Clients – people who need to have something translated from and into various languages, whether they be private individuals, employees working in companies (or for example patent lawyers who need to have texts of patent applications translated into and from different languages), are often confused, baffled and stumped by trendy terms that are used in the modern translation industry because these terms are not exactly self-explanatory. Today’s blog post clarifies a few of these terms.

1. Boutique Translation Agency

The term ‘boutique’ usually means a shop specializing in something, such as ladies handbags, or men’s and women’s wristwatches. But in this case the term refers to a translation agency that is quite small, by any objective standard. The word ‘boutique’ is code for ‘small’ in the same way the word ‘cozy’ is code for ‘small’ in the real estate business – no real estate industry professional worth his or her salt would call an apartment or house ‘small’ no matter how tiny it might be.

Boutique agencies thus generally come in two sizes:

1.Small and


However, although efforts to computerize translation as much as possible are the hallmark of the modern translation industry, no matter how small a boutique translation agency may be, each such boutique agency is run by at least one (1) living person (as opposed to a computer or a robot) and sometimes by as many as two or three actual living persons. Efforts to computerize the translation industry as much as possible have so far been concentrated on replacing translators by computers or robots who do the actual translating work, not the persons who buy and sell these translations, i.e. boutique agency owners and operators.

This is because translation is a relatively simple activity and translators can thus be relatively easily replaced by computers and software, unlike highly qualified sales professionals.

The process of buying translations at low prices and selling them at higher prices is much more complicated and requires a much higher degree of sophistication than the actual translating process and that is why computers or robots are never used to replace boutique agency operators, only translators.

2. Full-Service Translation Agency

The main difference between a boutique translation agency and a full-service translation agency is that while boutique translation agencies pride themselves on dealing with only a few cute specialty fields and languages (such as translating financial prospectuses from Danish to Mongolian and vice versa), full-service translation agencies specialize in everything: absolutely every subject and absolutely every language, in any direction.

If you can think of it, they specialize in it, be it a language, subject, or anything else.

Full-service translation agencies proudly claim on their websites things like, “As we have more than 4,900 translators across the globe, you can be confident that we’ve got every language covered. With over 110 years’ experience and 59 + million words translated, we’ve got commercial and technical native-speaking translation experts for every challenge.

However, with so many far-flung “technical native-speaking translation experts” dispersed across the entire world, it is only natural that “full-service” translation agencies have no actual information about the translation experts who will be doing the actual translating work for them.

Beyond a few words stating that full-service translation agencies have thousands of qualified translators (obviously, not in their offices since they would not all fit in there), no other information about the education and qualifications of these many thousands of highly qualified translators is available on the websites of full-service translation agencies.

You just have to trust them that they work with the best native-speaking translation experts in the world, rather than the cheapest warm body available at a given moment.

Unlike boutique translation agencies, full-service translation agencies come in all sizes as the term is completely size-neutral. A full-service translation agency can be headquartered in London or New York and have dozens of satellite offices on several continents, or it can be just one guy working on a laptop from his kitchen somewhere in Moldova or India. And sometime, the guy working on a laptop from a kitchen rents a P.O. Box number in London or New York to have an impressive address for the headquarters of his company in the most important markets for translation.

The immense scope of languages and services provided thus unfortunately makes it difficult to ascertain any information about any given full-service translation agency. And since the majority of translation agencies, big and small, claim to be “full-service”, no information is available about translators who will be translating for example a complicated bio-technology paper from Korean to English, or an equally complex county school brochure from English to Chinese.

3. LSP (Language Service Provider)

I have already written several posts on the subject of how the term LSP, which stands for Language Services Provider, has replaced the term “translation agency” by the translation industry for about the last decade, while the overwhelming majority of customers still have no idea what it means.

This term continues to be a major source of confusion for our customers, who generally have no clue what it refers to unless the abbreviation is explained, which is almost never the case. The translation industry seems to assume that our customers in the meantime have learned the meaning of the abbreviation. But unfortunately, that is only wishful thinking.

Despite the fact that I wrote a special explanatory post on this subject more than five years ago, search engines have not picked up on that post’s valuable information, which is already historical in terms of how recent information in the blogosphere must be to be still considered relevant.

When I Googled the abbreviation LSP a moment ago, the explanations for the abbreviation offered by the search engine were ranked as follows:

  1. Louisiana State Police
  2. Layered Service Provider, and
  3. Local Strategic Partnership.

The words “Language Services Provider” do not appear in the Google’s first three pages of rankings, unless you Google the actual title of my post from five years ago, “What Is an LSP (Other Than a Misnomer?”) in which case my blog post should come up right on top in the second position (after Layered Service Provider, which is “a deprecated feature of the Microsoft Windows Winsock 2”, whatever that is).

My own theory is that translation agencies are so ashamed of being called translation agencies these days that they came up with an incomprehensible (to most people) acronym, just like Prince replaced the name Prince in the 1990s with a fancy unpronounceable symbol with instructions that the symbol should be pronounced as “the artist formerly known as Prince”. He did it because he wanted to get back at the Sony Corporation, which owned his contract. All this because he found the company’s methods too dictatorial.

As I have said, I am not really sure why translation agencies replaced two words that are easily understandable in English and most other languages that I can think of with an incomprehensible abbreviation, unless they are ashamed of what the words “translation agency” have come to mean these days.

Although, since translation agencies do not provide translation services, rather they simply buy them from translators and resell them at a profit, one reason why the words “translation agency” were replaced by a mystical abbreviation could also be that the translation industry wants to make translators simply disappear in the wide and wild wasteland of the translation industry, so that actual translators will never be found by actual clients, only by translation agencies.

Posted by: patenttranslator | October 17, 2016

For a Little Bit of Love I Would Go to the End of the World

Za trochu lásky                                               (Okna v bouři)

Za trochu lásky šel bych svĕta kraj

šel s hlavou odkrytou a šel bych bosý

šel v lednu, ale v duši vĕčný máj

šel vichřicí, však slyšel zpívat kosy

šel pouští a mĕl v srdci perly rosy

za trochu lásky šel bych svĕta kraj.

Jak ten, kdo zpívá u dveří a prosí.

For a little love

 For a little love I would go World Region

She walked with her head uncovered, and I’d go barefoot

went in January, but in his soul eternal May

The storm went, but heard singing scythes

He went through the desert and had a heart of pearls of dew

for a little love I would go region of the world.

As one who sings at the door and begs.

Jaroslav Vrchlicky  ((from the collection of poems Windows in the storm)

For a Little Bit of Love

For a little bit of love, I would go to the end of the world

With my head uncovered and barefoot

In January, with eternal May in my soul

In hurricanes, I would hear blackbirds singing

In deserts, with pearls of dew in my heart

For a little bit of love, I would go to the end of the world

Like somebody who sings at the door and begs.

This is a poem that I learned in school when I was about 14 or 15. It was written by Czech poet Jaroslav Vrchlicky (1853-1912).

The first paragraph is the original text of the poem in Czech. The paragraph in italics is a machine translation by GoogleTranslate and the bolded paragraph is my own amateurish translation. My translation is not very good because I am not a poet. But you can probably understand what the poet was trying to say in another language because although I am not a poet, I am a human, not a robot. It so happens that only humans can actually understand communication between humans. Animals too understand and can communicate with humans, but not on the level of poetry because poetry is based on words.

Although, one can probably understand what the poet who died more than a century ago was saying only after a certain age. When I read it in a class at the age of 14 or 15, I thought I understood it, but I did not. Some 50 years later, I feel again that I understand it, but I am less sure now. All I know is that the way I understand is not exactly the same way that you or anybody else may understand it.

Your understanding of the poem may be similar to mine depending on who you are and how old you are, but it will not be quite the same.

Even if I was a poet, and a good one, I would not be able to translate the text so that it would feel exactly the same or almost exactly the same as the original. For one thing, though the poem is very short, only 69 words, I don’t think it’s possible to find words in another language that would rhyme the same way they rhyme in the original language … kraj – máj (world – May), bosý – kosy – rosy – prosí (barefoot – blackbirds – dew – begs).

