In his book, “Das Unbehagen in Der Kultur” whose title was cleverly translated into English as “Civilization and Its Discontents”, Sigmund Freud offers an analysis of why, in his opinion, the human quest for happiness makes little sense in this unpredictable world. We are threatened by so many external forces that are mostly beyond our control (disease, aging, floods, earthquakes, wars, presidential elections and telemarketing) that some sort of largely ersatz happiness is achievable only if we realize that happiness can only be attained episodically, once in a while, a long while, usually.

The default is not happiness, but something else. If we can accept that, the default will not necessarily be unhappiness. If we cannot accept that, the default will necessarily be unhappiness.

Happiness can also be found in small things. Instead of looking for everlasting love, for example, a little bit of love may do the trick, the kind that was popular for a while in the sixties (“if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with”). Although, seventies would already say “watch out for herpes”, and eighties would replace herpes by AIDS. Happiness indeed is fleeting. Not really the warm gun that the Beatles were singing about in the sixties. It is more like something that may or may not be at the end of the long and winding road from their last album in 1970.

You probably did not need Sigmund Freud, or me, to tell you that. And you may be wondering what all of that has to do with what is called the translation industry. Well, the discontent with the current situation in the translation industry is palpable among so many translators these day.

All you have to do is read what they are saying in the discussions of the discontents on social media and on their blogs. Everybody is complaining that things are really pretty bad in the so called translation industry at this point.

Up to a point, I would have to agree with the translation industry’s discontents who often vent their frustration on social media.

About 20 or even 10 years ago, what was occurring in the translation industry in general and in my specialized field of patent translation in particular made good sense, at least to me.

Everybody was learning how to take full advantage of the many new capabilities of the Internet. Especially in my field of patent translation, the changes were incredibly liberating.

Instead of having to deal with illegible, second or third generation faxes of Japanese patents that were very hard to read, I was finally able to download clearly legible copies of the text for translation from the Internet.

Internet also simplified many other tasks that could be really difficult for translators just a few years ago. I am talking for example about the fact that transliteration of foreign words and foreign names into Japanese through a Japanese alphabet called katakana sometime makes the words impossible to figure out in English, especially when you cannot be even sure from which language the word or name was borrowed. All you have to do now is to type the word in katakana into a search engine to find the English equivalent, even if it is for example a Dutch name and you don’t speak any Dutch.

But the changes occurring in the so called translation industry now can hardly be called positive.

Internet messed up the current status quo to such an extent that the very existence of our profession is considered uncertain by many translators and non-translators alike. Some people believe that our profession is so precarious, unpredictable and without much in the way of job security that translators are among the many classes of professionals, who used to have a secure job, but who are now sometime called the precariat.

I for one completely disagree with the notion that educated and experienced translators, especially those of us who specialize in fields requiring specialized knowledge in addition to knowledge of languages, will ever run out of work.

But I do have to agree with the core of the complaints of the translation industry’s discontents about the current status of the so called translation industry.

It is certainly true that Internet made it possible for just about anybody with a laptop in the kitchen to start calling himself or herself “an LSP”, or “language service provider”, which is what translation agencies prefer to call themselves now.

It is also true that these “LSPs”, together with blind bidding auction sites, and not just Proz or Translator’s Cafe because just about every week I receive an invitation to join a new one, have succeeded in driving the rates paid to some translators all the way to the floor.

Yesterday, for example, I received yet another an e-mail from an “LSP”, that said:

“Dear Sirs/Madame,

I am sending you an email with the details of our company to see if there is any way we can become a strategic partner in translation”.

Attached to the e-mail was a list of rates for translation from and into just about any language one can think of, starting at 12 cent and topping at 18 cents per word, which means that this “LSP” must be paying very low rates to its translators. One interesting sentence in the same e-mail reads as follows:

“I can send you few names of our biggest customers, agencies that use our services: The Big Word, Translate Plus UK, MCIS Canada, RWS Group, CTS Group, Logos Group, Etc.”

The same bottom-feeding “LSP” also later called me on the phone. I did not pick up, but I know who it was because the call ID had a number that said “SKYPE USER” and they already called me from the same Skype number a few months ago. Well, you can save money when you simply use Skype instead of a telephone line, and you can move your telephone number from country to country effortlessly, for example when you are pretending that you are based in England when you are in fact based in Eastern Europe.

This is how large companies get work done through proxies these days, which is one reason why the pressure on translation rates is unrelenting and why the quality of translations is so atrocious.

Incidentally, have you noticed how, after years of trying to replace the neutral and self-explanatory term “translation agency” by the acronym “LSP”, which means “language services provider”, although nobody outside of the so called translation industry seems to know that, translation agencies are now pushing instead the term “language provider”?

I am not kidding. Instead of simply providing translations at first, followed by language services, translation agencies are now providing language to languageless people, sort of like what professor Higgins did for Eliza Doolittle. Since languagelessness is a major problem in this world, it would be difficult to think of a more noble mission than trying to cure this horrible disease.

My advice to discontents among customers with the current quality of what is produced by the so called translation industry, who happen to be customers who simply need accurate, reliable and precise translations, would be: know your translator.

By saying “know your translator”, I am obviously paraphrasing the famous inscription “Gnothi Seauton” (Know Thyself) on the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, where Pythia priestesses called oracles for a fee answered questions of visitors to guide them in their future actions. This was their job for more than a thousand years, and they were pretty good at it, although they were probably high on something while they were prophesizing (or maybe that was why they were so good at their job).

The problem was, the oracle’s response was not always perfectly clear. When one such oracle told one such visitor named Croeses, who was about to attack Persia to enlarge his empire: “If you attack Persia, you will destroy an empire”, he thought that he would destroy Persia, as he did not realize that the response of the priestess meant that he would destroy his own empire.

However, the principle of “know your translator” is completely unambiguous. If a translation goes first to a “language provider”, such as a large translation agency, it can then be easily filtered through a rock-bottom price subcontractor, only to be butchered by some poor fellow in a third world country who can still survive on what he will be paid according to this modern arrangement after all the players, much more important than the translator, have taken their cut, given how popular is currently this arrangement in the so called translation industry.

I think that the chances that the translation will be pretty bad are pretty good under these circumstances.

On the other hand, if the translation buyer in fact knows the translator and the last time around the translation from the same translator was really good, it is unlikely that the next translation, unfiltered through several parasitic layers, would be so bad that the buyer might lose his own customers as a result of the poor quality of the translation, the modern equivalent of losing an empire.

Posted by: patenttranslator | June 29, 2015

The Life of Every Translator Is Full of Unexpected Challenges

 
Thirty years ago, when I was still working as an employee (visitor services representative) of the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, two years before I started my own translation business, an elderly German lady who worked as a part-time receptionist/multilingual problem solver for a translation agency called me and asked me whether I could come to their office to take a look at a document for translation. It was only a couple of blocks from where I worked on Market Street, so I went there on my lunch break.

At first I thought that the handwritten letters she showed me were in German because they were written in a cursive script that I could not read at all. But the letters were written in Czech, around 1880, in a neat but at first completely incomprehensible cursive style that was taught at that time to pupils in German and Czech schools.

The part-time receptionist/multilingual problem solver, and she was really good at solving problems, copied for me a page from an old German book that listed alphabet letters in different writing styles in German in the nineteenth century along with modern equivalents of these alphabet letters. Armed with that page, I was able to eventually start translating those letters. It was a slow and painful process, it felt sort of like when I started learning Japanese, first katakana, followed by hiragana. Fortunately, there were no Chinese characters in handwritten German or Czech around 1880.

