Posted by: patenttranslator | May 26, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The following mechanism is probably at work here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least I did not use font size 6.5.

Posted by: patenttranslator | May 20, 2016

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


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

 (From Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that also true about associations of translators?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 See, e.g., Regarding Vioxx, a major case, see, e.g., This is also interesting:

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


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

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

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

1. Free Machine Translations of Patents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Rush Rates and Non-Rush Rates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Drunk Monk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every time a plane is landing at an airport, chimes and beeps indicating the availability of internet  service greet passengers turning on their cell phones the moment the wheels hit the runway, announcing to tired travelers that the long wait is over.

Most people love the convenience of almost miraculous technology. Only a few years ago, the only help that a traveler could expect at an airport was the smiling face of a friend or relative waiting at the exit.

We used to have to stop our car to ask for directions when we got lost in an unfamiliar place, a major inconvenience especially for men, because unlike most women, most men absolutely hate asking for directions. Must be something to do with testosterone. Fortunately, all we have to do now is listen to the authoritative voice coming out of our smart phones ordering us which way to go.

Men can live with that, as long as they don’t have to demean themselves by asking for help.

There is one group of people of both genders, though, that often refuses to accept modern conveniences, or even to acknowledge that these are indeed nifty inventions, because they perceive them as too damn complicated.

They simply refuse to learn anything new, and that’s that.

I am talking about people approximately my age or older who are politely called senior citizens. Not all of them, of course, but still, many refuse to use new technology. A few will greedily grab and turn on their cell phones to check for messages and e-mails just like everybody else when the plane lands, but many just grab their bag from the overhead bin and get ready to leave their seats.

Some do use cell phones, especially the simpler type, but mostly just for calling.

It is not really the number of years that we have lived on this earth that defines our age. Regardless of our age, we are old when we refuse to learn new things, especially when we could really put those new things to good use in our lives.

The saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks ” (in Japanese they say “you can’t bend an old tree”), which must be centuries old, is as true now as ever.

But younger people sometimes also stubbornly refuse to learn something new, without realizing that the payoff for learning new things really is worth the trouble.

I myself have certainly done my share of stubbornly refusing to learn new things. When I started translating in the 1980s of the last century (man, I’m so old!), I decided that I would be translating only Japanese. After all, I majored in it and I still love the challenge of this incredibly complicated but beautiful language. Plus, I figured I could get better rates than if I were translating Czech or Russian, for example.

So for the first five years or so, I was translating basically only Japanese. But then a client who was sending me only Japanese up until that point, a small patent law firm in San Francisco that no longer exists, sent me a patent in German for translation. I still remember what it was about: it was a description of geometrical patterns on the “stone” of an ornamental ring worn around the finger that you could fiddle with to create numerous combinations of the elements of the pattern.

I read the description and understood immediately how the design worked. But I did not know how to say it in English because my brain worked at that point kind of like a one-way street: from Japanese to English only. It took me a while to translate that patent. Although it was fairly short, I had to look up a lot of words while I was translating it.

When the customer then thanked me in an e-mail for my “excellent translation”, it dawned on me that it would be really stupid to keep turning down German patents just because I prefer Japanese. So I also started to translate patents from German, while charging the same for German as Japanese, although I could literally feel the pain in my brain as I was forcing it to start building permanent connections between technical terms not only from Japanese to English, but also from German to English.

In Japanese, I have the characters to guide me through the minefield of technical terms.

In German, a word like “Ansatz” can mean, according to an old technical dictionary that I almost never use anymore (“Ernst – Wörterbuch der Industriellen Technik“), depending on the context:”projection, shoulder, catch, driver, dog, strip, neck, nose, heel, lug, piece, stud, tappet  (which, in case you didn’t know it, is a projection that imparts a linear motion to some other component within a mechanism), lengthening piece, incrustation, deposit, mix, batch …  although GoogleTranslate falsely claims that it usually means 1. approach, 2. beginning, 3. attempt. (Never trust machine pseudo-translations!)

So many words in German can be like that. Lengthening piece was what I was looking for, of course.

