Posted by: patenttranslator | March 4, 2018

Making Sense of the Gig Economy So That It Works for Us

There are many good reasons why so-called gig economy has a bad reputation.

Unlike in the old system in which employees were treated as valuable members of the company – that is why they are called “Mitarbeiter” in German, which literary means “coworkers”, and “社員” [sha-in] in Japanese, which literally means “company members” – the gig workers in the new gig economy are hired only for gig jobs of indefinite duration, usually of very short duration, only to be discarded like used coffee filters once the job is done.

The check is (maybe) in the mail …. you have a nice life now!

While we were not looking or noticing much, the gig economy has been slowly replacing the traditional employer-employee economy model for several decades. In the traditional employer-employee model, loyal employees were rewarded with an employment contract including a slew of different perks, generous to different degrees depending on the company and the country, such as vacation time, health insurance, life insurance, and up until recently not only regular increases in salary for  loyal employees who stayed with the same employer for many years, but also a defined, company-funded pension for employees who stayed with the same employer until it was time to retire.

I myself have been an employee for approximately 7 years between 1980 and 1987 in several countries. In all of the countries where I worked as an employee, the fact that I had all of the benefits of being an employee was very important to me.

But the most important benefit of being an employee was the stability and security that came with “having a job.”

The Stability that Used to Come with Being an Employee Is Mostly a Thing of the Past

I knew, or thought I knew, that once I found a good job, or at least a job that is for the most part enjoyable and that pays enough to cover all of my bills, I would not have any major existential worries. And because I was young, single and willing to work for a relatively low salary, I was always able to find a job within a few weeks.

But although the gig economy was just getting started more than 30 years ago, it suddenly caught up with me when I got fired from my last job as an employee in San Francisco after only 3 months, basically as a result of internal company politics over which I had no control.

What nobody told me when I signed my employment contract back in 1987 was that the woman who hired me and then fired me at the end of the probation period mostly needed somebody like me because her company was sending her for training to Europe for several weeks, during which period she absolutely had to have a replacement. That was the main reason why I was hired.

I would not have put it this way more than 30 years ago, but I while back then I was looking for a gig of a relatively long duration, the company that hired me was looking for a gig employee for a very short time period.

So that was how I eventually became a self-employed gig worker determined never to get fired again more than 30 years ago, long before the term ‘gig economy’ came into existence.

Does It Still Make Sense to Try to Be a ‘Loyal Employee?’

Most people would probable agree that the economy has changed quite a bit in the last three decades, and most of these changes eroded or simply got rid of the benefits that used to come more or less automatically with the status of a ‘valued employee’, so much so that even the term ‘a valued employee’ may be at this point not much more that an anachronism.

While defined pensions for loyal employees still exist for employees in the public sphere, they are mostly non-existent in the private sphere because once the money that was in private pensions started being traded on the stock exchange, the money was gambled away, or to put it in even more precise terms, stolen by the unreachable criminals on Wall Street, with the full knowledge and approval of corporations who are now only too happy to get rid of their former employees just before they reach their retirement age. If the former employees can no longer work – why should the corporations give a damn about them?

The relationship between employer and employee has changed dramatically compared to the situation three or four decades ago when I felt that I was a ‘valued employee’.

It changed so much that it may make more sense for young people to forget about the traditional concept of job security and a relative financial safety that used to be understood under the term an ’employee’.

It is probably not an exaggeration to say that an ’employee’ who does not have a defined pension to be paid by the employer, who only has a skimpy health insurance package with co-payments and deductibles as is the case for most employees now here in the US, or no insurance at all, and maybe a few vacation days, is often in a worse situation than an independent contractor these days.

Employees too are now for the most part thought of by their employees in the  gig economy basically as gig workers who will work for the company for a somewhat longer gig during an undetermined period of time, rather than as valuable ‘co-workers’ or ‘company members’ who should be naturally rewarded for their loyalty with higher salaries based on their seniority with all kinds of benefits, which are now available only to the top honchos who run the company and who make sure that senior employees in the lower ranks are fired as soon as possible and replaced by younger and cheaper workers.

In contrast to that, being a gig worker does have some advantages in the 21st century for independent contractors, but only for those of us who are able to find the best gig jobs that are out there if we know where to look for them.

The Bottom and the Top of the Gig Economy

One good thing about the gig economy, at least from my point of view, is that it is truly big and there are many opportunities in it for translators.

Many of these opportunities are relatively short or very short translations, most of which are offered by a translation agency in the role of an intermediary. But this is only one part of the many gigs available in the gig economy.

Some translators got used to the idea that working for intermediaries is basically all there is, and they have learned to to find ways to make ends meet by only working for translation agencies.

The problem is, the pickings in the “translation industry” are getting slimmer by the month if not by the day, as one can see from numerous complaints on social media about translation agencies who offer ridiculously low rates and sometime simply don’t pay at all based on some BS excuse.

One possible solution to this problem, and in my opinion the best one, is to get your gigs from the top rather than from the bottom of the gig economy, or to provide highly specialized translations to direct clients without having to share the compensation from the direct clients with the intermediaries.

I know how to find my own direct clients in my field and in my line of work, which is translation of patents from several languages.

But although I have been able to find my beloved direct gigs for many years, the translation universe is so vast and complex that I would not know how to do that in your field and in your line of work.

Beginning and relatively new translators can probably learn a few useful things by going to conferences of translators and listening to prophets du jour who have figured it all out for them and who claim to have a perfect recipe for becoming successful and affluent in the translation business.

But since nobody really knows you and your specialty, (hopefully, you have a good one), or your specific situation, nobody has a turnkey solution that can be used by any translator, regardless of his or her location, language direction, subject and specialty, and personal strength and weaknesses.

My last new job from the top of the gig economy lasted for about 14 or 15 months. During that gig of intermediate duration, I translated about a hundred patents, I paid off all of my debts during about the first three months of that particular gig, and I was able to put some money in the bank.

I had to work really hard because at the same time I had to make sure that I don’t lose my old clients, some of whom who were also sending me work on occasion. Every week – every damn week! – I had to work also on Saturdays and Sundays for about a year.

It looks like that particular gig is now over because I have not heard from this particular client in about a month. But I am actually relieved because I don’t want to work so hard all the time.

