When you buy a new house from a builder, just about anywhere in the United States, the house will come with a landscaped front yard. There will be a nice, lush green lawn in front and some trees, bushes and even sprinklers are often also included in the price. But only in the front, because the front is what people see when they have to make a decision about whether to finally buy, or keep looking.

The back of the house usually has no landscaping, only a lot of mud, temporarily administered by little birds, merrily chirping as they hop around looking for tasty worms. You can generally tell how well the new house owners are doing economically by how long it takes them to landscape the back of their new house.

Builders say they do it this way so that customers can customize their landscaping.

When you later finally buy new landscaping for your new house, there are often big differences in the prices offered by different companies. Shortly after we bought our house 14 years ago, we were offered a free price quote for new landscaping in our muddy backyard by a major landscaping company in our town. I often see trucks with this company’s logo on the road, and whenever I see this company’s workers putting in landscaping for new house owners, they’re all Mexican, except for the foreman, who is usually the only white guy on the crew.

We agreed to take a look at the free price quote, which came with a simple drawing explaining the future design, a rather generic one.

But because we thought that the price was a bit steep, we talked to people who knew other people and eventually we hired three guys who were able to do the landscaping for us for quite a bit less, based on our own design, which was very different from the generic design we were offered by the big company. You can see a part of the landscaping in our backyard if you click on the “About me” tab above.

We also talked to a foreman of a crew who was building new houses here and he agreed to bring his crew with a cement truck in the evening to pour the concrete patio and walkways around the back of the house.

Our two children were joyfully watching the interesting spectacle with utter fascination, observing five or six strange dudes, (they were all white back then, not a single Mexican among them), pouring concrete and creating fancy shapes from the concrete with tiny pebbles on top according to my wife’s precise specifications. When the job was finished, my son Casey, who was about 10 at the time, tried to bounce his ball off the still-wet concrete. I remember it so clearly because I see the round depression in the concrete walkway every morning when I take our dog Lucy for a walk.

We saved about 40 % on landscaping costs, and got the exact design that we wanted (or rather that my wife wanted) because we did not go with the big company.

Big companies have all kinds of expenses that small companies or freelancers generally do not have.

Big companies have to pay for sales people who are looking for new leads or “prospects”. The sales people usually work on commission. If they don’t find a new job for the company, they get nothing. But if they do find new work, the commission is usually generous.

Big companies have several layers of managers who must make sure that the workers who do the actual work do everything according to the company’s rules, without stealing or engaging in inappropriate behavior, such as sexual harassment of coworkers or bringing a dog to the office. There are so many layers of various managerial workers in the intricate structure of big companies that people are finally beginning to notice that many of these jobs are completely useless.

According to some economists, most jobs in our modern economy are now useless, which is to say that they do not create any real value for the client.

Above the considerable number of people who are doing mostly useless jobs, on top of the pyramid of useless jobs created in a big company, high above the low paying jobs of workers who in fact produce real value, sits a company owner who functions like a huge vacuum cleaner sucking in a big chunk of the money that will go to only one person.

I may not have been thinking about it quite in these terms at the time, but I think this is why the second bid was about 40% lower when we decided to get another price quote from people who were not working for a big company.

In large translation agencies in what is now called the translation industry, there are also many useless jobs and a lot of wasted overhead with no benefit to the customer.

Every large translation agency employs a fleet of sales people. I don’t know exactly how these sales people work. I do know that their job involves identifying suitable targets, people and companies who need something translated, (like patents, for example) preferably on a regular basis. So the cost quoted to a customer of a large translation agency will have to cover expenses for sales people who look for new clients by making cold calls to suitable clients, or even flying to another city or country and staying in an expensive hotel prior to a meeting with an important potential customer.

If they can find suitable customers and make them sign on the dotted line, then sales people are invaluable to the translation agency.

But from the viewpoint of the customer who just needs documents translated, they create no value whatsoever.

