Posted by: patenttranslator | February 21, 2017

How Good Translation Agencies Go Bad

If I remember correctly, it was in 1995 when my friend Alan called me from New York about a nice gig he was working on involving a few weeks of on-site translation from Japanese to English. He was wondering whether I would also be interested in the job. I remember he said, “It’s a new company, but it’s a really good agency. They pay well and treat us well.”

I was interested, partly because I had never been to Manhattan, but in the end I decided not to go. I was enjoying my cozy new downtown Santa Rosa office in a restored Victorian mansion in Northern California’s wine country. Plus we had just gotten a new dog from the SPCA shelter in San Francisco, a big German shepherd-beagle or maybe something else mix, to go with our two dachshunds, and we were about to add an Australian bearded dragon lizard to our little menagerie at home. Our two small kids were so excited about the dog and the lizard, although not nearly as excited as my wife.

So I could not leave because there were just too many things going on where I was. Manhattan would have to wait.

That translation agency, brand new back then, has been in the news quite a bit recently, in particular in translator groups on social media. The mega agency is owned by a couple locked in a terrible (and somewhat hilarious) court battle, while the fate of their company and thousands of employees hangs in the balance.

Even though I did not go to New York a quarter century ago to help that translation agency, (a tiny one at that point), with the avalanche of Japanese documents for translation, eventually I started translating for it. They had quite a lot of work for me in the nineties, and as I remember, they paid good rates and on time back then. I did enjoy working for them for several years.

Once when the agency did not pay me on time, I complained about it on Compuserve, a predecessor of social media for translators in the nineties. The next day, one of the owners called me to let me know that she was sending me a check by Federal Express. I don’t remember what she said, but I do remember that I did get the check the next day. Early in the morning, by Federal Express! So I continued to work for the agency after we moved from California to Virginia at the beginning of the new millennium because they had a lot of work and they were still paying good rates.

But problems started creeping into the routine that eventually becomes established between a translator and an agency. They would usually call or email me late Friday afternoon, and the translation would be due on Monday. So basically, working for them meant not having any rest days, and not being able to go to the beach on hot humid weekends with our kids, back when they were still small and loved challenging the Atlantic Ocean with their boogie boards.

I remember that I got really angry at the people working for them when once somebody called me from their office in London to inquire (or enquire, I suppose) whether I would be available to translate a long patent (which he pronounced “paytant”). I generally like nothing better than when somebody asks me whether I would be available to translate a long patent, regardless of their accent.

But this guy called me at 3 AM on a Saturday (yes, I have a phone in the bedroom; I probably shouldn’t).

My friend Steve, who translated Chinese back when there were not many Chinese translators around, at least not good ones like he was, (I use the past tense because he passed away), hated this agency with a burning passion for the same reasons for which I eventually started taking a strong dislike to it, and for many other reasons as well.

He said that they would always call him in the evening in what he called “my bourbon hour”.

Disturbing the perfect serenity of the evenings was bad enough, but the main reason why he hated the agency so much, (he basically ordered me never, ever to work for it, and I eventually complied with his wish), was that the people working for it lied about the jobs they were sending him, in particular by underestimating, clearly on purpose, the number of words in rush jobs that he would blithely accept in the healing haze of his bourbon hour, only to find on Saturday morning that instead of mere two thousand words, he had accepted five thousand words for delivery on Monday morning.

Later, when I was no longer working for this agency, I found out from discussions on social media that just about everybody who was or used to work for the agency hated it, and that most people who had a choice eventually dropped it, just like I did, following the example of my friend who liked to sip a bit of bourbon in the evening.

When a small company starts growing, its nature starts changing and once it reaches a certain size, it will change so much that eventually it will become a completely different kind of animal.

Instead of sending a check by Federal Express when the payment is a week or two late, the agency will make translators working for it sign “Non-Disclosure Agreements” that stipulate that payment is due 60 from the end of the month, which means that translators have to wait from 60 to as many as 90 days to get paid.

Who cares how translators will pay their bills in the meantime? It’s their problem, no need to worry about that.

I also read on social media that this agency has or had an arrangement with project managers who were allowed to haggle with translators to lower their rates as low as they were able to, so that below a certain rate, they would be able to keep the money left over for themselves.

One of the results of the influence of the internet on the “translation industry” is that translators are no longer real human beings to many people who run translation agencies, especially the bigger ones, including in many cases the project managers.

The “translation industry” could not care less whether we will be able to pay our bills at the pitiful rates it is paying us now, after two or three months of waiting for the check.

To the modern “translation industry” we are only assets to be exploited as much as possible.

How the modern “translation industry” perceives translators is not all that different from how people working in translation agencies feel about consumable products – mere human consumables that need to be purchased for as little as possible and used until they are used up, just like the toner cartridges or paper that is loaded into printers.

These human consumables can be acquired cheaply and quite easily. All you have to do is send to a great number of translators (most of whom are listed in various databases of translators) an e-mail such as this one, which I have received several times already today, the last time about two hours ago:

Hello [no name],

My name is Rachel and I am reaching out from XYZ translation, a global medical and pharmaceutical translation company.

Due to new exciting opportunities, we are currently increasing our pool of French to English medical translators with senior experience in fields such as clinical trials, regulatory affairs, market access, or medical devices. We are also urgently searching for translators for an ongoing collaboration to translate medical cases.

If you are interested, kindly fill in our online Translator Form at your earliest convenience. This shouldn’t take more than a few minutes of your time and will enable us to contact you for projects matching your areas of specialization.

Thank you and we look forward to receiving your information.

Best regards,


Project Coordinator

(Reaching out sounds so dramatic, doesn’t it?)

Well, Rachel, I am not interested in being in one of the consumable items listed in your database.

I do business the fashioned way, both when I work as a translator, and when I work as a translation agency with other translators.

And my old-fashioned way of doing business, which oddly enough is very similar to the way the big, bad translation agency described above, nowadays universally hated by translators, used to do business a quarter century ago when it was a new kid on the block, for a while, anyway, before it became one of the biggest and most hated translation agencies in the world, is absolutely not compatible with the way you want to do business with me.

They only hold in those who are willing
to be held. Horses prove it all the time,
unlatching gates in their idle moments.
I once saw a cornered ewe leap a six
foot buck fence because she didn’t feel
like going where the border collie wanted
her to go. She wasn’t even afraid.

When they were young, I took the children
to the state animal farm. Every inhabitant –
begging raven, crippled otter, trained bear –
had become too used to humans. The biggest
draw was the cow moose. We gaped as she
browsed in a swale behind the tissue paper
of some hurricane fencing. The game warden
explained it wasn’t so much that they kept her
as that she didn’t mind staying.

Sonja Johanson, The Truth About Fences

Everybody and their grandmother and her dog is trying to influence us, either to believe something that isn’t really true, or to do something that we don’t really want to do.

Some of these influences are implicit – hidden and unnoticed by most people, except for a few rebels, who somehow still survive among us and who have not yet renounced the nasty and very dangerous habit of thinking about what is going on around them, instead of simply taking things for granted and accepting them as they are, as most people do.

For example, did you know why the walls at McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s and similar fine fast food establishments are painted either orange or yellow? It’s because marketing specialists working in distinguished think tanks of fast food eateries determined in numerous experiments aimed at attracting more customers that yellow and orange make people hungry.

