Exactly five years ago, another translator told me “Steve, you should have a blog”. I don’t remember whether she said it at the Baker’s Crust restaurant in Greenbrier here in Chesapeake, Virginia, or whether the sentence that launched my silly blog appeared in my e-mail, but that is not important.

The important thing is that I listened to her, went to WordPress.com and figured out how to create a new blog, including that the format that I wanted to use should be framed in two Youtube videos, one at the beginning and one at the end. After all, some people may share my exquisite taste in music, and those who don’t do not need to click on the videos (though they don’t know what they’re missing)!

At first, nobody seemed to have noticed my blog during the initial months when the prospects of another blog on such a pedestrian subject as “translation” seemed somewhat uncertain.

I remember how deeply moved and touched I was one Saturday morning 5 years ago when the blog view count suddenly jumped from something like 163 to something like 167 within a few minutes. Wow, some people must be reading it, I thought to myself, my chest swelling with pride. I was not quite rubbing my hands with glee, but I was very close to it.

Then one Sunday evening I received a first blog comment praising my lofty and inspiring thoughts and elegant style. It hit me like bolt of thunder – I remember thinking, wow, I did not know myself that I was so good. It took me a whole day before I realized that it was a spam comment from some lowlife who was trying to sell fake medications by leaving spam comments on blogs.

But after my blog was listed in alphabetical order under P for PatentTranslator’s blog on the ATA (American Translators Association) Blog Trekker list of translation blogs, the view count started growing. Out of gratitude to the ATA because the ATA Blog Trekker was the first major site that listed my blog, I wrote quite a few posts over the 5 years filled with scathing criticism of inane articles in the ATA Chronicle. But of course, I do it out of love for the profession. I just want the Chronicle to finally try to do better!

From about the third year, my posts started being listed on blogrolls of other blogging translators and also quite regularly on topics for discussion posted on the Proz site by Romina (I’m afraid I forgot her last name). That got me even more views than the ATA Blog Trekker. Out of gratitude to Romina, I started mercilessly criticizing Proz, and she stopped for some reason including my posts in her food for thought.

Then my silly blog about all things translation plus anything else that momentarily tickled my fancy, including my son’s amazingly gentle pit bull Lucy who was so far featured in about half a dozen posts, was listed also in the LaRassegna list of blogs and the number of my followers kept growing. Not exponentially, but quite significantly.

Incidentally, when you have accumulated a certain amount of followers, some of them will be unsubscribing themselves, probably because you say something that they find so offensive that they just cannot …. countenance it, that is the right word, I think. It breaks my heart every time it happens, but I guess it comes with the territory.

My biggest coup in terms of how many views my silly blog generated in one day and how many new subscribers I then gained within a few days came on April 6, 2012, when I wrote my inspired post “Translator’s Dementia (TD) – What It Is and How to Recognize the Signs”. That post had almost 2,500 views in one day, to date it has more than 2K likes on Facebook, and the last comment about it, praising my acerbic wit, of course, was received yesterday.

Interestingly, with the exception of my scholarly analysis of TD, the most popular posts on my blog generally have absolutely nothing to do with translation. For example, a very popular post that I wrote just before Thanksgiving in 2013, titled “How Many Calories Are There in One Section of Toblerone Chocolate”, had 1,130 views in January and 705 views so far in February of this year, while another off topic post under the nasty title “If You Believe That You Can Learn a Language in 10 Days, You Deserve To Be Ripped Off”, which I wrote in October of 2012 and which had almost 20,000 views so far, had 373 views in January and 285 views so far in February of this year.

Clearly, what must be happening here is that people are typing into a search engine the words contained in the title of the post and that is how they find my blog. I am particularly delighted about the continuing popularity of the latter post because the way the so called “Pimsleur approach” to learning of languages is marketed is nothing but a very nasty scam, very costly to poor victims who fall for it, namely people who want to learn a foreign language while knowing absolutely nothing about foreign languages and naively believing that there is always a simple shortcut for everything.

If my post helped to open the eyes of 10,000 people out of the 20,000 people who seem to have read it and stopped them from wasting hundreds of dollars on this scam, I think that it should count as atonement for my many misdeeds in this life, and as I have done some good in this world, I hope that Saint Peter will take it into consideration when he hears me banging on the Pearly Gates.

Probably like most bloggers, whenever I finish a post, I am convinced that this is absolutely the best post I wrote so far, much better than all the previous ones. In other words, I have no idea which of my posts may not be so bad and which ones are less than mediocre.

But I generally find out soon enough what was it that I wrote from readers’ reaction to each post, by which I mean mostly how many people share the post on Twitter and Facebook. But not always. Some posts are “sleepers”: nobody notices them at first, but lots of people will see them eventually. How all of this happens is another thing that I have not been able to figure out so far.

Maybe I will know more in another 5 years of new exciting adventures in the blogging universe.


Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
Søren Kierkegaard

There was a time when the only thing that this poor patent translator had at his disposal was an expensive, non-interactive, inanimate object made from dead trees called dictionary. I still remember the times when I had to print documents for translation that were faxed to me from Japan among other places on curly thermal paper which often rendered Japanese characters illegible. The only thing that I could use to figure out the technical terms were overpriced dictionaries, which were generally obsolete by the time they were published. One (1!) such Japanese dictionary set me back 800 dollars in 1991.

I still have all of my dictionaries arranged in bookcases lining the walls in my office and in the hallway and sometime I still use them, but not very often. It is much easier and faster to use online resources mentioned in the title of this post and in contrast to paper dictionaries, online resources are free and they are generally updated very frequently.

Online resources available to patent translators include also search functions that can be accessed for free on the websites of the Japan Patent Office (JPO), European Patent Office (EPO), German Patent Office, French Patent Office, etc. A post that I wrote about these resources in 2010 is based on a chapter that I wrote for the Patent Translation Handbook published by the American Translators Association in 2007. Some of the information in that post and the Patent Translation Handbook is outdated by now, but I believe that most of it is still applicable and useful.

Like most translators, I prefer to use different online dictionaries and online resources, and I use different resources depending on which language I am translating.

Most translators by now probably have had plenty of experience with GoogleTranslate (GT). Regardless of which language I am translating, I usually go to GT for a first basic reference for a term that I plan to be using in my translations of patents, or technical articles and other documents.

However, translators need to be careful when they are using “free” machine pseudo-translation tools available online, or even paid tools, such as Adobe file conversion tool, which is what I use to convert long documents in PDF format to MS Word format, mostly to estimate the word count to provide a cost estimate.

Since there is no such thing as a free lunch, these free tools are not really free. Whenever we use a “free” tool, information about what we are doing online is generally the product that is being sold to other people, mostly for advertising purposes (or at least I hope so). Since translators don’t know who can have access to the information that they input online, they must be very careful when using pseudo-translation and file conversion tools. As described for example in the English version of the Japanese newspaper The Yomiuri Shimbun, confidential E-mails to a client and other documents that were translated by a careless lawyer through a free online service have been leaked onto the Internet and are visible to the public.

There is no need to worry about the text of published patent applications, because once they have been published on a website such as the JPO, EPO or WIPO website, they are in public domain. But texts of unpublished patent application may not be disclosed through a “free” online machine pseudo-translation service, or through a paid file conversion utility, because such an inadvertent disclosure could cause major problems for the translator.

Unless the document being translated is already in public domain, translators who use free machine pseudo-translation tools online need to carefully anonymize every document first by removing all names and any other identifying information from the document.

With the exception of music files on my i-Pad and i-Phone (where the operating system does not really give me any choice), I don’t store any of my files in the Cloud because I have no idea who will have access to my files. Even if the company offering Cloud storage promises complete confidentiality, they could be lying, or the files could be hacked. Of course, my computer could be hacked into too, but there are simple measures that I can take on my own to try to prevent such an eventuality when I am in control of the files. If I store my files in the Cloud, I am as helpless as passengers flying in a plane with malfunctioning engines as far as the confidentiality of the information in my files is concerned.

But let’s get back to comparing machine and human translations available on Google Translate, Linguee and the WIPO website.