Large translation agencies nowadays also employ various experts who have a number of different jobs and tasks in the new economy, which is based on a system in which most jobs are useless. The agency needs an advertising specialist for Internet marketing, so if you type for example “patent translator” into Google, in addition to my silly blog (Diary of a Mad Patent Translator) and my website (at PatentTranslators.com) — which will be displayed on top of organic listings because Google somehow figured out that I really am a patent translator — mostly large translation agencies will be displayed in paid listings on top and to the right of organic listings.

Translation agencies these days also need public relations specialists who regularly produce commercial propaganda called press releases to be distributed both by online media and by dead tree media.

Other PR specialists must spend at least some of their time following discussions of translators in online venues such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. I know this because whenever I lurk on a discussion of translators on social media, it is generally only a matter of time before a PR person representing the translation agency being criticized raises strenuous objections.

Translation agencies also need many so-called PMs, or project managers. This is a job that arguably does create value for the actual customer. Well, inarguably, this job does create value for the customer, but only if the PMs know what they are doing. Unfortunately, based on my experience, this is rarely the case.

It may be due to the fact that I mostly translate a weird combination of languages (Czech, Polish, and Japanese). But even when I translate other, more common languages (German, French and Russian), project managers that I deal with usually don’t understand a single word in the language of the project that they’re managing, which is one reason why they can easily mismanage the project, typically by assigning the project to the wrong translator to begin with.

So the rate charged to a customer of a large translation agency will also have to cover the salaries of project managers whose job it is to organize the work, the way a foreman of a cement pouring crew must organize the work. Unfortunately, unlike said foreman, translation project managers are often not qualified to do their jobs properly.

Because a large translation agency must pay all of the costs I listed above, in addition to many other costs such as expensive office rent, there is generally not that much that is left in the end for translators, as they’re not really considered that important in the intricate organizational structure of most large translation agencies.

The landscaping company whose bid was too high for my taste 14 years ago is now trying to solve the problem of the cost of worker’s wage by hiring cheap undocumented migrants. Translation agencies, big and small, but mostly big, try to solve this problem by outsourcing work to people who are able and willing to charge less, much less, than what an educated and experienced translator would be charging. We can thank the Internet for this now that it is available in countries where labor is dirt cheap in comparison to North America or Western Europe.

We did the right thing when we rejected the free cost estimate from a large landscaping company 14 years ago and instead decided to directly hire the people who do the actual work.

Not only did I save money by doing so but I think that we also received better quality of work.

And so would customers willing to look for translators who specialize in the type of translations that they need, instead of trusting a large translation agency … because it has a large advertisement on the Internet.

 
Two days ago I decided that I needed to create digital copies of all of my client files as a part of a general downsizing of all of the stuff that I own, which George Carlin would describe by the Japanese word ガラクタ (“garakuta”, crap, junk, useless stuff) had he found out that they have this word in Japanese.

At some point I plan to sell our house and find something much smaller. When we moved from Northern California to Chesapeake in Eastern Virginia 14 years ago, we needed a big house for 4 people (my wife, myself, two sons, three dogs: two dachshunds and a German shepherd/beagle mix, plus an Australian bearded dragon lizard). In fact, one big reason why we moved here was that we were able to trade a much smaller house in expensive California for a much bigger house in Virginia.

But the dogs and the lizard died quite a few years ago, and the children moved out a few years after that. They still have their garakuta in the closet in their room, but we hardly see them now.

So the house is way too big now for just two people and one dog.

When the time comes to move again, this time I will try to get rid of most or all of the furniture, including what is in the two rooms in our house that I use an office, either in estate or garage sale, or by giving it away. Computers and printers too will go to the GoodWill store. Not sure what I will do with the many books and dictionaries that I have. Will I be able to part with them? Only time will tell.

When the time comes, I plan to keep only one laptop with my files on it, plus a few USB sticks. Well, maybe an external USB fixed drive too, we’ll see. The idea is to be as free and careless about the future as I was when I immigrated from Germany 34 years ago to America, an entire continent where I did not know a single living soul, with 500 dollars in my pocket.