Other specialists discovered that green generally has a calming effect on people. Walls in some government buildings, both exterior and interior, are painted green. I noticed that this is not really true as much in America, possibly because at this point, most people are so mad at the government that relying on implicit conditioning with subdued color tones probably won’t work very well anymore. That must be why there are so many metal detectors at the entrances to government buildings, with armed cops helpfully hovering nearby.

But I do remember when I visited the Soviet Union (three times in the seventies), every government building that I saw there had the walls painted green, usually both inside and outside. The green overkill was pretty disgusting, I thought.

The talking heads on American teevee are trying to influence viewers 24/7 in one direction on CNN and MSNBC, and 24/7 in another direction on Fox News. People got so tired of being fed opinionated drivel instead of real news that they decided to put precisely the person in the White House who, as they were told by the 24/7 talking head claptrap producers, had no chance of becoming president.

If you are about to start hating me now, I hasten to add that I did not vote either for Trump or Hillary last year – I voted third party. I haven’t always voted this way, but I have been voting third party for quite some time now because I see voting for a Democrat or a Republican as throwing my vote away. Even if I really like and trust the person (which has not happened in a long, long time), the Supreme Court or Electoral College would make sure that my vote would not count anyway, so what would be the point?

I think the best thing is to do what I am doing, but feel free to hate me anyway if it helps to ease your pain.

Corporate blogs of translation agencies are another example of influencers, in this case influencers of the “translation industry” who want us to believe something that isn’t really true.

Two days ago I clicked on a link, probably on LinkedIn, to a corporate blog post written by an owner of a translation agency that was titled “Project Managers are the Superstars of the Translation Industry”. (I think.) I tried to Google it, but I couldn’t find it, which is something that should not and probably would not happen to you with my posts (easily findable online if you know the title because unlike corporate blog posts, many people actually read my blog posts).

Anyway, in that corporate blog post, the translation agency owner was gushing over project managers who according to her are simply geniuses because they are able to convert files from one format to another, and also handle several projects at the same time.

I don’t remember anything else really from that blog post because after the first few sentences I started to laugh uncontrollably and then just quickly scanned it to see if the author said anything about translators, who might represent starlets of a kind to the owner of a translation agency.

But as I remember, the author of the blog never said in her homily on project managers anything about how much she appreciated translators, who, unlike project managers always have to know at least two languages and a zillion other things, obviously in addition to knowing how to convert different file formats and how to juggle several projects at the same time.

Yes, sadly, we translators are not exactly superstars as far as the “translation industry” is concerned, although we are responsible for all of the money the “translation industry” takes in, to the last penny, kopeck, or rupee.

We are just boring drones to “the industry”, who must be kept behind latched gates, which is not very difficult to do because we like it there anyway.

I can’t say that I am  surprised by the contempt of  the “translation industry” for us, translators. Unlike superstar project managers who know how to convert files between different formats and lots of other cool stuff, translators who only translate are a dime a dozen. After all, project manager superstars store in specialized databases hundreds and thousands of files on translators for every possible language combination so that when a “dear linguist” is needed, a superstar just throws a few of those dear linguists against the wall to see which one of them charges the least.

From my perspective, though, I’m sorry to say that project managers working for translation agencies are not really my superstars. In fact, with a few notable exceptions, I see them mostly as rather obtuse and often unpleasant persons that unfortunately I sometimes have to deal with, but thankfully not too often because I mostly work for direct clients.

Being able to convert file formats and handle several projects at the same time certainly does require some skill, as well as a certain amount of concentration and attention to detail (although not nearly as much as texting while driving), but so does being able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

Now, being able to walk, talk, and chew gum at the same time, that would take a near genius. Based on my three decades’ of experience, very few translation agency project managers would be able to do that.

Such a person would definitely be a superstar in my book.

Posted by: patenttranslator | February 7, 2017

When a Translator Dies

When a translator dies, it is just like when any person dies, I suppose. Sad, unbelievable, heart- wrenching even, if you knew the person well. But to me, it is a little different when it is one of us.


The first one I remember dying passed away in 1991 in his early fifties.

F and I, we had big plans (I will use only one letter instead of the names because I think that death is a rite of passage that should probably be kept at least as private as birth).

On foggy Sunday mornings he used to come to a tiny office that I was renting in an old building on Fifth Avenue off Geary Street in San Francisco with a bag of sugary Dunkin’ Donuts. I liked the chocolate ones best. We would drink coffee I had made, eating donuts and plotting how we were going to go after direct clients in the Bay Area. We decided to try mass mailings. This was at a time when most people did not know much about what the word “internet” meant. To me, the internet was just a connection through a phone line handy for sending files to customers using a modem.

At that point we were not yet sure what kind of translation we would specialize in. I was translating anything and everything, computer game manuals – they were really simple back then, personal documents, medical journals, newspaper articles, a few patents every now and then and just about anything else. It was F who said that we should target patent law firms. Just about anybody can translate simple game manuals, but not that many people could translate Japanese patents and do it well, he said.

So we did target patent law firms, in addition to high-tech companies in Silicon Valley, and after we sent out the first few hundred letters, we started comparing results as work started slowly trickling in.

But then, one extremely unlucky day F got terribly mad for some reason at some dude who was installing a new phone line at his place, probably a fax line, which was cutting edge technology back then. He turned red in the face, collapsed, fell into a coma and never woke up. The cause of death was a brain aneurysm, which is most of the time undiagnosed, until the blood vessel in the brain ruptures, and it’s over.

Who knows, maybe he still would have had a few more years if he hadn’t gotten so mad at the incompetent telephone guy.

“He was such good person”, his wife told us when she was visiting our apartment in San Francisco, with tears in her eyes. But within a year, she remarried. Graveyards are full of indispensible people who were also very good people.

This was the year when Enya’s Caribbean Blue CD came out. I used to love Enya’s music, so soft and gentle and soothing, perfect for translating. But every song on this CD sounds like a dirge to me now and I don’t listen to it much anymore.


S died two years later, in 1993, from complications from pneumonia when he was in his early sixties. He was very well known among Japanese translators in San Francisco; in fact, had I not met him six years earlier when I was working as an employee for a Japanese travel agency, I would probably never have had the courage to become a freelancer. F and I used to call him “Tenno Heika” which means “His Majesty, the Emperor”, the honorific title of the Japanese Emperor. S was also interested in Slavic languages – he spoke Russian (with a very strong American accent) and passable Slovak.

After I got fired from a stupid job, I decided to imitate Tenno Heika’s example and become a freelance translator which was how my amazing career and adventures in technical translation were launched 30 years ago (but who’s counting).

In the pre-internet era, S published a newsletter about Japanese technical translation for quite a few years and mailed it to paying subscribers on several continents. He also held meetings of translators in his house for at least a decade.

He was not married and had no children, so when he died, we cremated his body and scattered the ashes on the cliffs of Point Reyes, overlooking the Pacific Ocean and facing Japan.

Afterwards we had a meal at a great seafood restaurant and talked about him. We promised ourselves we would keep up the tradition of meeting together a few times a year.

We met about three times, but without S, the group of Japanese translators in the Bay Area was leaderless and aimless. Some people moved to other parts of the country and to other countries, and we eventually lost contact with each other.

I don’t even know where most of the people I used to know back then live now, or for that matter, whether they are still alive.


D died of cancer eleven years ago in 2006 when he was in his mid fifties. I only found out that he had cancer when I called him in 2006 to ask whether he could help me with a rush translation of Japanese patents. I had about a dozen of them that had to be translated within a week, so I was calling other translators I knew. He told me that he was too sick for that, and that he did not feel up to it, so we talked for a while about cancer and other things before we ended the call.