Google Translate

The use of GoogleTranslate offers several advantages. First of all, everything is very fast. I can use a single keyboard to type words that I want to bounce off GoogleTranslate in several languages, including German, French, or Russian, and GoogleTranslate will generally figure out the correct accents and fix my spelling mistakes. With Japanese and Czech, I generally load a Japanese or Czech keyboard into the computer’s memory first. Given how complicated typing in Japanese and Czech can be, it is faster to use a special keyboard for these languages.

The advantage of GoogleTranslate is that while it provides machine translation, or machine pseudo-translation, which is probably a better term to use because what a machine offers to a human reader is not really a translation, unlike previous machine translation systems that were based on an unmapped minefield consisting of grammatical and syntactical rules combined with a dictionary, GoogleTranslate instead attempts to identify a previous translation that was done by a human and that closely matches the source text for translation.

I found this approach to be incredibly effective on many occasions, for example when I was translating Japanese laws and statues, because most of the text is usually completely identical to the previous version of the law and all I have to do then is to copy and check identical portions and add the new text.

But even this approach can often result in completely and hilariously nonsensical mistranslation when the match identified by the software is a mismatch, which the machine does not know. Since machines obviously don’t know anything as they just do what they were programmed to do, they can be trusted about as much as presidential candidates, by which I mean that you have to assume that what they are saying might be true, but there is also a good chance that everything they say is a lie.

In a larger portion of machine-translated texts, there will always be mistranslations, which may be difficult to detect even if you know the original language and impossible to detect if you only know the target language.

When I threw the German term “Verstellweg” that I was not sure about in a patent translation that I was working on at GoogleTranslate, I got back: “adjustment”, “adjusting”, “adjustment path”, “displacement” and “displacement path”, along with definitions of the words in English and German, which I did not really need. Most of these terms would kind of work in the patent I was translating, but “adjustment range”, which was in my opinion the best translation for this particular design, was not listed.


Unlike GoogleTranslate, Linguee is an online dictionary search engine, not a machine translation engine, which means that instead of translating (or pseudo-translating) whole chunks of text, it displays existing translations of words that human translators may be looking for in different contexts. Incidentally, I find it interesting that the concept of Linguee was developed by a former Google Employee.

Just like GoogleTranslate, Linguee can be used for many languages, including Japanese, Russian, Czech, German, French, etc., and it also guesses, usually correctly, the proper spelling in other languages when I use US English keyboard for example to write text in Russian or Japanese.

This is very convenient, but I find it slightly creepy. If things continue like this, nobody will be able to remember how to spell anything in a few years. Why bother when the machine does it for us? Especially with languages using a very complicated writing system like Japanese or Chinese, young people probably already forgot how to write properly characters since their computer or smart phone remembers all those complicated characters for them. Human brain remembers only what it needs to remember, that is simply how it works. It is almost as if our brain had its own brain that does not really listen to us that much.

When I threw “Verstellweg” at Linguee, I got back 34 examples of sentences using this term in different contexts. Each example is provided as a full sentence in both languages with the queried term highlighted, which makes it easy to quickly scan all the examples to find the best possible match.

The great advantage of Linguee is that unlike GoogleTranslate, it provides a great deal of context which would not fit into the design of a machine translation engine. Just like in life, context is everything also in translation, and thanks to the simple and effective design of Linguee, searching for alternatives is usually quite fast.

I really, really like Linguee.

Summaries on The WIPO (World Intellectual Property Office) Website

I have been using this website for many years, longer than GoogleTranslate and much longer than Linguee. While the European Patent Office (EPO) website can be searched only in English and the Japanese Patent Office (JPO) can be searched only in Japanese or in English, millions of patent publications contained in the WIPO database can be searched in many languages, including English, German, Japanese, Russian, etc. A search for a term in a foreign language will usually identify English abstracts of many patent documents containing an English translation of the term in German, French, etc. Because complete summaries are displayed, even more life-saving context is contained in the summary.

However, sometime there is no English summary and only a summary in the original language will be displayed, presumably because a translation is not available yet.

The English summaries are usually quite good, but not always. This is probably due to the fact that WIPO sends these summaries for translation to various translation agencies and while good agencies will work with really good translators who do good work, other agencies may use really lousy translators who are generally much cheaper.

Once in a while I find that the summary that is provided in English along with a summary in a foreign language sort of explains the main principle of the patent publication, but complicated terms that I am looking for are completely missing in English because a dishonest translator simply did not bother to translate the complicated terms. On the one hand, I think that is unforgivable for translators to behave this way, but then again, given how much (or rather how little) they may be paid by some translation agencies, and how little time they may have to translate a large number of abstracts in order to pay their bills, I would blame more the translation agency than the translators.

When I threw my test term “Verstellweg” at the WIPO website, I got back 608 hits. While this sounds like even more context, the problem is that trying to identify correct English translations takes a long time because only the word in German is highlighted, and sometime when I click on the German text, the summary is not available in English.

I find myself using the WIPO website much less now, mostly because it takes such a long time to find what I am looking for among the hundreds of documents displayed. But the WIPO website is still a very good resource for me, and often I do find on it the answer to my question when my search was fruitless on GoogleTranslate or Linguee.


Unlike two or three decades ago, translators now have many online resources that can be used to find correct terms. However, this does not mean that thanks to the availability of abundant resources, just about anybody who knows a foreign language can translate just about anything.

In order to translate and do it well, you still have to be a translator first.

I remember how Tom Petty was describing in a documentary about his music the primitive method that he was using to learn new songs when he was a teenager in the seventies in Florida. He said that he used to sit in a car listening to a song that he liked on the car cassette player while stopping it every few seconds to write down the lyrics and try out the guitar riffs on his guitar.

It is much easier for teenagers these days to learn how to play songs because everything can be simply downloaded from the Internet. But just because they can download what they need in a few seconds does not mean that this will turn them into talented musicians.

And just because there are many online resources available to translators these days, that does not mean that just about anyone can become a translator.

Whether you want to be a musician or a translator, you have to have the music in you first, because otherwise it is probably not going to work.

Posted by: patenttranslator | February 18, 2015

The Well-Balanced Lifestyle of a Self-Employed Professional


When I lived in Prague, I used take tram No. 20 at around 8:20 AM, Monday through Friday, to Hradčanská metro station to change there to the metro which took me straight to my job at Václavské naměstí (Venceslaus Square). It was not a bad commute. For about 30 minutes I was lost in my daydream until I emerged safely from the metro. One day, the tram driver whose job it was also to announce the stops – this was Anno Domini 1980 – said (in Czech): “Ladies and Gentlemen, the next stop is Vořechovka, your tram driver today is Prof. Dr. so and so, CsC” (candidate of sciences). People were laughing and looking at each other with an odd expression on their faces.

A lot of former university professors were washing windows and driving trams in communist Czechoslovakia in the eighties after they got fired from their original jobs for “anti-social attitudes”. I never heard Professor’s funny announcement again. Either he was prevented by management from performing his morning comedy, or, more likely, he got fired even from this job.

For many years I used to have a recurring dream that I was still riding the tram No. 20 to Hradčanská metro station. Fortunately, I have not had this dream for quite a few years now.

When I lived in San Francisco, I used to take the N-Judah metro train to my job in downtown on Market Street at Powell. These tram drivers too had to personally announce every stop. They were often black, a lot of black women among them who probably were not university professors. There is a lot of comedic material surrounding commuters on public transport in San Francisco that the drivers could have commented on, for instance by cracking a joke about whatever happened to hippies at the Parnassus stop near Haight street, but I never had the pleasure of riding a tram driven by a Whoopi Goldberg on the N-Judah line. The trip was quite pleasant and it took again about 30 minutes.

When I lived in Tokyo, I had to take a bus first to Oizumi Gakuen train station, then the Seibu train line to Yamanote line in downtown Tokyo where I had to transfer one more time and get off at Shiba Daimon train station. The train was so crowded that I had to start positioning myself closer to the exit from the car two stops ahead of my stop. The trip took 90 minutes, which was about the average time for commuting in Tokyo. By the time I got to the office where I worked, I was already exhausted.