What the German language needs is another Rechtschreibreform (German orthography reform) that would include the use of Japanese characters to make the language less impenetrable, which, incidentally, is a word that is almost always used only about German when applied to a language, and for good reason.

Then, little by little I started adding French patents because that was another language that I had been studying for many years. Fortunately, fate was kind to me because the first patents for translation ended up being really simple.

But then I got cocky – somebody asked me if I could translate a Polish patent about biotechnology … and I said yes. I should have at least asked to see it first. But I didn’t.

This was in 1994 when there was basically no internet yet and fax was a technological miracle, although some people were already using e-mail. So I could not have used the internet for research as I would now, and although I have several Polish-English dictionaries, the terms that I needed were not there.

The result was a disaster. Fortunately, I was able to find a bilingual Polish patent agent who understood the field and who translated the patent very well.

“A man’s got to know his limitations” was the way Clint Eastwood put it in the movie Dirty Harry in his role as inspector Callahan. And if you don’t know your limitations, you are definitely going to find out one day what they are, probably the hard way, and it will hurt.

But one can look at it as a learning experience, right? Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and all that, right? But is that really true? Maybe sometimes whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and sometimes it makes you weaker, perhaps even too weak to go on living.

So that is the paradox and the daily dilemma of our lives: we have to keep learning new tricks, or admit that at this point we are too old to learn.

But at the same time, we have to know our limitations, and if we get too cocky and misjudge them, it is going to hurt.

“As a member of the American Translators Association, I would never discuss translation rates in a public forum”, said for the n-th time a presenter at the recent BP (Business Practices) Conference of translators in Prague where I was one of the participants and presenters, before she launched again into a generalized comparison of rates charged by various translation agencies for translating the same text. Each time she said it with a completely serious face – about half a dozen times during her presentation – her qualifying statement, which could have been taken seriously based on the expression on her face, or as a joke, take your pick, was met with the same reaction – a whole room of translators appreciatively erupting into laughter and chuckling at what she said.

The translators, and I was one of them, were laughing at the absurdity of her statement. No business can exist and survive without having a good understanding of the fees that it can charge its customers. Because knowing how much or how little your competition is charging means that you known how much you yourself can get away with, this knowledge is one of the most important pieces of intelligence that any service supplier simply must have.

Just about every month I receive a few fake “Price Quote Requests” from a would-be competitor who wants to know how much I charge for the kind of work that I do …. in order to charge one cent less. This month it was some Korean guy who lives in China. He sent me a Japanese patent for a price quote for translation from the handy Price Quote Request Form on my website, while pretending to be representing some Chinese Patent Research Institute.

I almost fell for his trick because when I ran a Google search, I found out that such an institution really exists and that it is based in Singapore. But because the guy only gave me a Gmail address, I was not convinced and continued searching until I was able to establish that he probably has nothing to do with this research institution because the fax number that he gave me, (he did not give me a phone number so that I could not talk to him), was listed on a well known blind auction translation site where he was looking for translators to work for him. So I ignored him and he still does not know how much I charge.

Because translation rates or fees are so important, the ATA (American Translators Association) has recently updated its policy on rules for ATA members who are speaking in public venues about translation rates. Under the pretext of compliance with Antitrust legislation, created a century ago to protect little people from all-powerful corporations in the era of robber barons, these rules are now applied by the ATA to achieve the opposite effect of what was intended by the original legislators, namely to keep ATA members in darkness when it comes to how much or how little they should charge for translating and interpreting services. As Tony Rosado, like myself also an ATA member, put it on his blog:

When applied today, the rules conceived to protect the weak from the powerful, provide shelter to multinationals like Capita, SOSi, and LionBridge who take advantage, with the blessing of some of our professional associations, of the legal ban to talk about fees and working conditions of professional interpreters and translators who are forced to negotiate with commercial, not professional, entities who take advantage of any circumstance they can use in their favor.