Every time a poem is translated into another language by a poet who knows both languages, the original melody of the original language is lost forever. Part of the lost melody may be words that rhyme in some languages, such as in European languages, or the rhythm of syllables and the ephemeral beauty of characters in other languages, such as Japanese or Chinese. These are essential elements of a poem that cannot not be reproduced in another language. The associations that exist among words and characters in the original language and in the cultural subtext of every language is another part of a translated poem that is always lost in a translation.

A poem can be imitated or mirrored in another language, and a good poet can sometimes imitate a good poem quite well. And most people who don’t know the original language will of course never find out what the poem sounded like originally. Very few Chinese people know what Shakespeare was really saying in his Sonnets, although quite a few can probably recite some of them from translations into Chinese. And very few French people know what Lermontov was really saying in his poems, although quite a few may have read them in a French translation.

I remember, for example, the beginning verses of one of Lermontov’s poems, called “The Demon”. But I only remember them from a Czech translation because it was so good that it made almost the same impression on me as Lermontov’s poems may have made on generations of Russian speakers. I don’t know who translated it, people generally don’t remember translators, but the fact that I remember it is proof that it was a damn good translator. But of course, it is much easier to imitate the original melody of a Russian poem in a related Slavic language because both languages are in many respects quite similar, unlike for example Czech and English, or Chinese and English.

But not even the best poet, who is at the same time also an excellent translator, can really translate even a very simple and short poem and have it achieve the same effect as in the original language, even if the translation only has 69 words in it.

And yet, most people firmly believe that just about anything can be translated by a machine: you just need a computer with software. All that is needed is the right algorithm and some powerful hardware, and anything can be translated; ask anyone in the “translation industry” and that is what many people will tell you.

I can already hear in my head the argument of proponents of robotization of translation and other intellectual activities and the vehement disagreement with what I am saying about machine translation.

Of course, poems cannot be translated by a machine because they describe a uniquely human experience that can be appreciated only by another human – but machine translation is perfectly suitable for example, for technical texts, they will say.

But every communication between humans is a uniquely human experience, including communication about and translation of technical texts.

In fact, the technical texts that I have been translating for the last 30 years are usually more difficult to translate than a mere poem because they are almost always much more complicated than the poem that I used for the purposes of my silly blog today. And unlike my translation of the poem, my translations of technical texts must be accurate. Otherwise they would be useless.

Last week I was asked by a client to translate only the claims from a Japanese patent dealing with mechanical engineering. I know the subject of this particular patent very well because another client has been sending patents about precisely this subject for about 10 years in several languages, which means that over the years I have translated patents on precisely this subject from Japanese, German and French. I also remember that I had to hire translators to help me with translations for the same client and on the same subject from languages that I didn’t understand: I remember that there were some patents in Portuguese and Italian in that batch of patents to translate as well.

But even with all the experience that I happen to have on this particular subject, I did not really understand Claim 1 of the patent, which had 394 words in English after I translated it from Japanese.

The client got back to me after he received my translation and asked for clarifications for two or three passages in the claim. He had the original English text of the claim in front of him because it was an American patent application that was filed, with modified claims, in Japan.

So I explained to him that it is not really possible to translate well a long, rambling claim from Japanese like this because I would need to be able to understand the whole patent, which means that I would need to read and translate all of the text, not just the claims, while looking at the figures. That is why I translate patent claims always at the end, once I understand what the invention is about.

Even after I fixed my translation based on the client’s comments, he still came back for clarification of one short sentence in my translation. He said that this sentence did not make sense. And he was right: in the next e-mail he then told me that he hadn’t realized that this sentence had been inserted into the claim after the last revision of the text, which meant that he did not have it in the version of the claim in English that he was comparing to my translation of the Japanese text.

Which seems to confirm the premise of my post today, namely that robotization of technical translation is a really bad idea. Technical translation may be even more difficult than poetry translation because unlike a poetry translation, technical translation must be accurate.

And of course, it also confirms my assertion that all communication between humans is a uniquely human experience, including e-mails relating to translations of patents and technical texts.


Every adversity carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.

(Wisdom from a fortune cookie which came with my order of Chicken Lo Mein.)

At the beginning of this century, things were looking up for translators. At least I thought so.

In Anno Domini 2000, plenty of patent law firms in Silicon Valley were keeping me busy with patent translations, mostly from Japanese and German. Once in a while I also supplemented my steady diet of patents with translations of different documents related to lawsuits, such as correspondence among software developers, sales people and lawyers.

I remember one such large project that rolled out of my fax machine (that was how work used to come to me back then) toward the end of 2000 and it was a translation from Russian, a language that up until that point I had neglected in the mistaken belief that it wasn’t profitable, at least compared to Japanese. But I had to share this urgent translation with another Russian translator because the law firm needed it ASAP, even though I asked for a considerable rush surcharge. Hmm, I wondered. Can I charge the same rate for Russian as Japanese?

The internet quickly changed the character of Mad Patent Translator’s work starting around 2000.

I no longer had to go through indescribable suffering when trying to decipher poorly legible Japanese characters in copies of faxed patent applications. Now all I had to do was go online and download a legible copy of the document from the internet. Instead of looking for obscure technical terms in heavy dictionaries, I was able to quickly look up technical terms in various online databases.

All the big changes in my profession were due to the way the internet changed how we work. The biggest change for me was that my website, launched in 2000, started bringing me new clients in a big way after about 2003.

In 2005, 2006 and 2007, my website brought in work from a lot of new clients, mostly patent law firms who found me on Google. After 2005, new clients who found me in this manner accounted for between 30 and 60 percent of my total income each year, in addition to a steady supply of work that I received from existing clients. I could not believe my luck. I thought my business was recession-proof and that things would continue like this …. basically forever.

I remember when a Czech lawyer turned real estate broker (probably due to oversupply of lawyers at that time in that part of the world), asked me to what extent I was noticing the effects of the depression on the US economy when I was on vacation in Prague in 2008. I laughed and told her that I saw no effects of a recession in my line of work whatsoever and did not really expect to see any.

But nothing lasts forever and what goes up must come down, even when you translate complicated patents from difficult languages.

I see in a table of new customers that I created especially to follow how well or poorly my website works that after 2010, the rate of income that I was able to receive from new clients decreased to about 15% each year up until this year.

So what happened? Don’t they still need to have all those patents translated into English? A number of things happened, I think. Severe price competition from countries such as India and China is probably a factor. Many translations of patents that were ordered in the past may no longer be required because unlike in the 1990s, websites such as the European Patent Office website clearly identify equivalent patent publications that exist in English, obviating the need for expensive translations.

And translation agencies, large and small (but large in particular), figured out how to play the SEO (search engine optimization) game by strategically placing crucial keywords in fiction-based commercial propaganda texts on their websites so that these keywords would be picked up by search engines. And when a potential client needs to have a patent translated from Japanese, German or French, for example, the website of the agency may come up on top of the first few ones displayed by Google.

In addition, many translation agencies must be paying a lot of money to Google and other search engines for keyword-based advertising.

When I typed into Google “patent translation” this morning, among the first listings displayed on top in the paid-advertising section were five translation agencies, two of them large translation agencies that kind of translate everything, including patents, and one of them a new one from China, proudly advertising that they charge only ten cents per word.

Well, if a translator gets five cents a word from this Chinese agency, that is probably still a good deal for the translators if they live in China where the cost of living is relatively low. But this agency can probably translate only from and into Chinese, and their translations into English may not be very good because they can’t afford translators whose first language is English at the rates they must be paying given how much they are charging.

Only one of the agencies shown on top among the advertisers on Google this morning in fact does specialize in patents. I know this because I used to translate Japanese patents for them for many years. But then they replaced me with cheaper labor when I became too expensive for them. They were facing the same problems with competition that I face – from translators in countries with a low cost of labor, from better indications of relevance among different patent applications on the EPO (European Patent Office) and WIPO (World Intellectual Property Office) websites, and probably even from machine translation in some cases, especially if the translation is only meant for prior art search and machine translation indicates that the document is not very relevant.

Several years ago I saw that this translation agency was advertising for translators specializing in Japanese patents who would be willing to work with their own CAT (Computer-Assisted Translation) tool. I wonder how much their CAT pays their translators for “full matches” and “fuzzy matches” (for the same words or similar expressions). Nothing for same words and next to nothing for similar words would be my guess.

There are 13 listings this morning offering patent translations in the non-paid section, which is based on relevance rather than strategically placed keywords and the power of advertising dollars.

