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.

 

CONFERENCES OF TRANSLATORS IN 2017

BP 17 IN BUDAPEST, HUNGARY

 Details

 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! bit.ly/BP17signup
Want to be a speaker? Let us know: bit.ly/BP17speaker
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! bit.ly/BP17signup

 

IAPTI 2017 IN BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA

CALL FOR PAPERS

#IAPTI Fourth International Conference #xl8 #t9n #1nt
22–23 April, 2017 — Buenos Aires, Argentina

IAPTI is inviting all translators and interpreters to submit their presentation proposals for its 4th International Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Mark your calendars and start making plans to meet fellow translators and interpreters, share knowledge and network, while enjoying the beautiful city of Buenos Aires. If you have attended or heard about our past conferences and events (in London, Athens and Bordeaux), you will know that this is an event not to be missed!
The association, an advocate for ethical practices in translation and interpreting, unites language professionals from almost 80 countries. If you share and support IAPTI’s mission, consider making a presentation at our fourth conference to share your ideas with this very diverse audience. All topics related to translation, interpreting and terminology are welcome.
Abstracts should be a maximum of 200 words and should be submitted to the Organising Committee at baconference@iapti.org by 20 October, 2016. *Priority will be given to new topics not presented before at other conferences.* Please include a title and description, a short bio (up to 100 words) and a profile photo with your proposal. Speakers will have 45–50 minutes for their presentations and 10 minutes for Q&A.
The Organising Committee reserves the right to accept or reject proposals and will notify applicants accordingly. The conference fee is waived for speakers (1 per presentation) but no monetary compensation or reimbursement is offered.
For more information, please contact the Organizing Committee at the email address above.

Come and enjoy an outstanding IAPTI event with us in one of the world’s most exciting and beautiful cities!

The IAPTI Team
www.iapti.org
Coming soon! www.iapti.org/BAconference/

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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?

EVERY DOCTOR EVENTUALLY commits murder.

 All physicians make mistakes, both of commission and omission, and sooner or later one will be fatal.

Greg Iles, Natchez Burning, Chapter 15, page 171.

Although according to a recent study by Johns Hopkins University, medical error is the third leading cause of death in the United States, after heart disease and cancer – heart disease killed 614,348 people, cancer killed 591,699 and medical error was responsible for 251,454 deaths during the period covered by the study from 2000 to 2008 – the occupation of medical doctor is still held in very high esteem and generally very well paid, at least in this country.

But in the age of blogs and social media, more and more people now dare to criticize more and more professions, including the profession of godlike MDs.

It is very easy to criticize any occupation, especially if you don’t know anything about it and don’t care how hard the person, who is doing his job as best as he can, is working.

It is also very easy to criticize a translation, any translation, and thus by extension the translator. The less the person doing the criticizing knows about foreign languages in general, and the language in question and the translation process in particular, the easier it is to tear a translation to pieces.

If a translation does not say what the person doing the criticizing knows it is supposed to say, then the translation obviously must be wrong.

A few months ago I was asked to translate a few lines from Japanese to English. It was only a couple of lines for which I still dared to ask for my standard minimum fee.

These two lines of Japanese text were written on the front and back of a Japanese credit card. I don’t remember what they said, some dumb advertising slogan about wonderful things that will come to you if you use the card, unlike with any other credit card.

But my translation was incorrect. Or so the customer said, because he had the original text that was written in English. Now, I knew that my translation was correct, as far as the meaning of the Japanese text went. But since I did not know what the original advertising text in English said, the translation appeared to be wrong. The client did not seem to know that an advertising slogan cannot be simply translated into another language, it must be changed to such an extent that it is basically rewritten, often resulting in a very different meaning.

Instead of trying to explain this simple fact through the intermediary of a project manager to the client, who I imagined was probably an important credit card company manager, I told the project manager that I was withdrawing my invoice and that I didn’t want to do this project.

The terse response of the project manager consisted of only two words, “Duly noted”. When I asked her about that particular job when she offered me a new project, she admitted that, “That client was very unreasonable”.

My instinct was telling me to stay away from this particular critic of my translation and let somebody else deal with the problem, and that’s what I did. It turned out that I was right to listen to my instincts.

It is dangerous when a client “knows” exactly what a translation should look like. For this reason, back translations can be particularly tricky, especially if a client does not know much about foreign languages and translation, which is often the case.

I used to periodically do back translations of Japanese questionnaires originally written in English and then given to Japanese focus groups for several years for a small translation agency, a one-man agency, for quite a few years. Fortunately, the guy who owned the agency knew that the best way to avoid problems with back translations is to give the translator the original text. He always sent me both the Japanese and English texts and I would look at the English one in a while as I was translating it if I was wondering how to translate something.

As a result, my translation was quite close to the original text, but it was also different enough because it was a real translation, so the client was happy. I did not ask whether the client knew that I had the text in both languages. Like a politician, I had a teleprompter at my disposal feeding me lines, but like a good politician, I was mostly improvising.

Writers who know foreign languages, such as the Czech-French author Milan Kundera who is fluent in French and English, are famously known for driving their translators crazy with often unreasonable demands. Miriam Nargala describes this in her article “The Unbearable Torment of Translation, Milan Kundera, Impersonation, and The Joke” as follows:

The novel [The Joke] has been translated into English, French, and many other languages more than once, depending on Kundera’s dissatisfaction with a particular translation (which, at first, he would support). Thus, there followed a cascade of translations (namely in French and English) as Kundera would eventually become dissatisfied even with the latest “definitive” translated version. As he famously says in an interview regarding the 1968 French translation of Žert, “rage seized me”. From then on, Kundera showed displeasure at any translator who, however briefly, would impersonate the author and take some license in translating Kundera’s work. Further, Kundera decided that only his full authorial involvement in the process would ascertain “the same authenticity” of his translations as the original Czech works. Kundera thus becomes the omnipresent, omnipotent author, himself impersonating God controlling his own creation. Finally, Kundera takes extreme measures and translates Žert into French himself. The resulting translation surprised many – editing changes are plentiful but apparent only to those who can compare the original Czech text with Kundera’s own translation. Kundera’s stance is conflicting, as he denies creativity to other translators but as the auto-translator, Kundera freely rewrites, rather than just retranslates, his own works.