They say that the time to travel often is when you are young because you can travel lightly when you are young. I agree with that, and I have certainly done my part to prove it true. But when you are old is also a good time to travel, preferably often and lightly. Just like when you were young, nobody really needs you that much as nobody really depends on you anymore when you are old.

In my office I have three filing cabinets containing files on each and every client who entrusted me with precious documents for translation over the span of more than 28 years.

That is almost three decades of paper files that need to be converted, little by little, into PDF files!

I divided the files in the filing cabinets as follows:

1. Active Clients (including direct clients and translation agencies). These are important files because the information in them pays all of our expenses. I will only start digitizing these if and when I have a concrete plan for moving.

2. Inactive Translation agencies, and

3. Inactive Direct Clients, mostly patent law firms and patent law departments of various companies.

The files are just printouts of my invoices, client contact information and printouts of messages exchanged over the years with the clients, arranged chronologically in vanilla folders, which are obviously arranged in alphabetical order.

I started by digitalizing my Filing Cabinet 3, namely Inactive Direct Clients.

Digitalizing, which is translated into French as “à la recherche du temps perdu”, means that I take out a bunch of files from the cabinet, look at them, remove staples and stubs of checks, Christmas cards and similar items with non-standard dimensions that might confuse the scanner (sometime I make a copy of these things too if I decided to keep a memento), and stick a stack of pages into the scanner.

Clients who do not fit into one scan in the scanner, which can accommodate about 50 pages, get their own folder with several subfolders in it, each covering 2 or three years of invoices and communication with clients. After less than 2 days I am now still in the middle of letter C and so far I have 4 separate subfolders for clients who kept me busy for years in the Inactive Client folder on my computer.

The oldest direct client that I scanned into my digital memories so far is from 1991. It was a law firm that was sending me for 2 years handwritten test reports for translation from Japanese for a lawsuit involving pharmaceuticals. Once I went to their offices in San Francisco to pick up a check from the paralegal who was coordinating the project. Could not wait 2 more days for mail delivery. She had a Japanese name (both first and last) but she did not know any Japanese. She looked to be about 18 years old and she was very, very pretty. Was that why they hired her? She is probably a grandmother now. The law firm stopped sending me work after a little over two years and then I saw in the San Francisco Chronicle that the law firm was dissolved.

Another old customer, who ultimately defected to greener pastures after sending me work from 1993 until 2009, was the legal department of a large multinational corporation. At first they were sending only Japanese patents, and then they added German patents as well. I must have dealt with 6 or 8 paralegals there who worked for 6 or 8 patent lawyers. Towards the end, I started to deal with a librarian instead of paralegals. I remember that I disliked the last librarian. I don’t remember exactly why, but I do remember that he seemed somehow unprofessional.

This customer’s file was so big that I had to put it into two manila folders while the company was still filed among current customers. So now I have two manila folders with a lot of paper in them, but both are in the filing cabinet for Inactive Customers.

Most companies get only a single PDF file, but I am creating separate directories for companies that dumped me after many years of working with me, further subdivided into subdirectories organized chronologically, mostly because I can put only 50 pages at a time into my scanner.

I put a couple of customers in both categories, Inactive and Active, because one manila folder would not hold all the paper. One of them, which still keeps sending me work at least every other month, forgot to pay an invoice for last month’s work. I did four jobs for them but, but they paid only for three. Their accounting department is very easy to get hold of (which is not a very common occurrence), and they told me to expect the check within the next few days. They even apologized.

Another patent law firm kept me busy for two years, in 2007 and 2008, when each year they accounted for about 15 percent of my income. It was again a lawsuit involving pharmaceuticals, with lots of patents and articles from medical journals, mostly in Japanese, but some also in German. I have not heard from them since 2008.