In addition to long, harrowing commutes such as the one I still remember vividly from the time when I was a salaryman in Tokyo, the imbalance in the daily life of most employees includes also many other seemingly obligatory workplace ingredients, such as an idiotic boss who must be pleased or at least placated, silly office politics, constant backstabbing among fellow employees and the like.

In contrast, the lifestyle of a self-employed professional can be much more peaceful if it is well designed so that it is properly balanced. First of all, you can commute to work in your pajamas if you so choose and nobody has any right to criticize you for that, with the possible exception of your spouse. (But who cares about that!)

If you have children, that again tends to complicate things. Since children always get in the way no matter what you do, renting an office may be advisable for a period of time to try to maintain the proper balance in your life. I was renting an office, first in San Francisco for two years and then in the Wine Country for 8 years, until my children were in their early teens. Once they are teenagers, all children naturally lose any and all interest they used to have in everything and anything having to do with their father. This means that it is finally safe again to move your office back home.

When your children eventually move out of your house, and thanks God they eventually do that although it takes them almost two decades, you should probably have a pet in your home office, preferably a dog, when you are finally allowed to join the happy ranks of fellow empty nesters.

Unlike children, dogs are not in the least disruptive, they let you work as much as you need to, or read or watch TV, or waste time on the Internet as much as you want to without asking you silly questions, messing with your computers and making unreasonable demands on your time.

Once in a while your dog will bark when another dog is being walked by your house to let the other dog know that this house is already occupied and managed by a mighty and crafty canine.

Otherwise, your dog can stay perfectly still for hours even when he is not sleeping. And he usually is sleeping, or keeping a careful eye on things while half asleep. Only a dog can do that! All you have to do is feed your quiet, considerate friend and walk him three times a day. This is easy enough to schedule around your working hours and it incidentally also helps to keep you fit.

Employees must commute to their workplace regardless of the valuable time lost in this manner and the cost involved. How many years of my life would have been needlessly lost to commuting, at three hours a day, five days a week, had I been living over the last 28 years the life of an employee in Japan? That’s 15 hours a week x 52 weeks x 28 years = 21,840 hours, or 910 days, or almost 3 years.

You can’t have a well-balanced life when you have to live like that simply to pay the bills.

Since self-employed professionals get to choose the apartment or house in which they live and work, they can do so while paying attention to the principles of feng shui, the Chinese philosophical system for living a well-balanced life in harmony with the world and the universe.

Like most people who are not Chinese, for a long time I thought that feng shui was a bunch of silly superstitions. But one day about twenty years ago when I was translating a Japanese technical paper on the influence of micro-magnetic fields on the resolution of powerful electron microscopes, I realized that feng shui is addressing basically the same phenomena as the scientific article that I was translating. Just like focused beams of electrons are influenced by micro-magnetic fields generated by the design of the microscope and ambient conditions, universal energy called “chi” in Chinese, which is flowing through our house and our world, is influenced by macro-magnetic fields created by heavenly bodies, mountains, tall buildings, and the design of our house and the things in our house.

Although the Chinese figured out all of that already about 3,500 years ago, most people in the West ignore the delicate science of living in harmony with the world at their own peril.

You don’t have to carefully study feng shui to make sure that the universal energy (and your life force) is allowed to flow freely through your sumptuous mansion or modest abode, while your life force is not allowed to unnecessarily escape from your house, because the basic principles are quite simple.

You can use your cell phone to make sure that the main entrance to your house is oriented toward the South, that the entrance is not facing directly the main stairs (universal energy does not like that), and your own eyes to make sure that your house is not directly intersected by a tall church spire or a tower that can be seen from your windows.

The last requirement may be difficult to satisfy if you live in Paris near the Eiffel tower, or in central Prague, which is said to have a hundred towers. But then again, most self-employed professionals do not live in Paris or Prague, and those of us who do can consult an experienced feng shui practitioner who will gladly advise us for a modest fee on how to place strategic objects in our house to maintain a free flow of universal energy through our working environment and thus deflect detrimental influences that can block positive developments in our life.

A well balanced living and working environment is of course only one part of what a self-employed professional needs to live in harmony with the world and the universe.

The people who we allow to live in our world, willy-nilly at times, are the second important component of our life and work. We often do not have as much control over this component as we think we do.

The clients who we decide to work for are the third important component of our work, and to most self-employed professionals, their work is their life.

But that would be a subject for another post.

Posted by: patenttranslator | February 14, 2015

Mutual Respect and Appreciation Cannot Be Stored in a Computer Database


Twenty eight years ago when I dropped out for good from the corporate job market and started my own one-man translation business in an apartment in San Francisco, many people looked at me strange when I said that I was self-employed.

Back in the eighties, the prospect of not knowing where your next job and thus also your next paycheck is going to come from was quite daunting.

Back in the eighties, it still made good sense to declare your undying loyalty to only one employer and stay true to your declaration because back then, most corporations treated their employees as valued assets rather than as easily replaceable cogs in an ingenious profit-making machinery.

Although I only had an entry-level job with the San Francisco Visitors and Convention Bureau, the job came automatically with everything I could possibly need: comprehensive medical, dental and vision insurance, life insurance and a reasonable amount of vacation time. Every year I got a moderate but significant pay raise, without having to ask for it, along with a letter of commendation from my boss thanking me for my work.

The entry-level job also came with a promise of a pension should I decide to stick around long enough to deserve it once I become a senior citizen, should I live that long.

Unlike now, loyalty of an employee to an employer was a two-way street. It went without saying that on the other side of the coin was also loyalty of the employer to the employee.

How the times have changed. I would bet dollars to donuts that the same job has very meager benefits now, if any, if it still exists. It is more than likely that the job has been replaced a long time ago by a multilingual online shopping card combined with voice mail hell.

If the job does exist, the chances are that it is now done by a freelancer, or by an employee whose benefits somehow disappeared. For most employees, with the exception of upper management, pensions have also disappeared into the bottomless pockets of Wall Street swindlers.

The money changers have won and they are now the ruling class in most countries on planet Earth. And money changers are loyal only to one thing – money for themselves. In this respect, the world at the beginning of the twenty first century looks very much like the world at the beginning of the nineteenth and twentieth century. The more things change, the more they remain the same, the King is dead, long live the King!, and all that.

Surprisingly, inexplicably, and contrary to every principle of poetic justice, even when things fall apart, the center, patched up with bailouts, baling wire and scotch tape, is still somehow holding.


At the beginning of this century, people no longer look at me strange when I say that I am self-employed. In fact, what I sometime detect in their reaction often looks more like envy than pity. Attitudes to self-employed people seem to have changed quite a bit over the last two or three decades because most people understand that it only makes sense to be loyal to your employer if the employer is also loyal to employees. Unfortunately, most of them don’t give a damn about the people who do the actual work.

Attitudes toward self-employed people changed for better in some respects, and for worse in other respects.

In “the translation industry”, this reality is well illustrated already by the process that some translation agencies use to compile huge databases of translators about whom the agencies know in fact very little, although of course they do know how much the interchangeable items in the database would like to be paid for their work.

This is true especially about large agencies who are always on the lookout for new translators, which is to say those that are looking for the cheapest possible labor, cheapest at almost any cost, in defiance of an age-old wisdom expressed in sayings such as: penny wise, pound foolish, you get what you pay for, or le bon marché coûte cher (every language has several such idioms, proverbs and sayings confirming this old truth).

Back in the eighties, there were no databases of translators. All you had to do was mail (fax, or “modem”) a piece of paper called résumé (sometime spelled resumé, and sometime resume, or 履歴書 (rirekisho) when the translation agency was in Japan) to a prospective agency-customer. If translation agencies maintained databases of translators, most of such databases probably consisted of résumés on paper saved in a file folder also made of paper.

The relationship between a translator and a translation agency was a strategic partnership between people representing an agency, who really understood translation because most of them were former translators themselves, but also understood little details like marketing strategy and how business generally works, which is something that very few translators understand and for some reason don’t want to bother to learn.