What do you do as a translator with a client who is “seized by rage”? The best solution, in my opinion, is to pass the enraged client on to another translator. Kundera eventually started writing his books in French instead of Czech about 20 years ago. Unless he translates his books himself, which I doubt because I know how difficult it is to try to maintain the fluency in your native language after living in another country for decades without being able to speak your original native language, I wonder how often he is now “seized by rage” at the translators of his books from French into Czech.

Bilingual lawyers are also sometimes just as merciless critics of translations as bilingual or multilingual writers.

I remember that after I had translated a long summary of a divorce case, through a translation agency, again, a lawyer who had a Japanese last name and who must have been bilingual, was pestering me for several days by suggesting more lawyerly alternatives to my translation. I meekly agreed to every one of his suggested changes since I wanted to get paid. I also realized that although I was not getting paid for my time responding to his e-mails, he was charging his client billable hours. Presumably, the more changes he could make, the more money he made.

Mark Twain also dabbled in foreign languages, in particular German and French. He could not understand why there are three genders and so many cases with different endings for singular and plural of nouns, and he thought that the long compound nouns in German were simply hilarious. His ingenious analysis of German grammar in an article called The Awful German Language is definitely worth reading in its entirety, so I will not quote excerpts from it here.

And here is Mark Twain’s parody (I hope it is a parody) of a back translation of his own story from French into English:

Original: “There was a feller here once by the name of Jim Smiley, in the winter of ’49 or maybe it was the spring of ’50 I don’t recollect exactly, somehow, though what makes me think it was one or the other is because I remember the big flume warn’t finished when he first came to the camp; but anyway, he was the curiosest man about always betting on any thing that turned up you ever see, if he could get any body to bet on the other side; and if he couldn’t, he’d change sides.”

Back Translation: “It there was one time here an individual known under the name of Jim Smiley; it was in the winter ’49, possibly well at the spring of ’50, I no me recollect not exactly. This which me makes to believe that it was the one or the other, it is that I shall remember that the grand flume is not achieved when he arrives at the camp for the first time, but of all sides he was the man the most fond of to bet which one have seen, betting upon all that which is presented, when he could find an adversary; and when he not of it could not, he passed to the side opposed.”

Unfortunately, I can’t find the French translation, but if you know French, you can see quite clearly how Mark Twin is being unfair to his French translator.

You basically have to start a sentence with “il était une fois” even when the English text says just, “There was”, “un individu” is not a bad translation for “a fellow”, “Je ne me souviens pas” does not mean “I no me recollect not”, “achever” means “to finish” in French, not “to achieve”, as Mark Twain is implying because it’s one of the hundreds or thousands of faux amis, false friends or false cognates, between French and English – false friends who sometimes help, and sometimes lead an English speaker who is learning French astray.

Like many translators, I have heard horror stories from translators of different languages, such as Japanese or French, whose native language is English and who happened to have a boss who thought that his or her knowledge of English was superior to that of the translator.

How do you say to your boss that his English is horrible without getting fired?

Fortunately for me, most of my clients are Americans because I live in the United States, and it is very unusual for me to come across a client who understands the language from which I translate.

Although even very good doctors may sometimes make mistakes that can prove fatal, and even good translators sometimes mistranslate something, I believe that just like you have to trust your doctor instead of trying to tell him that you know a better course of treatment, you simply have to trust your translator, instead of continuing to suggest a better way to translate whatever it is that you need translated. If you know better, why don’t you translate it yourself?

If your instinct tells you that your doctor or your translator is not very good, you should trust your instinct and try to find a better doctor or better translator, because your instincts are almost always right.

But to insist that you yourself know how to treat your symptoms better than your doctor, or that you know how to translate something better than your translator, even something seemingly as simple as two lines of text on the front and back of a credit card, is folly.

The most common way people give up their freedom is by thinking they don’t have any.

Alice Walker

Ditch Cages

Last week, a translation agency in the UK asked me whether I would be able to accept a rush translation of a legal document from German to English. They said in their first e-mail that they found my information in the ATA directory, that the document was about 500 words and that they needed it the same day by 5 PM. Greenwich mean time, probably, which would mean that I would have just a few hours for the translation.

Ten or twenty years ago, it would be a very simple negotiation. I would tell them my payment terms, and they would either send me the translation, or not if my terms were not acceptable. Since it was a rush translation, I might have asked for a couple of cents more than usual. Ten or 20 years ago, that was it, and I almost always ended up accepting the translation.

But times have changed.

I said, yes, I could fit it in, but could I see the document first? No, you can’t, they said. We hope you understand that we can’t show you the document unless you sign our NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) first. I did understand and I was pleasantly surprised that although the NDA was more than 1,500 words long, unnecessarily so because it was full of ridiculously pompous and redundant legalese, the NDA in fact did only described in detail non-disclosure of confidential information.

I was pleasantly surprised that the NDA, despite the ridiculous and stilted formulations, was in fact an NDA because what “the translation industry” is now calling NDAs are often contracts dealing with a whole range of conditions severely restricting the freedom of translators with respect to just about everything, from payment terms to illegal non-competition clauses so as to allow translators a space no bigger than the space available to caged hens who are made to work just as hard for the poultry industry in tiny cages barely bigger than the poor bird’s body (0.46 square feet per caged bird).