In cases like this, I generally look up the lawyers that I used to deal with in that company on Google and send them a post card. I had a special post card printed to offer my services, or reintroduce myself as the case may be, in this manner.

When I do my Googling, I see that most of the time the patent lawyers that I used to work for moved to another company, sometime created a new company, often becoming partners in the new company. I send them a post card too because they would probably remember me, although who knows whether the post card will be delivered by their secretary.

So far I have scanned files of old customers up to the letter C. Hopefully, it will take months before I finish the whole filing cabinet, because that would mean that I am getting very busy again.

But if I am only moderately busy, that is OK too, as I have created a new activity for myself with the scanning project. Remembering things past as old client files are turned into digital memories feels a little weird sometime because it inevitably brings back memories of other events and occurrences connected with the same time period.

Like when I came home from the office one day and my son, who was about 7 at the time, told me excitedly:”We have a new dog, her name is Lena” and there was this big dog who kept running in wide circles around the swing on the green grass in the backyard for such a long time. My wife rescued her from the SPCA in San Francisco and because she was kept in a cage for such a long time, she just had to keep running for a change because it felt so good.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is famous for having said “you cannot step into the same river twice”. But this is only a fragment of what he said two thousand and five hundred years ago, nobody knows the whole sentence or paragraph.

I think that the rest of the sentence following the words “panta rhei” (everything is in flux) says that you cannot get the same client hooked twice.

I am going to try to prove him wrong.

 
When American films tell a story that is set in a foreign country, the actors and actresses in those movies often speak a slightly funny version of English with an accent that is supposed to correspond to the language of the country where the story is based.

The first time I noticed this peculiar phenomenon was when I saw the film “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” sometime during the eighties. In that film, it did not bother me that everybody spoke English with a slightly phony Czech accent. After all, Lena Olin, who plays Sabina, is Swedish, Juliette Binoche, who plays Teresa, is French, so they naturally have a European accent when they speak English anyway.

Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays Tomas, a Don Juan who can’t make up his mind which woman he really loves, is English, but I thought his Czech accent was pretty authentic. They must have all been taking lessons in how to speak English with a fake Czech accent, and they were very good students.

I thought the world on the screen in which everybody spoke English with the same accent that I have when I speak English was perfectly acceptable and plausible …….. what could be possibly wrong with a world in which people speak English with the same cool accent that I have?

But I had a different reaction when I saw recently the film “The Book Thief” – a film about a Jewish refugee who is hidden in a house of a German family in Nazi Germany and who is being red to books stolen for him by a German girl.

I just found it so strange that Geoffrey Rush, Sophie Nélisse or Emily Watson would be speaking English with a fake German accent. Somehow the simulated German accents in that film struck me as implausible and phony to such an extent that I could not concentrate on the plot of the movie.

Why is it that in American movies set in foreign, far-away and exotic countries (such as communist Czechoslovakia or Nazi Germany), actors whose first language is English are forced to adopt a fake foreign accent?

After all, we as viewers understand that what we are watching is not a documentary. Or at least some of us do. So the fictional people in the fictional story would in reality (if it were a real story) be speaking Czech or German without a foreign accent, wouldn’t they?

Or could it be that most people whose first language is English think that people in other countries speak a language that is basically very much like English, expect it has a funny foreign accent, such as German, French, or Russian?

If the film director wanted to make the story more realistic and plausible, to me, anyway, he would need to force Lena Olin, Juliette Binoche and Daniel-Day Lewis to learn to speak Czech in that movie, and Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson would need to learn fluent German, preferably with a Bavarian accent. The obvious problem, in addition to demanding that actors really learn how to speak a foreign language instead of only learning how to speak their own language while faking a bit of a foreign accent, is that there would have to be subtitles, and American audiences definitely do not like subtitled movies.

In fact, I remember only one subtitled film that I saw here 33 years ago in a movie theater in United States. It was a beautiful, very non-Hollywood Spanish film that I saw with this girl, what was her name …. Nanette, on Polk Street in San Francisco 33 years ago.