I should have charged more for all this work, but I felt that I was doing something important – helping a family to finally find out what happened when their grand-grand-parents emigrated more than a century ago to America.

I was able to translate those letters only because the sentences were short and simple. How long it took to get from Bohemia to Hamburg, how many weeks it took to cross the ocean, what was the first job that the new immigrants were able to find in New York, who died, who was born, that kind of thing. You don’t need long sentences for things like that. It was not at all like a blog. People talked in short sentences back then, possibly because blogs would not make their appearance for about another hundred and twenty years.

Thirty years later, last week to be specific, I was working on another highly specialized translation, several old Japanese utility models that I was translating to English. A utility model is a technical innovation that may be significant, although it is not quite on the level of a patent. Because utility models may be cited as prior art (existing technology) during patent examination, they sometime need to be translated for prior art research before a new patent is filed to make sure that an application for a patent does not claim features that have been claimed already by other inventors.

These Japanese utility models, filed between early seventies and early eighties of the last century, were almost as hard to read as the correspondence of the immigrants from 1880. The legibility was poor because these applications were often simply faxed to Japan Patent Office before the Internet enabled filing by e-mail.

Although the sentences were short, the Japanese writing was so bad that the text only made sense to me if I kept going back and forth between the description in Japanese and the attached drawings. Patents are almost always filed by a patent agent, called benrishi in Japan, but authors of utility models sometime don’t bother hiring a patent agent and write the applications by themselves to save money.

When the terminology is several decades old, it is often difficult to find the equivalent English terms on the Internet. And even when I do find something that looks good to me in 2015, how can I know whether this English term is the same one that would make sense in 1975?

Internet is not much help when you have to deal with poorly legible originals (so that for example, in a second generation fax it would be possible to tell the number 3 from the number 9), really bad writing, and obsolete terminology.

One can look at problems like this as a major, unnecessary hassle that is best to be avoided. But I prefer to think of them as challenges that are a part of my job, as well as an important part of the fun. How can I learn anything new without new challenges?

I don’t know yet what kind of highly specialized or generic translations will this week bring.

Maybe it will be a pretty simple, highly legible and pretty clear Japanese or German patent that I can have first translated with machine translation to save time on terminology research.

Or it could be personal documents, a court decree, or a contract in one of the languages that I translate.

Although I specialize in patents, I finished my last patent translation last Friday and my next translation may have nothing to do with patents or technical translation.

Some people believe that strict specialization is the answer to the problems that a generalist must be facing. But I believe that an important part of the appeal of the life of a translator, including this mad patent translator, is that is full of unexpected challenges.

I can say no to a challenge that I don’t particularly enjoy, or I can rise to the challenge. But I usually say yes because I do enjoy a good challenge, and I can generally always use the money.

 
This is a question that relatively recent translators often ask each other in online discussion groups.

There are many portals promising best results to translators interested in joining, and of course also to “job requesters”, mostly translation agencies, in spite of the apparent cognitive dissonance embedded in these two clashing promises.

And new ones keep popping up, seemingly at the rate of about one portal per week. Last week, a group of German translators announced a new portal that is supposed to be financed by “sponsors”, i.e. translators willing to send them money to build a revolutionary new portal in exchange for some kind of unspecified, or at any rate not clearly specified, preferential treatment in the future. This morning I received another e-mail urging me to join some kind of a network, this one seems to be designed for interpreters, but not only interpreters. Would they take exotic escorts and professional dog walkers too, I wonder?

The answer to the question in the title of my post today is: Hell, No!

There isn’t a really good online portal for translators. And for good reason. All of these portals are based on the same principle: a bunch of translators must be feverishly bidding down the price while competing for a single job so that in the end, the early bird who bids the least will get the job.

That is why the rates paid for translation on all of these portals are low, so low that it only makes sense to look for work on them if you live in one of the countries, mentioned in a previous blog post, where the minimum hourly wage is no more than 2 US dollars. In most states in US, it is $7.50, in Japan about $8, in France about $12, and in Australia almost $17. So what would be a livable rate in Brazil, or in Czech Republic, where the minimum wage is also just about $2, is a really horrible rate for a translator who lives in Canada or Australia.

There could be a really good portal online, a portal that would be really good for you rather than for anonymous buyers of translations in blind bidding auctions …. but only if and when you build it yourself and for yourself.

The only portal that is likely to eventually work really well for you is your own website.

You don’t have to be an expert website designer yourself. It is not very expensive to hire somebody to design your website, although you will need to spend some money on creating and maintaining your website, because it should be more than just a freebie page that ISPs are giving away if you sign up with them.

It is important that you plan your website very carefully.

My own website at this point looks like something from the nineties because it is in fact something from the nineties. It was in 1999 when I asked a neighbor to put up something together for me: a guy who like me worked at home, but instead of translating Japanese and German patents, was designing websites.

I never got around to changing the design much, partly because I am a cheap guy and I don’t want to spend a lot of money on it, but also because I believe that the design of your site is not nearly as important as people might think.

The two things that are more important than the design of your website in order of importance, at least initially, are: 1. the URL of your site, and 2. its content.

When I was trying to pick a good web address for my new website in 1999 and 2000, there were still many good options for a URL for my service with the .com extension, the only extension that I was really interested in (because that is basically what search engines are most interested in), although not nearly as many as there were in 1989 or 1990.

My first step was registering about a dozen domain names as I was not sure at first which ones would be most advantageous for my business. Since my business is mostly about translation of patents from foreign languages, I picked several domains based on that job description and eventually I dropped some of the domains and kept about half of them, although all of these domains are now ancillary to my main domain: patenttranslators.com.

There was no response to my new website for about the first three years. I remember how excited I was when some headhunter sent me a message that she found my website thanks to its distinctive web address.

But although it did not generate new business, the website was still very important for me because it gave my old clients my new coordinates after I moved in June of 2001 from California to Virginia with a wife, two kids, three dogs:Lena, Buddy and Molly, and an Australian bearded dragon lizard named Spiky. All of our four-legged friends who bravely accompanied us on that particular adventure are gone now. Spiky, who is resting in a little animal cemetery in the garden behind our house, is remembered most mornings because most mornings when I walk our pit bull Lucy, she sniffs inquisitively in the exact spot where Spiky is buried, probably wondering what kind of animal is buried there.

From about 2003, I started receiving requests to quote a price for translating patents from Japanese, German, French and other languages from the Free Quote Request page on my website quite regularly, generally several times a week. And my quotes were often accepted, in fact so often that I still remember that in 2004, new customers who found me thanks to my website accounted for 40% of my income for that year (easy to remember based on number 4).

I keep track of this figure, have been since 2003, and although the amount of income generated from projects from new direct clients who found me through my website fluctuates from about 10% to about 40% depending on the year, I still receive requests to quote a price for translating patents just about every week. Last week and this week I have been working on a project involving 7 patent documents, the result of one such a quote to a brand new client from last week.

Some people think that a website for a professional service is not really that important these days when you can use a blog and social media instead to generate business for yourself, generally at no cost. But I disagree. It may work like this for some people, but I use my blog and social media mostly to share ideas and have some fun, not as a marketing platform.

I think that it makes more sense to use a professional website instead as a marketing platform.