Most of these listings are again from translation agencies, and one of them is the agency mentioned above that was also displayed in the paid section.

But I am happy to see that based on relevance, my own translation service is listed twice in the top 13 entries on Google: Patent Translator’s Block, Diary of a Mad Patent Translator, is listed in the third position, just under the listing for the European Patent Office website, and my website at is listed in the seventh position. So my own service is listed by Google twice as well, although I don’t pay for advertising.

Now, I know that Google’s results are skewed depending on what Google knows about the person who is running a search and the results that I see on my screen this morning may not necessarily correspond to what other people will see when they type in the same keywords, depending on what Google knows about these people.

But that is why I sometimes go on Google and other search engines in places where people can use a computer for free, such as a library, or an airport, to check what will be displayed when I type certain keywords into a search engines.

And the results are usually the same or very similar, because relevance still matters. If Google gets too greedy and displays mostly entries that are paid for, ignoring entries that are obviously relevant, people will eventually defect from Google to other search engines, such as MSN’s Bing. (God help us all should that happen!)

So that is why virtual competition between a tiny commercial website advertising a small translating outfit such as mine with top dogs in “the translation industry” is still quite successful, even after 16 years of many tumultuous changes in the field of technical translation, although admittedly not quite as successful at this point as it was in the early 2000s.

There is so much more advertising that I have to compete with on the internet now compared to the situation 16 years ago, and a lot of it is mostly fake advertising.

It is not very difficult to fake a message on the internet these days to achieve a certain purpose, such as to advertise directly or indirectly to attract new clients.

To demonstrate how easy something like that is, I cheated a little bit in my silly post today.

Did you realize that the motivational quote in the introductory part of my post today was a total fake?

I did find the message “Every adversity carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit” in a fortune cookie that came with my order of Chicken Lo Mein. But then, when I Googled the message, I saw that it was something that was actually said by Napoleon Hill (1983-1970), who according to Wikiquote was an American author who was one of the earliest producers of the modern genre of personal-success literature.

So, to give it more authenticity and make it appear as though it was in fact a piece of wisdom, thousands of years old, that originally came from the mouth of a bearded Chinese sage (which must have been the intent of the cookie factory that manufactured this fortune cookie), I translated it with GoogleTranslate into traditional Chinese.

I can see that the Chinese characters for “every”, “adversity”, “equal”, “greater”, and “benefit” are contained in the machine translation because I studied Chinese for a while before I gave it up to concentrate on Japanese, but I am not sure how much the Chinese translation was massacred by the machine.

Since my blog is not accessible from China (unless you know how to get around the censorship imposed on using the internet in China by the Chinese government), up until this point, most people reading the post probably did think that the wise statement about adversity was old Chinese wisdom, rather than just an advertising slogan that came from the mouth of yet another slick, calculating American peddler of snake oil.

Just goes to show that you can’t trust anything that’s on the internet these days.

Posted by: patenttranslator | October 4, 2016

Giving the Devil His Due Always Ends the Same Way

Alois Jirásek (1851 – 1930) was a Czech high school teacher who in his spare time collected old Bohemian legends and wrote an incredible number of historical novels filled with intrigue and betrayal. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature four times, but never received it. The Czechs were very disappointed every time it was announced that somebody else was going to get the prize … just like the Japanese were bitterly disappointed when Haruki Murakami did not receive the Nobel Prize for literature last year.

I think the problem with Jirásek’s work might have been that no good translations of his books were available a hundred years ago. For what it’s worth, I think that Murakami should have gotten the prize, and hopefully will receive it sooner or later, given that his books have been translated into many languages, including of course English.

I briefly mentioned one of the legends that Jirásek described in his collection, Legends of Old Bohemia in my post titled “The Mystery of Alleged Translation of “HOW TO RIDE MOTORCYCLES FROM JAPANESE”.

Jirásek’s version of an old legend, called “Dívčí válka” (“War of Girls”, or war of girls against men, or of matriarchy against patriarchy), is based on the description of a medieval chronicler in Bohemia called Cosmas who recounted in his Latin chronicle at the beginning of the 12th century in an old, gruesome legend, featuring almost as much violence as Matt Damon’s movies, but in much more horrific and graphic detail, how Czech girls declared war on men who refused to be governed by women after the death of a fair and just Princess called Libuše who used to peacefully rule the Czech nation for many years.

The Bohemian legend of “Faust’s House” that I will shamelessly and completely inappropriately (because it has nothing to do with translation) appropriate for my silly blog post today, is much more recent, probably from the early 19th century, and is also included in Jirásek’s fascinating collection of Bohemian legends.

According to Jirásek’s version of a legend about Faust’s House (2,343 words in Czech, which would be a relatively easy translation job), a poor, homeless student who had no place to live and was so broke that he could not pay rent, decided to move into a gloomy, abandoned house on one corner of Karlovo námĕstí in Prague. This despite the fact that as everybody knew, the house was cursed. According to the legend, this was the very house from which Dr. Faust, better known from Goethe’s play, was taken to Hell by the Devil as payment for serving Faust for years and making every one of his wishes come true. Faust was trying mightily to fight the Devil off by using his greedily acquired knowledge of black magic and spells, but to no avail.

In Jirásek’s version of the legend, to save time, the Devil simply abducted Faust through a hole in the ceiling to his new infernal residence and that was it for poor Dr. Faust.

Incidentally, Faust’s House, which was according to other legends built on a former pagan sacred ground where people used to bring sacrifices to the Dark Goddess Morana in pagan times, was in addition to Dr. Faust also home to several famous alchemists and many other strange and clever people skilled in turning clay, or literally nothing, into money. Fittingly enough, the spooky house is currently the home of the First Faculty of Medicine of Charles University.

Although fine Bohemian masons tried to brick over the hole in the ceiling many times, it never worked – the next day the hole would appear again. That must have been one reason why nobody wanted to rent the house. But the student paid the hole in the ceiling no mind and settled comfortably into the house, especially since on the first morning he found in one of the rooms a small black dish containing a silver coin called a thaaler.

Incidentally, a coin made of silver from a silver mine in a place in Moravia, called in German Joachim’s Thaal, became so popular in 17th century Europe that people brought it with them to the New World, which was how the word ‘dollar’ came into existence.

The next day, the student discovered another brand new shiny thaaler in the small black dish to his delight and utter amazement, and since another silver thaaler would then magically appear in the small black dish every morning, the student slowly made himself comfortable in the old, abandoned house, reading Dr. Faust’s fascinating books about black magic and spells while wood logs cheerfully burned in the chimney and kept him warm and cozy. At the same time, the formerly penurious student was becoming gradually more and more affluent.

In the end, however, the student becomes too greedy, dares to invoke the Devil to ask him for gold instead of silver, and as you may have guessed already, the Devil uses the opportunity to take the poor student’s greedy soul with him instead of making him rich – through the handy hole that was waiting for just such an event in the ceiling.

This story has fascinated me for a long time, ever since I read it as a teenager about half a century ago. If I could find me a spooky, abandoned old house full of forbidden books, where every morning I would also find a reasonable sum of cash in a little dish made of black onyx, that would be a dream come true for me.

I am pretty sure that had that happened to me, had I been that student, I would have been perfectly happy for the rest of my life with a single silver thaaler a day and would never have provoked the Devil like the cocky student in the old legend.

We all come into this world naked, hurting, hungry and crying. As we grow up, we discover the power of money and just like the student in the story, eventually we begin to understand that we simply have to figure out a way to make a silver dollar appear magically in our little black dish, which is called making a living in modern parlance.

Whether the Devil exists or not, those of us who become too greedy are always in mortal danger of losing our souls, depending mostly on what it is that we do for a living and who we happen to work for.

Just like the student in the legend about Faust’s house on Karlovo námĕstí in Prague, we probably need to pay a little more attention to old legends.

Especially when we are really comfortable, engrossed in our favorite book while the fire is pleasantly raging in the chimney of our favorite room on a cold evening – we need to make sure that we are not sitting directly under a hole in the ceiling whose purpose may not be quite clear to us.

Posted by: patenttranslator | September 28, 2016

I Am Not a Freelancer

I used to be one but now, I am the owner of a small, specialized translation business. Anyway, that’s what I tell people when they ask me what it is that I do for a living.