And the movie theater was almost empty.

The language problem here is probably with the audience rather than with the actors. Many actors are very talented when it comes to languages, regardless of their nationality or first language, although few would be able to rise to the occasion the way Bruno Ganz can do it, a Swiss actor who can speak so many languages so effortlessly. I saw and heard him in films speaking French, Italian, English, and of course also his native German. My favorite movie with Bruno Ganz was Bread and Tulips (Pane e tulipani), where he plays in an immigrant from Reykjavik who speaks archaic Italian learned from Petrarca’s sonnets about Laura.

Unfortunately, most young people know him only from the Hitler parodies on Youtube.

If you saw Sophie’s Choice, another great movie from the eighties, Meryl Streep speaks English in that movie with what I thought was very authentic Polish accent, and when she was actually speaking Polish and German in the film, I could not detect a trace of foreign accent in her pronunciation in either of these languages.

Am I the only one who finds it disturbing that film directors think of us, their audience, as little stupid children who need actors speaking to them in a fake foreign accent if the story takes place in a country where people speak another language?

Pseudo-realism is how Hollywood fakes authenticity these days. Although, it could do a much better job. Most of the time, when the American or English actors do say a few sentences in a foreign language in a big budget movie, their accent is so thick that what they say is understandable only if you can read the English subtitles.

Why can’t they spend some time to learn how to pronounce a few words close enough to the original language so that the words would be understandable? Especially when they pronounce a few Russian words in dozens of movies in which a Russian is invariably the bad guy who will be in the end humiliated and defeated, those few Russian words that are pronounced by a native English speaker sound more like a mixture between Chinese and Hungarian than Russian.

The answer is, of course, that nobody cares about what Germans, Russians, or the French might think about the actor’s accent. Even if the words are so badly mispronounced that they are completely incomprehensible to people who actually speak the foreign language, the only audience that the film director cares about are people who speak only English.

Authenticity is unimportant not only when it comes to pronunciation of words in a foreign language. The same is true about what is called “ethnic” restaurants.

Ask any Japanese person whether the sushi sold at that sushi place in downtown tastes like real sushi in Japan, and they will laugh at you. Of course it doesn’t. For one thing, where do you get fresh fish for you sushi in downtown, unless it is downtown Japan? There must be very few places where one can get this particular ingredient in this country, and without it, sushi is no longer sushi, I am told.

That’s right, I can’t really tell authentic sushi from fake sushi either, although I can tell really horrible fake sushi, which is what they sell in most “sushi” restaurants in Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, where sushi is mostly prepared by cooks from the Philippines or China.

If the ethnic cuisine is truly authentic, it would be popular with immigrants from the original country, but not with the locals.

So the chefs and the cooks have to adjust their culinary masterpieces to please the palate of the locals if they want to offer “ethnic” menu in a restaurant that will be popular not only with expats, but also with the locals. McDonalds in China probably does not really taste like McDonalds in America, and you can have good Czech beer with your chicken wings at the KFC in Prague – otherwise the locals will stay away from spicy food that comes only with Coke or Sprite.

I can understand all that and it does not really bother me that an authentic “ethnic” restaurant is usually not really very authentic when it comes to the food on the menu.

But foreign accents faked by actors who can only speak English in American movies bother me for some reason.

I will probably need another 33 years in this country to get used to that.

 
Yesterday I deposited for the first time a check to my checking account by signing it, snapping a picture of the front and the back of it and pressing on the button that said “Deposit” on the screen of my phone. When I checked my account balance on the same smartphone this morning, I saw that it grew by 80 dollars and 50 cents, the amount of the check I deposited as a test yesterday.

And then, when I was checking the balance on my other checking account (I always try to have a plan B for everything), the dumb machine refused to recognize my password (although it was correct) and threatened to lock me out after a third unsuccessful attempt. I will have to go to the bank and ask them to straighten the stupid machine out.