I also use my own website daily for practical purposes, such as for links to sites from which I often download patents in foreign languages, mostly from the Japan Patent Office Website and European Patent Office Website. I think that some of my clients, mostly paralegals at patent law firms, also use in the same manner the same links from my website, as well as some other patent translators, although I am not sure about how many people do that.

The important thing, after the item 1 mentioned above (a self-descriptive URL that works well for the type of professional services that you are offering so that it will be picked up by search engines and new potential clients), is the above-mentioned item 2: the content of your website should be such that your site would also serve a practical purpose for your existing and potential clients, instead of being just another web page that says: Hey, here I am, please send me some work!

A website that is useful for practical purposes, instead of being just a collection of commercial propaganda about the wonderful services being provided by whoever operates the site, is also much more likely to be found by search engines and new clients.

And if you also have an e-mail that is linked to your website for professional services, your e-mail is also likely to be much more impressive than the typical freebie e-mail (joeblow@hotmail.com) that so many translators are using.

As far as I am concerned, it is OK to use a free e-mail services as a backup (and I have a couple of those), but not as your main point of contact if you want to be taken seriously as a professional translator.

To sum up what I am trying to say in my post today: It is not very expensive to create and maintain a website that will be a portal for your own translation services, and it makes much more sense to do that rather than joining one of the many portals where translators must compete with each other.

Maybe there are some really good translation portals that I don’t know about. But as far as I can tell, the main effect of all of the translation portals that I do know about was to drive down rates that are being paid by clients to translators, drive them down quite significantly.

And maybe there are some really good translation agencies eager to take you under their wings and pay you really good rates. But a translation agency by definition must be looking primarily at the bottom line if it wants to survive, and the biggest hit to an agency’s bottom line is generally the amount that it pays to the translators who do the actual translating work.

So instead of joining the big crowd of translators and would-be translators who sign up for a translation portal, why not joining a smaller crowd of translators who create their own portals for their own services?

I believe that this is the only way how translators can start shifting the balance of power away from the ignorant Shylocks and generic merchants who see translation simply as a commodity that must be bought low in order to be sold high, and start moving some of the power back to translators who see translation not only as a means to generate income, but also as their small contribution to a noble, rewarding and fascinating profession that has been very important for this world for so many centuries, and hopefully will continue to be important for many centuries to come.

 
The Mechanical Turk, or Chess Turk, was a fake machine that played chess against human players who almost always got beaten by the ghostly machine. The ingenious contraption, constructed in the late 18th century, was very popular in Europe for about eight decades until people finally figured out that the desk behind which the formidable Chess Turk automaton was sitting had enough empty space in it, camouflaged by useless gear, to hide a human chess player there. If you click on the introductory Youtube video, it will tell you the story of the Mechanical Turk in dramatic and authoritative German accent.

But if you Google the words Mechanical Turk two centuries later in early 21st century, the first few entries that you will find will not be for the old fake machine that had a sly chess master hidden in its entrails. Instead, you will see several entries for the term “Amazon Mechanical Turk”, described in Wikipedia as “A crowdsourcing Internet marketplace that enables individuals and businesses (known as Requesters) to coordinate the use of human intelligence to perform tasks that computers are currently unable to do” …. “Employers are able to post jobs known as HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks), such as choosing the best among several photographs of a storefront, writing product descriptions, or identifying performers on music CDs. Workers (called Providers in Mechanical Turk’s Terms of Service, or, more colloquially, Turkers) can then browse among existing jobs and complete them for a monetary payment set by the employer (emphasis mine).

The concept of Turkers is similar to the concept of online portals for translators who can on a good day (but is it really a good day?) find work on these portals, mostly at incredibly low rates, although these rates at are still higher than what crowd workers who work for companies such as Amazon, called Turkers, are being paid. Turkers earn on average about 2 dollars an hour, typically about 0.001 dollars per task, but unlike translators who want to find work on poorly paying translation portals, Amazon Turkers do not need to pay a membership fee to a portal. All they have to do is create an Amazon Turker account and they can start bringing home the bacon immediately, although it will be only a very tiny piece of bacon that will still leave them hungry for more food.

There are many very simple things that machines, no matter how incredibly fast they may run their calculations, cannot understand. That is why we always have to prove online that we are humans and not just robots, called web crawlers, looking for information. Our genuine humanness is now mostly tested when we are asked to identify a string of numbers or letters in which some of them may be in a different font or askew. Even the dumbest human can notice something like that right away, while even the fastest and most powerful computer will fail at this easy task.

The tasks that Turkers perform are very simple. Provided that you are in fact a human rather than a machine, you will be able to quickly conclude that green grass looks better on a real estate ad than yellow grass, you will be able to easily find contact information hiding somewhere in a web page, determine that a telephone number or zip code has too many or too few digits, or tell which girl is pretty and which one is a dog (although different humans will have differing opinions when it comes to the last task).

There are many people who are willing to work for such a pitifully low remuneration in this world, as they have plenty of time on their hands, typically because they cannot find a better job.

And in some countries in the third world, 2 dollars an hour is nothing to sneeze at.

According to BusinessInsider.com, the minimum hourly wage is below 1 US dollar in the following countries: Sierra Leone ($0.03), India ($0.28), Afghanistan ($0.57), the Philippines ($0.61), Mexico ($0.66), China ($0.80) and Russia ($0.98), while the minimum wage in Brazil ($1.98), corresponds roughly to the average hourly wage of a Turker who may be working for Amazon, Target, or Walmart or another corporation from anywhere in the world (the numbers are from 2013, but I don’t think they budged much since then).

The way translation industry, or at least a certain segment of it, sees the arrangement of the natural order in the world, the task that translators perform, for example during post-processing of machine translations, is not very different from and typically not much more difficult than what non-translating Turkers are doing, when certain tools, called language technology tools, are employed.

That is why the translation industry is so excited about what it calls language technology.

Language technology, or processing of human language with computer tools such as spell checkers and word counters, computer assisted translation (CAT) tools, optical character recognition (OCR), machine translation, speech to text conversion and many other computerized tools has been with us for many years, some of them for decades.

One relatively recent language technology tool that I absolutely adore is called telephone voice caller ID. I bought two Panasonic phone systems with several extensions, a black one for my business and a white one for my home, both with the same phone voice caller ID system. Unlike last year when I still had to get up in order to look at the call ID displayed on the phone, now I don’t have to get up from my chair or sofa when telemarketers in vain attempt to disturb the serenity of my day.

But the translation industry, for lack of a better term, is not interested that much in language technology tools such as spell checkers, or speech to text conversion. Maybe a little bit, but not that much.

The translation industry is mostly interested in the one language technology tool that looks the most like the Mechanical Turk that was invented at the end of the 18th century, namely machine translation combined with post-processing of the result of machine pseudo-translation, once it has been fixed and straightened up by translating Turkers.

But there is a problem with the concept of replacing a human translator by machine translation, so that a fast but still not quite human-like machine is then assisted by humans having the function of translating Turkers. While Turkers, who work for close to nothing on very simply tasks as they fix computer errors for large corporations, do not need to know much about anything as long as they have a pulse, a computer and Internet access, translator-Turkers would need to know something to be able to fix machine translation errors.

A lot, in fact, because they would need to know basically as much as a human translator must need to do good work.

We keep hearing from what is called the translation industry that machine translation is being constantly improved, which is true as far as that goes. The way machine translation, or pseudo-translation, to be more precise, is described by merchants of language technology, the only, relatively minor problem with machine translation is that “it is not perfect yet, or “not as elegant” as human translation.

