath this sentence says: “ATA’s 11,000 members include translators, interpreters, teachers, project managers, web and software developers, language company owners, hospitals, universities and government”.

So it would seem that it’s not really a translators’ organization, if for example various bodies of “the government” can become members too. Why should “the government” be eligible for membership in an organization for, of and by translators and interpreters? I don’t think it should because evidently, the interests of the government, (whatever the word means) do not necessarily coincide with the interest of translators and interpreters. Sometimes they may coincide, and sometimes they may clash. And when they clash, who do you think will be in a position of more power, the translators, or the government?

But an even bigger problem that I see with the definition of the purpose of an organization of, for and by translators is the reference on ATA’s website to the fact that “project managers” and “language company owners” can become ATA members as well.

Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but it bothers me to no end that anybody can become a member of the American Translators Association. It bothers me that anybody can become a member of the American Translators Association because many members of the association who are not translators joined the association as corporate members, obviously not in order to promote the interest of translators, but to promote their own interests, since translators’ interests are not exactly theirs as well.

Why should non-translators try to promote the interests of translators?

Are translators likely to be promoting the interests of butchers, airline pilots, or postal workers? Well, no, not really, and why should they? We translators certainly appreciate the hard work of all of these folks, or most of us do, but we’re not joining their associations, are we? If we did so, we would probably have an ulterior motive for that; the act of joining an association where one has to pay an annual fee would otherwise be somewhat inexplicable, would it not?

I would only join their association if they gave me something in return for my money: butchers could offer the best cuts of meat or my favorite Cajun sausage at a discount, airline pilots an upgrade to first class at no additional cost, and postal workers … well, I don’t know off hand what they might have for me, but I could figure out something in return for my money from them too.

So I have to ask myself: when non-translators are free to join an association of translators, as they are now, why are they doing so, unless it is to secure an advantage, such as gaining easy access to cheap and pliant labor? As I wrote in a previous post about ATA, this is the biggest problem with the ATA at present and many translators have come to the conclusion that the reason why ATA is unable to represent the interests of mere translators is that it is being pulled in different directions.

However, the biggest clash between interests of different and disparate parties who, as things stand now, are perfectly free to become members of an association that is supposed to serve the interests of translators, is in this case not the potential clash between interests of the government and of translators, or between the interests of website developers and those of translators, or between the interests of representatives of hospitals and universities and those of translators, although, again, our interests do not necessarily coincide with the interests of these non-translating corporate ATA members either.

By far the biggest problem I see in the definition of who can become an ATA member is that translation agencies are also able to join the same organization for translators as corporate members.

It’s no coincidence that translation agencies no longer even call themselves what they really are.

They’re trying very hard to change their name from mere “agencies” to “companies”, or even “Language Service Providers (LSPs)” to make it seem as though it is them, the brokers, who are providing translation services. But of course, these services are provided by translators, not by translation agencies who want to be seen as “language service providers”. Another minor, really quite tiny conflict of interest that I see here is that if the translation agencies want to be able to survive and prosper, since the services must be provided by and purchased from translators, the translation agencies need to buy the services at the lowest rate possible so that these services can then be sold at a higher price. The lower the translation cost, the better for the bottom line of the translation agencies, who can then sell the translations to actual customers who need to have something translated at a healthy markup.

But as far as ATA is concerned, there is no conflict here between the interests of translators and translation brokers. What is good for agencies is good for translators as well because we are all one big, happy family.

But is it really the case that translation agencies and translators are one big, happy family? Well, not exactly, not really, not at all! As a commenter on my blog brilliantly put it in my previous post about the inherent conflict obvious in the pros and cons of the concept of corporate membership in an association of translators: “Such an association or institute can best be compared with a cart that has a horse at both ends, pulling in opposite directions. Everything else is just noise”.

I believe that translation agency owners should have the same right as anybody else to join ATA, provided that they can prove that they are in fact translators, which is to say that they translate a language (or a few) for a living. But if they don’t make a living in this manner, if they are only corporate brokers who are not able to generate income from their own translation, what are they doing in an organization for translators?