In these tiny wire cages, hens are laying eggs as fast as they can, just as translators working for the “translation industry” must work as fast as they can in the tiny cages created for them by the paperwork they are made to sign before they can even see the text for an urgent translation.

So I signed the NDA, scanned the document and sent it back to the agency. I also attached my résumé as requested and told them in my second e-mail how much I charge for European languages and how much for Japanese translations. I offered them a pretty good rate, without a rush surcharge as I would have in the past. The rate I offered was in fact lower than what I used to routinely charge translation agencies 10 or 20 years ago, because realistically, that’s where the rates paid to translators in the current version of “the translation industry” are today, even after 20 years of inflation.

The third e-mail from the agency finally contained the document for translation. I saw right away that it would be a very simple, routine translation, although I doubt that the agency knew that because it was in German. But I also saw that the document had 773 words in German, which probably meant that the English word count would be closer to a thousand words, and not 500 words as the agency falsely stated in its first e-mail. At that point I already knew that I would not work for this agency because it would most likely demand discounts for “full and fuzzy matches”, which was probably how they arrived at their own word count.

Within a few minutes I received a third e-mail from them with more four more documents to sign, attached in addition to the 1,500 words of the NDA, titled as follows:

  1. Supplier Terms and Conditions (3,093 words)

The terms and conditions included a condition, fairly common now in typical “translation industry” contracts: The company may refuse to pay or reduce any Fees payable to Supplier for Services by such amount as the Company may in its reasonable discretion determine.

  1. Supplier Rate Card (305 words)

The Supplier Rate Card included in addition to questions about my rates, the interesting item of my “CPDs”, evidence of which I was requested to submit to the agency:

CPD

Evidence of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is now required for most professions and is a benchmark of professionalism [Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha].  It is now a requirement of ISO 17100 that translators maintain and update their competencies. Do you carry out CPD activities and if so, would you be willing to give us details of CPD undertaken if requested from time to time?

Had I answered this question, my answer would be: Hell, no, I do not carry out CPD activities, I am too old for this stupid nonsense. I do have a degree in translation, more than 30 years of experience translating in-house and as a freelancer on three continents, and during those 30 years I was fortunate to be able to provide quite well as the sole breadwinner for a family of four, which is probably much more difficult for translators to achieve these days in the current version of the “translation industry”.

A helpful explanation of CPDs was also included, probably for “newbie translators”.

What counts as CPD?

Lots of activities you probably already undertake.  For example; webinars, learning new info, learning a new tool, learning about a new type of translation task or text type, joining in with industry discussions online or offline, going to a new country and learning about a new culture etc.

(OMG, I must join in an industry discussion rant online or offline, or go to a new country and learn about a new culture! Gosh, I completely forgot about that!)

But wait … does eating sushi count as a CPD unit of continued education in Japanese culture? And what about kimchee, can I get a CPD point for Korean culture if I eat a lot of stinky kimchee, does eating pizza regularly count for CPDs awarded for Italian culture, and would eating burritos at least once a week get me a point or two for Mexican culture?

  1. Payment Terms (507 words)

The Payment Terms included also this pearl, which I understand is also a very popular clause in “translation industry” contracts these days because you can’t actually pin down exactly how long it will take for you to get paid:

“The payment shall be made 30 days from the end of the month, e.g. any invoice dated January will be paid around the end of February.” 

Since they asked me to translate about a thousand words within a few hours on the fifth of August, and the agency said that it accepts invoices after the end of the month, I think these payment terms mean that I would be expected to submit my invoice by the end of August, and then I would be paid, should I be so lucky, around the end of September.

  1. Registration Database (295 words)

The Registration Database is a handy tool for the agency, handy mostly for checking up on the rates different people may be charging. Its main purpose is to make it possible to determine within a split second who charges less than you once you are registered in the database. I expect more and more agencies in the ” translation industry” will be using this handy tool.

So in order to translate 773 words from German to English (or about 500 words according to the agency), I would have to sign four different documents with a total of 5,700 words, and I would have to agree to each of the conditions according to the formulation in each of the documents, remember what they are, and try not to piss off the agency, for example by forgetting to visit a new country every now and then and trying to learn its culture, or by submitting my invoice on the 6th instead of on the 7th of each month.

Why is it that translation agencies that are trying to put translators into tiny wired cages created in contracts with many thousands of words that translators, who are supposedly “independent contractors” are being forced to sign, are even allowed to display the official logo of translators associations as “corporate members” of the American Translators Association, or of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting in UK? I did see the logos of both organizations prominently displayed on the websites of agencies in the ” translation industry” which has been trying for many years to treat translators the same as chickens in tiny cages.

Are these translator associations doing anything about the contracts that their “corporate members” are making translators to sign? And if they are not doing anything about them, who are these associations purporting to represent translators really representing?

How is it possible that both the ATA and ITI, organizations allegedly of, by and for translators, accept corporate members, when so many of these corporate members treat translators worse than the poultry industry is treating caged birds?

Other associations of translators in other countries do not accept corporate members, such as the BDŰ (Bundesverband der Dolmetscher und Űbersetzer, the Federal Association of Translators and Interpreters in Germany, which is not far behind the ATA in number of members), or the IAPTI (International Association of Translators and Interpreters, founded a few years ago in Argentina, (an international organization of translators, which I think has less than a thousand members at this point, but is quickly growing in many countries and on every continent), presumably because these associations of translators understand that the interest of translators and corporate members, primarily translation agencies, are often diametrically opposed, and one cannot serve two masters, sit on two chairs, etc.