The way results of machine translation are described by merchants who are so excited about their new language tools, all that is needed is to hook up online with a bunch of idle translator-Turkers, who will then be able to fix little details that machines don’t understand yet.

Post-processing of machine translation is not that different, according to this theory, from determining the correct number of digits in a telephone number, or whether something is in green or yellow color, or which girl is pretty, and which is not.

That is the version of post-processing operations that is being sold to translators who might be interested in becoming post-processing Turkers in the current version of what is called the translation industry.

The reality, however, is something else altogether. The real job of post-processors of machine translation is to identify and fix mistranslation, not just to look for careless, stupid, but relatively minor computer mistakes in order to make the text more elegant, more idiomatic, or just slightly better.

And every translator knows that machine translations are full of mistranslations. In other words, their job, most of the time, will be to retranslate just about everything.

Their job could be compared to what in the home remodeling industry is called “a gut job”. If you ever saw one of the reality TV shows about home buying and remodeling, you know that a gut job is what you are left with when you buy a house because of the famous location, location, location, because it has “good bones”, and because it is really cheap.

Let’s say that you buy an old and decrepit house for a hundred thousand, you remove everything from the kitchen, the bathroom and the bedrooms and invest another forty thousand in upgrading everything that was taken out. After a few weeks or months during which you are kept very busy working on your gut job, you may end up with a house that is now worth two hundred thousand, at least according to what they tell us on teevee – if you know what you’re doing.

That, rather than just fixing minor errors, is also how post-processing of machine translation looks in reality.

Coming back to our original analogy of Mechanical Turk, or Chess Turk, there would need to be many invisible translating Turkers hidden in the magical box that is being built for translators by the translation industry, in which the translation industry would love to marry computer technology with post-processing humans. And most of these translating Turkers would need to be as good as the sly chess master who, hidden in a desk behind which a scary figurine of a Turk was pretending to blink, shake his head and move his hands, was busy moving chess pieces with magnets under the desktop.

Since the magical machine of the translation tools will not work unless great multitudes of translating Turkers can be hidden inside the box that the translation industry is busy building for them now, the interesting question is: how many translators will fit into this box?

Posted by: patenttranslator | June 14, 2015

The Pyramid of Translation Rates and Your Place in It

 
Some people think that Egyptian pyramids were built by aliens from faraway planets. But I think it is more likely that an ancient architect came up with the concept of the structure of a tomb worthy of a pharaoh because it reflected so perfectly the structure of the society at the time.

Pyramid of classes in Egypt

In my scholarly analysis today, I will try to address the issue of different rates that are paid to translators for their work by likening the pyramid of the different types of translation rates in “the translation industry” to the social pyramid based on the roles and functions of different people and professions that existed already some 5,000 years ago in ancient Egypt.

At the bottom of the pyramid in ancient Egypt were slaves who had to perform the most arduous tasks while working basically for food. They were also the ones who had to build the pyramid for dead pharaohs from huge blocks of stone that they had to move across the desert on primitive tools before the invention of wheel (unless we believe the theory that all of this work was done by space aliens who later vanished without a trace).

The job of peasants, who were positioned just one layer above the slave class in the pyramid of ancient Egyptian society, was to work hard in order to feed everybody, from the slaves to the pharaohs.

In the next layer were craftsmen, merchants were in the layer just above the craftsman class, still higher up were scribes, while soldiers, who were making sure that everybody obeyed orders, were in the next class. The soldiers were controlled by government officials, who were mostly priests and nobles. The highest government official, called vizier, was appointed directly by the pharaoh and the pharaoh was at the top of the pyramid as a supreme ruler of all people in ancient Egypt.

If it occurred to you that the structure of human society has not really changed all that much, mutatis mutandis, since the times of ancient Egypt over the last five thousand years, I would have to agree with your conclusion.

But instead of trying to recreate the social pyramid in modern society, in which a pharaoh would be replaced by a few billionaires ruling from the top through government officials, who make sure through politicians, soldiers and judges that the peasants and workers at the bottom of the pyramid don’t get too lazy – the only class that is missing in modern society would be probably the class of slaves – I will try to apply the social pyramid of ancient Egypt to the pyramid of rates paid by different kind of clients to translators in modern society.

The topic of rates is always very popular with translators. Translators discuss rates in discussion groups online and on their blogs with fierce passion and with a firm conviction that their version of where the true rates really are is in fact the correct one. To my surprise, even each of the last two issues of the ATA Chronicle (American Translators Association) had an article about translation rates, although the issue was described only in very generalized terms.

What I think is missing in many of these discussions and articles is that translators often talk about a market for translation is if there were only a single market for translators, when in reality, there are many markets for translation, or many layers of a pyramid of rates, if you will, which resemble quite closely the pyramid of relationships between different strata of the society in ancient Egypt.

Direct Client-Pharaoh

Just like everybody worked for a pharaoh in ancient Egypt, everybody works for a client, ultimately a direct client, in the contemporary translation market. The customer, namely a direct customer, is therefore the pharaoh who sits on the top of my pyramid of translation rates.

But although it is the customer-pharaoh who determines the amount that will be paid for a given translation, there are many intermediate layers in the pyramid of rates, and the amount that will be paid to a translator is determined mostly based on the level to which a translator is assigned in this pyramid.

Cloud Workers-Slave Translators

On the bottom of the pyramid are so called cloud workers, a very popular term in the contemporary translation industry, because, just like the slaves in ancient Egypt, cloud workers are expected to work for free, or for such a pitifully small amount that it would barely suffice to buy bread and clean, drinkable water.

It is interesting how the concept of slavery, which can be basically defined as having to work for free, survived all those millennia, only to be gratefully resurrected and skillfully converted in the modern Internet-based industry into the contemporary concept of so called cloud workers.

Peasant Translators

Translators who work or might be working one day for agencies as post-processors of the machine translation detritus would correspond to the class of peasants in ancient Egypt. They can probably afford to eat slightly better food once in a while if they work very hard, although their diet is likely to be mostly meatless, even though they are not aspiring vegetarians, because just like peasants a few thousand years ago, the reimbursement for their drudgery will be only very modest.

Merchant and Craftsmen Translators

Translators who work as real translators for various translation agencies, rather than as mere post-processors, would correspond in this pyramid to the merchants and craftsmen of ancient Egypt. Some of these translators are paid relatively well, although most of them are not.

Because the translating merchants and craftsmen live in different countries and work for translation agencies in different countries, there are many different variables in this layer of the pyramid of translation rates. These modern variables did not exist in ancient Egypt, where the level of compensation probably depended only or mostly on the level of the skill of the merchant or craftsman since all Egyptians lived in the same country and worked for the same pharaoh.

A few cents per word may not be a bad rate for a translator living in Brazil or Thailand, but the same rate would not suffice to pay for necessities of a translator who lives in Western Europe or North America.

Different rates are also paid to this class of translators by different translation agencies. Translators who work for translation agencies located in third world countries are typically paid low rates, as are translators who work through “Internet portals”, who are typically paid considerably lower rates than those who work for agencies specializing in a field in which good translations are highly prized by end-clients, such as translations of patents.

Scribe Translators

I would like to think of myself as a translator who, after 28 years, is positioned at least at a level that would correspond to the level of the scribes in ancient Egypt. Because my rates are relatively high (from the viewpoint of a translation agency), I only work for translation agencies that are located in relatively affluent countries – in United States and Western Europe (although I used to work also for translation agencies in Japan more than a decade ago).