Last month I had plenty of work from other clients, this month has been quiet so far, but who knows what the unpredictable gig economy will bring next? Living in the gig economy is like hunting in an endless, primeval forest: some hunters mostly just find berries and maybe they will occasionally kill a jackrabbit to have some meat too.

And some hunters mostly just hunt for big moose because the payoff is much better and the food is tastier and lasts much longer. I’d like to think of myself as a crafty moose hunter rather than a hungry berry picker.

I suppose one could say that just like Winston at the end of George Orwell’s 1984 learned to love Big Brother, at the end of my professional career, I have finally learned to love Gig Economy.

It’s not such a bad economy after all, especially considering that the old, paternalistic employer-employee model has been for the most part done away with at the present stage of corporate capitalism.

Posted by: patenttranslator | February 18, 2018

Czech Is German Translated from German to Czech

“Kommt ein Tscheche zum Augenarzt. Beim Sehtest wird ihm eine Tafel, auf der V I N C Z W Q S I C Z steht vorgehalten und der Arzt fragt ihn: ,,Können Sie das lesen?” – ,,Lesen?” ruft der Tscheche erstaunt aus. ,,Ich kenne den Kerl sogar!”

Translation: A Czech comes to an ophthalmologist. During the eye test, he is asked to read the text on a blackboard that says V I N C Z WW Q S I” and the doctor asks him: “Can you read it?”

“Can I read it? I even know the guy!” exclaims the Czech in astonishment.

(A German joke about Czechs and their funny language. I am pretty sure I saw the same German joke about Polish, which would be more accurate because these letters would be much more at home in a Polish word than in a Czech word).

More than 20 years ago I used to occasionally work for an older German gentleman who at that point had been running his small translation agency in Northern California for more than 30 years. He died about 10 years ago.

Although he never worked for agencies, only for direct customers, his business was not really an agency.

He called his translation business “[His name] & Associates” because he did most of the translating work by himself and only hired other translators, such as myself, for translations in languages that he did not know (and he did know quite a few), or did not like, even though he knew them.

For example, although he was German, after living in California for several decades, he only translated into English and did not like to translate from German, let alone into German.

He mostly translated Romance languages to English and he told me once that he did not translate German because “it was too difficult” for him. He was a weird guy, as many translators are. He also told me that his brother, who lived in Germany, once told him on the phone “Du sprichst Deutsch wie ein Tscheche” (You speak German like a Czech).

I am not trying to imitate his business model, at least not consciously, but the funny thing is, I run my business basically in the same way. I don’t like to translate from Czech, let alone into Czech, and I mostly translate German and Japanese. I do most of the translating work myself and I hire other translators only for languages that I don’t know or don’t like to translate.

To translate Czech is difficult for me too at the point because I have not been translating it for almost four decades. So what is my native language now? Clearly, I don’t have one. I simply replaced it by a few non-native languages. Personally, I don’t think it’s necessary to keep one’s originally native language, although it is probably a good thing to have one and keep it, just like it’s not necessary to have and keep one’s original spouse, although that may be a good thing too in some cases.

The fact that Czech is structurally very similar to German in its grammar and idioms, although it is a Slavic language and not a Germanic language, comes as a big surprise to most Germans. At least I have never met a German yet who was not surprised by my statement in this regard. But it is not surprising if you know something about the history of Bohemia and Moravia, or the Czech and Moravian regions of what is now called the Czech Republic.

The Czechs had to live under a heavy influence of the German language for a very long time.

For example, higher education was mostly available only in the German language for several centuries, and German was used for official dealings with the authorities in Austria-Hungary, the geographical heart of which was actually in Bohemia, or what is now the Czech Republic.

So the Czech speakers who knew some German had no choice but to translate everything from Czech to German and then to translate it back to Czech for those who did not know any German. If you do that to a language for a few hundred years, it’s going to change your language more than just a little.

In fact, because the Czech language was considered in Austria-Hungary only to be a language or a dialect of uneducated Bohemian peasants, the language at the beginning of the nineteenth century was at the point of becoming extinct, until children of Bohemian peasants who were educated in the German language rebelled against the notion that their children should not have the right to be educated in their own language either.

And since unlike modern empires, Austria-Hungary was a relatively tolerant empire, the Czechs were eventually given their own language back when it also became the language of higher education in the mid nineteenth century, after many centuries when instruction in higher education in Bohemia was available only in Latin, and later in German.

After World War II, there were some relatively minor attempts to replace the Czech language by the Russian language when Czechoslovakia became a part of the Soviet empire after the Communist putsch in 1948.

The German word “Putsch” is an interesting word. Although it is an eminently useful word in modern world, and it has an equivalent in French (coup d’état) and in other languages, it has no direct English equivalent, which is why either the German or the French term is used in English. I wonder why that is. Is it because it might be too dangerous to have an English word for such a well known phenomenon?

Because after World War II, German was considered to be the language of the enemy, it was not taught much in schools at that time, and the government tried to teach children Russian instead of German.

All Czech kids had to start learning Russian from the third grade, which meant that Russian was taught from the age of about 9 until graduation from high schools at the age of about 18, although a high school was still called a “gymnazium”, originally a Latin word, which was adopted from German and which means something completely different in modern English.

However, the attempts to replace words in the Czech language by Russian words or words directly translated from Russian into Czech were not successful. Although some words were adopted into the Czech language: for example the word “druzhba”, which means friendship in Russian, started being used in the Czech language from nineteen fifties, the word “druzhba” was used only for the fake kind of official, obligatory “friendship” that Czechs were supposed to feel towards their big Russian brother.

So everybody knew that the word “druzhba” had in fact nothing to do with actual friendship.

But the main reason why the Russian language had almost no influence on the Czech language, although it was taught to all Czech kids as well as to other kids in the Soviet Empire for many decades, was that unlike the German language in the past centuries, the Russian language was almost completely useless.

Ever since the third grade when I received my first Russian textbook, I was eager to learn the Russian language because although eventually I too started thinking of it as the language of the occupiers, I thought it was a beautiful, melodic and very interesting language, and I even went to Soviet Union three times in the nineteen seventies, partly to become more fluent in the language.

But people like me were generally an oddity in pre-1989 Czechoslovakia, where most kids felt that a good way to resist the “stupid bolsheviks” was to ignore the Russian language and forget all about it as soon as the exams were passed.