Although nobody seemed to care about pitiful, caged birds only about 10 years ago, one reason why there was such an outcry about the welfare of chickens and hens was that as the article linked above puts it, A small, millennial-led group that boasts of creating databases on egg-buying companies [was] lobbying investors and methodically testing the palatability of its public messaging”.

Where is the group of concerned millennials in our associations of translators? Nobody seems to care about the welfare of pitiful translators who are put in tiny wired cages where they don’t even have enough space to turn around, figuratively speaking.

That would change if the interests of translators were represented by associations of translators that ostensibly were there precisely for this reason. While it may be possible for different people to disagree as to whether non-translating persons and institutions, such as translation agencies or the FBI, or the NSA should be permitted to become members of an association of translators, most reasonable people would have to agree that translation agencies have already acquired too much power over translators in the last couple of decades. Our associations are supposed to promote the interests of translators, rather than the interests of translation brokers, or of the government. Unfortunately, they just pretend not to even see the problems. In any case, they are not doing much, if anything, about this particular problem.

Instead, the ATA has invented a system of infantile “continued educational points” that are now used also by translation brokers to enforce obedience in translators, mostly newbie translators.

Established, experienced translators can hardly be expected to take this system seriously, and I understand the Institute of Interpreting and Translating in UK has a similar policy of demanding that translators continually participate in acquiring silly “educational points” that make experienced translators either laugh or cringe.

If a poor translator must sign five different documents totaling almost six thousand words even before being offered any work at all, that is an abuse of the system for production of translations, (or for production of linguistic sausage as one blogger puts it), that has been created over the last two decades by a certain type of translation agency that preys on newbie translators.

Supermarket customers have noticed that there is clearly a big difference between the quality of the cheapest eggs produced by caged birds and eggs produced by “free range” hens. The former have whitish yolks and are almost tasteless, the latter have yellow yolks and taste the way eggs are supposed to taste.

Have customers noticed the difference in the quality of translations produced by newbie translators who become imprisoned in little cages created for them by the “translation industry” in contracts that they have to sign even before any work is assigned to them?

I don’t know the answer to this question. Many probably have noticed, some probably have not.

I do know that some associations of translators admit into their ranks translation brokers and powerful governmental bodies as non-translating members called “stakeholders”. If these associations really are associations of translators, they should at the very least try to regulate the size of the stick with which poor little translators cowering in fear in their tiny cages are beaten, the big stick that stakeholders use to beat poor little translators over their heads, and to increase the square footage available to these pitiful translators in the tiny translator cages.

 

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Posted by: patenttranslator | August 5, 2016

The Limits of Censorship and the Power of Rock ‘n’ Roll

When I was a child, my parents had two radios in our apartment in a small town in Southern Bohemia. The radio in the bedroom was a big traditional radio with four beautifully glowing vacuum tubes that I could see and occasionally spend some time admiring, when I removed the back cover from it. My father told me that the big radio was quite expensive when he bought in the 1950s. The other radio was called rozhlas po drátě, which in Czech means, “radio by wire”. The radio by wire was a smallish, dark-brown, rectangular box connected with a very narrow wire sheathed in white plastic to a socket in the wall. Unlike with the big radio, its reception was always perfect, although you could not turn the big speaker encased in it up very loud.

Most apartments came with the little sockets in the walls in several rooms for connecting rozhlas po drátě to the convenient sockets back then, the way most American houses are now prewired for cable TV.

Up until about the age of 11, which would make it 1963, I was not really interested in the bigger radio. It had several wavelength bands in it for long waves, mediums waves, and short waves (there was no FM yet when the radio was manufactured), because you had to hunt for different stations on it, almost all in foreign languages.

I was perfectly happy with my smaller dark-brown radio in the kitchen. It was easy to turn on, it didn’t even need electricity and I knew that at 3 PM there would be an hour of brass band music, which was tolerable. Then in the evening there was a short fairytale for children being put to bed, enjoyable at any age, and in the evening they would have on a block of popular music with my favorite singers, like Milan Chladil and Ivetta Simonová, or Karel Gott.

Because we had a big sofabed in the kitchen, sometimes I preferred to lie there listening to “the radio by wire” until I fell asleep. It did not really bother me that I was able to listen only to one station because there were many different programming blocks on it, some of which I liked, some of which I listened to only once and never again.

But when the Beatles’ sound hit the world in 1963, the problem was, I could find them on several stations on the big radio in the bedroom, but never on the radio by wire. So I stopped listening to the radio in the kitchen and started instead spending long hours listening to the big radio in the bedroom, sprawled on the bed like a lazy dog, with a pillow under my head, sometimes looking at the strange, illuminated names of cities on the radio dial, names like Wien, Hilversum, or Milano, sometimes with my eyes closed, dreaming about the different worlds behind those strange names … and a few other things too, after about the age of 15.

Like millions of other teenagers in the 1960s in many countries, eventually I became quite an expert on rock ‘n’ roll music, although at first I did not understand the words of the songs since I did not speak any of the languages in which they were sung: mostly English, once in a while in French or Italian.

On one spot on medium waves, and also on one spot on the short and one on the long wave frequency, I heard a strange, monotonous, bubbly noise, that to me sounded at first kind of cool. I imagined that it was the noise a spaceship makes traveling through space… (it did sound like that, I thought). Anyway, that was my first explanation for it at the age of about nine. It sounded a little bit like modern car alarm, but more full and solid.

Eventually I discovered that it was no spaceship at all, and that in fact, the strange bubbly noise was jamming, or an attempt by the people who put together the programs on the little radio in the kitchen (the one that was so easy to use and did not even use electricity to operate), to jam some of the programs that one could hear only on the big radio in the bedroom.

For whatever reasons, the people who prepared the programs on the radio by wire did not seem to like the Beatles, or the Rolling Stones, or Diana Ross, or Jimmi Hendrix or Otis Redding, or any of the other musicians I liked to listen to.