Once an agency found a good translator and a translator found a good agency, a strategic relationship was established that sometime lasted for decades, or until one of the parties departed this valley of tears. What you needed for this kind of relationship was mutual respect and appreciation, rather than a computer database.

The problem with mutual respect and appreciation is that things like that are kind of hard to computerize.

Because corporate translation agencies want to have as many worker bees captured in their vast, handy computerized databases as possible, they don’t even have the time to input the data about the translators into their database. The translators must input everything by themselves, and every question must be diligently answered by every good, obedient translator, just like every good, obedient Catholic must diligently confess every single sin and peccadillo committed since the last confession to a priest hidden behind a non-transparent screen in a confessional.

And just like a priest does not need to confess his sins to the flock of sinners who pay his salary, translation agency operators do not need to answer questions submitted to them by translators who pay their salaries.


But although it may look as if the labor market in this century consists only of predatory employers who would not dream of raising the minimum wage by about 30%, which would then raise it approximately to the level of late sixties, and of predatory translation brokers who use every trick in the book to get as much work from every translator as possible in exchange for as little money as possible, this is not true.

I don’t know what is the ratio between translation agencies who are still based on the old model of a valuable strategic partnership of two parties that is beneficial to both parties, and brokers who can’t even be bothered to even remember who their translators are. The former model must be in a minority now, but it still exists.

I know that it exists because I work regularly for at least four translation agencies that are based on the old model in which respect for and appreciation of the work of a strategic partner called translator is clearly there, three of them very small, one of them not so small.

How do I know that the few agencies that I still work for respect me as a professional and appreciate my work?

That is easy to answer: they don’t try to “computerize our relationship” to a T, to the extent that they would even try to make me input information about myself into their stupid database by myself, they don’t send me demeaning “Terms and Conditions”, they remember my name, and most importantly …. they pay me good rates and very quickly, within a few days, or no more than in about two weeks.

It could be even said that I am able to deal with the rapacious greedy of the world that we have somehow created for ourselves without even noticing it, in which fewer and fewer have more and more, and most have less and less, only because I have a few customers who do not see me simply as an item to be stored in a huge computer database.

Posted by: patenttranslator | February 10, 2015

My Brain Is Like A Dog, It Obeys Me Only When It Wants To

Every time when I go to my gym, generally three times a week, my brain spits out a four digit number at me as I walk from my car to the gym. It does so although I don’t need to remember this number anymore because the gym switched to scanning of tiny membership cards which most people attached to the car key ring. So all I have to do now is just scan it, it beeps at me, and that’s that.

I don’t know how to tell my brain to stop remembering this number because this information is now useless. My brain is like a dog – it has a mind of its own, and I can’t really talk to it, no matter how hard I try.

This morning I when I woke up, I was thinking about something involving telephones, and to my consternation I realized that I don’t remember the three digits in my home and office phone number, (and the fax too, I keep telling myself that I can finally get rid of that but I still have not done so), just after the area code. What is it, I thought to myself, 310 …. no, that’s the area code for Southern California, 315 …. no, that’s not it either….. In the end I had to look at my business card to recall that it is 312. Of course it is 312! How could it be that I do not remember it? I have been using these phone numbers, (all of which have the same three digits after the area code) for 14 years since I moved here from California where my telephone number was …. (all I remember is the area code 757).

There are people who remember numbers, and there are people who remember names, but I don’t belong to either of these two categories. Some of my brain-dog’s reluctance to remember numbers may have to do with the fact that I never liked math (and never was very good at it), and some of its reluctance to remember names may have to do with the fact that my poor brain had to remember names in different languages, which may be harder than remembering them in just one language. Slavic names first, followed by German names, then American names and Japanese names.

I seem to remember Japanese names better than other names, probably because I can visualize the characters that go with the names. Ohno-san was the daredevil who worked next to me in my office and who was commuting to work on motorcycle, Fukuzawa-san was the guy with a crooked smile who was fascinated by gaijins (foreigners) and who was running a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Setagaya-ku after work in the office.

How is it possible that for a few minutes I forgot my own phone number, and yet, my brain remembers all of these names, ancient information about things that happened 30 years ago, which probably means that there is no good reason why I should still remember these names? This too is now useless information, isn’t it? Or is it because Japanese names are so different from any other names and thus easier to remember? Or is there another reason?

People talk to dogs all the time, although dogs clearly don’t care about human languages and have no use for human language, since all they need to say to us can be generally communicated much more efficiently and very elegantly with their tail. When we talk to them, they try to look knowingly at us, the crazy people who talk to dogs as if dogs could understand us, to makes us feel good about ourselves because then we can tell ourselves that our dogs do understands us, probably better than our wives, husbands, and children.

I do understand the mysterious ways in which human brain works and operates, but only to a very limited extent. For example, I know that when there is no meaningful relationship between the roots of words or characters in a language that I am translating and their meaning in English, my brain refuses to remember the correct term in the translation, especially if it knows that it is a particularly arcane term that I will probably not need for another 10 or 15 years. So I write the translation on a yellow post-it, sometime with and sometime without the equivalent in the original language, stick it on the bottom of the monitor, and quickly glance at it when I need it.

There is no need to fight my brain on this, is there? Just like a dog has its own doggie logic, the brain has its own brainy logic. If it makes sense for it to remember something, it will remember it and sometime even create a permanent or semi-permanent connection to the place on the brain’s hard disk where the word will be stored so that it can then be quickly accessed also from the memory cache. If the brain does not want to do that for me, I just have to write things on post-its.

There is no arguing with your own brain.

The challenge of remembering a dozen or more passwords that we need to remember to do just about anything on the Internet these days is now definitely beyond the capacity of any human brain. It was no problem at first when all we had to remember was a couple of simple passwords for a couple of e-mail accounts.

But how things have changed! Like most people, I had to write down dozens of passwords for everything from Apple ID to Reddit, T-Mobile and something called XING (which I have not used in at least 3 years) on a sheet of paper that I keep under the desk cover in all three locations of my three desktop computers. Whenever I create or change a password, I should remember to make the same change in the other two locations, but since I am generally too impulsive and absorbed in whatever else I happen to be doing at the moment to be bothered by something like that, none of the lists is 100% reliable at this point.

One day I may be locked out of every single account that I have created over the last five years.

My inability to remember three digits of my own damn telephone number for a few minutes this morning is probably some kind of a message that my brain is sending to me.

But I don’t know what this message means. It is much easier to talk to your dog than to your own brain because …. the trouble with your brain is that unlike your dog, it does not let you know how it feels about anything by wagging its tail at you.


The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.
Mark Twain

Translators are supposed to be, almost by definition, intelligent and educated people.

After all, they must know at least two languages and many of them know more languages than just two, while so many people can barely speak one language, including quite a few heads of state.

Some translators have graduate degrees in languages, and sometime they have degrees in other subjects that generally pay much better than translating, such as law or medicine. I don’t know why would such people choose to become translators, unless they are convinced that this is something that they were born to do. In my case, at least I have a good excuse – life experience has shown me that translating or managing translations is the only thing that I can do well enough to get paid for it.

But intelligent and educated people are not necessarily terribly smart, and many translators provide a perfect example of this interesting fact.

Exhibit A: How could translation agencies get away with the monstrosity that they call “fuzzy matches”?

This is an ingenious concept that was clearly designed by brokers, namely translation agencies who sell translations originally created by other people, called translators, in order to minimize what a service broker pays to the service provider and to maximize the profit. Is the lower cost in this case going to be passed on to the customer? Do most customers even have the same software that would make it possible for them to determine the extent of these “fuzzy matches”? What do you think? I think that in most cases, they have no idea about the clever machinations in the background.

The entire concept of fuzzy matches is entirely illegitimate, deceitful and extremely dishonest, and its purpose, mentioned above, is completely transparent. Is there is a legitimate reason to give a client a discount when large portion of texts are repeated in a translation? Yes, in some cases, although it is very doubtful that for example the lawyer who created the text that is being translated gave the client a break on the price because large portions of a legal template were simply copied into a contract.