I still do most of the work the same way and by myself. I just decided not to call myself a freelancer anymore because to most people, a freelancer is a person who doesn’t know where the next job is coming from. This is true, but there is no reason to emphasize this aspect of my profession by using a term that is understood by most people so mono-dimensionally.

How it works is that you stop being a freelancer when you stop calling yourself that.

I have been thinking of myself as a freelancer since 1987 when I was fired from a stupid job by a dumb blonde named Gwenn. I wonder what she looks like now. Is her hair all white or is she dyeing it? I bet she’s dyeing it.

I never thought that something like that could ever happen to somebody as wonderfully gifted as myself! Never, ever in a million years! And yet, it did happen, I did get fired and thus my freelance career was serendipitously launched.

Sometimes a major blow to our significant ego is exactly what we need to change the direction of our life’s journey. Without a major blow or significant event (not unlike the trauma of being hit over the head very hard with a blunt object), many of us might never realize that there are many directions from which to choose from, and not just a few different ones. Instead, we stubbornly continue in just one direction, mostly as a result of inertia, the strongest power in the universe.

It Was Not a Bad Life Being a Freelancer in the Pre-Translation Industry Era

Up until now, more than 29 years later, it has been so that as a freelancer, I have not known and still don’t know where my next job is coming from. But each year during those twenty-nine years, I have still somehow managed to make enough money, more money every year than I used to make in the years during the first decade of my working life when I was an employee.

I am not sure how exactly it works, but many freelancers who know what they’re doing often make more money than employees. After a while, of course, because in the beginning, all they can do is keep wondering about where the next gig is coming from, and the gigs are usually few and far between.

I remember how in May of 1987, I was walking our dachshund Muffin, whom we adopted from the SPCA’s pound and who since has gone to the happy hunting grounds on heavenly green meadows more than twenty years ago, in a small park off Lake Street in San Francisco. I forgot the park’s name because my wife used to call it Muffin’s Park.

In one corner of the park, there was always a cluster of old Russian men sitting on the benches playing domino. I could smell the delicate aroma of the bark of the big eucalyptus trees in the park while walking around and watching the the rest of the people in the park, endlessly wondering whether it was even possible to make ends meet when one does not know where the jobs will be coming from and finally deciding that I must give it a try, whether it is possible or not.

I was young then, (if mid 30s counts as young), and since I am now about the age of those old Russian guys who used to cheerfully play a wicked game of domino just about every time when I would walk Muffin in that park, I must be old now too.

In my head and in my brain I still feel young, but my body knows it is a lie.

Being old has a lot of disadvantages, mostly related to wear and tear of the human body which is unavoidable just like any other wear and tear; in cars, for example. Some cars run well over two hundred or even three hundred thousand miles (especially German ones, the ones that beat tests with cheating software), but few last more than that.

The problem with people is, unlike the engines in cars, the engine inside us cannot be equipped with cheating software, or swapped for one that has fewer miles on it.

But being old also has a few advantages mostly related to the fact that things that used to matter a lot at one point are no longer as important as they used to be.

At the peak of my career, I simply had no choice but to make enough money to support a wife, two children and a number of different dogs over the years – three dachshunds, one German shepherd/something else mix, one pit bull/something else mix, plus an Australian bearded dragon lizard. There were probably a few more creatures there that I don’t remember right now – and I had to feed them all!

That’s a lot of heavy responsibility that younger people, mostly men actually, (I know that some women will hate me for saying that, but it happens to be true), are asked to assume. But older people are mostly allowed to cast off the heavy stone that they used to carry around their neck for decades.

If I still lived in San Francisco, now that I am old, maybe I could join the old Russian men playing an exciting game of domino on the benches in Muffin’s Park. My Russian is good enough for that, I think … except that they are probably dead now. God knows who is sitting on those benches in that park now, or if the benches are even still there, next to the children’s playground.

But a Freelancer’s Life Is Not What It Used to Be These Days

So anyway, as I was saying, I don’t call myself a freelancer because I don’t think of myself as a freelancer. I prefer to think of myself as an owner of a small, specialized translation business, who as it happens occasionally keeps a few other translators who may think of themselves as freelancers quite busy.

There is a big difference between people who called themselves freelancers 30 years ago and people such as translators who call themselves freelancers now. Thirty years ago there was no Internet yet, or at least most people had no idea what the word meant, including myself. To become a freelancer, in the age of fax and modem-to-modem communication when e-mailing a wordprocessed file in WordPerfect 4.2 with a handshaking signal through a phone line meant being at the cutting edge of the latest technology, was to really go out on a limb, given that 99% of other, normal people commuted to and from work, on average about 30 minutes each way if you lived in San Francisco, about 90 minutes each way if you lived in Tokyo. You really had to believe in yourself to ignore somewhat arrogantly what everybody else was doing back then. Current freelancers are probably a little bit better off in this respect.

If you did know something back then and believed in yourself and persisted, eventually you would line up a number of translation agencies as customers who would keep you busy most of the time at reasonably high translation rates. And little by little, as you were becoming more specialized and better at what you were doing, you would be able to graduate to better paying clients, and even if all of them were just translation agencies, most of them understood that they had to pay reasonably well if what they wanted in return was good work.

That was how the world of translators who called themselves “freelancers” used to work in the pre-translation industry age, before the corporate version of “the translation industry”—which is less than two decades old—was invented.

Two or three decades ago, there were no demeaning and illegal NDAs (Non-Disclosure Agreements) yet. And when translation agencies started sending NDAs to translators to sign them, they were only very short agreements in which the translator simply had to promise not to disclose confidential information.

Two or three decades ago, translation agencies were not creating databases of “freelancers” with hundreds or thousands of people calling themselves translators in them so that they could figure out which ones are willing to accept lower and lower rates.

Two or three decades ago, there were no mega-agencies and most translators who were working as true freelancers for translation agencies were working for very small companies run by people who were usually former translators and understood what translation was about and identified with translators, at least to some extent.

But because the status and working conditions of “freelancers” now are very different in the era of “the translation industry”, I think that translators worth their salt should make up their minds whether they want to call themselves “freelancers”, or something else, such as owners of a specialized business.

Very different rules, and a lot of them, now apply to “freelancers” who these days are anything but free. After all, the main reason why I became a freelancer all those years ago, despite all the risks that came with the territory, was that I wanted to have more freedom to live my life the way I wanted.

And it is really hard for me to think of people who are currently called “freelancers” and who work for “the translation industry” as independent professionals who have the kind of freedom that freelancers used to have when they were still freelancers.

MT propagandists always stress how futile it is to try to resist the progress of technology. Machine translation keeps getting better and it’s here to stay, they tell us. Change is inevitable and translators better get with the program if they know what’s good for them. Within a few years machine translation will be as good (or almost as good) as human translation and we’d better get used to the idea that most of us will become MT post-processors. Post-processing of the machine translation detritus is a tool that translators need to add to their arsenal of useful skills.

Technological progress is constant, not linear but exponential, it’s coming at us, poor little translators no matter what we do, etc., and so on. The only other option, for those stubborn enough not to join their more obedient colleagues, is to quit the profession and start doing something else.

Then they sometime show PowerPoint slides for better impact, complete with charts and curves illustrating the progress that machine translation has made over time. It all looks very scientific to most people – with the exception of translators who, unlike most people, actually understand what machine translation is about and how it works.

Technology keeps getting better, that is true. But that does not mean that a tool can replace the humans who are using this tool. If MT propagandists, who are usually sales people, were able to look at things as they are, they would have to recognize that the progress of machine translation has been only incremental, and very slight at that, in the last few years, in fact so slow that for most people, it is unrecognizable.

Especially when we are talking about translations between disparate languages such as English and Japanese or Chinese, or English and Slavic languages, where there has been very little progress.

One reason why machine translations of claims in Japanese patents on the websites of Japan Patent Office (JPO), World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), and European Patent Office (EPO) are nonsensical is that the machine translation software does not understand that the verb that belongs to the topic of the claim, called wadai (話題) in Japanese, which is similar to subject in European languages, but not quite the same thing, is hidden at the end of a long sentence, even if the sentence has several hundred words.