So they put their smart heads together and came up with the clever idea of jamming a radio station if they did not wants kids like me to be listening to it.

The way the people programming the little radio by wire saw it, the problem was not really that much that kids like me were listening too much to music of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Monkeys, although, all things considered, it would have been much better if they listened to other kinds of music, of course.

The problem was that the station that I was listening to, called Radio Free Europe, was broadcasting from Munich in West Germany, and it was financed by the US Congress based on the idea that people behind what Winston Churchill so fittingly called the Iron Curtain should also have an alternative source of music and information to listen to.

It was probably the best idea the US Congress has had in more than two centuries. Thanks mostly to rock music, the popularity of Radio Free Europe, which was broadcasting also in Czech among other languages, took off like wildfire behind the Iron Curtain.

Back in the ‘60s, there were only two main FM stations on the radio, Prague I, for general broadcasting, including pop music, and Prague II, which was broadcasting mostly classical music.

But by the mid ‘60s, the rock music served up for Czech and Slovak audiences by Czech and Slovak announcers from Radio Free Europe in Munich became so popular that we started jokingly to refer to it as Prague III.

Just about everybody under the age of 30 or so was listening to decadent Western music most days, often on transistor radios that were carried around the medieval town where I lived by young people who did not want to miss their favorite music while they were just “hanging out” as my kids would put it today.

The only other station that was immensely popular with youthful delinquents in Czechoslovakia in the ‘60s and ‘70s was Radio Luxemburg, which later became a model for pirate stations broadcasting rock music illegally from a ship. But since the DJs on Radio Luxemburg only spoke very fast English and nobody could understand their jokes, Radio Free Europe announcers had a natural advantage because they spoke the language of their audience.

To try to jam a radio station is technically a very complicated task and a very expensive one too, especially in a country that is surrounded by mountains, which is the case of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia. I don’t know how many expensive jamming stations had to be constructed for this purpose alone to defend the one station broadcasting over wire from a little square box, but there must have been dozens of them, probably hundreds.

In an ironic way, it would be possible to say that the concept of a comprehensive network of transmitters was ahead of its time since it was very similar to the basic concept of cellular telephone networks. The main difference was that instead of relaying signal to enable communication through portable telephones, the network of jamming stations relayed signal whose sole purpose was to jam the broadcasts of a certain radio station for political reasons.

I remember what the jamming installations looked like because there was a jamming transmitter near the tiny village of Sedlice where my father bought a small country house to get away from the smoke-polluted air in the town because he had asthma.

I think that initially, the communists in the ‘50s started jamming all of the programs of Radio Free Europe in Czech, but by the time I started listening to the station in the ‘60s, they stopped jamming the music programs and kept jamming only spoken words in programs about current events and politics.

They probably thought that music was less dangerous than spoken word, and they did need to save money. But they were wrong: music is just as dangerous as spoken word, even more so.

In my opinion, it was not really the military might of NATO, or the superiority of the Western economic system, which is supposedly based on the invisible hand of the market. Nor was it Reagan’s brilliant performance when he uttered the famous words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” that finally brought an end to communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, although my eyes teared up when I watched him on TV in my apartment in San Francisco.

I think that the most important weapon that eventually caused the fall of the communist regime was the music coming from vacuum tube and transistor radios that young people were listening to during four decades.

The way I see it, the totalitarian regime in my old country was ultimately destroyed by the Beatles, the Stones (and even the Monkeys!) in the ‘60s, and later Madonna finished it off with a coup de grâce in the ‘80s. Since there was no way to prevent the effect that music had on the youth for several generations during four decades, when a big student demonstration in Prague was brutally suppressed by the police in the Fall of 1989, the people finally had enough of seeing their own children being beaten and bloodied by police, and the regime fell within a few weeks.

That was one of the things that I was thinking about when I heard Bernie Sanders exclaim in front of crowds of his young supporters “Enough … [and then he waited for a second, to let the crowds enthusiastically finish the rest of sentence] is enough!”

Especially in the age of the internet, censorship has its limits. The Chinese Communist Party still believes that it is possible to simply prevent the entire Chinese population from accessing uncontrollable internet. I wonder how well its policy is working. Sometimes I do see a PRC flag on the dashboard of my blog, although officially, blogs like mine are not accessible from the internet in China. The comprehensive jamming of the internet in People’s Republic of China must be a very complicated and expensive project.

Here in the United States, censorship is practiced differently than in Communist China. The jamming of alternatives to the current system is less in-your-face kind of censorship, and for the most part is hidden from view. Omission of relevant information and slanted information is used on us, sometime in combination with so called white noise, such as the white noise boxes that were allegedly placed by the DNC at the Democratic Convention in Philly last month to make sure that the booing of rowdy Bernie delegates would not be heard during Hillary’s coronation. The DNC later denied the story, called it a rumor and said that the boxes were antennas. But how many antennas have you seen that were in the shape of a boxy speaker?

One of the main reasons why Bernie Sanders never had a chance against Hillary Clinton (although 70% of young people voted for him and only a small percentage for Hillary) was because the mainstream media simply boycotted Bernie, while the Democratic party went about electing Hillary as its candidate in an extremely undemocratic manner, which will probably lose them an even a higher percentage of young voters, possibly forever.

But whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump wins the presidency in a few months, it is clear that selective feeding of information to people by a wire, whether it is called radio by wire or cable TV, is not nearly as effective as it used to be a few decades ago.

Young people are largely unaffected by cable TV. Most of them don’t even bother with a cable TV subscription, and not only because cable TV is very expensive. Most of the information that they are interested in is floating on the internet and shared, freely so far in most countries, on social media … so why pay to be fed by a wire that delivers mostly just one-sided propaganda?