As times change, empires come and go and different languages become important, influential and useful, until they start losing their importance and usefulness and eventually lose their dominant position to another language. Nobody knows what language will be important a hundred or two hundred years from now, provided that human civilization survives the culture of greed that has been unleashed upon this world and us in the 21st century, which looks kind of iffy to me at this point

The most useful language in the world at this point is of course not German, and it is not Russian either; it is the English language, in particular one special form of it called: BAD ENGLISH.

As an Indian man put it to a friend of mine when he was traveling in India a few years ago: Bad English is the most useful language in the world – everybody speaks it!

Posted by: patenttranslator | February 12, 2018

So Many Gates and No Qualified Gatekeepers

We live in capitalism. Its power is inescapable. …. So was the divine right of the kings.

Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.

Ursula Le Guin

According to popular imagination, when we die, we are going to be stopped on our way to Heaven at the Entrance to Heaven by St. Peter, who will do a short but rather crucial entrance interview with us before deciding, based on some pretty detailed paperwork that he keeps there for each and every one of us just for this occasion, whether we will be allowed to enter a vibrant, heavenly city, kind of like San Francisco when I lived there thirty some years ago, before it was ruined by the likes of Google and Facebook.

If the paperwork has too many negative comments from St. Peter’s HR (Human Resources) Department, instead of hanging out forever with other nice, fun and interesting people in a lovely city surrounded by high walls made of precious stone, we will be denied entrance and then we will have no choice but to spend eternity in Club Inferno, a suffocatingly hot and horribly boring place that is supposedly even worse than most such horrible places on Earth.

It is highly likely that in Club Inferno, translators will be forced to work for eternity performing post-processing of the worst kind of machine translation detritus, as this is the worst punishment imaginable for persons who used to be translators while they were still alive.

I definitely do see the usefulness of the concept of a gate that is guarded by a qualified and well informed gatekeeper.

Such gates are often used for the purposes of various professions and occupations. To be admitted by a qualified gatekeeper to a profession is mandatory for instance for lawyers, doctors, accountants, dentists and many other professions. Only persons who graduated from an accredited university or college in a specialized subject can work as lawyers, doctors, accountants or dentists, because it would be too dangerous to allow somebody who lacks specialized education and experience to work for instance on a root canal.

Although a very similar gatekeeper function has been created in some countries also for the profession of a specialized translator, this function seems to be almost completely missing in other countries, including the United States.

In some European countries and in Latin America, one can become a qualified and registered translator only upon graduating from a college or university in a specific language combination, and only this kind of a properly educated translator can produce officially accepted and certified translations.

This makes eminent sense to me, and not only because I myself can proudly claim that I do have a degree in translation.

Unlike in other countries, however, in the United States the profession of a translator is unregulated, which basically means that if you say you are a translator …. well, then, that’s what you are.

You still have to officially register your business, but upon the payment of a small fee, you will be automatically issued a generic business license from the City Hall every year, provided that you pay the yearly taxes required in your local jurisdiction. So the City Hall is not a gatekeeper that would be qualified to allow real translators to pass through it; it is only a gatekeeper making sure that everybody pays some kind of tax also for translating.

This kind of also makes sense to me too on one level, although from another perspective, it does not seem to make a whole lot of sense.

If you want to become a hairdresser, for example, you have to satisfy a number of pretty strict rules and requirements, including working hundreds or thousands of hours as a trainee under supervision before you can obtain a professional license.

But if you want to translate patents from German, Japanese, French and other languages to English, which is what I have been doing for a living for more than 30 years, all you have to do is say that you can do it and the “translation industry” will trust you on that, provided that your rate is low enough to guarantee a healthy profit margin for the middlemen.

To deal with the lack of qualified gatekeepers in the translation business, the “translation industry” decided to appoint itself as the ultimate gatekeeper endowed among other powers with the power to decide who is and who is not a legitimate translator.

About 30 years ago, Berlitz Translations certified me as an immigration interpreter qualified for the language combination of Czech and English after I passed a test administered by Berlitz Translations.

This is how the test was conducted: I was told to come to the Berlitz offices on Market Street in San Francisco where I was given a piece of paper with a short excerpt from immigration court proceedings and instructed to “translate” the short excerpt from English to Czech into a tape recorder.

So I mumbled something in Czech into the tape recorder, while deftly making up equivalents of English legal terms relating to immigration, which I did understand, but had no idea how to say them in Czech. But I did not worry too much about this minor detail because I had a pretty good idea that nobody would ever listen to that tape anyway. A monolingual Berlitz employee then ejected with evident professionalism the tape from the tape recorder, labeled it and put it away in the bottom drawer.

And voilà, I thus became a newly minted, Berlitz-certified court interpreter. Incidentally,  the court proceedings were  in Slovak rather than in Czech (close enough, right?), but the Slovak client of Berlitz did get his permanent visa status approved anyway based on my somewhat halting but good-enough interpreting performance. It was quite a memorable experience for me.

I should add that when I received the check from Berlitz, the amount was so ridiculously small that I decided never to interpret again, not for Berlitz and not for any other agency either, which is how I became a patent translator instead.

Because the profession of a translator or interpreter is unregulated in the United States, many translation agencies are using their own systems for “certification” of their own translators. As far as I can figure it out, all of these system are basically a kind of scam that is similar to the one I experienced myself.

I understand that some courts created their own systems for testing court-accredited interpreters in some states in the United States, which is probably the only accreditation that is in fact a real accreditation rather than the scams of the “translation industry”, which are designed mostly for advertising purposes and otherwise have no real value.

About a decade after my interpreting debut at the immigration court in San Francisco, which is to say about 20 years ago, the “translation industry” started conferring the powers of a qualified gatekeeper on itself in a different way: by jumping on the bandwagon of  so-called “ISO certified translations” or “EN certification”, etc.

This ISO scam is also a very interesting racket. It is again only an advertising and propagandistic tool, because the ISO (International Standards Organization) method only sets rules, which are probably not followed every time anyway, about how paperwork should be shuffled around the desk of a translation agency, while these rules have absolutely nothing to do with the education, experience and suitability of a translator for a given task.

As I wrote in another post several years ago, the ISO or EN certification models is a set of rules originally designed for manufacturing industrial products.