Fortunately, non-ATA members, who flocked to the BP16 Conference in Prague from many countries in all the five continents, are not subject to the ATA gag order on discussion of rates in public. Apparently, unlike in the land of the free and the home of the brave, translators are still free to discuss in  public venues anything they want, including rates and fees, in enlightened countries where democracy is more robust and freedom of speech is still a given, such as in Lukashenko’s Belarus or in Sisi’s Egypt (I had the pleasure of talking at length to translators from both of these countries at the conference in Prague). apparently is not subject to ATA’s gag order on rates because it recently published a review of rates that various translation agencies in the United States are charging to the US government, as this information is publicly available on the website of the General Service Administration (GSA) of the US government. “In its quest for transparency, the GSA went as far as publishing all the proposals (schedules) submitted to it by its accredited language services providers” (quoted from Slator).

Apparently, the US government is not bound by the ATA’s gag order on rates either, only ATA members must keep mum on the tricky and dangerous issue … if they know what’s good for them!

It is a well known fact that the US government is trying to pay as little as possible for professional services purchased and that it is usually easier to get away with higher rates, especially for rush translations, when one works for direct clients, such as patent law firms.

But I happen to know that it pays quickly, generally in three weeks, and pretty good rates, especially compared to the kind of rates that some translation agencies, especially the big ones, would like to pay to translators because I do sometime work directly for the US government myself. In particular, I translate Japanese and German patents for the Department of Justice.

Thanks to Slator, I was able to ascertain from the range of rates published on its site that the rates that I am charging to US government are quite reasonable.

By publishing the rates that an agency of the US government is paying for translation to various translation agencies, the General Services Administration is, perhaps unwittingly, doing what major translation agencies and the American Translators Association, which should really be working for us translators and not for corporatized translation agencies, are trying to prevent, namely making existentially important information available to all translators.

As I have already discovered from the reaction on social media when I tweeted about the analysis of government rates paid to translation agencies on Slator, several translators expressed an outrage at how little the people who do the actual translating work, called translators, are being paid by same agencies who may be charging the customers much, much more than what the people doing the work can ultimately receive in the current translation agency model.

That Slator brought a little bit more transparency into the issue of rates is definitely appreciated by translators, and definitely very much unappreciated by the translation agencies whose business model abhors transparency like nature abhors vacuum. The funny thing is, neither is it appreciated by the ATA, which should be working for us, translators, but based on its policy about keeping mum on rates, is working for the agencies.

I think that the powers that be at the ATA should ask themselves the following question:

In the age of Internet, does it really make sense to try to manufacture ignorance by prohibiting members of an association of translators from discussing in public fees and rates that are paid to translators by direct clients and by translation agencies?

Apart from the issue of legality – the first Amendment to the US Constitution states unequivocally that the freedom of speech may not be abridged, not even by the American Translators Association when it comes to talking about rates – the problem is that this gag order simply cannot be enforced in modern society no matter how threateningly and legalistically it may be formulated and how convoluted the argument for its existence may be.

Disclaimer: As a member of many years of the American Translators Association, I would never, ever, discuss concrete translation rates and fees in public  venues, as I am aware of the ATA’s policy regarding strict prohibition of speaking publicly about translation rates and fees in compliance with the US Antitrust legislation.

I am merely commenting on information that is publicly available on the Internet and linking to it on my blog, which is probably still allowed by the American Translators Association.

(In the video below, a singer who was banned in Czechoslovakia for two decades is singing in a concert after he was able to return home when the communist regime finally fell. Notice how everybody knows the words of the banned songs and how many people are mouthing them as if in disbelief that they lived long enough to see and hear him again. He died a few years later).

Posted by: patenttranslator | April 21, 2016

The Battle of Two Wolverines for Our Minds at BP16 in Prague

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, “My son, the battle is between two “wolves” inside us all.

One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”

 The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed”.

An excerpt from: You Are Not Alone – by Frances Black

I am sorry I haven’t been posting much this month. But I have a good excuse – I just came back from BP (Business Practices) 16 Conference 2016 in Prague, Czech Republic.

Unlike during my trip to the last translators’ conference – IAPTI 3 Conference in Bordeaux IAPTI 3 (International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters), a Conference held in Bordeaux, France in May of 2015, there were no major harrowing, nearly fatal experiences during this trip to a city that I used to know so well when I lived there for over a decade more than 30 years ago.