Is my accountant going to give me a discount for “fuzzy matches” based on a software package that I can force him to buy because every year, he simply copies the same template with the same words in it and only changes the numbers that I supply to him every year to prepare my tax return? If I even mentioned something like that to him, he would quite justifiably think that I have gone completely insane, not just slightly mad as some patent translators tend to do.

Even when a discount is warranted, the decision to give a discount and to what extent should be up to the actual service provider. This is not something that should be determined by a software package that is sold to gullible translators and then skillfully operated by a broker to maximize broker’s profit.

I do sometime slightly discount my translations, for example when two long, similar patents are filed by the same company, if a long description of “prior art” is simply copied in the second patent application. But whether or not I will give a discount is completely up to me, not up to a broker armed with software, or up to the whim of a customer.

We know that translations are not about words. If they were about the translation variable called words, machines equipped with nifty software packages would surely have replaced translators by now because machines can translate words much faster than humans, in almost unlimited numbers. The problem is, translations are about a different variable called “meaning”, and while the variable called “words” can be easily calculated, multiplied, or deleted and manipulated almost at will, there is no way to calculate or multiply the variable called “meaning” with a machine. You can only delete, distort and destroy meaning with a machine because machines are very good at distorting and destroying the real meaning of words that only a human being can understand. Only a human brain can determine this variable, as machines can only understand the meaning that has been pre-programmed into them by humans.

Exhibit B: Reanimation of the dead detritus left by machine translation for humans to pick over it during “post-processing” of machine translations.

After the translating community fell for the hoax of “fuzzy matches” and other atrocities brought to us courtesy of certain cats o’ nine tails and perpetrated by translation agencies on translators, Exhibit B is now presented as further evidence of a new hoax that is being perpetrated on the translating community as I am writing these words.

Will translators fall for this trick just like that they fell for the hoax of “fuzzy matches?”

It is hard to tell at this point. Agencies certainly did a good hatchet job on the translating community with certain CAT features, so convenient for the agencies. First, they promised translators that if they bought and used a predetermined CAT as instructed, instead of being able to translate a mere two or three thousand words a day, they would easily be able to translate well in excess of ten thousand words and thus double or triple their income. That sounded so good, how could translators possibly resist, even though the price of this wonderful tool was quite steep! Once credulous translators did as asked, they were hit with requests for obligatory discounts for various kinds of “matches” and other scandalous schemes designed to reduce the compensation for translators in order to increase the compensation for the brokers.

Not all translators fell for this trick. Some managed to retain their independence, even those who work mostly for translation agencies, because not every agency is built on the shylockian principle of wringing as much blood as possible from everything and anything as long as there is a buck in it. Some agencies are run by professionals who are not out to cheat translators out of their money. In fact, whether an agency requires the use of a prescribed tool along with obligatory discounts is a very good indication of what kind of translation agency it is.

But many translators certainly did fall for the trick and then came to bitterly regret what they have done once they realized that they have invitingly contributed in this manner to stagnating or decreased rates per word, while the demands for translation volume per unit of time are going through the roof.

The new scheme, relatively new since it has been aimed at the translating community already for several years, is the great, innovative tool of machine translation. We are told that editing of machine translations is just another cool tool in our tool box, a tool and a skill that translators need to acquire to be able to compete in the translation market.

Machine translation is an excellent tool and most translators are probably using it by now. I certainly use it when it is available. Because most relatively recent patent applications that I translate, whether it is from Japanese, German, French, Russian, Czech, Slovak or Polish, can be machine-translated with a few clicks on the Japan Patent Office, WIPO (World Intellectual Property Office) and EPO (European Patent Office), I automatically print out a machine translation and look at it before I start translating and while I am translating, especially during the initial stage.

Although the technical terms supplied by the machine are obviously not always reliable, machine translations do help with terminology research, and they also help me to avoid skipping a sentence or two in highly repetitive paragraphs, a common mistake of human translators that machines are unlikely to make.

But I happen to know that trying to edit machine translation would be counterproductive, as it would be even more time consuming than translating from scratch, especially with languages such as Japanese. Even more importantly, if we let a machine dictate the translation to a human being and the human being is only asked to “fix” and “clean up” the pseudo-sentences supplied by a machine that has no understanding of the real meaning of the original text, the result will be always inferior to a real translation created in the brain of a skilled and experienced translator, even if it may look like the real thing. Moreover, the result is also likely to contain a percentage of complete mistranslations flying under the radar of a person who has been turned from a real translator into a “post-processor”. This person is no longer an independent and highly skilled artisan. Instead, her job now resembles quite closely the job of a school janitor who is pushing around a vacuum cleaner, picking up garbage and sweeping the floor.

That does not seem to matter to people who are trying to sell post-editing of machine translations as an inexpensive solution to the conundrum of machine translations, namely the fact that these things are not really translations, only suggestions of sentences generated by hardware and software based on algorithms, suggestions of sentences that must be often completely retranslated because otherwise they would make no sense. And of course, sometime they make make perfect sense and be completely wrong.

None of that matters to the “translation industry” because the point of the exercise is to do away with the profession of a human translator and replace it by another profession called “post-processor”. Very high requirements are placed on the translating profession if we are talking about translations of highly complicated texts in any of the fields in which human translators are specializing at this point of development of human knowledge, knowledge that has been acquired over many centuries by human beings, requirements for post-processors would be much lower.

Unlike real translators, post-processors do not necessarily need to know that much about anything. And since just about anything can be quickly found on the Internet, even a partial knowledge of a foreign language should be acceptable (as long as the post-processor accepts a low hourly wage combined with a high minimum hourly output).

The new, very useful skill that translators are enthusiastically encouraged by a certain segment of “the translation industry” can thus be also described as the skill to dig your own grave.

I could be wrong, but I have a feeling that this time around, most translators will not fall for the new hoax of post-editing of machine translations. There are so many people on this planet who are desperate to make some money, and some can translate, or think that they can translate. These are the people who are now being trained by “the translation industry” to dig a grave in which most of the translating profession is to be laid to rest for all eternity.

I could be wrong, but I do have a feeling that the scheme is not going to work and that translating will survive as a real profession. I believe that most translators, those who specialize in translations that are too important to be left to machines and janitors pushing around vacuum cleaners and brooms, will be doing just fine for another century, or two, at least.

The real question is: Given the inherent inferiority of the resulting product, is the concept of the machine post-processing profession economically viable, and if it is economically viable, how long can such a pseudo-profession last? While post-processors may have no choice but to accept being fed peanuts for their mind-numbing drudgery, the brokers will definitely not be happy with peanuts. This question can be only answered by translators themselves. Are they going to cooperate with “the translation industry” in their own demise? They can cooperate if they think that such cooperation will make it possible for them to survive these turbulent times.

But it is also in their power to refuse to dig their own grave if they realize that they were  born to translate, not to “post-process” garbage that has been left for them by machines.

Posted by: patenttranslator | February 1, 2015

No Direction Home


This tunnel on the border between a country that was then named Yugoslavia, and Austria, called Loiblpass in German, was the last thing I saw 34 years ago as I was attempting to illegally escape from a country that was then named Czechoslovakia to the West. Up until the moment when I passed through this tunnel, I still could have returned to my joke of a job at the Oriental Institute in Prague, where I was not asked to do much of anything as long as I showed up on time and pretended to be reading and looking for what I was told to look for in Japanese newspapers. I did that, but when nobody was looking, I was reading books about Canada and Australia as I thought that one of these countries would probably be my ultimate destination if my plan works. I did not know anybody in any of these countries, but I had a feeling that if my plan works, I will probably leave Europe and try my luck on another continent.

Once I passed through this tunnel, there was no way back because such an escape was punishable by a year and a half in prison. I had a valid passport, but my “exit visa”, a very important stamp if you carried the green Czechoslovak passport in 1981, was good only for Yugoslavia. I did not have an entry visa for Austria. In my naiveté I thought that if Yugoslav immigration stopped me and sent me back, I would somehow find a way to cross the border on foot. When I was looking at the map in our cozy apartment in Prague, only about 15 minutes by the streetcar from a short walk to the Castle and so many places that will always hold so many memories for me, I did not realize that the border was a steep, impassable mountain range.