“It is possible to design a set of techniques and rules for manufacturing products, such as cars, or even of meals such as hamburgers … but the product called translation is created in the brain of a human being. An educated and highly experienced translator will most of the time produce a good translation. An inexperienced and poorly paid one, who is much more likely to be used by a large translation agency due to the low cost, is likely to produce a poor translation, possibly containing many mistranslation that can never be detected with methods that were designed for mass production of industrial products.

Certification for thinking processes taking place in the heads of people called translators, who may or may not know what they are doing, is obviously nonsense. However, since so many clients don’t know much about translation, it is a popular and useful advertising gimmick, although it is a gimmick that is in my opinion dishonest in the extreme.”

Most customers who ask me for a “certified translation” don’t really know what the term “certified translation” means in the United States, because nobody seems to know that unlike other professions, translators do not have legitimate gatekeepers in this country.

Or, to put it another way, although we have a lot would-be gatekeepers here, unfortunately for customers, none of them is legit.

The capitalist system is not a very good system, except that it still seems to be mostly better than all alternatives known to man so far. And one of the things that it is very good at is supplying fake products, fake quality, and fake gatekeepers. So we have a lot of ways for potential certifications of translations in this country, and almost none of them means anything.

I think that trying to change the system would probably be a futile effort and a total waste of time on my part.

I wonder whether Ursula le Guin, who recently passed away, would agree with me on this.

There are two kinds of people in this world, 2 percent of people who take a chance when they see it, and 98 percent who don’t.

This quote is attributed to Alexandre Dumas

Disruptive innovation is a term that has been around for several decades. As this term is currently applied by the translation industry to the business of translation, the menacing and bellicose term in this case means replacing or minimizing expensive human translation by smart software and machine translation during the first stage of the translating process. This is followed by a second stage in which human or humanoid ‘post-processors’ are used to fix the unavoidable mistakes generated by software bugs and the machine translation product, which I like to refer to in my posts as detritus.

 Originally, however, the term disruptive innovation meant transforming a product that historically was so expensive that most consumers were unable to afford it, so as to make it much more affordable for consumers who are not necessarily affluent.

This concept has been with us for more than a hundred years. A well known example of the concept of disruptive innovation is Henry Ford’s Model T automobile, which when it was introduced in 1908, transformed the market for automobiles by creating a car that was more affordable than automobiles in the previous decades – automobiles that were accessible only to rich people.

There were some tradeoffs involved here, symbolized by Ford’s famous statement “They can have any car color they want, as long as it is black”, but the quality of the product was comparable to that of very expensive automobiles that used to be manufactured for rich people.

More current examples of disruptive innovation include the shift from mainframe computers to PCs, which started occurring about 50 years ago (I bought my first PC in 1987), while a very recent example of disruptive innovation in business management would be for example the switch from taxis to Uber service.

Most young people now have a smart phone and when they need the service that used to be provided by taxis just a few years ago, they use Uber. Because my son has Uber installed on his phone, he may never have to call a taxi.

I think that, unfortunately for taxi drivers, the days are numbered for their profession. For the most part, with some exceptions, I think most taxi drivers will be displaced by cheaper, less reliable and sometimes even dangerous Uber drivers for one simple reason – Uber is less expensive than a taxi. Unless an Uber driver looks and acts like a serial killer, most people who need inexpensive transportation will be ready to use Uber to save money.

The translation industry, and even some translators, believe that the same principle of disruptive innovation is applicable to the work of translators, most of whom will be relegated to the role of cheap post-processors of machine translation detritus if the translation industry has its way with us.

There Is a Big Difference Between Working for Yourself and Working for Somebody Else

But in spite of what the translation industry would like to do with us, or to us, there are several major differences between taxi drivers and translators.

The problem that Uber drivers have is that they cannot find their own customers without the Uber managements system. As long as Uber drivers and other low-wage workers called Turkers, a term I discussed more than two years ago in a post called How Many Translating Turkers Are Hidden Inside the Box Of Language Tools?, depend on a management system created by a corporation whose sole interest is in maximizing profit at any cost, they will make very little money. They already often make less then minimum wage, especially in the case of Turkers who must compete with workers in countries where there is no minimum wage and the cost of labor is very low, which is true also about some translators.

But as I said already, there are major differences between the position of Uber drivers and that of translators and other highly skilled knowledge workers on the labor market (provided that they are in fact highly skilled knowledge workers).

 Just About Anybody Can Be an Uber Driver or a Turker

One difference between translators and Uber drivers and Turkers is that unlike translators, Uber drivers and Turkers are unskilled workers. Just about anybody can drive a car, and just about anybody can perform simple tasks that Turkers are willing to do for a cent per task for major corporations.

The translation industry believes that just about any bilingual person or even a somewhat bilingual person can post-process the product of machine translation, which is not in fact an actual translation. But I believe the translation industry is wrong about that, although its mistaken belief does not surprise me because the monolingual people who own large translation agencies don’t understand and don’t want to understand what translation is about as I have written in many posts on my silly blog.

But Not Everybody Can Translate for Example Patents

Many translation fields, including patent translation, technical translation, or medical translation, to name some of the fields that I translate myself, as well dozens of other fields, still require highly specialized knowledge, even though unlike 30 years ago when I was starting my illustrious career as Mad Patent Translator, there is now an abundance of specialized information available to patent, technical, medical and other specialized translators in many languages.

Even the translation industry admits that that translators who have specialized knowledge in specific fields are very much in demand.

The fact is, not only major translation agencies are looking for translators who are specialized and highly experienced in certain fields and languages; direct customers are looking for these translators as well, and given the abundance of translations of inferior quality that the translation industry is producing with its industrialized approach to ‘production of words’, many clients are frantically searching for a translator who can actually do a very complicated job.

Old and New System for Connecting Translators to Direct Customers

This sounds like a perfect opportunity for translators to cast off the chains in which the translation industry would like to keep them. But how many translators are taking advantage of this opportunity? Unfortunately, it is not easy for direct customers to find a specialized and experienced translator because only a relatively small percentage of translators have figured out how to make connections with direct clients, which is to say how to create a system that connects the translator directly with a client, instead of having to go through an intermediary.