A good percentage of experienced and highly qualified translators would probably correspond to the layer of scribes in the pyramid of professions in old Egypt, although many more translators would be probably classified as translator-peasants.

Soldiers and Auditors

Soldiers and auditors would in what is called the translation industry correspond to translation agencies and their PMs, or project managers who work for translation agencies. Just like in Egypt under the pharaohs, some PMs-soldiers are paid very well, although most are probably paid even less than the translator-scribes, only slightly more than translator-peasants.

In spite of the mostly meager salary, their job is important because they need to enforce and maintain discipline in the ranks of various types of translators, from the cloud-based slaves and post-processing translator-slaves, to the translator-scribes.

Auditors, who would correspond to translation agency operators or owners, are paid well if they understand the business and know how to run it – but they can also easily go bankrupt if they make too many stupid mistakes.

Viziers, Priests and Nobles

You had to be a vizier in ancient Egypt, or at least a priest or a noble, if you wanted to be able to deal directly with the pharaoh.

One difference between ancient Egypt and the world in 2015 is that you don’t really have to be a vizier, or at least a priest or a noble, if you want to be able to work directly for a direct client-pharaoh in what is referred to as “the translation market”.

You just need to be able to find out where your direct client-pharaoh is hiding and figure out how to offer your translation directly to your pharaoh-client.

After 28 years of trying to solve this puzzle, I am happy to say that most of my clients are now pharaohs. Every direct client willing to pay my rate is a pharaoh as far as I am concerned – although I also work on the scribe level for PMs-soldiers working for the pharaohs indirectly through translation agencies, who could thus be also classified as soldiers based on my pyramid of occupations in what is called the translation industry.

I hope my modest contribution to the passionate discussion about translation rates will help some translators to realize that there is no such thing as “the market”. There are many translation markets in this world, at least as many as there were in the pyramid of occupations in Egypt under pharaohs, and if you entered the market on the level of a slave or a peasant, you can’t expect to be making enough money to even feed yourself, let alone a whole family if you are still stuck at that level.

Whether you are working on the level of a slave, peasant, craftsman, or a scribe or a vizier is in fact much more important than what language you happen to be translating and what kind of expertise you may have and in what field.

Since things did change a little bit in the configuration of human society in the last five thousand years, instead of wasting your time on complaining about the miserable rates that you are being offered as a translator-peasant or even translator-craftsman, try to skip a layer or two in the pyramid of rates and become at least a translator-scribe, if not a vizier who gets the best rates simply because he deals directly with his pharaoh-client.

Posted by: patenttranslator | June 11, 2015

Somebody Sent Me a Link to an Article About a Translation Agency

 
Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.
George Orwell

Somebody sent me a link to an article about a translation agency that I used to work for in the past. I see in my files that they still must have me in their files because they sent me a small translation last year. But I basically stopped working for them about 10 years ago, or rather they stopped sending me work about 10 years ago.

The rates they paid were mediocre, but not too bad at the time, so it was not such a big loss, although they did keep me moderately busy for several years. I am pretty sure that what they pay now their translators is quite a bit less than what they used to pay me 10 years ago.

It is more or less inevitable that as a translation agency is growing and becoming more and more imbued with and beholden to the corporate culture (which can be best summarized as maximum profit über alles), it is only a matter of time before I have to pull their file (I keep hard copies of paid invoices and important correspondence in manila folders) and move it from the file cabinet for active customers to the one for past customers.

I saw a few years ago that the same translation agency was looking for several months for an experienced translator of Japanese patents in a discussion group of Japanese translators that is quite popular both in Japan and abroad. The agency had one major requirement: the translator would have to be willing to learn and use agency’s proprietary CAT software.

It was such an important requirement for this translation agency because once a translator agrees to this arrangement, the agency is able to exercise almost complete control over the translator, including the technical terms and words that the translator must be using, how much he can charge after deductions for things like “full matches” and “fuzzy matches”, etc.

It is a small world because the article also mentioned one of the agency’s main corporate customers, a multinational corporation that I also used to work for several years ago when I was translating Japanese patents to English for them, but only indirectly through another translation agency, a small agency located in Belgium.

The small agency in Belgium paid better rates than the bigger one here in US, and I worked for them for about two years. But in the end, they left me holding the bag, as they never paid my last invoice, which was a considerable amount.

When I called the agency and started to talk first in French because they answered the phone in French (after many years, I finally had an occasion to practice my rusty French, and what an occasion it was!), they gave me the runaround and I never got to talk to the manager. But eventually, I was able to find out from e-mails of a secretary who took pity on me that the agency was having cash flow problems because they lost their main customer. Their main customer happened to be the same multinational corporation that is now a major customer of the other, bigger agency that is based here in US, the one that will only send work to translators who agree to use the agency’s proprietary CAT software.

One agency went bankrupt, while another one got a lot of new business. I used to work for both of them, but unfortunately for me, it was the one that that went bankrupt that owed me money, and instead of getting paid for a lot of work, all I got for my trouble was about a half dozens letters from a bankruptcy lawyer.

Instead of money, I started receiving letters from the bankruptcy lawyer of the translation agency in Belgium. The first letter was in French, the remaining ones were in Flemish, as the bankruptcy lawyer must have realized that a letter in Flemish would be much more difficult to understand than a letter in French. I never got paid for that last translation.

The article about the translation agency here in US says that the agency is saving their customers money for translation of patent documents because the entire process is “streamlined”, and that thanks to the agency, the multinational corporation no longer has to contract with overseas law firms who work with smaller firms and with outside linguists (I suppose outside linguists means translators). But this is not quite true. That is just what the agency owner told a reporter who probably does not know much, if anything, about translation, how translation projects are organized, or how filing of patents abroad works. The multinational corporation still has to go through a patent law firm located abroad in order to file patents abroad.

The savings on translation costs are mostly a function of the fact that the translators are paid less by the translation agency featured in the article, which read more like a press release written by a PR manager. This is in turn probably largely a function of the fact that all translators must use the proprietary software of the translation agency, which, among other things, is an ingenious way to disguise how much translators are in fact being paid for their work.

However, given that the “maximum profit über alles” principle is the most important component of the ideology and practice of not only this particular translation agency, but in particular also of its large corporate customers, how long will it be before the large multinational corporation finds another translation agency, which could be located for example somewhere in Chindia, that will offer to do the same work for half the cost?

Chindian agencies too are expert users of CAT tools, that too know how to use them to reduce the pay to translators, and they have access to translators who are likely to be able to survive on even less than translators who live in countries with a much higher cost of living.

So why not save even more money by outsourcing a company’s translation needs from US to Asia? What goes around, comes around, it is usually only a matter of time.

Over the years, (28 years, to be exact), I moved a number of files bulging with copies of invoices paid over periods of many years for translations for large, multinational corporations who used to send me a lot of patents for translation for many years from the file cabinet where I keep folders of active customers to the cabinet for files of inactive customers.

A few of these large corporations are still among my customers, and in fact I think I have an explanation for that. Even in large, multinational corporations, maximum profit über alles is not always the only thing that matters.

Even when you work for a large, multinational corporation, you are still working for individuals who work for these large firms. Especially when you work directly for corporate patent law departments of large companies or for large patent law firms, you are still working for individuals, often patent lawyers in senior positions who often understand the value of an ongoing relationship with an experienced translator who has been translating the same type of materials for the same company for many years, sometime for decades.