Officially, I was spending 10 vacation days with my girlfriend Olga of three years, whom I was certain to marry one day, on the beach of Adriatic coast near the town of Rabac. As one of her girlfriends put it just before we left, “Vy dva se k sobě hrozně hodíte” (You two were simply made for each other).

Every day when we went to our restaurant to fuel up on prepaid breakfast for another day of lazing on the beach and swimming in the blue sea, surrounded mostly by German and Austrian tourists, there were more and more empty tables at the restaurant room reserved at this time for the Czech tour group. Some people who planned the same thing as I did left the second day, others after only a few days. I was still there for breakfast on the morning of the ninth day when the room was about half empty. I was still there because I was hoping that Olga would join me. We were both vacillating and up until the last day, each of us could have gone either way. But she could not live without Prague, her family, her language and her friends. I figured in my youthful impatience that I could live without all of that, but that I could not live without being able to travel to wherever I wanted to go without “exit visas”, which were obligatory and next to impossible to obtain behind the Iron Curtain. I did not know that all I had to do was wait 8 years and the Berlin Wall would come down after almost half a century. I thought that it would be there for another half century. Most people thought so, including the CIA.

For ten days, each of us was trying, gently, inconspicuously, but persistently, to finally change the mind of the other person. On the morning of the tenth day, she woke me at 6 AM by making love to me, perhaps because she thought that a morning of passionate lovemaking would finally make me change my mind. But she did not change my mind, and I did not change hers either. Maybe she just wanted both of us to have a lasting memory.

After I had to run away like a thief as I could no longer stand looking at her tears when we were saying goodbye to each other, I took a bus from Rabac to Rijeka, from Rijeka to Ljubljana, and from Ljubljana to a little town near the Austrian border called Tržić . The tunnel to Austria was just above the town.

It was Friday afternoon and the bus was full of Slovenian teens who were going home from a high school. As I was watching the kids who were talking up a storm, joking and laughing, obviously looking forward to spending another fun weekend at home, I realized, for the first but not the last time in my life, that there was no direction home for me anymore.

I got off the bus at the main square in Tržić, walked up a hill following the road signs and started hitchhiking after I found a turn in the road where cars had to slow down. It only took me about 10 minutes before a Yugoslavian driver who was going across the border stopped for me. Immigration control was just in front of the tunnel. The man in uniform first checked the driver and then he asked for my passport. He was leafing through it twice, looking for a visa stamp for Austria, then he gave me a knowing look and handed the green passport back to me with the single word “hvala” (thank you).

As we were going through the tunnel, I was a little bit dizzy from what just happened and from the speed at which we were passing the overhead lights in the tunnel. When we stopped at the checkpoint on the other side in Austria, I was sitting in the back seat, trying to make myself invisible, or at least as inconspicuous as possible. And it seemed to be working. The immigration officer quickly checked the driver’s papers and then stepped back from the car as if he were getting ready to wave the car through. But then, as the magic of my invisibility stopped working, he finally noticed me sitting in the back seat and put out his hand to check my passport too. But when he saw that I was holding up some kind of passport to give it to him through the open window, he reversed his decision and simply waved the car through. I don’t know why he did that. Maybe he knew what was going on, or maybe passports of other countries that did not need an entry visa had a similar color. Or maybe he was just pressed for time, although I did not see any car behind us.

In any case, I made it. When I got off the car on the other side of the border, I saw that I would never have been able to cross the huge mountain on the border on foot. I would either have to find a different place to try to do that, or go back to Beograd to ask for an Austrian visa. But that would take time and money, and I had very little money on me.

My magical cloak of invisibility would still work for me during my escape on several more occasions. After I got to Vienna, I decided to continue to West Germany instead of staying in Austria because I did not like the way the Austrians I met during my two days and one night in Vienna were interacting with me. I figured that Austrians would be quite happy to get rid of another refugee, but I had only something like 15 dollars left in my pocket, not enough to get by train all the way to Linz, the closest town to the German border. So I bought a ticket to St. Pölten because the fare was just under 15 dollars. When the train conductor came to check the tickets after St. Pölten, as he was asking me for my ticket and as I was taking it out of my shirt pocket to give it to him, something clicked in his brain and he realized that he had already checked my ticket – without remembering what was my last stop. So he just said “Danke” and left the train compartment. And that was how I was able to make it by train all the way to Linz.

After I got off at the train station in Linz, I was walking again to find a good spot for hitchhiking while following the road signs. One of the signs that I saw along the way told me that the distance from Linz to Český Krumlov, the town where I grew up, was only 240 kilometers (about 150 miles). It takes only two hours by car now to get from one place to the other and they don’t really stop cars on the border any more, unless something appears to be suspicious. But it took me two weeks to travel that far 34 years ago and I had to go through Hungary and Yugoslavia first. This was the second, but not the last time, when I realized that there was no direction home for me, at least not yet.

The third or fourth time when my magical cloak of invisibility worked perfectly again during my harrowing journey (depending on how I count the first stop on the Yugoslavian side of the border with Austria) was on the border with Germany.

When I told my story to a young Austrian who stopped his car for me on the road just behind Linz, he said that he was going to help me to get across the border. He was a sales rep selling in Bavaria musical instruments that were made in Austria. I still have his business card somewhere, it has a picture of a harmonica on it.

He said to me in German:”Sit in the car and try to make yourself inconspicuous”. I had plenty of practice in doing precisely that during the last two days. “If I go to the Customs Office with my stuff and paperwork, they will probably not even bother to check my car”.

And they didn’t. Once we crossed the German border without being stopped, he took out a bottle of liquor from the glove compartment and offered it to me with a grin on his face and the words “Magst Du Whisky?” I gratefully accepted. It tasted so good!!!

By the afternoon I made it by to Munich by hitchhiking, and although I was able to get residence permit in Germany within about two weeks, I decided to continue my journey to another continent as was the original plan and applied for emigration to Canada, Australia and United States.

By the time I received an invitation to an interview at the Canadian embassy, I already had a positive result from my interview at the US embassy in Frankfurt and after a little over a year in Germany where I spent the last six months working as a civilian employee for US army (this was the easiest job to get), I was ready for the next leg of my journey. I arrived in San Francisco with about 500 dollars in my pocket, about ten times more than the financial means that were at my disposal to finance the initial leg of my intercontinental trip on the Yugoslavian side of the border with Austria in the little town of Tržić.

So after about a year and a half, instead of sitting at my desk at the Oriental Institute in Prague and preparing materials for another very important thesis about this or that, I was sitting at the Visitor Information Center in San Francisco, dispensing advice in English, Japanese, German and French (occasionally also in Polish or Russian, almost never in Czech) to tourists looking for an inexpensive but comfortable and convenient hotel, a perfect restaurant, directions for going to Fisherman’s Wharf, or driving directions to the Winchester Mystery House, the Wine Country or Yosemite, which quite a few funny German tourists were pronouncing as “Josey might” (although, she might also not). Oh well, if you combine an Indian word with the crazy rules of English pronunciation, you can’t expect foreigners to get it right.

I still sometime have the feeling that I first experienced on the bus from Lubljana to Tržić, the strange feeling that I don’t know in which direction is my home, and every time when it happens, it is still confusing.

But I got used to it by now, and instead of being confused by it or sad about it, I just tell myself that it is OK to lose your sense of the direction home at some point in your life, because that is the price that people who are lucky enough to have more homes than just one simply have to pay first.

Interpretatio Romana

People have always been translating concepts from other languages into their own language and during the process creating new words in their language and modifying the new concepts to fit a different cultural history of their own language.

The Roman historian Tacitus famously called in his book “Germania” the practice according to which foreign deities belonging to the Greek, Celtic, Gallic or Germanic pantheon were identified with Roman gods “interpretatio Romana”, or “Roman interpretation”.

A good example of this practice can be found for instance in Ceasar’s work “De Bello Gallico” (Gallic War) in which the author simply gives the names of Roman gods (Apollo, Mars, Jupiter) to foreign gods of non-Romans, i.e. barbarians, instead of bothering with the original names.