About 25 years ago I realized that I needed to create my own system for finding direct clients for my business, or rather to make it possible for direct clients to find me. This was at a time when the word internet did not exist yet, when the predecessor of what is now called the internet was a network accessible only through a thin telephone wire for exchanging files of word processed translations between two modems.

The first strategy I used at the beginning of the 1990s to find direct clients for my translation business was mailing letters to prospective customers. Between 1991 and 2003, I simply kept mailing letters, thousands of letters, to offer my services to prospective customers, which in my case were patent law firms that were conveniently listed per state in the country in a book published by US government.

It was a lot of work, but since I used just about every period of lull between translation work, about half of my income started coming from direct clients, mostly patent law firms, within a few years.

The second system for finding direct customers for my patent translation services was when I started using a new website that I put online in the year 2000. Nothing happened for two or three years, but from about 2003, I started receiving requests for price quotes, mostly for translations of Japanese patents.

Because my overhead was much lower than that of a typical translation agency, I got the work as my prices were competitive, and since I was able to find many new clients in this much less laborious manner, I stopped mailing letters to prospective clients more than ten years ago.

From that point on, most of my work came from direct clients so that less than about 15 percent of my income came from translation agencies. At present time, it is now probably only about 5 percent.

Depending on where a translators live and on their subject and language combinations, some translators are able to use other methods for connecting with new clients, such as participating in conferences, trade fairs and exhibitions and other events.

Depending on where translators live and on their subject and language combinations, some translators are able to use other methods for connecting with new clients, such as participating in conferences, trade fairs and exhibitions and other events.

The Development of Social Media Platforms Is a Powerful Innovation Disrupting Traditional ‘Vendor Management’ Systems of the ‘Translation Industry’

The development of social media, such as specialized groups of translators on Facebook, created yet another channel that some translators are able to use to connect with direct clients. These new channels mean that a direct client who has for example access to a group of translators on Facebook or Linkedln no longer needs to have access to a corporate system for ‘vendor management’ maintained by a translation agency.

So what is happening in this case is that the concept of disruptive innovation is now also working against the systems for freelance translator management, something the ‘translation industry’ has been using quite skillfully for several decades.

The people who offer their driving skills to Uber, and to a lesser degree for example people who list their houses on AirBnb, are very dependent on the management system of the corporations who find their clients.

But translators are dependent on the management  systems of the ‘translation industry’ only if they are unable to find their own customers because they believe they have no other choice but to work for low rates for their bosses on the translation plantation.

The Reliance of ‘Translation Industry’ on Computer Tools Is Detrimental to Translation Quality

Regardless of what the propaganda of the translation industry says, improving translation quality was never of much interest to these ‘entrepreneurs’. The reliance of the translation industry on computer tools and machine translation is a clear indication of how the industry views human translation. Even the monolingual movers and shakers must have realized that the industrial approach to mass production of translations that their industry developed with the aid of machine translations and software designed to reduce the remuneration of translators, without passing the savings on to the direct clients, is bound to result in very poor quality translation.

But as far as the industry is concerned, such a tradeoff is acceptable in the interest of maximum profit level at any cost.

I have no doubt that many translators will be influenced by the industry’s industrialized approach to what translation is all about into the equivalent of tired, underpaid and overworked Uber drivers, or worse.

But is unappreciated drudgery for the greedy bosses on the translation plantation an unavoidable destiny for most professional translators, even those who are highly educated, experienced and eminently qualified?  

I don’t know the answer to this question.

I am just hoping that more than 2 percent of translators will realize that they can ignore what is going on in the translation industry as long as they can figure out how to sell their expert, highly specialized translations directly to their customers without the intermediary of greedy middlemen.

Otherwise, I don’t know whether to feel more sorry for translators who are working on the translation industry plantation, or for the clients who have to work with the translations that the translation industry is producing.

At its 58th Annual Conference, held in Washington, DC, on October 25-28, 2017, the 10,000-member American Translators Association adopted the following resolution with 87% of the votes cast:

“Whereas translators and interpreters are committed to promoting and facilitating communication and understanding between peoples, be it resolved that we, members of the American Translators Association, strongly oppose all forms of discrimination on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, country of origin, or sexual orientation, as well as all forms of expression of and incitement to xenophobia, racial hatred, and religious intolerance, and strongly favor welcoming qualified immigrants who, with their skills and knowledge, contribute to the wealth of our country or seek refuge here from war or persecution.”

It’s immensely gratifying (isn’t it?) that ATA is opposing “all forms of discrimination on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, country of origin, or sexual orientation, as well as all forms of expression of and incitement to xenophobia, racial hatred, and religious intolerance, and strongly favors welcoming qualified immigrants”.

Or could it be that this resolution is in fact just another useless and empty proclamation that almost nobody will read and that will not do anything to help a single refugee or immigrant?

Since most decent people are against all kinds of discrimination, which probably includes translators, I see the resolution cited at the beginning of my post today mostly as a useless, empty, self-serving and hypocritical gesture that is not very likely to help anybody.

Most associations of stamp collectors and mushroom pickers, or of professional dog groomers, or of cat fanciers are probably also against xenophobia, racial hatred, and religious intolerance. But for some reason they don’t seem to feel the urgent need to issue lofty resolutions on these subjects.

Instead, they publicly express their opinions on issues that have a direct impact on problems concerning their members, issues like declining monetary values of stamp collections, the health of mushrooms in our forests, information on treatment of ear infections of our dogs and on how to best help stray cats.

Why is the American Translators Association not following their example, which it could do by issuing a resolution that actually means something to its members?

What this translator and 10,000 other members of ATA would dearly like to know is what ATA’s positions are on issues directly affecting our work and lives.

Issues such as the ones that I will now dare to mention below, albeit only very briefly, because there are many issues that impact the lives of translators on which ATA does not seem to have any position whatsoever.

I am convinced that if ATA found the courage to take a position on any of the issues briefly mentioned below, and preferably more than just one such issue, it would be greatly appreciated by the 10,000 members of ATA and that many more translators would likely join the association.

The fact that the words 10,000 members have been frequently thrown around by ATA for a decade or two probably means that the association is not growing because it is losing its old members who are qualified, educated and experienced translators. The association now manages to survive by growing its membership base mostly thanks to newbies.