To try to control programming that informs and entertains people in an entire country seemed like a realistic idea a few decades ago when something like that could be done through a cheap radio coming to everybody’s house through a tiny wire.

It did work quite well back then for a while, for quite a few decades in fact.

And a similar approach to censorship of information, loaded with commercials and low-grade entertainment, sometimes also called infotainment, has been working for several decades now also in this country.

The question is: is it still working?

Every few months, the ATA publishes an article representing the views of “the translation industry”, or what the ATA euphemistically calls “stakeholders”, i.e. members of the American Translators Association who are not translators. Since you don’t have to be a translator to be a member of the ATA, the generic term du jour for the many non-translating members of the American Translators Association is at this point “stakeholders”. I wrote several posts on my silly blog on the subject of propagandistic articles written by these non-translating stakeholders, articles that seem to be aimed mostly at putting translators in their proper place, namely as obedient peons of “the translation industry”, because articles of this type are unfortunately often found in the ATA Chronicle. For example in this post which is now already almost five years old, I compared the propagandistic nature of these articles in the ATA Chronicle to the predictable propaganda saturating our establishment media.

Although the origin of the term Big Data relates to automatic correlation of market trends, customer preferences and other characteristics useful for businesses, the name “big data” itself seems to have been designed to impress potential “translation industry” stakeholder clients and to intimidate little translators at the same time. If I am not mistaken, it is also supposed to replace what used to be called “content tsunami” a few years ago. The name suggests to me, and probably to most people, Orwell’s Big Brother and his style of strict enforcement of law and order in a pliant population scared to death by the omnipresent eyes and ears of Big Brother who is armed with big data and other diabolical tools.

My simple mind naturally cannot even begin to understand all the cool details and fascinating implications of WHAT BIG DATA MEANS TO THE LANGUAGE SECTOR, as per the title of the last section in the article by Don DePalma in the July/August issue of the ATA Chronicle.

Perhaps that is why I would find the numbers, statistics, and conclusions of Mr. DePalma for us little translators, quite frightening … if I did not find them at times also more than just a little silly.

As the late, great Miguel Lorens, Spanish-to-English financial translator whose blog was so enjoyable, wrote in 2012 in an article titled “Future Schlock: Common Sense, Nonsense and the Law of Supply and Demand”, basic laws of physics are sometimes simply ignored in Don DePalma’s analyses of things present in order to arrive at the desired conclusions about the cunningly predicted greatness of things to come. This is how Miguel Lorens illustrated DePalma’s approach to reality in the post he wrote four years ago:

” […] Or imagine your friend giving you a tour of his new five-bedroom house. ‘And this is the guest room. However, the law of gravity doesn’t apply here, for whatever reason.’ You peer inside and see a bed, a dresser and a cocker spaniel floating around in zero gravity. What would you do? Would you follow your friend out to the garden to have cocktails as the furniture and the dog float round and round? Or would you devote your entire life to finding out why the law of gravity doesn’t hold in your friend’s guest bedroom?”

The question of, “Where Does Language Fit In with Big Data?” (the somewhat overbearing title – overbearing to language – of the ATA Chronicle article), is of course much less important to us than the question of where do we, little translators, fit in with Big Data?

You probably guessed it already – little translators can only fit in with the Big Data if they are obedient enough to listen to the wise voice of the “translation industry” and become diligent, indefatigable post-processors of the gunk spat out by Big Data.

As Don DePalma puts it, “Big data has increased the volume of content dramatically. At the same time, automated content enrichment and analytical tools based on big-data science, [emphasis mine; I did not know that there was such a science], will enable the training of more sophisticated tools to help humans translate the growing volume of content and enable machines to close the yawning gap between what’s generated and what’s actually translated [emphasis mine again].

Let’s think about this short and relatively simple sentence for a moment. Ok, so the volume of content has dramatically increased. It sounds like an introduction to revolutionary change, but is this change more revolutionary than for example the change involving a dramatically increased volume of data when the Chinese invented paper, replacing stone tablets, bones and tortoise shells, when Guttenberg invented the printing press, when the internet was invented by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), or when the telephone became a tiny portable computer potentially containing hundreds or thousands of apps? And so on and so forth.

More stuff is out there, so new technologies are being developed to do more stuff with the stuff that is out there. When you put it like that, it sounds more like something that has been happening for centuries … because that is all it really is.

Although there is an enormous amount of content floating around in the blogosphere, to select just one part of what is identified in the article as belonging to Big Data, (and some of this content is very interesting), this also means that a lot of it is stuff out there that is completely useless and that will probably never be translated.

So how can one use this content in statistics identifying what needs to be translated and put a price tag on it (as part of Big Data from which profit can be extracted by “the translation industry”) if it is identified by using “automated content enrichment and analytical tools” and such … unless somebody, such as a company CEO, determines that all of the largely useless PR content of a propagandistic corporate blog needs to be translated. Sure, this is likely to happen, but if this content is translated with machine translation and then post-processed by us little translators, will it increase sales or improve the brand image of the company, or will this do the opposite of what was intended?

And if automatic content enrichment (whatever that is) and analytical tools (whatever they are) are used instead of a well functioning human brain to select content to be translated (instead of a CEO’s decision), these tools are guaranteed to pick unnecessary content to generate still more propagandistic PR nonsense, only this time in other languages.

So far I have published exactly 620 posts on my silly blog; this will be my 621st post in five and half years. The reason why about four or five of them have been translated so far into four or five languages with my permission, and probably more without my permission, is that other translators/bloggers wanted to share the content of what I am saying with other translators and bloggers who do not understand English.