Ah, the mysteries of processing by silicon-based intelligence.

But still, I am amazed at the progress in the technology of moving money around, amazing technology that somehow passed me by as I simply did not realize that there was another alternative to depositing a check through an ATM, other than paying a visit to a human teller in the bank. Since this technology has been around for more than five years and it is very convenient, both of my children must be depositing checks in this manner now, on the rare occasions when they still deal with checks.

While people of my generation still somehow manage to live a meaningful life outside of a cell phone, our children’s cell phones are their whole life. That is where their friends are, as well as their music, directions for getting from one place to another, gossips and petty fights on Reddit and Facebook, cool photos of cute puppies and girls in seductive poses on Instagram – in one word … just about everything that matters to them.

Since there is an application for (just about) everything on a smart phone, including ways to move money from an antiquated piece of paper called check to your bank account, people naturally expect that there would be also a smart phone application for moving meaning from one language to another.

And most people believe that there is a smartphone application like that, of course. Except that there really isn’t. It only looks that way. There are applications for moving words automatically from one language to another. Some of them are quite good, most of them are free, and all of them are very convenient.

But there is no application for moving the meaning of these words from one language to another. In order to create meaning, a human must be somehow involved in the creation of the new meaning in another language, just like a human must be involved in the creation of new human life.

Two humans, in fact must be involved in order to create new life, one of each sex. Various technical means exist to modify to an amazing and to my mind slightly disturbing extent the manner in which either of these two humans of different sex may participate in this creation of new life; but still, two of them are needed for something like that.

In the interconnected and transparent world, which is now full of new dangers, there is a way to move within a few seconds exactly 80 US dollars and 50 cents, which is what was written on the check that was delivered by snail mail to my mail box, for a translation of the Polish text of information on the website of Polish embassy in a European country about a certain civil procedure. OK, if you must know, it was about what kind of documentation is required for marriage. I suppose I can say that since translation of an Internet page is not really a confidential matter.

Embassies of different countries have all the information that people often need conveniently provided on a website page, usually in at least two languages. But since this embassy did not have this information on its website in English, and it was needed in that language, a human translator had to translate it.

I am sure that the two people who ordered this translation first used machine translation to “translate” the words into English. It is just a text file that can be easily translated with GoogleTranslate, which does a pretty good job when it comes to translating words.

But the problem is, it does not always do a very good job when it comes to translating meaning, because machine don’t understand meaning. They understand numbers better and faster than humans, but without humans, they have no idea what these numbers, or anything else for that matter, in fact mean.

If the application for depositing checks through a smartphone sometime interpreted a check amount being deposited as 80 dollars and fifty cents, and sometime as 805 dollars and zero cents, it would be completely useless. Several safeguards are employed to prevent errors like this. The amount is written both in numbers and in words, and the smartphone will reject a picture if the words and numbers are not distinct enough for the machine to read it. Everything is done automatically without any human intervention, until the point when a human at a bank somewhere makes a decision about the meaning of the transaction, namely that the entire transaction makes sense and is probably legitimate.

Which brings me back again to the magic word “meaning”.

It is relatively easy for a bank employee to determine within a few seconds that the check that I deposited yesterday with my phone was genuine and that the amount is correct. The amount of the check is clearly visible in the photo, both in words and in numbers, and the bank’s computer must also have the information that I generally deposit a check from this particular customer of the bank’s customer, a small translation agency that pays me incredibly fast (within a week) every couple of months.

But it is very difficult to determine whether a smartphone application that “translated” words from one language to another managed to move the actual meaning of the words in one language into the other language as well.

You cannot do it by simply looking at the text in the source and target language only for a few seconds to make sure that this particular transaction makes sense.

You have to look both at the source and the target language, and you have to understand the meaning in both of these languages to determine whether the result makes sense. Sometime it does, but often it does not.