Similar parallels exist according to some Greek writers also between Egyptian and Greek gods: the king of Egyptian gods Amon is the Greek Zeus; the Egyptian lion goddess Bastet is the Greek goddess Artemis, the goddess of chastity, virginity and hunt; the Egyption goddess of joy and love Hathor is the Greek goddess Aphrodite who has basically the same job description, etc.

Interpretatio Germanica

While several days bearing names of Roman gods, which eventually became also names of celestial bodies, feature prominently in the names of the week in many European languages, especially in Romance languages, in an interesting version of what Tacitus might have called “interpretatio Germanica” the names of four Roman Gods were substituted by mighty Teutonic deities in Germanic languages: Mars was replaced by Tiw, the god of war; Mercury was replaced by Woden, the god of wisdom; Jupiter was replaced by Thor, the god of thunder; and Venus was replaced by Frigg, the goddess of love (how can one not love such a name for a goddess of love?)

Insolentia Slavica et Differentia Asiatica

Because Slavs prefer to create their own systems, starting with the alphabet, and to ignore the rest of the world, Slavic languages completely ignored Roman and Germanic deities and basically numbered the days of the week based on the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle by starting with a day when it is perfectly OK to be loafing around while drinking a few goblets of mead.

For comparison, it is also interesting to note various Asian languages also ignore assorted deities and that the days of the week in Japanese, which originate in Chinese, as well as in Vietnamese and other languages are based on two celestial bodies: Sun = 日, and Moon = 月, in combination with the ancient Chinese Theory of Five Elements of which the entire universe consists according to the Chinese cosmological system: Fire = 火, Water = 水, Wood = 木, Gold = 金, and Earth = 土.

The names of the week in Latin, Old English, German, French, Czech, and Japanese (originating in Chinese)Table 3

Regnum Bestiae et Interpretatio Canina

These various systems that humans have been developing for the last few thousand years for everything that needs to be organized, classified and unified are often linked in similar and sometime even quite different languages based on what humans call “speech”.

No doubt animals have their own systems for their own information databases that make up the totality of their world, which may never be known to conceited humans who are convinced that animals are inferior to them because they may never be able to learn the names of the days in the week, not even in one language.

If we are so vastly superior to animals, how is it possible that we can’t find a language enabling us to really talk to them in order to find out more about them?

How do for example dogs organize and classify the system of smells that is so important to them in the canine universe, unlike the names of all those important Roman or Teutonic deities which are so near and dear to humans? We will probably never find out anything about the systems that they use because dogs refuse to learn more than a few words in a human language.

If we are so sure about our superiority when it comes to gathering information about the world around us, why is it that humans will never be capable of gathering more than a small fraction of information that every stupid dog will automatically acquire through the nose.

Dogs have developed their own systems for interpreting the world surrounding them, which Tacitus might have called “interpretatio canina“, and although they do not even see colors, they can track faint scents for miles and smell fear and happiness in humans, as well as cancerous cells.

Smart as we think we are, due to the huge and seemingly unbridgeable gap between the interpretatio humana and interpretatio canina, there is not a single oncologist on this planet who would be able to provide a simple diagnostic service of this kind, while just about any dog will be happy to zoom in on cancerous cells for a treat, but only if we can figure out how to explain the task to a canine in a canine language that humans are unable to learn.

Interpretatio Machinaria

That could very well be the name that Tacitus might have given to machine translation because translation has always been about interpretation. But while humans speaking different languages can quite easily interpret, modify and adopt concepts originating in other languages, and most dogs can learn a few words in a human language (although it would not be a good idea to ask them to learn too many bothersome and uninteresting sounds that humans make in a world that is full of so many fascinating smells), as machines have no reasoning power of their own (only rules that have been preprogrammed into a machine by a human programmer), instead of working with a language of meaningful words, or with a language of equally meaningful smells, they can only work with a language of simple instructions preprogrammed as series of zeroes and ones.

While the statement that humans will never be able to develop a sense of smell that would rival the sense of smell of their four-legged companions would not be surprising to most people, thanks to the hype surrounding machine translation, the statement that machines will never be able to translate anything, (if by translation we mean interpretation of the real meaning of what is being said), is surprising to most people, and people will argue ad nauseam that human translators will one day soon be replaced by machines.

And yet, both statements are equally true.

Posted by: patenttranslator | January 24, 2015

The Machine Translation Conundrum


Several years ago I received a cost estimate inquiry through my website from a private individual who wanted me to quote my price for translating a fairly long Japanese patent for him. I remember that the cost that I quoted was about two thousand dollars and that I thought to myself that since this was a private individual rather than a company, I would have to make him pay 50% of the cost before I start working and the rest just prior to delivery.

I was mightily peeved when I received his answer, because it said:”Although I already have a pretty good machine translation of the patent, I am willing to pay you four hundred dollars for editing and cleaning it up for me.”

Obviously, I told him that I was not interested, and I was not being very polite either.

This guy had the same ingenious idea that is now promoted and heavily bet on by a certain segment of what is called the translation industry. This concept can be summarized as follows:

Let’s reclassify translators as post-processors and pay them a fraction of what they used to make so that we could keep most of the money for ourselves.

Translators are encouraged by this translation industry segment “to acquire new technical skills”, which means to agree to be “trained” in order to become post-processing factotums, and those of us who speak scornfully of this concept are called disgruntled luddites. I suppose post-processing of machine translations could be a useful skill to have, under some circumstances. Knowing how to dig your own grave is also a useful skill to have, under some circumstances.

Is this concept going to work? I believe that the answer has to be …. it depends on several factors, including the language, and on what the words “to work” mean in this case.

The fact is, some translation agencies have been using this technique already for some time, without telling the editors that the text that they are “editing” is in fact what Kevin Lossner and his followers fittingly call MpT (machine pseudo-translation) and also without telling their clients that the pig in a poke that they are being sold is the result of post-edited MpT, as evidenced by this post on the Tranix blog from 2013.

There is no question that great progress has been achieved in the last decade or so in machine translation technology, which is about 60 years old now. In my opinion, the recent progress has been achieved largely thanks to the statistical approach to machine translation, as opposed to the rule-based approach. That is why Google Translate is so popular now and why zillions of pages are translated every minute by Google Translate, which is free to most users.

To my astonishment, a brainless, heartless, bloodless, and pulse-less machine even passed a few years ago a Portuguese-to-English translation test administered by the American Translators Association to people who want to be accredited by the ATA. However, this interesting fact may be saying more about this particular ATA accreditation test than about the capabilities of machine translation. I am saying this because a friend of mine who failed this test happens to have a PhD in Japanese studies from the University of Berkeley and has been translating Japanese for decades.

Is this a case of man-versus-machine competition, where man lost and machine won because it was smarter, or a case of a few men and women who put together a ridiculous test? I think it is the latter.

In any case, many people, including the bait-and-switch potential customer mentioned in the introductory part of this post, or the one mentioned on Tranix blog, are trying to figure out how to replace translators by post-processors who would be simply asked to feast on big chunks of texts already “pre-translated” for them by hardware and software.

The post-processing scheme could work if the translators who agree to engage in this kind of mind numbing activity are able and willing to completely retranslate parts of the text that are beyond salvaging. How much of the machine-translated text will fall into this category will depend on several factors.

The complexity of the translation is obviously one of them, although, depending on the language, the statistical model of machine translation can deal with very complex and highly specialized texts on obscure and arcane subjects – provided that it is something that has been already translated and included in the database accessible to the software.

How do you find for example the correct spelling of Latin names of all kinds of seaweeds and various types of algae or mushrooms which are either written in characters or transcribed into one of the Japanese alphabets called katakana? There are many Japanese patents about products and medications based on such mysterious ingredients, and it used to be a gargantuan task for me to try to figure out the correct spelling in English. All I have to do now is to type it in katakana or characters into GoogleTranslate to identify the correct spelling instantaneously, because there is almost always only one equivalent for the Japanese word, usually in Latin, which is already contained in the machine translation database.