It had nothing to do with what is called Big Data, or content tsunami, or automated content enrichment and analytical tools based on “big-data science”.

Instead, it had to do with Small Data, data that is selected by human intellect instead of an algorithm as being important enough to be translated and worth the time of a human translator to do so, even without compensation for a significant amount of work.

To come back to the ATA Chronicle article, the final conclusions in Don DePalma’s article are actually quite hopeful when it comes to prospects for human translators … although I suspect that he might have cunningly incorporated them into the article largely to placate us little translators who read the magazine, and to get us used to the idea that Big Data is really good for us:

Even if machines generated the lion’s share of translation [meaning pseudo-translation, Mad Patent Translator] and humans did a smaller percentage, the sheer absolute volume of human translation would increase for high-value sector such as life sciences, other precise sectors, and belles letters. In turn, the perceived value of human translation would increase. Why? Because when you bring in a live human, it means the transaction is very, very important …

As interlingual communication becomes transparent, we predict that the number of situations where high-value transactions occur – i.e. those requiring human translators and interpreters – will go up, not down. If provider rates increase and companies use MT to address a larger percentage of their linguistic needs, human translators could benefit as they are paid well to render the most critical content supporting the customer experience and other high-value interactions […]

Although it has not happened yet, we speculate that MT driven by these phenomena could remove the, “cloak of invisibility” from translators, giving them greater recognition and status.”

Up until now, the overall impact of what is referred to as language technology in the working environment for human translators, meaning mostly Computer Assisted Translation (CAT) and machine translation, has been largely negative.

Initially, translators were promised a pie in the sky in the form of CATs that would dramatically increase the number of words that they would be able to translate per day, leading to a much higher compensation for their work. Instead, they had to spend a considerable amount of money – I understand Trados software costs 800 Euros – and an even more considerable amount of uncompensated time while learning and using this software, only to be told in the end that they must provide discounts to “the translation industry” for what are called “fuzzy matches” and “full matches”, a disgraceful invention of “the translation industry” that amounts to nothing more and nothing less than extortion and wage theft.

The unfortunate fact that the rates paid for translation to translators by most translation agencies are generally lower than 10 or 15 years ago is clearly due not only to globalization and corporatization of “the translation industry”, but also to the impact of “fuzzy matches” and “full matches”.

I doubt very much that MT and Big Data will “remove the ‘cloak of invisibility’ from translators, giving them greater recognition and status.” The opposite has been happening so far, as “the translation industry” is definitely interested in keeping translators invisible rather than making them more visible. That is why “the translation industry” also invented the term “Language Service Provider” and replaced the term “translation agency” with the acronym “LSP” to make it appear as if it were translation agencies who are in reality acting as brokers, not the translators, who provide the languages services.

I don’t know how Don DePalma came up with this idea, but it makes no sense to me.

But I do agree with his other conclusion, ” […] We predict that the number of situations where high-value transactions occur – i.e. those requiring human translators and interpreters – will go up, not down.”

I am also hoping that the following conclusion may be correct, “If provider rates increase and companies use MT to address a larger percentage of their linguistic needs, human translators could benefit as they are paid well to render the most critical content supporting the customer experience and other high-value interactions”.

If I try to project this expectation on my field, namely patent translation, I can see how technological changes, mostly the availability of machine translation for most types of patent applications, have gradually changed the type of materials that I am translating now as opposed to what I was translating some 15 years ago.

Since machine translations of patent applications were not available 15 years ago, there was more work available to me in that area than today, and I believe that some, possibly a substantial amount of this work, were translations of patents that were not really required.

It was impossible to know anything about the content of these patent applications (if they were for instance referenced as cited literature in a search report), they had to be translated for example for litigation purposes, whereas it is now possible to take a look at an MT file and the figures in a patent application to eliminate patent applications that are not directly applicable to the issue at hand, even if the original document is in a language that is completely incomprehensible to most people, like Japanese.

I believe that this is why a higher percentage of utility models (“lesser inventions”) need to be translated now, because machine translations are not available for utility models, either in Japanese or in German. Moreover, since older Japanese utility models are often poorly legible, it is basically impossible to convert a PDF format, (the only format in which they are available) to a digital file that would not make any sense whatsoever once it has been run through a machine translation program.

Another change that I see in my field is that while the number of translations of existing patent applications that are needed for prior art research has decreased to some extent, again probably due to the availability of machine translations that are “good enough” to establish the basic points of a patent application, the number of patent translations for filing, for example of German, Japanese and French patent applications to be filed in English, is increasing because more and more patents are being filed all the time.

So how would I answer my own question: is marriage between Big Data and little translators a marriage made in heaven, or hell?

Well, I think that it depends on whether we, the little translators, allow Big Data to abuse us in this marriage. If we simply submit ourselves to Big Data’s demands and to the capricious whims of “the translation industry” and go along with whatever is demanded from us by a nasty spouse, it will be a marriage made in hell, as for the most part, we will be performing and thought of as mere post-processors of the MT gunk who can also do actual translations as required.

But it could be also a marriage kind of made in heaven for translators, if we, the little translators, forget the notion that we are powerless against the brute we married and concentrate on the most critical content, i.e. the highest value-added content dug out from infinite oceans of Big Data by ” big-data science”, assuming there is such a thing.

In conclusion, my advice to most translators is: you don’t need to be married to Big Data or to “the translation industry”. Stay or become single and try to work mostly for direct clients. Why stay in an abusive relationship with the “translation industry” or Big Data when with a little bit of work and thinking, you can eventually become happily divorced.

Posted by: patenttranslator | July 29, 2016

In the Power of Money-Making Algorithms We Trust

I don’t really believe very much in the power of algorithms. I just don’t trust them too much.