This time I only missed the connecting flight from Frankfurt to Prague when Lufthansa sent a message about a gate change to my iPhone, which prompted me to run for about 20 minutes from one end of the Frankfurt airport to the other, only to be told by a smiling German girl at the information desk that the gate had been changed again and that now I had to traipse on my tired feet back again to the same end of the airport where I had started the long journey of a thousand gates to my final destination.

Final destination for the day, anyway, not like in the films Final Destination 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, the “Pentalogy Horror” where everybody dies in the end.

“Fortunately, you don’t have to hurry now, Mr. Vitek, your flight is leaving in an hour so you have plenty of time”, said the German girl when she saw how heavily the overweight old man in front of her was perspiring with a smile that seemed more than slightly sadistic to me.

Other than that, the trip went without a major glitch, especially considering that during my last trip to France a few months ago, my plane was diverted to another airport, which felt like a fiendish and terrifying hijacking. After that I had to spend the night in an overpriced hotel in hot, humid and dirty Atlanta, a young French guy who was sitting in the seat next to me then threw up on me after his second cognac (and instead of apologizing, he just sheepishly avoided looking at me during the rest of the flight), and for good measure I found that Air France lost my luggage when I finally made it to Bordeaux as you can read in this post.

But let’s get back to the topic of my post today, namely a few of my impressions from the Business Practices Conference BP 16 in Prague which ended only a few days ago. Because I tried to attend as many sessions at the conference as possible, sometime I would even visit half of two consecutive presentations if I could not make up my mind which one might be more interesting. Most were excellent and a few where kind of mediocre, I thought, although all were in my opinion worth listening to.

I will try to briefly compare, or contrast, two sessions in my silly post today. So as not to get sued, I will not name names, although it is possible that commenters will mention the names of the speakers later in the comment sections. Unlike the Democratic and Republican parties which see the need to prevent third parties from being able to participate in the political process as their main duty, I do believe in democracy and I do not prevent commenters on my blog from participating (unless they really piss me off for some reason).

One session was given by a young and relatively inexperienced translator who for the purposes of my silly post today will be representing one of the wolverines fighting for translators’ minds. Incidentally, I do not mean anything negative by the animal names inspired by the old Cherokee tale that is a favorite of motivational speakers and that inspired the title of my post today. Since I was also one of the speakers at the conference, I too was a grey wolf fighting for translators’ minds in my presentation about patent translation at BP16.

I believe that we, wise and experienced wolves and wolverines, can do important work … provided that we actually know what we are talking about and have something to say.

The main topic of the session of the first wolverine, a translator turned motivational coach, was how important it is for translators to understand and be accommodating to change, the only constant in our lives, as Heraclitus of Ephesus so eloquently put it 2500 years ago. The changes that she was talking about were mostly technological changes so cherished by “the translation industry”, such as fast computers, algorithms and machine translation, cloud computing, crowd computing, optimized management systems, the emergence of mega agencies, the use of computer assisted tools (CATs), technical tools enabling competition with translators in developing countries and other scary things like that.

Well, scary to us, human translators, but so exciting for “the translation industry”!!!

We have to understand these changes and learn how to adopt them in our own line of work if we want to survive, the first wolverine was saying in her presentation. She was using slides with graphs that were demonstrating on colorful rising and falling curves the progress of machine translation that seemed to be pretty exponential, at least in her graphs. We have to anticipate that within about 10 years, there is likely to be a breakthrough in machine translation that will result in something that is almost as good as human translation, she said.

When I raised my hand to point out that “the translation industry” has been claiming that machine translation that will be “just as good” or “almost as good” as human translation would be here in about five years is something that “the translation industry” has been saying for the last 30 years, she just nodded her head but did not pursue the thought further. (I felt bad for disrupting her train of thought.)

The conclusion that most translators would probably reach from her presentation would be that we translators have basically two choices: either we stop foolishly resisting technological changes and bravely adopt “translation technology” or “language technology” as human translators using technological tools for the purposes of “the translation industry”, for instance by becoming human post-processors of machine translations, or some of us may choose to become highly valued specialized translators in certain coveted fields who can more or less afford to ignore “translation technology”, (because they are so special, by which I mean both the fields and the translators).