But not everything can be possibly contained in a database, and regardless of how many words are already there, machine translation still frequently results in mistranslation, for example when the positive form of a verb is used instead of the negative form and vice versa, such as when “nicht” or “nai” (no) in German or Japanese is missed by the machine translation software. Especially in Japanese, it is quite common to use not just 2, but 3 or 4 negatives to make a point in an erudite commentary, and even a human translator has to stop and think whether the result in English will be positive or negative based on the meaning of the sentence. Since a machine has no idea about the meaning of the sentence, it simply has to pick one of the two options because there is no such thing as meaning as far as the machine is concerned.

Machine translation is incredibly good at suggesting brilliantly sounding words and phrases worthy of William F. Buckley – especially if the database knows that it was in fact William F. Buckley who said these words first to begin with. The problem is, these brilliantly sounding translations may in fact be saying the opposite of what the text means in the original language because the machine has no concept of the meaning of the word “meaning”.

This must be quite a conundrum for machine translation programmers. I suppose that’s why they get the big bucks. Just like the alchemists of old, they will never succeed, but just like alchemists discovered a very useful new science called chemistry without every reaching their goal, programmers are discovering other new concepts and techniques that may be more valuable than gold, because the journey is more important than the original goal.

It might be possible to eventually teach ants who are busy dragging dead insects to feast on them in the sanctity of their anthill the complex logistics of the global economy that have been perfected by humans in the last few decades, so that for example peaches and oranges are flown from Argentina to Oregon (because they may be a little cheaper in Argentina than the peaches and oranges grown a few miles away in California).

But since computers can only understand strings of zeroes and ones, the meaning of the word “meaning” will always be beyond their grasp. An ant is much smarter in this respect than even the most powerful supercomputer, no matter how much memory, speed and “corpus-based terminology” we may throw at the machine.

Even so, the post-processing scheme should work, up to a point, for translations between similar and relatively straightforward languages, such as English, German, or French, which share a similar grammatical structure and use similar grammatical concepts, such as subject, singular, plural, etc., none of which have direct equivalents for instance in Japanese. However, even in the case of languages that can be quite easily described in terms originally used by the grammar of classical Latin, much of the text will need to be completely retranslated if it is to accurately reflect the meaning in the original language.

Because I am an extremely lazy patent translator who enjoys modern conveniences, I consider machine translation just another modern convenience, a useful concept that saves time, like a microwave oven. I generally print out a machine translation of the patents that I am translating, as machine translations are now easily available on the internet for most patent application in most languages, with the exception of relatively old documents.

But while machine translation from German into English often make sense in some sections of the documents, sometime even in large sections of the patents that I translate, they almost never make much sense when I look at a machine translation from Japanese.

And sometime the machine translation can be completely wrong also because the wrong document is linked in the database, probably due to an error of a human operator. It happened to me last month with a Polish patent. I was looking at its machine translation into English on the WIPO site, it was the same patent with the same title, but it must have been a different version of the patent application because the machine-translated text simply did not correspond to the original document.

St. Francis Xavier, a sixteenth century Jesuit missionary, said that the Japanese language is so difficult, (by which he probably meant different from European languages), that it must have been invented by the Devil himself to frustrate Jesuits who are trying to learn it.

Even though machine translations of Japanese patents are very useful to me, for example because the chemical terminology is usually correct, every sentence that is even just slightly complicated is usually completely mistranslated. Post-processing of sentences translated from Japanese thus does not seem to make any sense if what we are trying to achieve is a real translation faster than when the same text is translated by a knowledgeable human. Machine translations can be used in this case basically only as a dictionary (albeit often a life-saving dictionary containing correct equivalents of incredibly obscure terms).

I believe that St. Francis Xavier got it wrong when he said that it was the Devil who put so much complexity in human languages, especially some of them, to make it next to impossible to learn them by people who were not simply born into the language so that they could learn them the natural way.

It was God, not the Devil, who punished the hubris of humans who in their boundless arrogance attempted to build a tower reaching all the way to heaven by confusing them with dozens of different languages, so that eventually they had to stop building their stupid tower as they were no longer able to understand each other.

The quest for perfect machine translation, machine translation that would be not just a useful tool for translators and non-translators alike (although much more so for translators), is just another misguided attempt by arrogant humans to build another Tower of Babel that would reach all the way to heaven, thus making mortal and fallible humans God-like.

God in his infinite wisdom made sure that by the time “pretty good” machine translation would be available by about 2015, there would still be hundreds of languages spoken on planet Earth, many of them incredibly difficult to learn, just in case some misguided humans tried to simply replace human translators by software and hardware. That is why the evil designs of machine translation programmers have been thwarted so that human translators could continue to be gainfully employed even at a technologically advanced stage of human civilization.


I used to specialize almost exclusively in translation of Japanese patents. For about 20 years, that was about ninety percent of what I was translating, with the occasional manual of some kind, for a fax, a medical device, or communication software and things like that, all of it from Japanese to English. It was a good choice for me because I majored in Japanese studies with emphasis on the language and there were so many patents to be translated and relatively few people who could do it reasonably well. Based on how busy I was translating mostly Japanese patents for such a long time, I must have been one of them.

But as Heraclitus put it, everything changes, nothing stands still, and change is the only constant in life.

Only a few years ago, stores that sell computers and various electronic gadgets used to be full of Japanese TVs, after competition from Japan killed off American TV manufacturers decades ago. Although I can still find Japanese TVs at Best Buy, I usually find them just in one row of televisions made by SONY, hiding among Chinese and Korean made TVs, which are usually significantly cheaper than SONY TVs. Panasonic may still be there, but what happened to Hitachi? Didn’t Hitachi used to have the best TVs?

Just like there are fewer Japanese TVs and other electronic gizmos on the market, there are fewer Japanese patents that need to be translated. I am hoping that Japanese technology will survive the wars of Asian Tigers, but right now, Japan is not exactly winning. Somebody did ask me this morning whether I could translate a long Japanese patent, but it was not really a serious proposal because the guy wanted me to translate 12,000 words in 1.5 days. I looked at the patent, saw that it was more like 14 thousand words, and I obviously had to say, no, sorry, I can’t do that.

Fortunately for me, I can fake very convincingly several other languages in addition to Japanese. German is the other language from which I translate frequently, even more frequently than from Japanese, as technical translation from German is very much in demand these days. But so are translations from several other languages that I have been studying for decades, Russian, in particular, but also French, Polish, and even Czech and Slovak. In fact, the last patent I translated just a few days ago was in ….. Polish. I still get quite a few Japanese patents to translate from my old clients, but these days they are often in a batch of patents that also includes patents in German or French, which I do myself, or in Chinese and Korean, for which I hire other translators.

One customer, a subsidiary of a giant corporation, used to send me only Japanese patents (chemistry) for quite a few years, but now they send about 5 patents in Chinese for every one patent in Japanese, and more patents in German than in Japanese.

So I no longer consider myself strictly a patent translator. It is a luxury that I can no longer afford. In addition to patents, I also translate a lot of contracts these days, from Japanese, German, Russian and Polish, as well as management reports and things like that as I can’t afford to be as picky as I used to be. The only thing that I stay away from is financial translation, with the exception of relatively simple descriptions of yearly financial results of companies.

There must be something wrong with me: financial texts simply do not speak to my heart the way technical and legal documents do, although the world is dominated by the finance industry and controlled (driven to ruin would be another way to put it) by a few greedy Shylocks from their multiple, immense mansions between which they are commuting on their private airplanes.

So many well meaning and experienced translators keep saying on their blogs that specialization is key to survival and prosperity, but they don’t seem to caution at the same time that while it may be true to a point that a specialist can charge higher rates, the other side of the coin is that nothing lasts forever, not even what seems to be a very safe specialization.

If I were a young man, I would be learning Chinese or Korean at this point because I think that translators who know these two languages really well will be very busy for quite some time. But still, I don’t know for how long they will be busy, I only know that it will not be forever.

Specialization is a really powerful tool that can put a translator on the map, but it should not be overdone. Being versatile and having more than just one specialty is even more important, because, as Heraclitus knew already 2,500 years ago, things tend to change after a while and the changes are often unexpected and dramatic.

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