Most translators don’t care about ATA’s rhetorical positions on issues that it can’t influence much, facile positions that look good on paper, while they cost ATA absolutely nothing. Instead of ATA’s position on discrimination against new immigrants and refugees, I think most translators would like to know ATA’s position on issues that we struggle with every day in our work.

Does ATA have an official position for instance on the following three issues:

  1. Why are the rates paid by the translation industry to translators falling, and what can translators do about it?

In the last two or three decades, rates paid to translators have been steadily falling courtesy of so-called translation industry, as the translation industry has been and still is outsourcing its translations to low-cost countries where important and highly complicated translations of complex documents are often done by translators who are extremely cheap, but who lack the education, skills and experience required to work as competent professionals, and who have to use machine translations to hide the fact that they don’t really understand the information in the source language and are not really fluent in their target language either.

The result of this approach is of course garbage that is sold by the translation industry to clients as real translation, which gives a bad name to all of us.

Why is it that there has not been a single article analyzing the causes of this development, very unfortunate for hard-working translators, in the ATA Chronicle, the official publication of the American Translators Association?

  1. What is the general position of ATA on machine translation?

Why is it that ATA, as far I know, has no official position on what machine translation is and what it is not? Shouldn’t it have a position on an issue that is much more important to us, translators, than for example “racial hatred and religious intolerance”, something that ATA feels so strongly about that it felt necessary to include it in its latest resolution?

Is machine translation a legitimate form of translation, comparable or tantamount to human translation? That is how the translation industry sees it, although most translators see it simply as a tool, a very useful, clever and ingenious tool, that translators and non-translators alike can use for free, but that should not be mistaken for actual translation.

  1. What is ATA’s position on post-processing of machine translations?

Is post-processing of machine translations an advisable technique, or at least an acceptable technique for translating complicated and important documents, such as medical diagnoses, good manufacturing practice manuals, or procedures used for maintenance and testing of nuclear reactors?

The position of the translation industry on this particular technique, which would be highly profitable for the translation industry (if the industry could only make it work), is of course clear. As far as the translation industry is concerned, post-processing of machine translation is absolutely the way to go!

Judging from the propagandistic nature of many articles published in the ATA Chronicle over the last few years, which celebrate and recommend the use of translation technology to translators, it seems that as far as ATA is concerned, it is only natural that human translators should be used to assist machines, instead of the other way round.

Since no articles questioning the propaganda of the translation industry have been published in the ATA Chronicle, it seems to me that the position of ATA, though never stated publicly, is the same as that of the translation industry.

I think that “machines good, humans bad”, to paraphrase George Orwell, or good only for miserably paid, mind-numbing post-processing drudgery, would sum up quite nicely the position on this issue not only of the translation industry, but also of ATA. If I am wrong, can somebody please point me to an article that was published in the ATA Chronicle, which is officially called The Voice of Translators and Interpreters, that was a serious and credible analysis of this technique, instead of a propagandistic piece written for and by the translation industry to brainwash translators?

The translation industry loves numbers, algorithms and percentages. As far as the industry is concerned, numbers and algorithms tell the truth and nothing but the truth.

But the way the “translation industry” uses numbers, algorithms and percentages is again just commercial propaganda that means nothing. It means nothing because the “translation industry” does not understand that although the number of correct words in a sentence can be measured, the meaning of these words is simply not measurable.

A Japanese sentence saying “It is our expert opinion that the Fukushima Daichi nuclear reactor would be vulnerable to a disaster that could be caused by a big tsunami”, which could be easily mistranslated by an algorithm glitch as “It is our expert opinion that the Fukushima Daichi nuclear reactor would not be vulnerable to a disaster that could be caused by a big tsunami”, is about 97% correct.

Only a careful, qualified, well-paid translator who is not working on a tight deadline would be likely to notice that the machine translation is 100% incorrect.

I don’t think that a poorly paid post-processor of machine translations of nuclear reactor tests, who likely lives in a country where human labor is very cheap, much cheaper than in Japan or United States, who does not really understand Japanese all that well and who does not really know English that much either, would be likely to catch such a minute mistake.

Which is one reason why I really would love to know what ATA’s official position is on post-processing of machine translations.

I do appreciate ATA’s opposition to “discrimination on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, country of origin, and its concern about “xenophobia, racial hatred, and religious intolerance”.

As a former new immigrant who came to this country 35 years ago with all of 500 dollars in his pocket and a determination to make it here no matter what, and who eventually raised a family and built a successful translation business, mostly because he picked the right country for something like that, I myself naturally have a soft spot in my heart for new immigrants and refugees because I understand what they are going through. I too “strongly favor welcoming qualified immigrants who, with their skills and knowledge, contribute to the wealth of our country or seek refuge here from war or persecution”.

But I think that most Americans don’t need to be reminded by another self-serving resolution of the American Translators Association how they should feel about refugees and immigrants. It so happens that many Americans are either immigrants themselves as I am, or children of immigrants as my children are now, or grandchildren of immigrants as my children’s children will be one day.

I also think that most of the 10,000 translators, who in spite of everything still are members of the American Translators Association, would really appreciate it if  ATA let them know what its positions might be on some of the issues that have had a major impact on their life and work for several decades now.

If ATA wants to prove to us that it is really interested in representing the interests of translators and interpreters instead of those of the seemingly omnipotent “translation industry”, taking a position on the three issues mentioned in my post today, issues on which ATA to my knowledge never has taken publicly a position to this day, would be a good start.

Posted by: patenttranslator | January 1, 2018

There Is No Such Thing As a Stupid Patent

Although it is often said that there is no such thing as a stupid question, I wonder how anyone can say something like that with a straight face when we have all heard so many questions that can be only characterized as totally idiotic.

But personally, I have no doubt that there is no such thing as a stupid patent.

Sure, plenty of patents are weird and some are mostly useless too.

As we can see from this handy List of Crazy Patents! on the internet, there is for example a patent for a Light Bulb Changer – a huge, heavy and expensive machine for replacing a light bulb … when all you need, as the old joke goes, are two cops: one cop for holding the bulb, and one cop for turning the first cop around.

This list includes an Anti-Eating Mouth Cage patent for people who need to lose weight, a patent for a Method of Exercising Cat by moving the laser pointer beam around and around and having your cat chase it, a patent for a Pillow with a Retractable Umbrella, and as I found out when I ran a search on the European Patent Office, there are at least 633 patents for sliced bread, also known proverbially as the greatest invention of all time.