I could probably more or less agree with the last conclusion, although I would tend to disagree with most of the other things that this translator coach was saying. But if I had the transcript of the session in front of me, it would be in fact my pleasure to tear the entire presentation to pieces because most of the so-called facts and conclusions were in my opinion about as wrong as the anticipated technological breakthrough in “language technology” that will result in a machine translation that is almost indistinguishable from the way you or I translate.

But it would be a very long post, and possibly not a very interesting one. Fortunately, I will not be writing it.

The main topic of the second wolverine, an older and much more experienced translator, was about something else, although her session was about a related topic – namely about the elusive definition of what quality in translation means and whether there is a correlation between quality and price.

Full disclosure – I’m definitely biased here because although I only met the second wolverine in person at the conference a few days ago, I have been talking to the second wolverine online in various translation discussion groups for about 25 years now, and she sometimes also leaves a comment on my silly blog, usually when she is moved to do so by yet another insanity that I post online.

So don’t expect me to be impartial here. If I were a judge, I would have to recuse myself. But I am not a judge, so I can pretty much say whatever the hell I want on my own blog.

As I was saying, the topic of the second wolverine was about whether there is a correlation between price and quality. She had the same text, about one page, translated by about five translation agencies. At least one of these agencies used a machine translation that was then post-processed by humans (my hearts goes out to them, as does yours, I hope). The other suppliers included a cheap agency that uses cheap humans and a more expensive agency. Unfortunately, as I came late to her presentation, I did not have the color-coded sheets of translations corresponding to the more or less expensive LSPs, which I am told stands for “Lame Service Provider.” But the two young and very pretty translators sitting behind me, one was from Russia and one from Italy, helpfully shared them with me (thank you so much again if you are reading this).

Although I had less time than most people because my translation sheets were shared, the experiment has shown even to me that it was pretty obvious that there is a correlation between price and quality because machine pseudo-translation post-processed by a pitiful, cheap human, which was the cheapest solution, was so gratingly unnatural that I would hesitate to even call it a translation.

It did make sense, but after the spirit of the original text, which was a clever piece originally written by an educated French writer, was murdered by the machine translation, there was not that much that a human post-processor could have done with it. And anyway, given how little these human almost-but-not-quite translators are paid, why should they bother to do more than just remove the most glaring mistakes even if they had more time to do something with the cadaver on their hands, which they don’t?

The additional translations provided by other translation agencies sounded more natural, and some even sounded good or pretty good to some people. But the interesting thing was that when we got to vote about which translations were the best and which we thought were the most expensive ones, there was no agreement between the translators and the other translators who voted differently.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the beauty or ugliness of a translation is in the mind of a translation critic.

We cannot measure objectively translation quality, although some translation agencies like to pretend that we can and that we do exactly that by using neutral and reliable quality metrics and standards that are internationally approved and agreed upon, called for example ISO (insert a number, updated for greater impact every few years), or EN15038 (this number is also updated for greater impact every few years).

Although the quality standards that some LSPs are advertising on their websites as an assurance of measurable quality are nothing but a big lie as they have nothing to do with the quality of the translators or translations and only relate to the way in which the papers are shuffled around a desk by various mendacious Lame Service Providers, they are very useful for advertising purposes, which is the only thing that matters in “the translation industry”.

But just like most of us can tell the difference between art and pornography, most of us can also tell the difference between a good translation and a really horrible one, which will always be the inevitable result of a machine translation, even a machine translation that has been subsequently post-processed by an underpaid human, as the spirit of the original text will always be killed by a non-thinking machine.

That, among other things, was what I took away from the presentation of the second wolverine.

The way I see it, the problem with the first wolverine was that she was looking at things only from the perspective of “the translation industry”, and also that she did not realize that the translation industry is not the translation occupation. She was sincerely trying to give good advice to translators, but her advice failed to take into account the fact that there is a big difference between these two concepts and that the “translation industry” is not the world. In fact, “the translation industry” represents only one segment of the translation market.

“The translation industry” needs us to work for them because otherwise it can’t make any money. But do we really want to work for “the translation industry” under the current conditions? And if not, what are the other options that translators have?