It would seem like a bug that would be relatively simple to fix – all a programmer would have to do is tell the software how to recognize a claim and that if a sentence is a claim, the software needs to look first for the verb at the end of the sentence and only then come back to the verbs preceding the last one. But so far, the MT geniuses working on the software package have not been able to figure out this simple fact and program the software correctly. How is that possible after at least 15 years of “exponential progress”? Don’t they understand how the Japanese language works at all?

In machine translations from English to Slavic languages, for example, the endings of nouns are often wrong in just about every sentence “translated” with machine translation.

Unlike in English, the system of declensions of nouns is quite complicated in Slavic languages. For example Czech has seven cases in singular and seven cases in plural with different endings for nouns. And because these different cases are combined with many different classes of nouns that are based on the grammatical gender and the type of the noun, a very complicated system is created in this manner. But it is still a finite system that can be programmed into software if you understand how the system works in the language.

I remember when I was studying Japanese in Prague in the seventies, Izuru-san, my Japanese friend from Kyoto who was studying art history, had the whole system of Czech nouns taped on the wall above his desk so that he could learn the damn system by looking at it every time when he was not sure about the correct ending. (Which inspired me to try and do the same thing with Japanese characters).

It took Izuru-san’s remarkable but relatively slow human brain about 2 years to learn the system of nouns in Czech by constantly looking at it. But for some reason, machine translation programmers have not been able to program a relatively simple finite systems of noun endings in Slavic languages into their software in the last 20 years. And this even though it is a finite system of possibilities that can be clearly defined in mathematical terms that could be easily handled by software and hardware.

The fallacy of MT propagandists is that they seem to think that a tool can replace the humans who are using this tool. They don’t really seem to understand the difference between these two concepts – a tool is not the same thing as the end result of the work that can be done with this tool.

A powerful vacuum cleaner does not replace a janitor. Powerful weapons and other military equipment costing a million dollars do not replace the intelligence of a soldier on the front line (or the lack thereof). They’re just tools, tools that don’t even understand what it is they are used for.

If MT propagandists really were knowledgeable language and translation experts, and not mere propagandists and salesmen who are trying to sells us something, or ingratiate themselves to “the translation industry”, they would have to start every lecture by saying the following words: Machine translation is not translation and probably never really will be because it is just a tool, not the actual product. Real translation is based on the understanding of the meaning of the words, which is something that a software program will never be able to do. Machine translation is a very powerful tool that can be used both by non-translators and translators, within certain, very definite limits.

And that is all it is and ever will be.

But this is not what they say. At least I have never heard “an expert on machine translation” admit that the Achilles heel of machine translation is that it is not really translation and never will be because there is this thing called “meaning” in human languages that cannot be programmed into a software package.

Instead, they are trying to sell us their version of reality – namely what machine translation is supposed to be, a version that you know has nothing to do with reality if you know anything about translation.

To say that we will eliminate the boundaries between human languages with machine translation software is like saying that people will bridge over distances between us and the things we want to do by learning how to fly. But there is this thing called gravity, combined with the fact that unlike birds, we are too heavy to fly, even if we could learn how to grow wings. So we have no choice but to buy an expensive ticket, get on a plane and entrust our lives to a pilot who knows how to use a tool that can be used by humans for flying called airplane.

I find all this talk about the inevitability of constant and exponential progress kind of infantile because it ignores the very real possibility (probability, or intermittent certainty?) of something called regress.

If 150 years ago most people lived only to the age of about 60 and now they live well into their eighties (women to the age of 84 because they finally figured out how to beat patriarchy, and men only to the age of 77 because they are not as smart as women), does that mean that as a result of unrelenting, exponential progress, 150 years from now most people will live on average to the age of 200, and 300 years from now most people will be immortal?

Actually, the way things are going, it seems much more likely the result of exponential progress in everything will be that no people will be living on planet Earth within a few decades.

Let’s hope that this will not be the case. But even if people somehow do figure out how to survive the next three centuries on a planet full of stockpiles of thousands of nuclear weapons, a planet that is heating up more and more every year, it is clear to me that even 300 years from now, machine translation will still be nothing more than what it is today, namely a tool that does not replace the end product of the work that can be done with the tool, just like a vacuum cleaner does not replace a janitor, and a machine gun does not replace a soldier.

However, considering the steady, albeit incremental progress of machine translation in the last few years, it is possible that in about three centuries, the machine translation packages on the websites of the Japan Patent Office (JPO), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), and the European Patent Office (EPO) will be able to identify the verb that goes with the noun in the topic (話題) of the claims in Japanese patents and that some machine translation packages will be even able to match the right endings with the right case of nouns in Slavic languages.

After more than half a century of incremental rather than exponential progress, maybe machine translation programmers will figure out how to teach their software basic rules of Japanese and Czech grammar within the next three centuries or so. Although it does seem to be a tall order at this point, especially since even the assumption that there will be any human life left on this planet 300 years from is at this point already a somewhat unlikely proposition.

Posted by: patenttranslator | September 17, 2016

We Have the Best Translators in the World – At Least 5,000 of Them!

Most people know that if they want something done really well, they’ll need to hire the best people available at the price those people want to pay and then let these people work their magic. But for some reason, this simple truth is not exactly what “the translation industry” is saying in marketing propaganda on websites of translation agencies who nowadays prefer to call themselves “LSPs” (Language Services Providers, but often are called Lame Service Providers by translators), as if “agency” were a dirty word, or possibly because it already is a dirty word.

If you take a look at a few translation agency websites, large and small (although typically large), just about everything else is more important judging from their marketing propaganda than whether the best person is hired for the job and whether this person will be given enough freedom and sufficient time to do the job well.

We Have the Best Translators in the World: 5,000 to 12,000 of Them

In passing, usually in a single sentence, translation agencies say on their websites that they “have the best translators”. But almost none of them will let you see who these excellent translators are and what kind of education and experience they have.

A law firm would let potential customers browse a database of lawyers specializing in different fields on its website and would include a description of their education and experience and enable potential customers to view their e-mail address and telephone number. How else can clients make up their minds about the qualifications and suitability of the person who is to be entrusted with an important legal case or an important legal translation? Potential clients want to know who they are hiring.

Unlike clients who hire lawyers and who usually know something about the service they are buying, clients who are hiring a translator through the intermediary of a translation agency are usually hiring a pig in a poke.

Translation agencies don’t really “have any translators”, let alone 5,000 of them. They only have databases of freelance translators. But they love to brag so much about the number of translators they “have” these days that they now seem to somewhat immodestly claim on their websites that they “have thousands of translators”, generally 5,000 to 12,000 translators when the numbers are specified.

Are there in fact 5,000 really good translators in this world? I think the number is probably much, much smaller for just about any given field and language combination.

And if a translation agency in fact does have for example 5,000 translators in its database, what does it really mean? How can anybody in that agency possibly know which of those 5,000 translators are really good in a given field and language combination? A project manager probably knows and understands the strengths and weaknesses of maybe a few dozen old hands, but is it even possible to know something like that about such enormous numbers of translators?

If I were a customer, a large number of translators that “a translation agency has” would be for me a disincentive to hire this agency because to me, it would mean that the agency is simply creating or purchasing databases (they go for about a hundred bucks) with the highest number of warm bodies in them so that the cheapest warm body could be matched with a job to generate maximum profit for the agency.

The truth is that translation agencies absolutely do not want potential customers to be able to contact translators directly because if they did, they might realize that many agencies, although by no means all of them, are really only middlemen who, instead of adding value to the translation, mostly just add significantly to the cost.

And All of Our Excellent, 5,000 Translators Are Now Our Slaves Based on The Contracts They Signed

I have many contracts in my files with translation agencies that I signed without hesitation some 20 or even 30 years ago. They were usually one to two pages long, 300 to 500 words, and the emphasis was put mostly on the duty to maintain confidentiality of documents. Many translation agencies never asked me to sign anything unless their client insisted on a confidentiality agreement to be signed by all translators. Those were usually among my best agency clients with whom I built friendships lasting many years, often until the death of the translation agency owner.

But I would rather cut off my right hand, the one I use for signing, than sign the contracts that many translation agencies are forcing translators to sign these days.