And when it does not make sense, which is likely to happen about half the time, sometime less and sometime more than that depending on the complexity of the text and which languages we are talking about, you have to retranslate the entire text from scratch by using a human brain for this particular task. Which is expensive because it takes a long time and a certain amount of knowledge and expertise that not that many people are likely to have.

Although there are smartphone application for just about everything now, moving meaning through a human brain is the only way to make sure that the original meaning will be moved safely, intact and in good shape to another language.

And I doubt very much that this will ever change.

 
As I already wrote in several posts on my silly blog, most new business comes to this mad patent translator from customers who found my website when they were searching for exactly the type of service that I am offering, namely translation of patents from Japanese, German and French into English, and now also from a few other languages, usually on Google.

Some of these customers then become regulars who keep me busy throughout the year, the way thirsty residents keep busy the proprietor of a local pub, provided that the beer is good and the atmosphere in the pub is enjoyable and friendly (I am thinking of a typical pub in Mitteleuropa of yesteryear, or the fictional neighborhood pub in Boston called “Cheers”, where everybody knows your name).

Some of my customers, even those who have been keeping my little translation pub busy for a number of years, eventually go someplace else, for a variety of reasons. It looks like I might have lost one such customer this years because I have not heard from them since …. January, I think. Last year and the year before that, this customer, a subsidiary of a major corporation devouring translations of foreign patents on a regular basis, represented about 15 to 20 percent of my income, and they have been sending me work for about seven years. At first they made retire the secretary that I was dealing with for about seven years. It is usually a bad sign when you lose your contact person because it often portends major changes in the company.

But rather than mulling over and sadly contemplating the loss of such a good customer (and I am not yet sure that they are gone, they could still come back), I try to see the fact that they kept me busy for seven years at good rates as a sign of successful strategy. Customer attrition is inevitable, no matter what you do.

Which is why it is important to have a mechanism for replacing customers who have left after a number of years to find greener pastures, from their perspective.

Different translators have different mechanisms. The mingling kind of translator, for example, is armed with what is called an elevator speech. I don’t mingle with prospective clients because there simply are none when it comes to translation of patents where I live. So I don’t have an elevator speech.

But I don’t need one. Thankfully, I can rely on search engines instead.

I am not sure how exactly the mystery of the rankings on search engines works, but I know that new clients do find me every now and then through search engines, mostly Google.

As I already wrote in another post, last month I translated seven Japanese patents from a new client who found my website online. While in May it was only one Japanese patent, this month I already have five German patents for translation from another new client that I am currently working on, and we are still in the first third of the month.

I noticed that the harvest from Google searches fluctuated quite a bit depending on the year, although I am somewhat clueless as to why exactly that happens.

During my best years, new business generated by new customers who found me mostly in organic listings on Google accounted for 30 to 40% of my income. But I noticed that while there was a lot of activity in this area between the years 2003 ~ 2009, the amount of inquiries coming to me mostly through my quick quote page dropped off significantly after 2010, and the last two years it accounted only for about 10 ~ 20% of my income.

I can only guess as to why this might have happened, but I do have several theories.

Some of the decrease, not so much in the amount of inquiries, as in the positive response rate (when my bid is accepted), may be due to the fact that machine translation is in some cases good enough to use it for prior art research purposes, as opposed to for filing purposes.

Especially with translations from German and French, and especially in fields such as chemistry and electronics, in which the text of the patents is based mostly on descriptions of raw materials, reactions, calculations and chemical formulas in the case of chemistry, and descriptions of one block diagram after another with different arrangements of electrical circuits in patents in the field of electronics, some potential customers might do with machine translations that are available free of charge on the EPO (European Patent Office) and the JPO (Japan Patent Office) website and on other sites.

In any case, some of these patent applications are so long (a hundred thousand words in some cases) that a full translation of all relevant prior art may not be economically feasible.

Some of the decrease in positive responses to my bids over the last few years may be due to the fact that many very cheap translation agencies, (excuse me, I am supposed to say “LSPs” now, as in “Language Services Providers”, or is it “LPs” already, as in Language Providers”?), have sprung up in third world countries, especially in China, India (Chindia) and Eastern Europe.