But about an hour later he called me back to say that he had changed his mind and that he would like to translate that patent that I was offering. I sent it to him, quite a few thousand words, and he did a very good job as I remember.

It was probably his last translation because he passed away not longer after that. I hope that it took his mind off his disease and that it felt good to be working again.

The last time I saw D in person, rather than just talking to him on the phone, was about eight years before he died when D, another friend of ours called Richard and I were having a dinner in a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco’s Japan town. I remember which restaurant it was, although I don’t remember what we had for dinner.

It is true what they say that the good ones die young. D was a very gentle person, always smiling, always so polite. At the dinner where I saw him the last time, we talked a lot about Russian writers, especially Dostoyevsky because I was obsessed with Dostoyevsky and the story of his life at one point in my life. I read all his books when I was a teenager. I did not even know that D knew Russian quite well, he had never told me that, I only found out at that dinner.

The last thing I remember about him was when, just before he got into a brand new BMW, he quipped “Well, I had a few good jobs, that’s all”. In fact, we knew that it was his father’s car because he told us. Then he got into the car and drove off to his house, about an hour away.

He was just joking, not many translators drive brand new BMWs, or at least I don’t know any.


 At this point I am not sure whether the person I will call in this post ???? is alive or dead, so that’s why I will identify him in mu silly post with four question marks.  I hope he is still among the living because I owe him a few hundred dollars and I would like to find a way to give the money to him.

I don’t know this person on a personal basis, but when he sent me his resume in November of last year, I took a good look at it and saved it. I usually delete dozens of translators’ résumés, but some I do save.

This one was from an old-timer, probably much older than I was I thought, who has been doing exactly what I do for longer than I have been doing it.

So when I was snowed under with a whole bunch of long patents from one client, I sent him the shortest one for translation in December.

If something goes wrong and the guy only looks good on paper, I will just retranslate the whole thing, I told to myself. But I needn’t have worried, he did an excellent job on some pretty nasty stuff with really complicated terminology (that was also why I sent it to him, I did not feel like doing it myself).

He did an excellent job, except that there were two small paragraphs that he omitted, one in the beginning, one in the end. Strange, I thought to myself. But it was not a big deal, I am used to things like that. I translated the two missing paragraphs and sent the job off to the client.

On January 5th of this year I sent him the payment by PayPal, and the payment went through just fine, so the e-mail address must have been the correct one. Everything seemed to be just fine until I received the following e-mail from PayPal on February 5th:

Dear [my name]

 On Jan 5, 2017, you sent a payment to [translator’s e-mail address] for [amount in question].

 The funds have been returned to your account.

[translator’s e-mail] did not sign up for a PayPal account or did not complete the registration process.

What the heck? I thought. I double-checked, but it was the correct e-mail, the one the translator gave me for payment.

I called the number he gave me, only to get a message the number is no longer in service, followed by a cheesy offer of an incredible rate if I switch my phone service to that other phone provider outfit, probably some kind of scam.

Who does not check their e-mail, allows payment of money to be returned back to the payee, and has his phone service discontinued? Dead people, that’s who, I thought to myself.

Is ???? even alive? He did seem rather old based on the information on his résumé, probably older than me, maybe much older.

I decided to give it one more day. Maybe it’s some kind of a jinx, I’ll try to unjinx it tomorrow, I said to myself. It’s always best to let the earth spin around its axis once if you want to unjinx something.



Good news: ???? is alive! I called him today, this time the number worked and we talked for a while. He had no idea how was it possible that the payment bounced back from his PayPal account to mine, or how I could have gotten the message that his number was disconnected.

I have no idea what happened either because I am sure that I did not misdial since I triple-checked the number.

He is even older than I thought he would be, but eager for more work, even though, as he told me, he does not really need the money.

He does it mostly for the challenge, he said.

Well, I do it for the challenge too, but I have to say, mostly for the money.

Maybe there will come a day for me too when I will be doing what I am doing mostly for the challenge … if I live that long.

I certainly look forward to it.

Posted by: patenttranslator | January 30, 2017

Is Translation Even a Separate Profession?

That I had come full circle shouldn’t have surprised me, for we are born into time only to be born out of it, after living through the cycle of the seasons, under stars that turn because the world turns, born into ignorance and acquiring knowledge that ultimately reveals to us our enduring ignorance: The circle is the essential pattern of our existence.

Dean Kuntz, Saint Odd.

I know a translator who is convinced that translating is not really a separate profession, but many professions within many other professions. He repeats this personal credo so often I think he is mildly obsessed with it, the way I became mildly obsessed with what I perceive as the necessity to ignore and resist the nefarious “translation industry” because it is for the most part an evil industry – an industry that wishes us translators nothing but ill.

In fact, this is an industry that would love nothing more than to get rid of us translators and completely replace us with machines … if that only were possible. Somehow the “translation industry” does not realize that if translators are no longer required because machines can do their work just fine, well, then the “translation industry” would absolutely not be needed either. It would slowly but surely erase itself from existence.

When I read sage advice for translators in magazines for translators or on blogs of translators, I often think to myself, oh well, this person probably means well, but this advice is totally wrong for the way I translate, and incompatible with the way I run my translation business.

This would seem to support the thesis that translation is not really a profession, but a sub-profession belonging to or being a part of many other professions.

Naturally, I feel that my own blog is an exception: the invaluable advice I so generously and altruistically dispense (for free!) out of the goodness of my heart on my own blog is, at least for the most part, universally applicable to all translation fields.

I sometimes disagree with this translator who refuses to recognize translation as a legitimate profession, a friend whom I have never met in person, although we have been talking online occasionally for years, and I also disagree with him about his idea that translation is not really a profession per se, only a profession within another profession.

But what if he is right?

Was St. Jerome, patron saint of translators, whose real name in Latin, the language into which he was translating although it was not his native language, was Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, really a translator by profession?

Or was he really a writer, historian and scholar who as it happened could read several languages and therefore at some point figured out how to make a good living translating old documents from several languages for the Pope? As far as I can tell the Pope was his only client, a direct client because the “translation industry” thankfully did not exist sixteen hundred years ago.

This question can be answered in many different ways.

But if translation is not a separate profession or occupation, what is it? It does exists, it has been with us for thousands of years, and thousands of people like myself are using it to this day to make a living. I have been using this non-profession and non-occupation ever since I graduated with a degree in languages in 1980, on three continents and quite successfully to make a living, raise a family and pay the bills with income derived from this non-occupation for more than three decades.

So what the hell is it then, if it is not a profession or an occupation?

Maybe it’s true that translation is not really a stand-alone profession, but only a sub-profession that is a part of many other real, full-fledged professions.

If this is the case, people who translate novels are basically ersatz novelists who could be also called translating novelists, or novelists who lack their own inspiration. People who translate government regulations and edicts are really bureaucrats at heart who could be also called translating bureaucrats … but I am not sure that makes sense either.

Translation is either an independent profession, or if it is not that, then one would have to say that this thing that is not really a profession or an occupation, called translation, is a part of just about any other profession … because … which profession could exist on its own without translation?

Novelists could still write without us translators, but only in one language. They would hate it if instead of being able to conquer the entire world with their writing, they would be limited to only one language and in many cases only one country.