Yesterday, a translator published a contract on Facebook with an agency that was 19 pages and almost 11,000 words long. There probably is a good reason for this: if you really do have 5,000 translators in your files, you are likely to have no idea which ones are good and which ones are horrible. So you need a contract with many slippery clauses and more than 10,000 words in it so that you can refuse to pay the translator should the end-client refuse to pay you as the middleman, especially if you have no way to determine whether a translation is good or bad since you don’t speak the language and don’t know much about translation.

Instead of trying to find the best possible person for the job at hand and cultivating a lasting relationship with the best translators, many translation agencies now seem to go out of their way to make sure that the most insecure and least experienced translators will be hired by listing so many demeaning and dangerous terms and conditions described in contracts (that they are forcing translators to sign) that only newbie translators who are just starting out and thus may understandingly be extremely fearful about where their next job is coming from are likely to sign these incredibly demeaning and usually also illegal contracts.

The Difference Between Employees Three Decades Ago and “Independent Contractors” Today

The fact that these long contracts turning workers, who are ostensibly “independent translators”, are nowadays turned into virtual slaves may also lead to other nasty, unintended or unanticipated consequences.

Contracts of employees usually spell out the benefits that employees are afforded, while contracts with freelance slaves describe in great detail mostly just the duties of translators who are ostensibly “independent contracts” and thus in a normal world should have few duties, other than do their work well and on time.

The Internal Revenue Service lists on its website 20 conditions distinguishing independent contractors from employees, the most important one being the degree of independence that contractors have, in contrast to employees who must obey all the rules and regulations of their employer lest they be fired.

I also have an employment contract in my files with my first employer in the United States. The contract mostly lists benefits afforded to loyal employees, benefits such as health insurance, life insurance, dental insurance, vision insurance, vacation days, sick leave days, and things like that. The employee contract did not specify pay raises, but every year my manager notified me in writing about a small, but significant raise, which all good employees were given automatically in those good old days more than 30 years ago.

I signed the contract in 1982 and stayed on the job for three mostly enjoyable years, until I decided that I needed something more challenging and moved to Japan. (My manager wrote me a glowing final evaluation, which, unfortunately none of my prospective employers in Japan was able to read because it was in English).

What a difference there is between contracts that were signed between employees more than 30 years ago in America, and contracts that translation agencies are trying to force translators to sign these days, and not only in America.

On the one hand, since translators are officially called independent contractors, they have no benefits such as those that I had automatically as an employee.

The only benefit that an independent contractor has is that, usually after a long time, from one to three months these days, the independent contractor is entitled to a payment – although the payment may be reduced by factors such as “full matches” and “fuzzy matches”, i.e. non-payment or partial payment for repeated words, which is a scheme that can best be described as illegal wage theft.

The remainder of the contract between a translator and a translation agency generally specifies a great number of duties for the translator, some of them quite onerous. For example, the translator, although she is supposed to be an independent contractor, may be forced to submit invoices by using a labyrinthine interface of an agency’s byzantine accounting system. Depending on the agency, she may be prevented from using machine translation in any way, shape or form (because something like that may be deemed too dangerous), or on the contrary, forced to use machine translation under the rules set in stone by another translation agency, if this leads to a greater profit for the agency. The translator may also be forced to use a specific CAT (Computer Assisted Translation) tool which is particularly conducive to extracting maximum profit from translators by way of a highly lucrative wage theft scheme.

Many of the clauses in these contracts, including the “non-competition clause”, would be illegal in most jurisdictions on this planet (with the possible exception of North Korea, as I like to add), and they strip any semblance of independence from nominally “independent contractors”.

I wonder whether the lawyers writing these contracts ever ask themselves the following question:

If more than 50% of the clauses in a contract with a worker who is nominally “an independent contractor” is in violation of IRS rules and regulations that define employees and contractors, how is an agency going to defend itself in court against the claim that it has 50,000 employees, instead of only four claimed employees?

At the very least, all the translators who signed such a contract and worked for the agency, even on a single translation, would likely appear to the tax authorities as employees from whom taxes should have been collected and sent to the country’s treasury department, and failure to do so could result in stiff penalties.

I am not aware of any case like that at the moment, but I would not be surprised to find out that this already has happened or will start happening, sooner rather than later.


Posted by: patenttranslator | September 3, 2016

Where Does Your Money Go When You Buy a Translation?

Most companies and people who need to buy a translation probably never ask themselves this question. Whether it is a personal document costing less than a hundred dollars, or a very large number of long documents such as legal contracts, patents, reports, or correspondence between unscrupulous, cagey sales people plotting how to skin consumers alive – there are times when all of these documents must be translated from a foreign language.

After all, I never ask myself, where does the money go when I pay for a book, a dinner in a restaurant, or for a car, although I probably should.

In “the translation industry”, the cash flow follows different, often circuitous paths, depending on which segment of “the translation industry” sells the translation to the end-client. I would say that the flow of money spent on translations depends to a large extent on the organizational structure and size of the company selling the translations to clients.

As a general rule, the amount of money that will in fact end up in the pocket of the translator who did all of the translating work is inversely proportional to the size of the translation company, typically a translation agency. The bigger the agency, the less money is generally paid to the translator. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that most of this money is spent on other people who earn their living in “the translation industry” food chain who, as it happens, are not translators.

Where Does Your Money Go When You Buy a Translation from a Large Translation Agency?

There are many people who are not translators and who work for large translation agencies, also called mega-agencies by translators. All of these people need to make money, although the business income is generated by the work of the translators, not by the work of other people working at the agencies, such as agency owners, lawyers, accountants, sales people, project managers and sales managers, and various kinds of other managers on different levels.

True, these people also contribute to the business’s smooth functioning, especially given that without their work, the translators might not have any work for themselves, with the possible exception of lawyers whose main task seems to be writing extremely long, intimidating, demeaning, nonsensical and often illegal Non-Disclosure Agreements, or NDAs. These NDAs are sometimes not really Non-Disclosure Agreements at all as they often specify things other than confidentiality, such as payment terms, and confidentiality of documents is mentioned only in passing.

The simple fact that if there were no translators to translate what needs to be translated, a translation mega-agency would only have expenses and no income whatsoever is hardly ever mentioned on the websites of mega-agencies.

My guess is that only about 30 percent of what customers pay for translations to mega-agencies is distributed as payment to translators, while the remaining 70 percent is swallowed by the other non-translating occupations, which could be called ancillary occupations. The owner of a mega-agency alone is of course paid millions mostly for owning the agency. I see him or her mostly as a huge vacuum cleaner constantly sucking up huge quantities of hundred dollar or Euro bills.

When there is more than one owner of a mega-agency, this often leads to major problems, even if (or perhaps especially if) there are only two owners who used to be happily married, or at least engaged, to each other. I used to work for the agency discussed in the linked article in the pre-internet era about 20 years ago when it was still a small operation paying good rates on time. But as it grew, over the years it became a poster child of a typical mega-agency that is hated both by translators and by smaller agencies for its greed and aggressive tactics. I stopped working for them about 15 years ago. The article linked above seems to confirm the truth of the saying that what goes around, comes around.

Because divorces are often messy and expensive, there are two schools of thought on how to deal with a messy and expensive divorce and why a divorce is often so expensive:

1) “It’s cheaper to keep ‘er” (it’s better to stay together no matter what in view of the cost).

2) “Divorce is expensive because it is worth it”.

I think it all depends on the circumstances. One thing for sure is that a lot of work of thousands of translators is needed to pay for such a messy business divorce, although this is probably the last thing on anybody’s mind (anybody’s with the exception of the hard working translators, of course).

So that’s where a lot of money made by translators may eventually end up as well – in the bottomless pockets of divorce lawyers.

Where Does Your Money Go When You Buy a Translation from a Small Translation Agency?

Some small translation agencies are virtually indistinguishable from their large brethren.

They basically mimic the predatory operating principles of large agencies and as a result, they are just as inimical to the interests of translators when it comes to things such as rates paid to translators and working conditions created for them.

But not all of them. Some smaller translation agencies are still trying as much as possible to continue the business traditions of translation agencies from the prehistoric pre-internet era and unlike mega-agencies, often believe in and practice very different business ethics.

A few smaller, usually highly specialized translation agencies pay somewhat higher rates than mega-agencies, and just as importantly, they try to pay quickly and treat translators as human beings rather than as obedient translating slaves.