It is unlikely that this kind of relationship could be established if the translations are sent to a company that, as the article puts it “offers translation services for 125 different languages provided by more than 2,000 employees and contractors”. Especially when the conditio sine qua non that the translation agency demands from prospective translators is that all of the agency’s translators must use company’s proprietary software tool. Given the potential for misuse of such a tool, which I mentioned above, most experienced translators will probably pass and try to find better customers for themselves.

On the one hand, the journalist who wrote the article, which reads more like a press release, says that the translation agency specializes in patents, and that translation of patents is its main strength. But then he also says that the company enables global commerce through more than 2,000 employees and contractors offering translation services for 125 different languages. Come again? So which is it, do they specialize in something, or do they mostly specialize in everything?

It did not seem to occur to this reporter that when you specialize in 125 languages, you specialize in everything, which is another way of saying that you don’t really specialize in anything.

No matter what kind of service we may be talking about, the best service is generally provided only by real specialists, and a translation agency offering translations from and into 125 languages is not really a specialized agency.

It also probably never occurred to this journalist, who forgot to ask simple follow-up questions, that he was functioning mostly as a PR person rather than as a real journalist. Real journalists know how to ask probing questions in order to get at the truth hidden behind well sounding phrases, but this one was mostly just writing down the words that the interviewees were feeding him as if it were the Gospel.

 
So many people are eager these days to dispense invaluable advice to translators, web designers, programmers and many other “freelance occupations” that whole industries have sprung up to offer professional development advice on how to promote one’s career by following the sage advice of professional and lifestyle gurus.

Some of these gurus who offer professional development guidance to translators, among other professions, don’t know anything about translation or translators, and probably not much about any other profession either.

They are monolingual and they never translated anything in their life. So instead of analyzing different kinds of markets for different kinds of translators and the rewards, benefits and pitfalls of the translating profession, they will be probably talking about … the proper lifestyle, correct body posture, breathing and mind expanding techniques, I suppose. I am not really sure what they talk about because you have to pay them, generally about 300 Euros or dollars, to make them willing to share the magic of their wisdom with you in a webinar.

The fact that these kinds of professional coaches don’t really know anything about anything in particular is not a disadvantage for these professional coaches in the professional webinar industry. Quite on the contrary: once they reach a certain status, their guru status alone makes them eminently qualified to talk about everything and anything at all in webinars that can be sold through the Internet to anybody willing to pay for them.

More and people are already and more still will be working through the Internet, and they all naturally need to learn proper breathing and mind expanding techniques, and things like how to focus the mind on professional goals and identify priorities through cognitive multitasking to achieve professional excellence.

I just threw randomly selected words into the sentence above, but if you Google them, you will have no trouble finding webinars of knowledgeable mentors who offer to teach you exactly that.

I don’t believe in professional gurus. I think that most of them, make that all of them, are a waste of time and money. My advice to people who want to become translators, but perhaps are not quite there yet, would be to forget about professional coaches and look for inspiration in the animal kingdom instead.

My advice is to look in particular at the fascinating animals called giraffes.

Why giraffes?

Giraffes are very interesting animals. They are so different from any other animal. I remember that my parents gave me a toy giraffe when I was 5 years old and had to spend several weeks in a hospital. I was completely fascinated by that toy giraffe all those years ago, and I am still fascinated by these animals now.

Initially, giraffes had as many vertebrae as other vertebrate animals and humans have to this day: namely a total of seven vertebrae. So how many do they have now that their neck is about 7 feet long?

If you guessed 14, or 21 or more, you would be wrong. If you thought that it looked like a trick question, you were right. Giraffes still have only seven vertebrae, but each of them is over 10 inches (25 centimeters) long.

Scientists have a number of competing theories for why and how their necks got so long. According to some, male giraffes need a long neck to fight other males over food and females by using their heavy necks and heads as weapons. The Pentagon is no doubt financing a few studies examining giraffe fighting techniques and their applicability to low-tech close combat fighting.

But I think it is clear that the main reason why sneaky giraffes developed their long neck, (which is proportionally much longer than a swan’s neck), is that unlike zebras, buffaloes, gazelles, rabbits, or hamsters, giraffes realized early on, millennia ago, that the tastiest food is generally located on branches high above a level that is visible to other plant eating animals. They basically have only one competitor when it comes to the juiciest stuff to chew on: elephants. But their long necks can reach even higher than a pretty long trunk of a really big elephant.

All the other plant-eating animals are competing for the same brown and yellow grasses and low-hanging fruit in the African savannah. Everybody from zebras to hamsters is doing the same thing, except for giraffes.

That must be why I always see a condescending smirk on the funny long face when a giraffe is chewing the greenest and juiciest leaves and branches, although all the other animals must make do with what is left on the ground while keeping an anxious eye out for predators. And if you have seen any documentary about the Serengeti, you know that giraffes are basically chewing something all the time, except when they are running on their long feet.

My advice to translators who are eating the dusty yellow and brown grasses near the watering hole where hyenas and lions congregate to prey on zebras, buffaloes, gazelles, goats and rabbits would be: become a giraffe.

Forget about professional coaches. They don’t really know anything about anything anyway, and in any case, they know nothing about you and don’t care one bit about you. They will just tell you what they think you want to hear to make money. Instead, be like a giraffe: try to figure out yourself where the best work is for somebody like you and then try to stretch your neck as far as you need to in order to reach it.

The best work will not be found on “portals for translators” where dozens of translators are competing for a single job by trying to underbid each. It will not be delivered to you courtesy of translation mega-agencies who make translators sign “Non-Disclosure Agreements” that run to more than 10 pages. The real purpose of these agreements is to make us declare our obedience to the principles of hamsterization of translators in the new version of “the translation industry”.

No matter what these agencies are telling you, post-processing of machine translations is not “a useful new skill that you should add to your arsenal of existing skills”, unless knowing how to skillfully dig one’s own grave is a useful new skill. It is mind-numbing and mind-dumbing drudgery when you have to retranslate the result of algorithms run amok, combined with poverty because you are expected to do it at much lower rates than what you used to make. It can be best described as a horrible way to die.

Just like the gurus who know so little about so much, I don’t know where the best work for you is or will be and how you should go about finding it. You have to figure it out on your own because everything depends on your language combination, your personality, your education, your inclinations and your skills, and the present and future trends in the development of an almost infinite translation market.

But I do know that instead of thinking like hamsters, translators need to be thinking more like giraffes. They need to figure out how to stretch their necks even if they must keep the same seven vertebrae that they were born with. But they need to do it quickly. Unlike giraffes, translators will not have centuries or millennia of evolution to stretch their necks as far as it takes to reach their goals.

They only have a hundred years to live, probably quite a bit less.

 
I very rarely go to conferences of translators. In the 28 years that I have been an independent translator, I have been only to 2 conferences: the first one was the Second International Japanese-English Translation Conference (IJET 2) held in June 1991 in San Francisco. I was a member of the Conference Committee and the topic of the paper I gave during the conference together with Alex Shkolnik was “Translation from One Foreign Language to Another Foreign Language by a Native Speaker of a Third Language”.

I can’t believe it has been 24 years already. It seems like only yesterday that I was changing diapers (once in a while), but it has been a quarter century already.