As far as I can tell, there is no patent yet for a cell phone with a built-in shower, but I have high hopes that someday somebody will invent such an immeasurably useful and convenient device.

I must have translated dozens of patents about mobile phones, which later became known as cellphones in United States. So many things have been added to these phones since the 1980s, but so far nobody has figured out how to include a shower in them.

I admit that I myself have come across many patents that made me chuckle when I was translating them, mostly from Japanese, because up until recently, I had been translating mostly Japanese patents.

I remember I once translated a Japanese patent for picking up dog poop comprising a stick provided with a plastic bag attached to one end of it. The tricky issue of which end it should be attached to was the subject of a sub-claim.

There are in fact hundreds of patents in different languages on the subject of how to best rid this world of dog poop because when I ran a search on the website of the European Patent Office, I got 636 hits for the key words “dog excrement” and 33 hits for the key words “dog poop” with enticing titles such as “Poop Scooper for Dog” (a Japanese patent), Dog’s Poop Collector (a Greek patent), or Dog Poop Destroyer (a US patent – in US, we like to destroy everything).

And that’s just one website! I could get many more hits for inventions about how to deal with the curse of dog poop also on the World Intellectual Property Organization website, or on the French Patent Office website or China Patent Office website.

From the viewpoint of Mad Patent Translator, none of these patents is stupid, as long as I get paid to translate them!

If somebody somewhere was motivated enough to pay me good money to translate a patent into English, how can anybody call such a patent stupid?

In addition to the Japanese patent about dog poop that I translated a few years ago, I remember quite a few other memorable patents that I had the pleasure of translating.

There was one interesting patent about practical and decorative patterns for shoe soles with shapes inspired by those that are used for Japanese seafood called “kamaboko“, such as these shapes. I remember that one because it was really hard to translate Japanese words that every Japanese person understands, but that very few people who are not Japanese would understand as well.

I also remember a patent about another practical and decorative pattern, this time for jewelry to be strategically attached to the lower part of woman’s skirt. The motifs for the patterns were based on ancient Chinese symbols such as yin and yang. That one was easier to translate because the symbols were shown in the figures attached to the patent application. That was a pretty smart patent, I thought. Unusual, but definitely not stupid.

Usually, I have no idea what exactly the people who are paying me for the translation are looking for, especially in old patents, which is to say what is the “inventive step” of the patent. Some of them are very old, I remember that the oldest one I translated from French was again a patent about shoes from 1893 – it was about ski shoes. I’ve also translated plenty of chemical patents from German that were at least a hundred years old.

The main idea behind each patent is supposed to be explained in the first claim. But if it is a long and complicated patent, “Claim 1” can be very long, and sometimes contains more than a thousand words. The “inventive step” may be hidden in only a few sentences at the beginning of this claim; the rest of it could be an explanation of the background.

Sometimes I wake up in the morning with the sudden knowledge that I used the wrong term for some widget in my translation the day before. I turn on my computer, look at the text in the original language and I see that, indeed, the translation is not very good and that a much better word to be used in this context was suggested to me, probably by a divine being, while I was sleeping.

When we sleep, our brain is going through what happened the previous day and sometimes, our subconscious will find the perfect solution for something we missed the previous day. Which is why every translation should be proofread the next day after a good night’s sleep!

As I said, as far as I am concerned, there is no such thing as a stupid patent. Provided that I get paid for translating a patent, the requirement of non-obviousness and an inventive step has been met. It is obvious to me that somebody must have invented something useful so that I could translate the patent to pay my bills and maybe even save a little for a vacation.

It better be the truth because if the patents that I have been translating for the last 30 years were in fact stupid, wouldn’t that make me a stupid patent translator?

Happy New Year 2018 – Year of the Dog in Chinese zodiac after February 16, 2018.


Posted by: patenttranslator | December 26, 2017

Some Things Are Impossible to Prove Or Disprove

Some things are impossible to prove or disprove.

The existence of God, for example is one of them.

Or so I am told.

On the other hand, some things can be easily proven or disproven with a simple experiment based on a small dose of logical thinking. One of them is the fact that human editing of machine translation is in fact more time-consuming than actual translation from scratch.

It is easy to design an experiment on the basis of sound and logical criteria to prove that human editing of machine translation, even of a relatively very good machine translation, assuming that there is such a thing, takes longer than an actual translation done by a qualified and experienced translator.

Take as an example a translation that you have just finished; in my case it could be for instance a translation of a German or Japanese patent, for example about three thousand words long.

Given that I have been translating patents for a living for more than 30 years, I will boldly assume for the purposes of this post that my translation would be very good and very accurate, ready for publishing on an official website of a patent granting authority, without even minor problems which often occur in most machine translation, but which are relatively easy fixed.

By relatively minor problems I mean for example things like when the software  program does not know how to translate a long German compound noun and simply keeps the long German word in the machine-translated text which is otherwise in English. If the software does not have the answer, it simply keeps the words in the original language. I see this all the time in machine translations of patents from many languages.

Although this is a flaw that is frequently encountered in machine translations of patents, this kind of problem, which may be impossible to solve by machine translation software, is easily fixed within seconds by a human translator who understands the German term and knows the equivalent in another language, without even taking a look at the original text.

But since we are starting with a translation that was obtained from an experienced human translator, the translation would not contain the problems that often crop up in machine translations.

Now let’s assume that in order to simulate one of the problems that could be introduced by machine translation, we would use the search-and-replace function of our word processing program and replace five correct terms in a flawless translation obtained from a human translator with incorrect but perfectly plausible terms.

Problems like this are much more difficult to correct because they can be verified by a human translator only in the context of the original text.

For example, let’s say that for the purposes of the experiment, a translator would replace “tall” with “small, “acceleration” with “deceleration”, “wet” with “dry”, “organic” with “inorganic”, and “is not” with “is”. The word “organic” can be easily mistranslated by machine translation if the software misreads the first letter of the word and the word “not” can be easily overlooked by a machine translation program in a sentence, especially since it is in different positions in the sentence in different languages. And so on and so forth.