Translators’ associations in a number of other countries have solved the problem of corporate members in an organization of translators in the manner that I am suggesting as it really is the only logical choice: they don’t allow corporate membership.

As far as I know, Germany is among countries that don’t allow corporate membership in an association for translators, and so is Australia. In other countries, such as UK, corporate membership is still providing a healthy income stream to the Institute of Translation & Interpreting, although translation agencies in Britain also have an association for what they call translation companies, as do their counterparts in the United States. I talked to several people from the UK a few days ago at the Third Conference of the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) in Bordeaux, France, and they were not very happy about this arrangement. Incidentally, IAPTI does not allow corporate membership.

If you’re a translation agency, it makes very good sense to put ATA’s logo on your website if you want to inspire trust among translators and customers alike. But the only thing the logo proves is that your membership fee is paid up. In fact, it means nothing about the quality of the agency’s work or of the translations, nor does it mean that the translation agency uses honest practices for dealing with its translators. I have read at least a dozen complaints from translators who protest on LinkedIn and other online media that they were lured by ATA’s logo to accept work from an agency that turned out to be a non-payer.

As things stand now, you get to put the logo on your website if you pay ATA, which means that the ATA logo has in this case become simply an advertising gimmick. I think this is wrong. I think that the ATA logo should stand for honesty and quality.

The USSR in the end collapsed because it was based on dishonesty combined with poor quality. And that was why, just like Humpty Dumpty, it had a great fall, and all of Politburo’s tanks and soldiers couldn’t put USSR back together again.

I hope that ATA will in fact survive to the year 2025 because even as it exists now – even as it exists based on a contradictory principle according to which one donkey cart is pulled in two opposite directions by two donkeys (and one of these donkeys is much more powerful – you can make up your own mind which donkey would that be), the ATA still does a lot of useful work as most of its members are hard working translators who try their best to survive in a very difficult environment that has been recently created for them by greedy, dishonest, and extremely ruthless translation agencies.

But these important issues facing translators in the environment that has recently been created for them by the so-called translation industry are never even mentioned in the ATA Chronicle. As far as I can tell, ATA is not doing much, if anything, to help translators to change this environment that unlike a couple of decades ago, is much more hostile to translators. I think the reason why the ATA Chronicle, the journal of the American Translators Association, never even dares to mention subjects that are vital for our professions’ survival is that an honest and impartial analysis of these subjects might displease its corporate members.

I for one hope that ATA will survive the year 2025, 2035, 2045 and for many more decades after that. But unless it abolishes corporate membership to finally start solving the problem of conflicting interests, I am not really going to care much about its longevity because whenever I open up an issue of the ATA Chronicle, (my only means of communicating with the association as I only participated in one ATA conference in 1998), I have a weird déja vu feeling of being again back in the USSR.

Posted by: patenttranslator | September 2, 2015

“See how well we take care of our customers?”

When I walked into the local branch of my bank yesterday to get my hands on a little cash for my upcoming trip to Europe, (I will be leaving for the IAPTI III Conference in Bordeaux tomorrow), I saw that while there were no other customers in the bank, four people were doing something behind the counter. So, obviously, I cracked a joke about it and one of those people behind the counter deadpanned by saying ”See how well we take care of our customers? There’s four of us waiting to serve a single customer in our bank”.

It is accepted wisdom that robots and smart machines armed with sophisticated software eliminated many well established professions and that the bank teller is one of those professions. But this is only partly true. I know that two of the people who were behind the bank counter yesterday were what one could call bank tellers, one of them was the bank manager, and I think that the one who had the presence of mind to quickly respond to my joke must have been a regional manager, although she seemed younger than the rest of them.

Robots and software in ATM machines did eliminate many bank teller positions, but few people realize that the same technology has also created many other positions in the same banks. The typical teller whose job it was mostly just to shuffle around checks is for the most part history. But many “bank tellers” are needed to look at checks deposited over smartphones and reconcile daily statements of customers who bank mostly through Internet.