The second conference that I attended, this time without being a speaker myself, was the 38th ATA (American Translators Association) Conference in November of 1997 in San Francisco. I see that the next ATA conference will be in San Francisco again in 2016. Maybe I will go to see again the places where I spent 19 years of my life when I was still full of life, vigor and illusions, before I became a decrepit, disillusioned old man.

I hear rumbles of discontent with the ATA as it functions now, and some of the discontent that I hear comes from people who are running for office because they want to change the way ATA functions now, namely for the most part as an incubator for “newbie translators” who are trained to become pliable, obedient workforce for translation agencies who have been running the ATA for quite a while.

If there is more information that that ATA Conference next year in San Francisco might be shaping out as an interesting place to be, I just might hop on a plane to San Francisco in 2016.

Back in the nineties, getting to the site of these 2 conferences was not a problem for me because I lived in San Francisco (during the IJET 2 Conference), or in the Wine Country (during the ATA Conference), only about 40 minutes north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge.

This time I will have to fly, although I don’t like flying too much. Not that I am afraid to fly – I usually visit Prague and my hometown of Český Krumlov in Southern Bohemia every 2 or 3 years, but because it is such a hassle, especially when you have to change planes at least a couple of times since I now start my trip from a small airport in Norfolk in Eastern Virginia.

I will start from Norfolk, then go probably from New York or Atlanta to Paris, and then change planes again in Paris, because this year I am definitely going to attend the 3rd IAPTI Conference in Bordeaux.

This time I have to go because I will also be one of about 30 speakers at the 3rd IAPTI Conference (you can click on the link if want to see the lineup of the speakers), and the working title of my presentation is “Threats, Challenges and Opportunities for Translators in the Modern Version of Corporatized Translation Industry” (click on the link of you want to see a summary).

IAPTI, which stands for International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters, was founded on St. Jerome’s day in 2009 in Buenos Aires, Argentina “by a group of professional language mediators as a vehicle for promoting ethical practices in translation and interpretation and providing a forum for discussing problems typical of the globalized world, such as crowdsourcing, outsourcing, bad rates and other abuse” (quote from Wikipedia).

It now has members in 70 countries, and most of its members are about half my age as evidenced by these photos from 2nd IAPTI Conference last year in Athens, Greece.

Among other things, I hope to also meet some regular commenters on my blog in person in Bordeaux. I hope it will not be a major disappointment for them to get to meet me in person. Or if it is, hopefully they will not let me know.

Even if you have just come across this blog post by accident, you may want to give a try to the 3d IAPTI Conference in Bordeaux at the beginning of September if you are a translator.

The problem that some translators have, even those of us who have moderately successful blogs where one can hear from many other bloggers and interesting commenters, is that we almost never get to meet other translators, unless we live in a place like London, or Paris, or San Francisco.

There are several bears in the neck of the woods where I have been living for the last 14 years, specifically in the Great Dismal Swamp on the border between Virginia and North Carolina. I have not met any of them yet, but the local newspaper said so.

It might be easier to meet a bear than a translator where I live. Since I have not met any translators here yet, and there is nothing about translators in my newspaper either, I am getting on the plane come September to finally meet some of them in Bordeaux.

Posted by: patenttranslator | May 29, 2015

The Uncommon Absurdity of the Term “Language Technology”


 
What is the technology of thinking?

Well, language could be called one of the techniques or technologies of thinking. Art is another one. Mathematics is the preferred technology of thinking for some people, or chemistry, for example, although not for nearly as many as art if we include under the term art visual art, music, cinematography and other art forms that would also have to be included.

For some reason, nobody has proposed yet to call for example typewriters, calculators, computers, word processors and other software “tools of thought technology”, although we use all of these and many other tools as thought and mind expanding paraphernalia.

Maybe it is obvious to most people that the term “thought technology” or “technology of thinking” would be a really stupid and laughable term because most people, even those of us who are not exactly great thinkers, understand that thinking takes place in the brain and it has in fact nothing to do with the tools that are used during the act of thinking because you don’t need any of these tools to think. All you need to be able to think is to have a brain.

Translation is also a product of thinking, and it also occurs (without any tools or technology!) in the brain, human brain, in particular, as opposed to animal brain.

We love our dogs and other animals, but we can’t translate our languages to animals so that they would be able to understand exactly what we are trying to say to them. We may think that they understand us, but they just react to sounds, gestures and situations in a way that looks as though they understand us. Smart as they are, they have figured out centuries ago that this is the best way to get the more and better food from us.

Although we can train dogs to react to certain words in human languages, dogs don’t understand human languages like English, or Japanese, or Czech because they have no use for odorless, tasteless, boring human languages. Who needs a language when God gave you the great and incredibly versatile gift of a wagging tail, which is something that would do wonders for humans if they still had one and learned how to use it properly? Although humans originally did have a tail, since they were not using it to express how much they like or fear other humans, dogs and other creatures (which would be the proper use for a tail, of course), it atrophied and all that is left from it now is a completely useless little appendage of the vertebral column called in humans tailbone.

Dogs are so smart that they can sniff out cancer, which is something that no doctor can do, and they can read our mind better than our spouses or children, but their language is very different from human languages, and humans do not understands it, with the possible exception of a little Mexican man by the name of Cesar Millan, now known worldwide from a TV show as The Dog Whisperer.

But I am getting away again from the topic of my sermon today which is supposed to be about the ridiculousness of the new term “language technology”.

Unlike the nonexistent term “thought technology” which to my knowledge has not been introduced into our world, probably because nobody has figured out yet how to make money from something like that, the term “language technology” already exists, and lot of people are trying to figure out how to make money by throwing around this term in what is called “the translation industry” for lack of a better term.

This is not the first time that “the translation industry” invented a new, absurd term, nor is it likely to be the last time.

The term “LSP” is another example of how language can be used to give new meaning to an old concept in order to confuse people.

“The translation industry” came up with this term about 10 years ago, I think. I was told that the term Language Services Provider (LSP) was originally proposed to include both translators and translation agencies. But translators are definitely excluded from this term now, as it now only means “translation agency”, not “translator”.

It is clear to me that “the translation industry” came up with this term to hide the fact that a translation agency is a translation agency, is a translation agency. In other words, a middleman, or a facilitator of services, as opposed to a provider of services. Translation services are provided by translators, some translators sell these services to agencies instead of selling them directly to their clients, and that is how translation agencies make money.

But if you start calling a translation agency “a language services provider” instead of “a translation agency”, translators completely disappear from the picture and it looks as though the service is in fact provided by the translation agency. Better yet, use an acronym like LSP to confuse the world even more.

I wrote several posts about the term “LSP” a while ago and you can read one of them here in case you are interested in my take on it and in the ensuing discussion.

Many translators already obediently parrot the “translation industry” lingo and call translation agencies “LSPs”, apparently without realizing that they themselves are providing translation services, not the agencies who are simply buying and reselling their services.

However, as I wrote in one of my posts about the term “LSP”, since only people who work in or for “the translation industry” know what the acronym means, the attempt to introduce yet another misleading term into our vocabulary was only partially successful.

Let us finally get back to the interesting new term “language technology”.

According to Wikipedia, the term “language technology” was introduced by the Globalization and Localization Association (GALA) in 2013. Wikipedia is on occasion full of misinformation, but they are probably right in this case.

You can for example obtain a Master of Science degree in Human Language Technology (HLT) from the University of Arizona which defines Human Language Technology as “a developing interdisciplinary field that encompasses most subdisciplines of linguistics, as well as computational linguistics, natural language processing, computer science, artificial intelligence, psychology, philosophy, mathematics, and statistics”.