The same goes for filmmakers, actors, and just about every other profession, because just about every profession needs language and languages, including investment bankers on Wall Street whose job it is to enrich themselves by driving into bankruptcy not just one country, but as many countries as possible, our lying politicians who could not communicate with other politicians, whose job is also to lie to people, but in other languages, without translators and interpreters, our arrogant judges who love to lock up people who don’t speak their language, our generals, whose special expertise is in invading foreign countries whose languages they don’t understand … none of them could do their jobs without translators and interpreters.

In fact, since only very few professions would be able to exist without translation, with the possible exception of the oldest profession for which linguistic education is not required, perhaps it could be said that translation is the second oldest profession.

And since it is such a useful profession, it probably does not matter much whether it should be considered a separate profession, or a sub-profession that is a part of just about every other profession.

Of course, the problem is that most people who consider and call themselves professional translators are absolutely not that, but that’s a topic for another post on my silly blog.

A lot has been written about machine translation by “globalization, internationalization, localization and translation research and consulting firms” such as the Common Sense Advisory, which is often referred to by translators I know as the “Common Nonsense Advisory”.

Corporate translation agency blogs, if you’d like to call them that, are also full of bold prognostication and prophesying about the future of the “translation industry”. This information is skillfully or not so skillfully woven into blog posts that are for the most part just advertisements for totally awesome and incredibly cool yet moderately priced translation services that are allegedly provided by these resourceful translation agencies.

Some of the things these consulting firms and public relations specialists of translation agencies say do make sense, up to a point, but many of their conclusions, while they may be ingenious from an advertising standpoint, make no sense from a translator’s view point – namely, the person who does know a thing or two about translation, unlike people who talk and write about translation for a living, but can’t actually translate themselves.

As Yogi Berra (or possibly somebody else before him) put it: “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future”. So instead of predicting the future, I will briefly describe how machine translation has influenced the work of this patent translator over the last decade or so by including the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good

I’ll start with the good. Like many or probably most translators at this point, I am now using machine translation and multilingual online databases instead of my old dictionaries, which I used to love so much for so many years.

Because I translate from seven languages myself (although only into English at this point), I’ve amassed a great deal of general and specialized dictionaries which are now gathering dust in bookcases in my office, and in more bookcases lining the hallway walls. Sadly, nobody would probably want them anymore.

When translating a patent, I automatically print out a machine translation in English from the Japan Patent Office, European Patent Office or World Intellectual Property Office Website.

It definitely speeds up my work if I don’t have to look for words in my dictionaries, and instead just take a quick look at the machine translation printout, or run a quick search on one of the patent office websites, or Linguee, etc.

I also use Google Translate and Microsoft Translator on my computer as I would a dictionary. I do not believe that Google Translate is better than Microsoft Translator, which is something that many translators seem to believe, just like most people believe that Google is superior to all other search engines, which is probably not always true either depending on what one is looking for.

The Bad

If I look for a technical term on Google Translate, including the context, I am often presented either with a highly specialized term that clearly belongs to a completely different field, and sometimes is completely ridiculous. If I then try Microsoft Translate, I sometimes effortlessly find exactly the word that I am looking for. So I generally have both machine translation programs open on my computer when I translate.

Google Translate is much better in one respect: it tries to locate the closest patent to the one that I am translating. The translation often sounds like a very good translation done by a very good human translator … because it is a very good translation that was originally done by a very good human translator and then found and matched with a request for machine translation by Google Translate.

But if the existing closest patent translation says something that is not in the version of the patent that I am translating, Google Translate will sometimes miss that part and instead will insist that black is white, up is down, and good is bad.

Just because a sentence in a machine translation reads like a very good translation does not necessarily mean that it is a correct translation.

Changes are frequently made in patent applications, for example when a patent office in Europe, the United States, or Japan issues an opinion requesting amendments (modifications) of submitted patent applications because some features of the patent claims are too obvious (lack of inventive step), or too similar to prior art (lack of novelty), or for another reason.

However, these and other changes may not be reflected in the machine translation picked by Google Translation because Google Translate can only find an existing translation and match it with the request for a machine translation, which may be obsolete.

Statistically based machine translation clearly has its limitations because it can only match existing human translations with a request for a new machine translation if these human translations exist.

For example, when I tried to translate some of my blog posts into a different language, especially a complicated language like Japanese or Czech, they were for the most part incomprehensible.

(Does that mean that nobody writes like I do?)

If no closest translation of a patent publication is available, the method that is based on statistical probability is not very useful. Also, if I am working with old PDF copies that are not clearly legible, for example of old Japanese Utility Models famous for their terrible legibility, any machine translation engine is completely useless because after conversion from PDF, the characters are misinterpreted and translated in such a haphazard way by the software that the description of a technical design will be turned into a crazy monologue of a clearly retarded child.

The Ugly

The very ugly aspect of machine translation is mostly connected with the way the “translation industry” has been using machine translation to intimidate and put down translators by telling them that their jobs will simply be erased from existence by computers, which is what has already happened to many other professions.

Because so many important people in the “translation industry”, for example, the movers and shakers in the industry, have little or no understanding of what translation is and how it works, the industry originally planned to hire monolinguals who would be quite cheap and whose job it would be to “clean up” and “fix” machine translations. Those plans had to be scrapped very quickly.

The problem is, it is not possible to “clean up” and “fix” machine pseudo-translations without taking a good look at the original text and comparing it to the machine-produced output to see where the problems are. To fix the problems, you have to be able to read the text in the original language.

So a new concept was born in the “translation industry” about a decade ago: translators’ jobs would be eliminated and instead, people who used to translate for a living would be offered new jobs as “post-processors” of machine translations.

This concept could theoretically work. It certainly makes much more sense than using monolinguals to write complete nonsense. But even this process is based on false premises.

If customers know that the translations that they are paying for are only “post-processed” machine translations, they are likely to demand much lower prices for these types of translations because they understand that the quality of these post-processed translations, miracles of “language technology” coupled with strange processes occurring in the brain of human post-processors, is substandard.

Greedy as the industry movers and shakers are, the “translation industry” is willing to pay only ridiculously low rates for the “post-processing” bit – so far I have twice been offered 1 cent per word for doing this dirty, mind-numbing work for the industry. The dirty post-processing work is probably not going to be done by competent translators.

Most likely, the industry will employ people living in developing countries … because who else is willing and able to work for next to nothing?

The “translation industry” is salivating at the prospect of the billions of words it thinks could be translated by combining machine translation and cheap human brains. Post-processing is such a tempting concept for the industry … if only it could work!

But I think it is highly unlikely that this concept will work, at least not in my field of patent translation. Machine translations post-processed by poor, quasi-human creatures willing to do the post-processing drudgery for the industry will not be very different from non-post-processed machine translations.

In particular, they will be riddled with mistakes and mistranslations because no matter what the PR machine of the “translation industry” says, the only way to do “post-processing” the right way is to retranslate the whole thing.

And if post-processed machine translation is unreliable, why pay anything at all for this kind of translation service when machine translations are already available mostly for free?

Impact of Machine Translation on My Work

Because I have been working as an independent patent translator for 30 years, I have seen quite a few changes in my line of work during three decades.

Some languages that were in high demand for a very long time are less in demand now in the field of patent translation, for example Japanese. And some languages that were not very useful a couple of decades ago, are very much in demand now, such as Chinese and Korean.

I translate many more German patents than Japanese patents these days. Nothing stays constant forever.

Most patent applications that were available only in a foreign language can now be “translated” with a few mouse clicks with machine translation. This obviously had an impact on the number of patents translated by human translators, but mostly to the extent that translations that are not really needed are no longer being ordered.