Unlikely bedfellows though they are, driverless cars, drone killings, and machine translation have one thing in common: they are controlled by algorithms, and algorithms can be lethal. Sometimes, an algorithm can kill by driving a driverless car into a tractor trailer, and while a drone (“believed to have been operated by the US”, as the New York Times put it) is relying on smart algorithms, it sometimes assassinates 60 civilians in a funeral procession.

Machine translation has been so far diligently killing, quite gruesomely, not just our language, but also jobs for translators, although it is quite possible that people relying on information “translated” by an algorithm were already or will be killed one day too.

According to Slator.com, a translation platform called Fluently is going out of business because the company ran out of cash and failed to secure further financing. Fluently was an online translation platform, (one of many) that sought to automate away the project management part of translation. Although the company says that it signed up 2,000 translators, the company eventually did not make it. I think that what in fact killed this (yet another) innovative platform was the company’s excessive faith in the power of algorithms. Here is how Slator described what happened:

“Minimal Human Interaction

In part, Fluently relied on clients’ willingness to manage their own projects, and on translators open to completing jobs with minimal human interaction.

The way Fluently works is clients log in, drag and drop files, and then get an instant word count, translation memory leverage, and a quote. They then go through a briefing screen, where, using a slider, they are able to select, for example, what style they prefer (formal, informal, etc.) and pick the translator’s area of expertise.

After clients choose from among the matched translators served up by Fluently’s algorithm, they are required to pay upfront. Payment is done through the platform and the funds are held in escrow until the translation is delivered.

There was a lot of rejection when a customer picked a translator, but the translator did not take the work. Fulfillment became difficult.”

—Karin Nielsen, founder of Fluently

Most translators will understand instantly that it is not terribly difficult to, “sign up 2,000 translators”. There are so many of them out there! Even somebody like myself, a one-man operation which does not provide a “translation platform”, and which is not really a translation agency either, receives dozens of resumes from translators hungry for work just about every day, and I usually delete without reading them.

Matched Translators Are “Served Up” by and Algorithm

I love the description, “After clients choose from among the matched translators served up by Fluently’s algorithm”. Smart translators are served up by smart algorithms like a meal in a restaurant, huh? But if the algorithms were so smart, how is it possible that ” fulfillment became difficult” because the translators in the end did not want the job?

Because I don’t believe in the power of algorithms when it comes to finding good translators, I only work with a few translators, almost always translators who were recommended to me by other translators; currently less than a dozen.

But unlike in the case of the Fluently platform, soon to be or already deceased, my translators almost never reject a job offer and on the rare occasion when they do, usually because they are on vacation or because they can’t fit the job in (although my deadlines are generally very generous), they usually suggest colleagues who are equally skilled in the art of patent translation and who, bless their hearts, charge about the same.

My guess is that Fluently’s signed-up translators rejected the jobs offered to them for two reasons: 1) because they were poorly paid, and 2) because the deadlines were short.

I should mention that the rates I pay translators who work for me are not really stellar (as one of them snidely commented to me). But still, they are much higher than the rates translators can expect, regardless of their education, credentials and experience, on “translation platforms” such as Proz or Translators Café. (And the rates on these platforms are probably still much higher than what Fluently was offering.) So that I can sleep at night, I pay translators who work for me the lowest rate that I myself am willing to accept for my work from other translation agencies. Even so, there is still a nice profit margin in it for me, too.

I know from resumes that I receive daily that I could hire translators for the translations that I am unable to do myself, (usually due to the wrong language direction), but that I can proofread quite competently since I almost always know both languages. Also, given that I have been in the business of patent translation, both as a translator and as a mini-agency for almost three decades, I know a little bit about how things work in patent translation and don’t need to rely on a combination of databases with very smart algorithms; I can just use my human brain.

I know that I could easily find translators who charge much less than what I am paying when I look at the rates that translators themselves advertise on what are called “language platforms” and that I could contact translators who are much cheaper.

But greedy as I am, I fear that if I go for maximum profit for me, me, me by looking around for translators offering lower rates, I will eventually pick a subprime translator without realizing it, or even though I may pick a relatively good translator, this translator will be under such pressure to accept as much work as possible to pay the bills, that in the end, he or she will start making too many mistakes.

And if I am not able to catch these mistakes, I will eventually lose a client that might have been with me for many years.

Staying Away from Algorithm to Play it Safe

So I try to play it safe. I don’t use logging, dragging, dropping, or “translation memory leverage” which I assume means wage theft through algorithms referred to as “fuzzy matches” and “full matches”, a very popular racket nowadays in “the translation industry”.

Nor do I ask my customers to pay in advance to make sure that I will get paid for the translation even if the quality is so horrible that the customer might balk at paying for it. Well, I do ask for advance payment if I am unable to ascertain that the customer is a bona fide patent law firm or a real company that has an address, a product to sell, and employees.

If I deal with an individual, I usually ask for a down payment of 50%, but this is the only time when I do so.

I believe in replacing algorithms by human interaction as much as possible. I understand that replacing human interaction with smart algorithms as much as possible would certainly be a very profitable concept for a translation platform. The owners of the platform could save a lot of money that would not need to be paid to project managers when everything is done by just dragging and dropping files into automated menus.

All you need now is a few thousand translators hungry and willing to work for what an algorithm determines their work is worth – and you have created the most innovative, ultimate cash register platform in “the translation industry”. Ka-Ching with minimum human interaction.

But minimizing human interaction, profitable as it might be, is not a whole lot of fun for clients, or for translators. It would be kind of like trying to limit human interaction to a minimum during sex. I suspect that fulfillment might become difficult. Human interaction, when it works well, is not only necessary, but also fulfilling, and fun.

It is not an accident that the most severe type of punishment in prisons is a model that is based on minimum human interaction called solitary confinement.

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