But “the translation industry” uses a much narrower interpretation of the term “language technology”. I don’t think that it would include psychology and philosophy of linguistics, since “the translation industry” is only interested in psychology and philosophy of marketing and sales.

I think that the term “language technology” means mostly just computer-assisted translation (CAT), and above all machine translation as far as “the translation industry” is concerned.

Just like the term “translation agency” in the industry parlance was replaced by “language service provider” because it sounds so much better, and then by an acronym that nobody outside of “the translation industry” understands, some movers and shakers in “the translation industry” must have decided two years ago that it was time to do something about the term the machine translation palatable to clients. This term does not sound so good either because most people have at least some experience with machine translation, and the experience is mixed at best.

So it was time to replace the term “machine translation” by another term, and “language technology” clearly sounded so much better.

The American Translators Association (ATA) has had a Language Technology Division since 2013, and it is in fact right now looking for a Language Technology Administrator (isn’t it time they started calling these Administrators Tsars?), although there is not much information on the ATA website about what this ATA division. When I clicked on the linked term on the ATA website, this was what I got:

“Are technology and delicious food a 100% match?

Language Technology Division Dinner and Networking Event

After a long day of sessions and learning, join your LTD fellows to get the conversation started and dive together into a revitalizing river of gorgeous fresh vegetables and mouth-watering fire roasted meats delivered right to your plate”
…..
Get your taste buds ready for:
– A copious buffet of chilled salads, fresh vegetables, hot side dishes, imported cheeses and cured meats (even Serrano ham!).
– Caramelized bananas, garlic mashed potatoes, crispy polenta, and Brazilian cheese bread served to your table.
– Fire roasted meats, including beef, chicken, pork, lamb and sausages, served to your tableside by their Gauchos in their swords.
– Dessert choices.
– Unlimited fountain beverages, coffee and tea.
The price for the dinner is a $74.

Well, maybe the Language Technology Division is a secret ATA’s moneymaker because I generally pay only about 30 dollars for a pretty good meal in a pretty good restaurant with a pretty good view, including a glass of wine and coffee (I skip the dessert).

So the term “language technology” may be after all a useful invention rather than an absurd and vague term as I originally thought, another absurd term that does not really mean anything, or if it does mean something, then it would be very different things to different people, since at the end of my analysis of this new term I ended up at a copious buffet with chilled salads, (even Serrano ham!), crispy polenta and caramelized bananas.

 
Last week I gave two different cost estimates to two different clients for translating Japanese patents. One document was very short, only two pages, and my estimate for translating it into English was for 240 dollars.

My price quote was accepted, I translated the short document, printed, proofread and delivered it, and I already received payment for it.

The other cost estimate was a little bit more complicated because it was an estimate for translating two very long patent applications from Japanese, each of them about 60 pages, including about a dozen pages with figures.

My estimate for this potential project was about seven thousand dollars for a non-rush translation (at the rate of no more than two thousand words per working day), or about twelve thousand words for translating both patent applications on a rush basis.

I know that when I submit estimates for expensive projects, nothing will usually come out of it because the cost is so high. But sometime I do get the job, so I do it anyway, although preparing such a cost estimate can be very time consuming. You have to be careful because while you do not want to present an estimate that is too high (because it may be compared to other estimates), you do not want to submit an estimate that is too low either because if your offer is accepted, you will be stuck with the quoted price.

The second cost estimate (for two long documents) was not even acknowledged. Maybe the patent lawyer was mad that a mere lowly translator would dare to ask for so much money (for a simple translation!), or maybe his mother never taught him that it is polite to say thank you when people do something for you, even people who make less money than you, especially if they do it for free, although it takes them a long time to do it because it must be done right.

I think what happened with the second cost estimate was this: the patent lawyer looked at my cost and time estimate, sent it to the client, and his client said something like: “What? No way, this is much too expensive! Could you use machine translation instead to find the information that you need?”

So the patent lawyer went to the EPO Website, downloaded machine translations for both long patent applications, and since the machine translations that he saw made perfect sense, he assured the patent law firm’s client that a translation would indeed not be necessary in this case.

Well, I did the same thing, because I generally download a machine translation of patents that I am translating and then look at it while I am translating, especially in the beginning when I am still trying to establish the terms that I will be using. I normally have a separate folder for each patent with several related files in it, such as a PDF file and a text file of the document, and a machine translation of the document if one is available.

Just so you know what a typical machine translation of a paragraph from a Japanese patent looks like, here is a sample:

“The provision 3 is molded simultaneously stop sliding on the occasion of this extrusion molding. As long as it is this material that has ****** and for which it produces the skid effect although the provision 3 is molded with a rubber material stop sliding, what kind of material may be sufficient as EVA, an elastomer, etc.”

The machine pseudo-translation really only makes sense if you can read the Japanese text, it is helpful to me, especially when I start translating, although it is not very helpful to a client who cannot read the original text. Which is of course why he ordered a real translation of it in the first place.

I too downloaded machine translations of the two large files from my other cost estimate, the expensive one that was ignored. When I looked at them, I could hardly believe my eyes because the translations were …. perfect. I kept looking at the Japanese text and comparing it to the English text, but I could not see anything that would need to be changed.

And then I remembered that not so long ago, when I was translating another Japanese patent, I found a machine translation on the EPO website that was also perfect. I also remembered that the Japanese patent that had a perfect machine-translated version was in fact only the Japanese version of a patent application that was originally filed in English, just like the two long patents from my current expensive cost estimate were originally filed in English.

In that other case, several months ago, the client asked me to go ahead with the translation anyway. It was a much shorter document, so the final cost was only a few hundred dollars. I was translating that document while looking at the machine-translated version, feeling rather foolish … because what was the point of translating it when the machine-translated version was so good … until I noticed a paragraph that again made perfect sense in English, but was not included in the Japanese text. And then I also found paragraphs that were there in the Japanese text, but not in what was presented on the EPO website as a machine-translated version of the same documents.

At that point I realized that the client who ordered the translation probably knew that what one can download from the website as “a machine translation” is in fact sometime the original document that was filed in English, not a machine translation.

The reason why “the machine translation” was so perfect was the fact that instead of a document translated with software algorithm, it was the original document that was written in English. Incidentally, this is what GoogleTranslate is based on: instead of using algorithms for “translating text with a machine”, it uses algorithms to search for, find and substitute a similar text in another language for a translation.

The reason why the Japanese text in certain passages did not correspond to the English text was that the “benrishi” (patent agent) who prepared a patent application originally filed in English for filing in Japan modified the text of the application in Japanese, added different content to it and removed other content from it to make the text compatible with Japanese patent law.

After a while I stopped even looking at the “machine translation” because it was too distracting.

Sometime only the claims are changed in patent applications that were originally filed in another language, sometime portions of the text, and sometime a lot of the text in the patent application is changed in this manner.

Does the lawyer who asked me for a cost estimate for those two long patent applications know that? He probably does, and maybe he even told that to the client who decided not to go ahead with an expensive translation project.

But the fact is, neither the patent lawyer, nor his client have any idea what is really contained in the patent application that was filed in Japan, because what was stored on the EPO website and presented as “a machine translation” was not really a translation at all.

It made perfect sense in English, but it only made perfect sense because it was not really a translation, let alone machine translation.

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