We now have at least ten times more banking outlets compared to we used to have because there is a “bank” in just about every Starbucks, FarmFresh or 7-Eleven store, and the transactions from these ATMs must be supervised by human tellers, just like the millions of transactions going through non-banks such as PayPal, Western Union or TransferWise. There are probably more “bank tellers” employed in this and other countries now than 30 years ago, except that their job description has changed dramatically and only a small fraction of them deal in person directly with customers.

Technology does not simply destroy jobs. It does that, but it also replaces them with other, newly created jobs.

People have been predicting how technology will do this or that for a very long time now, sometime by prophecizing that it would free us from having to work for a living. The British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology would replace all work by 2028: “For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

Marxists and Leninists were in fact predicting that exactly the same thing would happen in their version of perfect society for decades, and they were just as wrong is JMK. Neither capitalism nor socialism liberated people from work. On the contrary, both of these systems made most people work more, and increasingly for less so that more would be left for the one percent on top.

The truth is, nobody can possibly know what will happen 10 years from now, let alone a hundred years from now. Ten years ago, everybody was using a flip phone. Ten years from now, smartphones will probably look very different from the way they look now, but nobody knows now what the new look will be.

Nobody knows what will happen to the translating profession in ten years. Will computer assisted translation tools (CATs) still be around by then, or will they be simplified and incorporated into word processing software, along with machine translation, encryption and a slew of other function that will be used just like any other function in Word, WordPerfect, or free office suites like Libre Office?

Unlike merchants of predictions of future who claim to be able to predict future trends based on what they would like to call common sense, even to be able to create future-predicting software (because software can be sold!), I know only that I know so little, even about the past and the present, that what I do know really amounts to nothing (scio me nihil scire, as Socrates allegedly put it in a dialogue with Plato).

But I think I do know one thing: just like bank tellers of two or three decades ago, who only needed high school education and a pretty smile, were replaced by ATMs, and ATMs were then in turn rendered mostly idle by software for smartphones that now makes it possible to read and deposit checks and pay from the phone, translators who may only have a high school education and a pretty smile may too be replaced by hardware and software, especially since they mostly interact with customers through computers, and computers don’t care whether we are smiling, frowning, or spilling tears on the computer keyboard.

I also know that translation cannot be automated, mechanized and robotized like assembly operations at a car assembly plant. Translation is one particular product of human thinking, and human thinking requires human attributes such as creativity, compassion or the lack thereof, sense of beauty and aversion to ugliness, in addition to an understanding of a whole range of subjects depending on translator’s specialization.

Translation also often takes a long time because humans cannot be ordered to translate for hours and days on end. There is a relatively short time window during which human brain is willing and able to translate before it gets too tired and the stone of Sisyphus consisting of seemingly untranslatable words and concepts starts rolling back down the hill.

Unfortunately, most of our clients don’t understand this as they are led to believe by so-called translation industry that translation is just another moving belt assembly operation that can be organized to produce record numbers of translated words in record time by a clever production manager.

Yesterday I received an e-mail from a large law firm with a request to quote a price for translating ten Japanese patents within three days. Several of these patents were more than 10 pages long. So I offered to translate one of the shorter patents before I leave on my trip to Europe. Just as I thought, I never heard back from the law firm.

I was tempted to respond by saying that machine translation would be perfect for this job, but I bit my tongue, kept my cool and remained polite.

Just like the bank branch where four human tellers were waiting yesterday to help a single human customer, I need to take good care of my customers, even potential ones, and being polite to customers who have unreasonable demands is just part of the service.

Being polite to customers who have unreasonable demands is part of good service, but chopping up a long patent to divide it between several translators (who are probably not very good because what kind of translator would agree to work under these circumstances?) is a typical component of bad service masquerading as good service, often prominently advertised as excellent service by many translation agencies today in the brave new world of so-called translation industry.

And I don’t want to be part of this so-called translation industry.