Before machine translation became a tool that could be used by my clients to find out what is in a patent in a foreign language, they had no choice but order a translation of an entire document to find out what was in it.

Machine translation is now good enough not only to determine which documents are and are not relevant, but also which parts of documents need to be translated. Next week I will be translating only portions of several Japanese patents, as opposed to the entire documents, because a client used machine translation to identify the relevant portions for translation to save his client’s money.

Would this patent law firm have ordered more translations in the absence of machine translation tools?

It is certainly possible. But it is also possible that none of the documents that I will be translating, albeit only partially (about 60% of them), would have been discovered without machine translation.

That is why I believe that the impact of machine translation on the work of this patent translator has been mostly positive over the last three decades. I predict that it will continue to have a mostly positive impact on my work for a long time to come, namely until machine translation is so good that human translators will no longer be needed.

I predict that this will happen around the year 3,754, give or take a century or two, if our civilization is still around at that point, which, frankly, does not appear to be very likely.

Posted by: patenttranslator | January 18, 2017

Proofreading of Translations Can Easily Result in a Disaster

Like most people who run a small translation agency, I proofread a lot of translations that were done by other translators, in addition to proofreading my own translations. I consider myself to be a translator first and foremost, and a specialized translation agency owner (or greedy middleman, if you will) second.

I generate about seventy to eighty percent of my income from my own translations. Twenty to thirty percent I generate by cunningly exploiting other poor, defenseless translators. This ratio has remained more or less constant for the last twenty years.

Most of the time, my first impression of a translation of another translator that I am proofreading is mixed and often more on the negative than on the positive side. It could be also said that the most common feeling is disappointment. I can usually understand both the source and the target languages quite well because I specialize in a few languages—namely those that I can understand—and I generally stick to one field because I translate mostly patents, either myself or using other translators.

But I realize that my initial negative impression is mostly due to the fact that the translator did not translate everything exactly as I would have translated it … and really not much else. As I continue proofreading the translation, I often realize that the way another person translated the text makes good sense and that it may even in some ways be better than if I had translated it, and that I can learn something from the different approaches of different translators.

Since insanely repetitive formulations are so frequently used in patents, it cheers me up a little when I find out that even the highly formulaic language used in patents can sometimes be translated in a slightly different way.

Problems with Proofreading Translations In-House

Corporate translation agencies often try to do proofreading in-house the way I am doing it, although sometimes they send translations out to have them proofread by a second translator, especially when they have no idea what the translation really says, which is often the case.

I see major problems with both of the proofreading methods, namely proofreading in-house, or sending translations out for proofreading, as they are practiced by some translation agencies, although obviously not all of them.

When translation agencies, especially but not exclusively large agencies, proofread translations in house, it is often done by the project manager.

The problem is, since agencies try to translate every language and every field, the project manager is not qualified to proofread the translation, because he or she does not understand both the source and target languages, and usually doesn’t know anything about the subject or field of the translation, especially if it is a highly technical field, which is the case with patent translations.

Even under these circumstances, proofreading can be done in an intelligent manner at an agency if project managers know what they are doing.

But some of them don’t seem to know what they are doing. They may mistakenly think that the initial negative reaction to a translation, which is an instinctive reaction that is not necessarily based on the reality of the translation, means that the translation is not good enough and therefore needs improvements “to make it sound better”. If they don’t know what is in the original and know little or nothing about the specialized field, they start pestering the translator with what I call “stupid questions”.

I call them “stupid” because I know that if the proofreader knew both languages, there would be no need to ask these “stupid questions” as the answers are clearly provided in the source language that the project manager, who is supposed to be able to handle all languages, is unable to read.

Translators sometimes waste a lot of time answering these “stupid questions”. If they want to get paid, they can’t just say “Hey, stop bothering me with your stupid questions, you moron”, although that may very well be what they are thinking.

There is a smart way to ask a question, even “stupid questions”, and then there is also a stupid way to ask them, because the questions do need to be answered.

A smart way to ask translators questions is when the person asking them respects the translator, which includes respecting the translator’s skills, as well as his or her time.

The worst method for asking questions is by using the “drip, drip, drip, drip” … Chinese torture method, for example by asking five or six questions over a period of several hours, when the translator may be busy working on another project.

In the good old days, before translation agencies started calling themselves “Language Service Providers”, most agencies understood that time is a very valuable commodity for translators and this precious commodity should not be wasted by other people, such as project managers.

If you have five or six questions because you don’t understand something or are unsure about some words in a translation, why not write all of them down first and send them all to the translator so that they could be answered all at once in a single email?

A simple thing like that shows that you, the monolingual and perhaps inexperienced project manager, value and respect the translator’s time.

Ask only questions that need to be asked. For example, if you can see that an obscure name that is spelled in the original text was misspelled, or a number was written incorrectly by a translator, why rub his or her nose in it, like you would do to a dog who pissed on the carpet in the house?

There is no need to ask anything the translator, is there? Just correct the spelling or the number for God’s sake! We are all humans and we all make mistakes, including translators.

All translators make mistakes, especially in stupid numbers, names, decimal points …

Going over a translation with a fine toothed comb is not really going to improve a translation. When the fine toothed comb is wielded by an uninformed and inexperienced monolingual manager, it is much more likely to do great damage to it than to improve anything.

I consider most translators who work for me pretty brilliant people, at least when it comes to translating. Otherwise I would not be working with them. But all brilliant people sometimes make stupid mistakes. I know that if I want to do my job well, then I need to catch stupid mistakes before they reach the client, and that’s pretty much it.

If I need to do more than that, it means that I hired the wrong person for the present job and I need to find a better translator for the next job.

Problems When Translations Are Sent Out for Proofreading

The other method that is used by some translation agencies for proofreading is sending them out to a second translator whose job it is to validate or invalidate them through proofreading.

This can also be done intelligently, but in order to it well, the second translator would need to be as experienced and qualified as the first one.

But because experienced translators are not cheap and usually busy, the second translator is most of the time just a beginner who is quite cheap and available. Because proofreading is paid poorly – I hear that three cents per word is considered a good rate for proofreading – translators who are well paid and generally busy simply don’t proofread other people’s translations for translation agencies because it is not worth their time.

The last time I proofread another translator’s translation for an agency was in 1988.

A relative newbie who has a lot of time on his or her hands can cause a lot of damage to a very good translation in the role of proofreader. An underemployed translator may also be severely tempted to mercilessly criticize a colleague’s work simply to make sure that in the future, the translation agency will start sending translations to him or her instead of sending them to the original translator.

Things sometimes work like this because some translators are not very nice people.

I think that it is important for proofreaders, monolingual, multilingual, inexperienced and experienced alike, to remember that they are not nearly as important as they may think they are.

Proofreading is important as a final stage when all pieces of the puzzle are finally revealed and come together. If everything, including the final proofreading stage, has been done well, the translation reveals the perfect (or not so perfect) meaning of the original text, just like a piece of arts reveals the perfect (or not so perfect) idea of an artist.

Would an “art-proofer” be able to improve a piece of art? I don’t think so.

Translation is both science and art, which is one reason why machine translation will never work.

If a translation is poor because the translator was incompetent, it can almost never be saved by a proofreader, no matter how competent the proofreader may be. Nothing short of a new translation will help in such a case.

The translating stage is when the magic happens, or does not happen as the case may be.