Many of these companies that recently took shape in places where labor is dirt cheap act as a middleman for large translation agencies that are based on Western Europe and North America. I happen to know that because many of the offers that these new outfits have been sending to me to work in the same capacity for my modest operation include a list of major “LSPs” in Europe and North America, in addition to rates that are so low that most translators living in countries where the cost of living is quite high and non-payment of taxes is not an option would not be able to accept.

Perhaps some of the readers of my blog will have other ideas. If so, I would be delighted to hear them.

The improvement in the positive response to request for bids obtained through my website during the first six months of this year may be an indication that tide is turning again. It could be that some customers who have tried out machine translation did not like it and could not really use them as intended, while others may have been also less than happy with what they got in return for much, much cheaper rates than what I can afford to offer (most likely courtesy of rock-bottom rates offered by a translator working in a third world country, who is generally working through two or more middlemen far away).

I hope that this is the case, but of course, I don’t really know what is happening, and only time will tell.

So far I have been depending only on organic listings, I have not advertised on Google or anything else, and I tested the SEO (Search Engine Optimization) marketing method, when you try to feed as much data to search engines as possible, only once, although occasionally I get offers to use this kind of advertising.

Google sent me several times a piece of paper that looks like a check for 100 dollars that, Google says, I can use to advertise key words of my choice on Google for a month. Some salesman from Network Solutions, the company that registered several of my URLs, called me yesterday to offer SEO advertising services for my business. The cost was 99.95 dollars per month, he said.

But my web expert who is in charge of updating my website a couple of times a year told me that SEO optimizing works best only if you have a new website, or at least new material (such as this post).

I don’t know about you, but when I am looking for anything on the Web, I almost never click on “sponsored links” displayed prominently on top and on the left of organic listings. I generally only click on organic listings because I assume that this is where the real answer to my problem is most likely to be located.

Google and other search engines must be bombarded with so many clever missives from SEO advertising experts that they probably mostly ignore them.

Most if not all “LSPs” have almost identical content on their website. They all say that they are highly specialized, and then they have a number of links, generally about a dozen of links that you can click on to see more details about their specialization. But since these generic translation agencies specialize in every language and every field (as in “If we don’t specialize in it, it does not exist), it is clear to most people smart enough to tie their own shoelaces that they don’t really specialize in anything.

That is why I think that a fairly simple website of a translation service provider, by which I mean a translator or a small translation agency that in fact does specialize in something, has a much better chance of being displayed on the first page in organic listings on Google.

After all, if Google stops prominently displaying the most relevant information first and instead starts feeding us mostly just paid advertising, how long will it be before its business model is viciously and successfully attacked by a competitor able to provide a better service?

Translation agencies, (oh, excuse me, LSPs), are now earnestly urging translators to add editing of machine translations (or more correctly machine pseudo-translations) as a new skill set to their arsenal of tools.

That is what they say. I think that this kind of skill is comparable to the skill level of a busboy in a busy restaurant, such as the one mentioned above.

I say that translators who want to be owners of their own restaurant, instead of just working in it for minimum wage while being engaged in a truly horrible task, should try to figure out the mysteries of organic raking on search engines and once they figure out a thing or two, apply the knowledge to their own website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dear Sirs/Madame,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: patenttranslator | June 29, 2015

The Life of Every Translator Is Full of Unexpected Challenges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is important that you plan your website very carefully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: patenttranslator | June 14, 2015

The Pyramid of Translation Rates and Your Place in It

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

Pyramid of classes in Egypt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Direct Client-Pharaoh

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

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

Cloud Workers-Slave Translators

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

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

Peasant Translators

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

Merchant and Craftsmen Translators

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

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

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

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

Scribe Translators

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

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

Soldiers and Auditors

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

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

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

Viziers, Priests and Nobles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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