Eleven years ago I received a letter from a fellow translator who lives in Florida. I checked on Google, he still lives there, although I’m not sure whether he is still a translator.

Many readers of my silly blog may not remember it, but before the invention of Twitter, the greatest invention since slice bread (… wait, that would be Facebook … let’s make it the second greatest invention since slice bread), people used to write whole letters to each other, usually on several pages that were covered with whole sentences, without a single emoticon!

All they had in those ancient, backward times was bolding, italics, CAPS and exclamation points!

I kept the letter, which contained at least eight pages, though I have only seven of them; it looks like I lost the last page. The letter, that was sent to me along with a number of other America Translators Association members, was titled by the translator in Florida: “Split the ATA in Two.”

The gist of the letter was that ATA is unable to represent translators because it has a major conflict of interest. Here’s a quote from that old letter:

“I began a dialog with some of my colleagues, and in the process I came to an important realization: the ATA has no way to warn its members about fly-by-night and other marginal agencies that could take advantage of our good faith when we extend them credit. Then, as I began to think about why we couldn’t protect ourselves, it dawned on me: ATA groups not only language professionals, but also their principle employers – agencies – which is tantamount to an organization like the American Medical Association (AMA) including both doctors and insurance companies, whose interest, I’m sure everyone agrees, are diametrically opposed.

I did some research: the American Bar Association (ABA) doesn’t allow law firms to be members, only individual lawyers. The AMA doesn’t allow insurance companies or hospitals or private medical practices to be members, just doctors. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) doesn’t allow accounting firms to be members, just accountants. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) doesn’t allow movie producers to be members, just writers. (Unless, of course, the producers are also writers!) The National Writers Union, which represents freelance writers, doesn’t allow newspaper and magazine publishers to be members, just freelance writers. Ditto the Authors Guild.

And on the other side of the coin, the American Bankers Association doesn’t allow bankers to be members, just banks. And the American Insurance Association doesn’t allow insurance brokers to be members, just insurance companies.

I could go on, but in this respect, ATA is alone: it is the only group that is both a professional association and a trade association at the same time – the only “hybrid” of the two. Are we so different from the rest of the world that we shouldn’t follow their lead and separate out the profession from the trade? I think not. And isn’t our name the “American Translators Association,” not the “American Translation Company Association”? What company do you know translates? None: they hire the services of people who do.”

I obviously kept the letter (sans the last, lost page,) because I agreed with it. But I remember that I thought at the time that the letter would have no impact on ATA leadership. The content of the ATA Chronicle clearly indicated to me that the structure of the association is designed to protect for the most part the interests of translation agencies, which are indeed often diametrically opposed to the legitimate interests of those of us who are translators.

A few things have changed in more than a decade since the letter was written and then received by a number of ATA members, although it was never mentioned in the ATA Chronicle. Since I leaf through every single issue of the ATA Chronicle, (although only rarely do I find something worth reading in it,) I would remember if the letter was discussed in the Chronicle.

It is obvious to anybody who has eyes to see that the status of independent translators is much worse compared to the situation at the time when the letter was written. In comparison to a decade ago, translation agencies have become much more powerful.

They don’t even call themselves translation agencies, that perfectly legitimate name. (Temporary employment agencies still dare to call themselves temporary employment agencies, don’t they?) A few years ago they started calling themselves LSPs (as in Language Services Providers, as if translations were provided by translation brokers and not translators.)

The power that translation agencies (I don’t call them Language Services Providers because they are not that) would like to usurp over mere translators, i.e. people who translate for a living, or are trying to do so in so-called translation industry, has increased dramatically.

This power is evidenced by extremely demeaning and hostile “Non-Disclosure Agreements” that translation agencies try to force down the throats of hungry translators. These contracts, which nowadays don’t really have much to do with non-disclosure of confidential information of the agencies’ clients as was their original purpose, have expanded in the last decade from a couple of double spaced pages to somewhere between three to seven thousand words.

Some of these contracts include clauses that are simply incredible – to me, anyway.