An inexperienced and uninformed proofreader can easily kill a perfectly good translation for some of the reasons I mentioned in my post, as well as for many other reasons.

And even a very good proofreader is unlikely to resurrect a translation if it was already dead upon arrival.

Posted by: patenttranslator | January 12, 2017

If You Don’t Have a Job Repairing a Robot, You Don’t Have a Job

The United States and a number of other countries have lost many millions of manufacturing jobs in the last two decades, in particular in the last decade.

The main reason why Donald Trump was elected last year may very well be the fact that he was the only candidate talking about this problem and promising to do something about it, still left standing after the Democratic Party unceremoniously got rid of Bernie Sanders by sabotaging his every move.

The truth is, the Democratic establishment prefers Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders. Bernie’s presence in the White House would remind Democrats day after day what they once used to be and no longer are: a party that fought for the middle class and working people.

I heard the sentence that I picked for the title of my post today on a call-in show about disappearing manufacturing jobs in the United Sates. It was said in a bitter sounding voice by a former automotive worker as an expression of the hopelessness he was feeling about his job prospects.

I’ve had many bitter comments on my blog from translators who are also discouraged by the current situation of translators and the conditions created for them by the “translation industry” that they are looking for a way out, preferably a different occupation.

Although they love, or used to love translating, they don’t think it is possible to make a decent living being a translator at this point. That is what the “translation industry” has done to our profession only in the last decade or so.

I think this is also one reason why there are so many instant translation gurus everywhere who claim to have a magical solution for all translators, though mostly for those who sign up for their paid seminars. To me, the funny thing, or one of the funny things about these instant gurus, is that most of them are so young they could be my grandchildren. And I am not really that old yet … I have adult children, but no grandchildren yet.

I think that many of these “experienced translators” are cashing in by giving seminars and webinars on how to make more money translating by using extra cool technology, social media, or by finding direct clients … because they can’t make enough money just by translating.

You can tell really good writers by how they write really good or at least popular books, which is to say books that many readers want to buy. Writers who are not as good teach creative writing at a community college because they too have bills to pay.

And really good translators are so busy translating, even in the brave new world created for them by the “translation industry”, that they don’t need to give webinars to make ends meet because their customers are keeping them busy translating at very good rates.

The equivalent of an autoworker who is fixing robots, robots doing what the worker used to be doing because he can’t find any other work, is a translator who fixes machine translations because he can’t find any real translation work.

The difference here, or at least one of the differences, is that while it is possible to design a robot that will replace a worker in a car plant who performs manual labor, it is not possible to design software that will replace the thinking that goes on inside the brain of a translator.

Human languages are too complicated. They are as complicated as human thought processes. If the “translation industry” were honest with its clients, it would have to admit this simple fact and make it clear that machine translation is only a tool. Although it might look like real translation, it is not really translation.

But they can’t say that because if they did, who would buy it?

Even beautiful sounding sentences can be a trap, if these sentences are translated by machine translation software rather than a human being. The problem with machine translations that are based on the statistical approach pioneered by Google is that beautiful sentences that sound just like sentences created by human translators often say the exact opposite of what was said in the original language.

I have seen many examples of texts in descriptions of patents that were translated by machine translation and that looked very impressive to me, a patent translator who has been translating patents for a living since May 1987 – nearly 30 years now. The sentences looked perfect, but they said the opposite of what was said in the original. After all, the software is only based on statistical probability.

The “translation industry” says that this problem will be solved by what the industry calls post-editing of machine translations by humans. Sometimes, the industry even calls this kind of unappetizing editing of raw machine output by humans “copy editing” to make it sound more appealing to translators and customers.

But several fatal flaws are hidden in this concept of humans whose job it is to repair a robotic system for translation of human thoughts.

When machine-translated sentences are obvious mistranslations because they sound hilarious or because they clearly make no sense, it is easy to see where the likely problem is in the machine-translated output. But when they sound like real sentences created by a real human being (because that is what they originally were, except for the fact that the meaning of the original text may now be the complete opposite of what the machine translation says), it is very difficult and extremely time-consuming to find out where the problem might be, even more time-consuming than translating everything from scratch.

It is highly unlikely that humans hired at slave wages will bother trying to find mistakes in machine-translation output for one simple reason: the “translation industry” wants to pay them so little that even if the “post-processors” want to do a good job, they won’t have the time to do it.

I have been contacted by translation agencies several times already to work as a “copy editor of machine translations”. Out of curiosity, I called twice to inquire how much would I be paid for this work.

Both times I was offered the princely sum of 1 cent a word, as I wrote in a post titled So Now I Know How Much They Want to Pay Us a little over a year ago.

Some former car plant workers did become robot repairmen who were fixing robots that had replaced them … until they were fired even from this job once the robots were fixed.

But I can’t imagine that real translators would be willing and able to repair the product of machine translation robots for a living, no matter how desperate these translators might be, at the pitiful rates that the “translation industry” is willing to pay for such a horrible job.

Posted by: patenttranslator | January 5, 2017

Dress a Woman with a Stick or Shave a Woman with a Machine?

If you tried to attempt either of the imbecilic actions mentioned in the title of my silly post today, the chances are the woman in question would start hitting you with a stick.

And who would blame her?

And yet, “dress a woman with a stick”, and “shave a woman with a machine” are perfectly legitimate translations of the Czech sentence “Stroj ženu holí“. If you don’t believe me, take a look at this article discussing ambiguities of translation from one language into another—in this case Czech to English—that human translators must solve many times a day in their much misunderstood and often unappreciated work.

A human translator would immediately start thinking there must be something wrong with the sentence because it makes no sense. A human translator, male or female, would know that women are far too complicated beings to allow anyone to dress them, let alone with a stick. Sticks simply don’t go together well with the act of dressing a woman.

A human translator would require context to translate an ambiguous sentence such as the Czech sentence “Stroj ženu holí“. If there was no context in the source text, he or she would probably go on the internet and try to find the context to make sense of a nonsensical sentence.

If there was no context to be found anywhere, a human translator would probably translate the nonsensical sentence as “Machine is shaving a woman”, because something like that is much more plausible than a woman being dressed up with a stick. For example, I have heard that some women shave their legs, although I have never actually seen one do it.

It is understandable that most women would be very private about something like that.

At my local supermarket I have seen pink razor blades being advertised as razors for ladies, and I have stayed away from these razors based on the assumption that the features of and requirements for shaving razors for female legs and those to be applied to male beards are probably different and both types are probably not equally suited to the similar, but not identical task.

But then I found recently (from a woman) that I did the right thing by staying away from them for another reason: Guy razors are the best, much better than the one for women and there is this thing called “pink tax” on women’s razors. They are pretty much the same product (if not inferior), but they are much more expensive. The same goes also for shampoo, etc.

The is no end to the perfidy of men!

If you are interested, this is what one of these manual shavers for women, called “Venus”, looks like. It costs from 9 to about 30 dollars.

If you are in the market for an electric shaver for women, you can also chose from many models, manufactured by Panasonic, Philips, Conair, and Remington, priced from about 12 to about 20 dollars, most of which should be available at your local Walgreen’s.

Thoughts like these would probably be going through the head of a human translator who is suddenly confronted with a sentence that makes no sense and that must be translated into another language, which, incidentally, usually happens to me and probably most human translators at least once every twenty minutes.

In the case of male translators, some other thoughts might possibly be also going their heads at the same time, since male brains are particularly well adapted (thanks to evolution) for certain types of multitasking.