One reason for this is that while modern translation agencies, and mega-agencies in particular, are usually owned by monolingual “entrepreneurs” who don’t understand what translation is about and who don’t give a damn about translators, translation agencies of the pre-internet era were often owned and run by translators or former translators who not only understood translation issues, but were also better able to identify with the interests of mere translators, although they too obviously strived to achieve the maximum profit.

It so happens that these two goals are not necessarily mutually exclusive, depending on how a translation business is run.

As a result, at smaller translation agencies, the translator’s share of the profit derived from translations is usually in the range of 40 to 60 percent, which works much better for the translators, and quite well for the person running the agency as well.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am stating here that like many translators, I wear two hats as I am both a translator and an owner of a very small translation business profiting from the work of other translators that I sell at a surcharge to direct clients to whom the rhetorical question in the title of this silly post is addressed.

Twenty years ago, I was mostly translating myself and the share of income that I was able to generate from the work of other translators in projects that I organized was relatively small. As “the translation industry” managed to successfully lower the rates being paid by agencies to translators such as myself, at this point I am more and more working mostly as a one-man translation agency. I don’t want to work for “the translation industry”, especially since it treats translators as easily replaceable cheap help.

But I still work for a few translation agencies operating based on the concept of the traditional small translation agency model mentioned above, and I am grateful to them for continuing the tradition of decent translation agencies before they were infected by the virus of the “translation industry” and for helping me pay my bills.

I think it is logical that as more and more experienced translators are reluctant to work for the new type of predatory translation agency model so prevalent in “the translation industry”, the result is that “the translation industry” is becoming more and more dependent on new, starting translators, also called “newbies”, and on translators living in third world countries with a much lower cost of living who may not necessarily be translating into their native languages, or who may be translating subjects that they are not familiar with.

Although the quality of a translation is often in the eye of the beholder, this trend is of course bound to have a detrimental influence on the quality of the translations that are produced in this manner by “the translation industry”, not to mention the horrible consequences of utilization of “language technology”, such as post-processed machine translation, a very popular trend in the modern “translation industry”.

And Where Does Your Money Go When You Buy a Translation Directly from a Translator?

Something interesting happens in this case: you as a customer pay less for the same thing that you are buying, namely a translation; while the translator gets more for the same thing that she is selling, namely a translation … which would seem to contradict the theory that “the translation industry” even has a right to exist.

Well, I think that it does have a right to exist, even if it is just a middleman, but not in the same form in which it exists today.

Translation agencies, the good ones anyway, do play a useful role because many translators, possibly the majority of them, simply don’t know how to connect with direct clients so that they could sell their translations to them, and many customers simply don’t want to bother looking for individual translators, especially since most of them are very hard to find on the internet.

But those translators who know where their customers are and who are able to figure out how to connect with them discover that they don’t need translation agencies. I have heard quite a few translators say the magic words, “I have never worked for translation agencies” and I can usually detect pride in the way the words are said, justified pride in my opinion.

Although translation quality is in the eye of the beholder, I think that a logical conclusion is that translators who work directly for clients pay more attention to these translations, simply because they are being paid more, if for no other reason.

It so happens that “the translation industry” cannot exist without translators because they are the ones doing the actual translating work and “the translation industry” is not able to translate, which would seem to indicate that even its name is a misnomer (hence the quotation marks).

But translators can exist without “the translation industry” and can do just fine, thank you very much. They can charge more for the same work, just like a house owner who is able to sell her house directly to a client without going through “the real estate industry” can make more money by selling the same thing, namely a house, to a customer who is paying less for the same thing, namely a house.

It should be said that the comparison of “the translation industry” to “the real estate industry” is an imperfect one: here in the United States, the most common commission that real estate agencies take when a house is bought and sold is 6 percent, while as mentioned above, in “the translation industry” this commission is generally in the range of 40 to 70 percent.





 The popular BP Translation Conference is back to Budapest for next year for all those Badass Polyglots out there.
Interested? Have an idea? Sign up!
Want to be a speaker? Let us know:
Day 1 will be held in a beautiful belle epoque cinema, with a series of short, but compelling and informative talks (20 minutes each), while Day 2 will take place in a more familiar setting: 3 parallel sessions with presentations / workshops.Have a favourite speaker you would like to see? Interested in fringe events? Have your say!




Posted by: patenttranslator | August 30, 2016

Marketing and Propaganda Overload

Since the newspaper that I read, or at least scan every day, has been recently bought by a skinny, bald rich guy whose name is Jeff Bezos, I’ve noticed how a couple of times a week there are sections in it that look just like news sections, but instead are what is called in newspeak “supplements”, or propaganda of foreign governments, the Chinese government and the Russian government in particular, that is aimed straight at American readers. This foreign propaganda probably looks just like another section of the Washington Post to many readers who may easily miss the labeling in small letters on the first page identifying these propaganda sections of the Chinese and Russian governments as “advertising supplements”.

And why not? If Russia and China pay good money to Jeff Bezos to print their propaganda in my newspaper, why not let them sell their “news coverage” to American audiences? After all, what is the difference between China, Russia and America at this point?

The news broadcasts on my local TV stations are also full of segments that are mostly advertisements masquerading as news, for instance when the beautiful people called “news casters” inform the public about the importance of using sunscreen on hot, sunny days at the beach. It is so hard to distinguish between straight advertising and the news/advertising mixture that I basically only watch weather forecasts on my local TV channels.

Facebook was basically designed to make loads of money by turning everything that anybody says and anything anybody thinks about into an advertisement for something.

My guess is that Shakespeare would not have appreciated that a world that used to be a perfect stage for his comedies and tragedies only a few short centuries ago was turned into a huge marketing platform for launching products and services. There is not a single marketing or advertising segment in any of his plays, unless the end scene in Romeo and Juliet is a marketing platform for assisted suicide.

It is not easy to identify the marketing content that I find so frequently in my newspaper as it is now seamlessly blended with what is at this point called news.

For example, on Tuesdays, the Washington Post publishes a “Health Section”, which contains articles that simply must be hidden, paid advertisements for various medications and medical products and services.

On Saturday I pick up a Real Estate Section with my paper from my driveway – about 20 pages of dozens of advertisements for high-priced rentals and properties for sale, with a few articles thrown in for good measure to laud the beauty of new real estate properties in and around Washington D.C.

Affordable properties, which means small condos with a few hundred square feet, start at about $449,000 (for the really tiny ones), which is still much cheaper than in San Francisco, a beautiful city full of wonderfully weird people where I was very fortunate to live for a whole decade while the rents were still reasonable there in the 1980s, before everything was turned into commercial and political propaganda. With the exception of current rates of lending institutions taking up about half a page, there is no real information in the “Real Estate Section” about what is going on in real estate, it’s all just marketing sold to subscribers instead of news.

It is thus no wonder that when the number of readers of a formerly completely insignificant translation blog mushrooms after a while into a respectable number, a perfectly natural reaction of a happily surprised blogger would be to start thinking: gee, maybe I can make some money out of this thing after all.

Especially given how the community of formerly independent translators has been abused for more than a decade and is still being battered, abused and shortchanged by “the translation industry”, i.e. brokers who may not know anything about translation, but who are genuine and highly innovative experts at creating very sophisticated designs for buying translations low and selling them high, monetization of a translation blog is probably a thought that has been on the mind of many a translation blogger. Since the easiest way to turn a blog into a money making instrument would be to turn it into a marketing platform for something having to do with translation, it certainly did cross my mind that this is something that I might try myself too. After all, the rates being paid to translators by “the translation industry” are quite a bit lower than ten or five years ago.

Since it only makes sense to start looking at alternative revenue sources under these circumstances, some bloggers, including translation bloggers, are pulling out all the stops in their pursuit of life, happiness and trying to make money the American way – by advertising goodies they are selling while pretending to be providing useful information.

I am not going to name names here, but you probably know who they are, and they themselves definitely know who they are.

After all, it is not just bloggers, including translation bloggers, who are trying to make money by offering information that is mostly advertising. Everybody is doing it, and some people are doing it so well that sometimes it feels like the whole word, all of which used to be a stage in Shakespeare’s time, has been slowly but inevitably turned into a huge marketing platform.