One of these clauses stipulates that all intellectual property created while a translator is working on a project for a translation agency (usually called “Company” in these contracts) does not belong to the translator, or to the client who is paying for the translation. It belongs to the “Company.”

According to another clause, very popular these days in these fake “Non-Disclosures Agreements,” the translator must agree to pay “all reasonable attorney fees” should the translation agency decide in its wisdom to sue a hapless translator for any reason whatsoever.

More recent clauses in such contracts stipulate that representatives of the translation agency have the right to carry out unannounced “audits” of translator’s premises and business practices. (A warrant signed by a judge is presumably not needed for such a raid of a private residence of a translator as it is not specified in these contracts.)

According to yet another galling and equally illegal clause, translation agencies openly declare that they have the right to spy on translators’ computers through the Internet, ostensibly to “verify proper installation of security software.”

The advent of computer-assistant translation tools (CATs) is being misused by some translation agencies to deny translators payment for what are called in “translation industry” newspeak, “fuzzy matches” and “full matches.”

Some translation agencies are trying to make translators jump through more and more hoops cleverly designed to put as much power in the hands of these translation agencies as possible.

If the translators want to have work from such agencies, they have to use an automated accounting system designed by the agency to delay payment of translators’ invoices and to shift the substantial amount of work required for managing translation projects and accounting procedures from the agency onto the translator. That is why some agencies no longer accept invoices from translators. Instead, online invoice forms must be filled in by translators, and they’re generally accepted only during a narrow time window toward the end of the month.

I could continue for quite a while describing the demands that translators who work in the so-called translation industry have been confronted with during the last decades or so since I received the letter that inspired me to write today’s post.

Fortunately, not all translation agencies subscribe to the feudalistic concept of the so called-translation industry, a concept in which the agency is Lord and Master and translators are serfs whose sacred duty is to work from darkness to darkness, without a single complaint, for the greater glory and much greater profit of the translation agency (otherwise they will be sued by agency’s lawyers and made to pay “reasonable attorney fees”.)

Many small translation agencies, I called them agencies with a human face, still value translators as professionals (often highly-educated and talented professionals) and treat them accordingly.

They understand that without these highly educated and talented professional individuals they’re nothing, because they simply don’t make money unless translators agree to work for them.

But even the good translation agencies have interests that are opposed to the interests of translators. Translators want to be paid as much as possible. Even agencies with a human face want to pay as little as possible to maximize their profit. Should they coexist in the same “association of translators” with translators who clearly have different interests?

The issues and questions that were asked in the letter that I received from a translator in Florida 11 years ago are now more pressing than ever. Eleven years ago, it was possible to suppress them by refusing their publication in a newsletter that is ostensible published for and by translators, not for and by translation agencies.

But as these questions continue to be asked daily by translators on social media, it will be much more difficult to leave them unanswered by ATA in the age of Facebook, Twitter and countless translators’ blogs.

Even if the 56th annual Conference of the American Translators Association, which will be held between November 4-7, 2015 in Miami, Florida, continues to ignore these fundamental problems and concentrates again mostly on “newbies and buddies” as the last conference did to help create a new generation of young, obedient translators, perfect for the so-called translation industry as old timers are quitting ATA membership in droves, the mounting anger of independent translators who are no longer willing to put up with the contemptuous and degrading treatment received at the hands of so-called translation industry will not go away.

This anger will not go away just because it continues to be ignored by the American Translators Association. On the contrary, the more ATA ignores legitimate problems of translators in the brave new world of so-called translation industry, the more it will be considered irrelevant by the same translators.

Here is to hoping that the American Translators Association will finally start addressing issues that were raised by a letter that I received 11 years ago from a translator in Florida.

Posted by: patenttranslator | August 26, 2015

The Impact of Machine Translation on Human Translators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Materials in Foreign Languages Are No Longer Translated by Humans

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

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

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

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

But Highly Relevant Materials Still Need to Be Translated by Humans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: patenttranslator | August 19, 2015

Stand By Your Translator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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