That question that was not examined in the first wolverine’s presentation at all. And yet, I believe that this is the most important issue facing translators at this point in time.

Let’s hope that she will eventually be able to examine the issue also from the viewpoint of translators, instead of just painting a picture of immutable reality to which we translators must surrender if we want to survive.

She probably will be able to do that at some point, I think she is very talented.

The second wolverine made translators look at the problem that “the translation industry” has with translation quality, which made her presentation so fascinating to me. She was thus also making us examine the sorry state in “the translation industry” while implicitly telling us that they way forward for the translation profession is to concentrate on quality, which is something “the translation industry” is often unable to even ascertain, let alone evaluate, as it is an industry of brokers who don’t really understand much about translation.

To me, the voice of the second wolverine at the BP16 Conference in Prague was much more interesting, much more important  and therefore worth to be listened to and fed in my heart.


As an old timer who has been working as a freelance translator for almost three decades, in fact 36 years if I include my experience as an in-house translator in Europe and Japan, I have seen a lot of changes in what used to be called “a profession” and what is now called by many people, including translators, “the translation industry” (as if there were no difference between the two).

Change is inevitable in any profession; indeed, change is the only permanent constant that can possibly exist in human life. One thing is for sure: there will be no more changes in our life when we are finally dead.

Things can change for better or worse for the recipients of these changes and they usually fluctuate in both directions. But the trends that I see developing in “the translation industry” are more than just mere changes. In my mind, they evoke the image of a death spiral that is looming not only for the translation profession, but ultimately also for a large segment of “the translation industry”.

On the one hand, it would seem incomprehensible that a profession of highly educated and experienced knowledge workers, including translators—which used to guarantee a fairly comfortable middle class existence to this translator for more than three decades—could slip within a period of only about a decade to the current status quo.

On the other hand, what we are seeing in “the translation industry” is a mirror image of what is occurring in the corporate world in many other professions and countries. Newspapers are full of reports describing how in various other professions highly qualified human labor is either being replaced by machines, or outsourced to developing countries to maximize profits, including the legal profession, medical profession, accountants, and other professions.

The same trends are also dramatically manifested in the corporate “translation industry”.

The current business model of corporate translation agencies does not have much use for professional translators because it can’t really afford to pay them wages commensurate with their education, experience and expertise. The current business model of uberized corporate translation agencies cannot afford to work with professional translators because uberification naturally values profits über alles (German for “above all”).

It’s not personal to the translation agency owners and CEOs of uberized enterprises, it’s business.

The modern corporate translation agency model is based mostly on the concept of an owner or owners who own a business in which easily replaceable workers, who are essentially assembly line workers, perform functions that can be broken down into repetitive operations to achieve maximum profits for the owner or owners of an enterprise. The profits are not shared equitably with workers who are seen as mere assembly line drones because maximum profit can only be achieved when workers who do the actual work are paid as little as possible.

This concept is compatible with an assembly line for production of shirts, shoes or hamburgers where most of the work is done by machines and humans perform assisting and supervising roles. But the concept is not compatible with a working environment created for intellectual activities of highly educated and experienced knowledge workers such as accountants, writers, or translators, who in fact are the only professionals who ultimately are able to translate highly complicated texts, such as articles from technical and medical journals, or patent applications from or into foreign languages.

Notwithstanding the deafening noise that “the translation industry” is making about wonderful, revolutionary, disruptive “language technology” tools, by which is meant mostly machine translation and other computer tools, language technology provides tools that are very useful, but that can be used only by translators.

A customer relying on machine pseudo-translation is relying on a mountain of mistranslations. A customer relying on machine pseudo-translation that is additionally “post-edited”—by humans who are again treated as mere appendages of “smart machines” and considered and reimbursed accordingly—is relying on aggregated, butchered segments that will likely have fewer glaring mistranslations, but that will contain a lot of mistranslations nevertheless. The fact that the original spirit of the message is always killed by machine translation is not even debatable. The meaning of the sentences is also usually murdered by a non-thinking, non-feeling machine, unless the sentence is reconstructed, which is to say retranslated by the underpaid human appendage to the machine.