It makes me sad when I see that some translation bloggers have converted their blogs into launch pads for commercial propaganda that have very little information in them apart from what is clearly identifiable as marketing content.

The blogs are in this respect very similar to corporate “blogs” of translation agencies that instead of providing useful information for readers (clients and potential clients) mostly just praise the excellence of services provided by wisely managed and totally cool and awesome translation agencies.

I am not really that much against the idea of using a translation blog as a platform to sell something. If I could figure out how to make money in this manner and still dare and be allowed to have some fun, maybe I would start doing it myself.

But what does bother me is when particularly greedy translator-bloggers don’t mind spreading the pernicious propaganda of the translation industry in their posts. Instead of explaining to newbies where things stand at this point, how “the translation industry” really works and what it is about, they offer courses for newbie translators in which they promise to teach useful survival techniques. But instead of explaining to new translators how to find clients, in particular direct clients (which would be very valuable advice), they teach them how to prepare the perfect résumé that will be noticed among thousands of other resumes saturating “the translation industry” mill, and how to adopt new cutting-edge technological tools, such as adding post-processing of machine translation detritus to the range of translator’s skills.

When I read translator blogs that spread this kind of “translation industry” information, I have to wonder whether the bloggers really believe what they are saying in their posts, or whether “the translation industry” is paying them to write these things, just like China and Russia is paying Jeff Bezos to subject Washington Post readers to propaganda disguised as news supplied and paid for by foreign governments – governments of countries that are not very friendly to Americans, or about as friendly as the modern form of “the translation industry” is to translators.

Knowing how to go about post-processing of machine translation is a useful skill, but only if you consider knowing how to quickly and efficiently dig your own grave with the best tools to be a useful skill.


The argument that “GoogleTranslate” translates more words per minute than all human translators in one year is much bandied around as a rationale for why human translators must adopt machine translation (MT) as a tool for their own work not only in PR materials (commercial propaganda) of “the translation industry”, but now also on some translators’ blogs, usually blogs of former translators working for “the translation industry”, or of those who use their blogs as a marketing tool to attract newbie translators to their paid webinars and other offerings. 

This argument is usually accompanied by statements like these:

  1. The market for human translation and for MT is worth X billion dollars already and it is growing by X percent a year.
  1. Translators and “the translation industry” have already lost 99% of our market opportunity to Google and Microsoft.
  1. We, human translators, must embrace technology instead of stubbornly resisting it and use it to work faster because that’s what clients want.
  1. Technology is progressing so quickly that MT will be “almost as good as human translation” within (fill in a number of years). MT will be just as good (or almost as good) as human translation very soon (although estimates vary, from three to 20 years from now; there has not been not much change in this respect in the last two decades or so).

Et cetera, and so on and so forth – this kind of philosophical prognostication and prophesying has been going on for quite a while now.

All of these arguments are somewhat valid, as far as they go, at least from the viewpoint of “the translation industry”, i.e. the people who buy translations from translators and sell them at a higher price to their clients. “The translation industry” would obviously love to be able to gorge itself on a bigger piece of the pie, especially since it is such a huuuge pie, as Bernie Sanders would put it. (I think that it is important to make the distinction between actual human translators and “the translation industry”; that is why I always use quotation marks when referring to this particular industry.)

Like many other translators, I have been using machine translations as a tool for my own purposes – mostly to give me an idea of the material that I am about to translate – for more than a decade.

But based on the experience of this human translator who has been trying to figure out whether I can use machine translation to supplement my own income, namely income derived from my own human translations and from the work of translators who kindly work for me in exchange for the money I pay them (which also makes me part of “the translation industry”), none of the arguments listed above really makes a whole lot of sense.

First of all, it is clear to me that nobody can put a number on the “value of the market for translation”, whether it is human translation or machine translation.

If one looks at the constantly growing global population of people who need strong headache medicine because their life is constant suffering and pain, the market for Percocet, a strong, combined opioid/non opioid pain reliever, would be certainly on the order of several billion people, and thus could be valued at many trillions of dollars. And although different pharmacies and stores charge different prices, according to an answer that I found on Yahoo, Percocet costs about 300 dollars (I assume this is per bottle, not per pill, at least not yet). Unfortunately, this means that 99% of the people who might want to use it because their life is constant agony, torture and pain cannot afford it. In third world countries, it would be more like 99.99% of people who are unable to purchase this wonderful drug.

The high price of Percocet and other opioid and non-opioid drugs is thus probably why most people simply opt for booze.

The estimate of the monetary value of the worldwide market for human translation is similarly nonsensical if 99.99% of people who might benefit from translations can’t afford to pay for them. Since human translation, especially human translation obtained from highly educated and highly experienced translators, is very expensive, even many people who could afford human translation decide to do without it and opt instead for machine translation, or no translation at all.

And even though what passes these days for human translation, namely the stuff “the translation industry” is selling to initially unsuspecting clients, is somewhat less expensive, it is still expensive and will remain so no matter how many trillion words “must be translated”, supposedly because they are simply there.

The high cost of human translation is also one reason why “the translation industry” has been telling us for quite a few years now that the market for machine translation is worth X billion dollars and that Google and Microsoft have already captured 99% of this market while both translators and “the translation industry” were asleep.

But there is a good reason why Google and Microsoft have quasi-monopolized this market: the MT service provided by Google and Microsoft is free, unless you need huge quantities of MT, in which case the cost is still quite miniscule.

So how do we as translators compete on price with a service that has been free already for more than a decade as “translation industry” entrepreneurs?

I remember that about 20 years ago, when machine translation that almost made sense, at least some of the time, was still a new-fangled invention, a patent lawyer who found my website online called me to inquire how much would I charge to edit a machine translation of a Japanese patent for him. He insisted that the machine translation was “pretty good”, but that it still needed some editing. I remember that he said the words “pretty good” two or three times.

I declined to help him because I did not want to downgrade the value of my services to such a low level at that point, and also because I did not know what else to say and how much to ask for.

Ever since then, or for about 20 years, I have been intermittently trying to figure out how to use MT to actually make money by editing it as a highly experienced, human translator, knowledgeable in the field of patent translation, given that I have been working in this field for almost three decades. Specifically, I have been trying to figure out how to make money from MT not by working as a slave for a “translation industry” intermediary, but on my own, when I work for a direct client.

As you have probably guessed by know, even though I would find this kind of work quite distasteful, I will do just about anything for money.

But although I must have offered this kind of service dozens of times, so far there have been no takers. I don’t offer post-editing of MT detritus very often. But if I feel that the client is very “price-sensitive” (cheap, looking for a bargain), in order to get my foot in the door, so to speak, I sometimes offer several options to a new potential client:

1) A full translation (option A), which might be for example a thousand dollars,

2) Translation of claims and the text describing figures, which might be for example a hundred and fifty dollars (option B),

3) Post-edited machine translation (option C) for the same price as option B, usually if it has been a slow month.

This sometimes results in takers for option B, but so far, there have been no takers for option C. The problem is, basically all of my clients and even potential clients not only know how to get a free machine translation of the text of a patent, but they also know that edited machine translation would be of such a low quality that it still will not really be worth the money that I am asking for it.

Which does not mean that there is no market there for edited (post-processed) crap, which will still be crap, although on an improved level – we could call it high-grade crap.

But since my experience is basically anecdotal, it may be applicable only to the relatively narrow field of patent translation. There must be some materials that do not really need to be translated, but that could make managers of some enterprises look very sophisticated, value-conscious and forward-looking and all that if they could show graphs and flowcharts and other props showing how much information they have been able to obtain with translations at a very low cost.

Translation of materials that do not really need to be translated, but that might make management look good if these materials were translated, is probably the prime market for post-edited machine translations.

But is there a market for post-edited translations of patent applications? My experience so far seems to indicate that the market for post-edited translations of patent applications does not exist because these post-edited translations would need to be highly accurate.

For better or worse, there just does not seem to be a market in the field of patent translation for what one might call high-grade crap, or slightly less inaccurate crap, which would be the logical result of applying the MT post-editing approach to patent translation.

So since there does not seem to be an easy way to monetize post-editing of machine translations in my field, I don’t think I will worry about the fact that I am leaving 100% of the MT market to Google and Microsoft.

What about your field, dear fellow-translators? Do you think that there is a market for post-editing of machine translations in your field?

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