A good translator would thus probably translate the sentence “Stroj ženu holí”, which consists of only three short and simple Czech words, as “A machine is shaving a woman”, since it is somewhat plausible that such an action could be accomplished with an electric shaver for women’s legs (or “whatever” as Donald Trump might put it). A good human translator would most likely also leave a Translator’s Note to let the customer know that there is probably something wrong with the text in the original language.

But what is a machine translation program supposed to do with such a devilishly complicated sentence, even though it contains only three short words?

When I ran the sentence through Google Translate, the best current available machine translation program, which is somewhat disrespectfully referred to by some translators as Giggle Translate, the machine translation program translated it for some reason as “Woman shaves machine”.

It is certainly an interesting concept that might make you giggle a little because that’s what it did for me.

This is just my guess, but I think that the new “neural translation” feature of Giggle Translate, which instead of using grammatical and language rules tries to match one sentence with the closest sentence available in its gigantic database and then somehow makes everything “neural”, would most likely come up with a sentence that would say that somebody, most likely a man, is beating, or hitting, a woman with a stick.

Disgusting, revolting and unforgivable as such an act might be, since the truth is that such acts have happened, and probably on many occasions, based on the innovative approach of Google, the “neural translation” of Google Translate would probably be: “A man is hitting a woman with a stick”.

When I ran the sentence through Microsoft Translator, which is (or is supposed to be) based on grammatical rules instead of statistical probability, it came up with “Machine woman shaves”. This translation clearly shows to me that the human programmers working on the design of Microsoft Translator need to work on their knowledge of grammar, Czech grammar in this case.

The fact is that just like Google Translate, Microsoft Translator also completely ignored the rules of Czech grammar in the sentence I used to test it.

It would be immediately evident to any human translator that “Machine woman shaves” is a mistranslation because the word “Stroj” (Machine) is the subject here and based on the ending of the word “ženu” (woman), the woman in question is the object here, grammatically speaking, and thus (she) cannot be in the position of some “machine woman”, so that the word “machine” would be expressing a qualifying feature of the “woman” as if it were an adjective.

If this were the case, the noun in Czech would have a different ending, namely, it would be “žena“, not “ženu“. Although this is something that would be obvious to any Czech first grader, since Microsoft Translate does not seem to grasp even this relatively simple grammatical rule, it still has a long way to go, not only in Czech, but also in other languages.

So, dear reader, whenever you see another press release from Google Translate or from our beloved “translation industry” stating unequivocally that “machine translation is quickly approaching the level of human translation”, try to remember that machine translation has been “approaching the level of human translation” since 1947, very quickly in the last 20 years, and really very, very quickly in the last 10 years (every year, dozens of article are published stating categorically that within three to five years it will be as good or almost as good as human translation).

Or maybe you can just remember a post about the dilemma of whether to translate three simple Czech words, “Stroj ženu holí” as “A machine is shaving a woman”, “Shave a woman with a machine”, “Dress a woman with a stick”, or “A woman is shaving a machine” to put the threat of machine translation to human translators in the proper context.

Like everything else, the concept of “machine translation” is all about the proper “context” – a word so dear to the heart of every translator, but impossible to explain to a silicon brain because its origin is in human experience.

Posted by: patenttranslator | December 29, 2016

Escaping the Inescapable Network of Falling Rates

I was going to mail a letter yesterday, well, a credit card payment. Few people probably still mail letters in 2016. I can’t remember the last one I mailed, but I still mail checks to pay bills.

But when I arrived to the big blue mailbox, it was surrounded by yellow tape and there was scaffolding next to it and three smallish guys were doing something to it. It looked like they were painting the wall next to the mailbox. So since I did not want to get the paint on me, I gave my letter to one of the guys, who looked to me to be barely 18, and asked him if he could mail it for me.

He looked at me as if not comprehending what I was saying. Then one of the older guys said something to him in Spanish, he nodded his head and took my letter and attempted to put it into the big mailbox.

But he could not figure out how to do it because he was trying to push it into the mailbox through a non-existent slot. In some countries, the slot is on the side where the kid was looking for it and I guess Mexico is one of them. But in United States, you have to first pull up the big metal flap that protects the mailbox, from rain, probably. After a second he figured it out, pulled the flap up and posted my credit card payment, I thanked him and that was that.

I deduced from this episode that he must be a brand new “illegal immigrant”, probably from Mexico, who just arrived to this country and has not even mailed a letter from here yet.

New translators (newbies) and would-be translators who often work for incredibly low wages are the “translation industry’s” equivalent of “illegal immigrants”. And they do not necessarily live in low-wage countries, since anybody can claim to be a translator. And some people who translate can do it very cheaply because their translation income may not be their primary or sole income.

Thirty years ago when I started working full-time as an independent translator, I was being paid (at first) six cents a word for translating Japanese patents for a small translation agency that specialized in patents.

Then another Japanese translator told me that he knew a guy who paid seven cents who was looking for Japanese translators, so I stopped working for 6 cents, (which 30 years ago was the equivalent of 12 cents now), and started working for that guy, who had tons of chemical patents because he used to work for a big chemical manufacturer. Then I stopped working for him when somebody offered me 10 cents a word, and by the mid nineties I was charging at least 15 cents, up to 18 cents for rush work to some translation agencies.

That was what I was charging to translation agencies and it wasn’t bad, but since I saw no reason to keep working only for agencies, by the mid nineties I was working more for direct clients, mostly patent law firms, than for translation agencies and I was and still am charging direct clients a little more than what I can charge a middleman, of course.

Incidentally, there is no magic bullet to finding direct clients for your translations, but here are a few pointers:

  1. You need to have a good idea about the field in which you want to specialize: in my case, patent translations.
  2. You need to identify who your direct clients are: in my case, my direct clients were obviously going to be patent law firms and patent law departments of different companies, mostly large corporations.
  3. You need to design a strategy to make them aware of your services: I have been sending letters to potential clients for about 10 years since the early nineties every time my work load was light. I must have sent thousands of letters, but I did find my first clients in this manner, and some of them stayed with me for more than a decade. I no longer send letters in this century as I am now relying on my website and silly blog for visibility on the internet.

In contrast to the development of rates in the eighties and nineties of the last century when rates kept going up if you had a good language combination and specialty, the rates paid to translators by the “translation industry” started going down instead of up in this century, even for highly specialized translation, such as for patent translations, and even for very complicated languages that are very difficult to learn, such as Japanese.

Some of the downward slide is the result of globalization, as some translation agencies now send translations to countries such as India or China where labor is much cheaper than in Western countries. The translations might not be very good, but they are probably still much better than machine translation.

A big part of the downward slide is the result of “portals for translators”, where translators bid in blind actions, and work goes to whoever bids the lowest.

In contrast to popular belief, personally, I don’t think the decline in rates over the last decade or so has much if anything to do with machine translation.

In spite of how the propaganda machine of the “translation industry” is trumpeting the claim that machine translation is “quickly approaching the level of human translation”, machine translation has been quickly approaching the level of human translation for at least 10 years, or in fact since about 1947 if you know the history of machine translation.

I always print out the machine translation of the patent I am translating, either from the European Patent Office or the World Intellectual Property Office website, which offer three types of machine translation of patents: Google Translate (feared by some, but also known as Giggle Translate among other translators), Baidu and Microsoft (Bing) Translator.