And yet, the three most prominent trends in the uberized corporate “translation industry” are:

  1. Reliance on machine translation,
  2. Reliance on post-processed machine translation,
  3. Reliance on “translators” who may be translating words supplied to them by an uberized translation agency while pecking on a cell phone keyboard, for example while sitting on a bathroom throne.

The third characteristic of the uberized “translation industry” that I list above is in fact taken from an article describing a new business of a young Korean entrepreneur, in which human “translators” are described exactly in this manner, while the article is celebrating the indomitable, innovative spirit of this young translation industry entrepreneur.

The translation industry is killing itself, seemingly without realizing what it is doing not only to real translators, but also to itself, or giving a damn about it.

The only way out of this death spiral for actual translators—university educated professionals who have years or decades of experience and expertise in specialized fields of human knowledge—is to make it clear to our customers that we, translators, are not a part of this “translation industry”.

We may or may not be using computer tools such as CATs (computer-assisted tools) or machine translations, but we use these tools for our own purposes. We must not allow other people, i.e. “the translation industry”, to control translators with these tools and use them against us.

We are not human post-processors of machine translation detritus for one cent a word, or possibly half a cent a word, or possibly less than that. Some pitiful human beings may be doing that, and our hearts go out to them, but human beings though they may be, translators they are not.

We do not translate while pecking away on a cell phone keyboard sitting on the bathroom commode (although some of us may be checking e-mails or Facebook or Twitter messages in this manner). Some other, pathetic human beings, because they still are that, may be attempting to translate in this manner to please “the translation industry”. This business model will go down in flames once all of the initial investors’ money has been spent.

We, human translators, are not “translation industry” slaves. We are the alternative to “the translation industry”.

And as long as we can survive the onslaught of greedy merchants who are attempting to replace human intellect by silicon brains using algorithms, assisted by unfortunate, pitiful human slaves, and as long as we refuse to become a part of “the translation industry”, our customers will have a choice between the translations provided by “the translation industry”, and translations provided by university educated human translators who have many years of experience and expertise in highly specialized translation fields.

There are markets for what “the translation industry” is selling, because some customers simply do not care that much that what they are being sold as translations is a mountain of mistranslations, as long as the translation service is really, really cheap, while ignoring the old adage that cheap things ultimately turn out to be very expensive.

And then there is also a market for real translation provided by specialized translators and specialized translation agencies who actually know what they are doing; unfortunately, not a common occurrence in the current version of the uberized “translation industry”.

And regardless of for what purpose translations are used by translation customers, we hope that most of them realize that few things may ultimately turn out to be more expensive than the cheap, machine-translated, human post-processed misinformation that is currently produced in copious amounts and labeled as translations by “the translation industry”.

The challenge for translators is to figure out how to connect with customers outside of “the translation industry”. Incidentally, translators’ associations are now facing the same decision – will they actively work for translators whom they are purporting to represent, or will they instead prefer to work for “the translation industry” by actively working against the interests of translators. Some are clearly doing the former, and some the latter.

The way I see it, the only way to escape the death spiral that “the translation industry” is persistently and untiringly creating for us and itself is to provide a valid, independent alternative to what is going on in “the translation industry”.

Unless we are able to provide such an alternative, our profession may soon be history.

Posted by: patenttranslator | April 5, 2016

Are we protecting our profession? Part 2.

The Professional Interpreter

Dear Colleagues:

On the first part of this entry we discussed the role that professional associations should play on the face of antitrust legislation and its adverse effect on our profession.  Today we will explore another crucial aspect of the profession that has been under siege for several years; and if some external forces have their way, it could set the profession back to the Stone Age.  I am referring to the very popular tendency to minimize the importance of interpreter and translator professional licenses, certifications or patents and the acceptance, and in some cases even blessing, of lesser quality paraprofessionals as the preferred providers of services by many government entities and multinational interpreting and translation corporations who make the decision to hire these individuals, who are unfit to practice the profession, based to the extremely low fee that they command.

It took interpreters and translators many decades of constant…

View original post 1,781 more words

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