When I print out a machine translation from Microsoft Translator, I see that Microsoft Translator is basically indistinguishable from Giggle Translate. Sometimes Giggle Translate is slightly better, but it sometimes gets beaten by Microsoft which does not seem to jump to wrong conclusions as much as Giggle Translate, at least when it comes to highly technical terms. And quite often the sentences produced by Giggle Translate look like a really good translation … but the problem is, they say the opposite of what the text says in the foreign language.

So I don’t see machine translation as having affected much the rates being paid for translation. What did affect rates directly (and every translator is affected at least indirectly by everything every other translator and translation agency is doing), in addition to globalization, is the incredible greed so prevalent in the “translation industry”.

The “translation industry” does not seem to care that by always chasing lowest cost of labor, they are killing off their best customers. There is a reason why some people are willing to work for very low rates, and the reason is usually that these people can’t command higher rates because they can’t really translate.

The big secret, that only a few translators seem to know and talk about, is that the inescapable network of low rates being paid for translation is escapable.

The “translation industry” would like to think of itself as the indisputable king of translation. It believes that its business model and the methods of large translation agencies that brutally exploit translators and seek lower and lower labor cost to achieve higher and higher profit is the most logical and the best business model in this particular segment of the service industry.

But as I read somewhere, because translation is so incredibly fragmented, the ten largest translation mega-agencies with offices on several continents account for less than ten percent of the market for translations.

The “translation industry” is not Big Pharma, which can enforce its own monopoly over the market for medications resulting in incredibly high prices by bribing our politicians year after year. There is a lot of competition in the market for translation and as far as I know, the “translation industry” does not even have lobbyists.

The key for translators to escaping the inescapable inevitability of falling rates in the “translation industry” is to stay away from the most exploitative segments of the “translation industry” by creating an alternative to it – a business model that is based on methods that have worked for translators in the last century and the centuries before, when translators such as myself were working only for small agencies with a human face that paid good rates and that did not treat translators as indentured servants.

But I also believe that the most important component of the alternative business model for translators who want to escape the inescapable network of falling rates is that they need to eventually work mostly for direct clients instead of working only for a broker.

I just heard on the news that 2016 was the first year in a long time when there was actually an increase in salaries and wages paid to workers.

It is not inevitable that rates paid for translation should keep falling. But if translators do nothing and obediently accept the dictate of the new “translation industry”, it is not difficult to see that they will continue doing precisely that.

Posted by: patenttranslator | December 24, 2016

After Seven Years of Passionate Blogging, What Do I Have to Show for It?

In about five weeks it will be exactly seven years since I started writing my translation blog. I suppose that is as good a time as any for a little bit of blogging nostalgia from Mad Patent Translator.

As of today, almost at the end of the year 2016, my blog has 643 posts and these posts have 8,391 comments. That’s a lot of comments from a lot of people on every continent with the exception of Antarctica, although about one third of them are my own responses to people who bothered to leave a comment on silly blog.

Nobody seemed to know about my blog at first in 2010, and for a long time after. Those were the dark, cold, lonely days when the sun did not shine and nobody seemed interested in what another “vox clamantis in deserto” (voice of a translator crying in the wilderness) was saying. But then, after the ATA Trekker (of blogs by translators) put my blog on its list of blogs about translation, other translation bloggers started slowly linking to it and that little magic widget on top called the view counter started changing the count displayed all the time, to my considerable surprise, sometimes bordering on elation.

Whenever I write something that makes people share it on social media. and WordPress sends me the message “Your blog’s stats are booming”, it makes me so happy! It sort of validates what I am doing and saying. Only fellow bloggers (and Donald Trump) know how good it feels. It’s almost as good as the feeling when PayPal sends me an email that says “You’ve got money”.

During these seven years of incessant blogging (at least four times a week, sometimes eight times a week, mostly about translation, but also about my dog and the kinds of books I like to read), I have made a lot of virtual friends, and a few enemies of course too. And a few people who at first seemed to really, really dig my blog and heaped praise on me for my innovative approach to my efforts at analyzing translation and the “translation industry” but then turned into sworn enemies … just because I said something they did not like.

Oh, well, that’s life. You can’t please all the people all the time, right? You can’t even please the same people all the time, no matter how much you try!

My most popular post, the one that has so far had the most views and that has thousands of likes on Facebook, is Translator’s Dementia, What It Is and How to Recognize the Signs. But after it reached more than 2K likes, Facebook erased the count and started counting from zero again. Although it is about three years old, people still read it and share it on social media (13 people read it today).

The most controversial blog post was one in which I dared try to make fun of women. It’s called Why Are All Sign Language Interpreters Women? and it is also still frequently read. It has dozens of comments, attacking me mercilessly. It is fine and dandy when women are making fun of men, this is something that is very much encouraged in Western culture. But when a man tries to make fun of women, that is just indescribably sexist and vile and such a person deserves to be crucified.

My series of posts in which I compare translators to zombies, such as Attacks of Zombies Are Unrelenting in a Horrible Economy are also very popular and at least two of my zombie posts were translated into several languages with my permission. It’s not a problem to call translators zombies, or really anything you want, and neither translators nor interpreters will be grievously offended by it, as long as you don’t say anything about women in particular.

Some bloggers, very good ones among them, have turned their blogs into marketing platforms for their services, while adding teaching or coaching to their arsenal of moneymaking tools.

Personally, I have nothing against bloggers who put a begging plate on their blog, and I keep reading their posts if I am interested in what they are saying. I might do it one day myself, although I hope I will never have to do that. But when a blog is turned into a full time commercial tool, I unsubscribe and stop reading such a blog.

I think there is a big difference between what people say when they are trying to communicate their ideas to other people because they believe in what they are saying, and because they want to share ideas bouncing around their heads, and what people say because they are trying to make money.

Once a blog is about money, I consider it to be mostly about money, and I don’t trust it anymore.

Every corporate translation agency has a blog, but because all those corporate blogs are designed with the sole purpose of driving sales, they don’t have a whole lot of blog posts worth reading. It’s mostly chest pumping propaganda declaring over and over again how wonderful the translation agency is and what superior services it provides to its customers.

But lest I seem too pure and disinterested in profiting from the content I pump out into the cyberspace several times a week, I do have an ulterior motive for writing my posts about translation too, of course.

Because generally speaking, clients don’t stay with one service provider for more than 20 or 30 years and I have been translating patents for 30 years, a significant portion of my income depends on whether new clients will or will not discover my excellent, yet moderately priced patent translating services in a given year, as old clients are lost through natural abrasion.

Starting about a decade ago, some years I was lucky to land a lot of new clients in this manner. I saw a drop in acquisition of new clients from the internet starting a few years ago … but this year has been very good again in this respect, and I think it might have something to do with my blogging.

Thanks to my incessant blogging about translation, and patent translation in particular, both my website and my blog are usually found among the first organic entries on the first page just under the advertising entries when somebody types keywords containing something about patent translation or patent translators into Google or just about any other search engines.

Which means that as long as I keep writing my posts, I shouldn’t have to spend money for advertising on the internet, which I hear is very expensive.

So I would say that after seven years of passionate blogging about translation, I do have something to show for it in terms of income, even without a begging plate on my website or blog, and without having to turn my blog, which is here mostly for me (and hopefully other people too) to have fun, into a commercial platform.

I could also write about other things that I discovered thanks to my blog, such as the kind of musical education that I’ve received based on my idea of framing my posts with two music videos from Youtube, as well as other things my blog have given me too.

But I will save that for another post and instead just wish everybody Merry Christmas!

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