If we don’t know where the problem might be hidden, the only way to fix the mistakes that have been introduced into an otherwise perfect translation by non-thinking software is to proofread the translation in the context of the original text, which is to say to painstakingly compare the translation to the original text if not word by word, then at least sentence by sentence.

And as every translator knows, something like that is very time consuming.

Such a comparison, when we know that the translation is likely to contain problems, but don’t know where and what the problems are, would take much longer than if we proofread a translation that was done by a competent human translator, or by ourselves, and we are looking only for minor problems such as omissions and typos.

The “translation industry” likes to pretend that editing of machine translations is a logical next step and a straightforward process that can be easily used to fill in the gaps left in the approach that used machine translation to lower the cost, in conjunctions with humans who are supposed to quickly and in an inexpensive manner fix and clean up the machine translation output.

That is why the “translation industry” generally pays very low rates for proofreading, and the result is that with some exceptions, mostly just “newbies” are willing to do proofreading, even when it comes to translations that were done by human translators.

But the thing is, proofreading is a relatively painless and straightforward procedure only if the mistakes in the human-translated or machine-translated texts were so obvious that we would not need to compare the machine translation to the original, or if such a comparison could be made quickly and relatively infrequently.

Most “post-processors” of machine translations are probably working very quickly and without comparing the machine translation to the original text much for one simple reason: they get paid so little for their mind-numbing drudgery that they can’t really afford to do much more.

The fact is that even if a machine-translated text is post-processed by a human “almost translator” and even if the post-processed result looks a little bit better than a machine translation, the actual mistakes in the machine translation can be discovered only if the human post-processor compares the machine-translated text to the original text sentence by sentence, if not word by word.

As I have said in the introduction, I don’t know whether God exists, because that is something that can be neither proven nor disproven. Generally speaking, I don’t think God exists because it makes no sense to me. There are days when so many good things happen that I kind of have to wonder whether everything has been planned in advance by a benevolent higher power. And there are days when it is obvious to me that everything is controlled by Devil …. which in a way would also be a sort of a proof that God does exist, I suppose.

Call me an agnostic rather than a non-believer.

But one thing that I do know for sure is that post-processed machine translation that are “almost as good as human translations” as the “translation industry” likes to put it do not exist, because that is something that can be proven very easily with the simple test that I have proposed in my post today.

Post-processed machine translations are much more likely to be a poison rather than a cure for the problems that are unavoidable with machine translations.


Posted by: patenttranslator | December 15, 2017

Industrialization of Translation and What Can a Translator Do About It

As I keep liquidating and recycling old documents, mostly invoices and correspondence with clients and translation agencies (I am printing on the other side of the documents to save a few trees), I found a letter I received in 2008 from a small translation agency that kept me busy at that time for a few years.

The letter was announcing the sale of this tiny agency to a much bigger translation agency located in a different city. The small agency was run by a husband and a wife team – a common occurrence for decades before translation, something that used to be understood to mean an occupation or a small business, became what is now called the translation industry.

This is how the letter begins:

“As you may recall, in January 2007 we conveyed to you the news that we were actively pursuing the sale of [our translation agency] with the eventual goal of retirement. We have arrived at the successful completion of our efforts, and with mixed feelings we announce that our last day as owners of this company is March 20, 2007”.

I saw that in one of the invoices I sent them on September 3rd, and which they paid on September 20th, I charged them $1,971.36 for 8,214 words for a translation of medical device test results from Japanese to English at 24 cents per word.

It was a rush translation and back in 2007, better agencies still paid freelance translators for rush work the same as employers used to have to pay by law to employees in the United States for work on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, which is to say time and a half of the usual rate.

I did not know it then, but I do know now that the year 2007 or 2008 was the beginning of the demise of an era when many translation agencies were still very civilized businesses, an era when small and tiny translation agencies would team up with translators they considered top in their respective niches and the translators would then stay with them for decades because they were paid well and treated like professionals by people who understood the profession and valued their work.

So for me personally, 2007 marked the beginning of the end of the civilized era and the beginning of the new era of “translation industry” – a term that I usually put in quotation marks, because I still see translation as a profession rather than an industry that is based on buying and selling.

Although I probably should see it is an industry.

When everything is an industry, including war, religion, music, and art, it’s only logical that intellectual activities, including translation, represent just another industry, and the only purpose of all of these industries is to maximize the profit for the people on the top of the pyramid, the people who are rightfully called owners because they more or less own the people working for them and are doing the dirty work called translation in various layers of the industry.

Since the beginning of the era of industrialization of translation, which in my case started with the letter excerpted above, I lost pretty much all the decent translation agencies that used to keep me busy for many years in the pre-industrialized phase.

It took me a while to realize it, but I now understand that most of these agencies really did not have much choice but to adopt the cutthroat techniques of the translation industry, lowering rates paid to translators as much as possible to remain competitive in the new industrialized era. This was and still is a key ingredient of the business strategy in the “translation industry”.

Which meant that the agencies of the now bygone civilized era eventually either had to replace their most experienced translators by newbies in countries like China or India, or go bankrupt … or retire.

Fortunately for me, I have been working mostly for direct clients for many years, and it took a few more years before some of my direct clients started imitating what was going on in the “translation industry”, but eventually I lost quite a few of them to greener pastures of cheaper labor as well.

Capital always follows cheaper labor, and since we translators are basically seen as mere laborers, there is not much we can do about it, is there?

Well, I believe that there is something that mere translators can do about it. Although we have to compete with the new form of industrialized translation industry, we don’t really have to work for it at all if we are able to devise a strategy that works well for our businesses – using business models that are completely independent of the translation industry.

The strategy that has been and still is working for me personally can be best described as a three-pronged strategy that is based on the following principles.

  1. To save myself a lot of headaches and not to be forced to work for peanuts, I completely stopped working for large corporate translation agencies about a decade ago. It was really a no-brainer: the big agencies now pay such low rates that it really made no sense for me to continue working for them.

I still work for a few small translation agencies, but generally only on small projects, and at higher rates than what large corporate agencies would generally want to pay me.

  1. Because the Japanese patent translation market was very severely affected by outsourcing translations to China, I switched to translating mostly German patents.

Although Japanese is very different from Chinese, unlike translators in western countries or the United States, translators in China can read Japanese characters without any problem and they are now translating Japanese patents into English, which was what I used to do for more than 20 years. There must be thousands of people like that who can create usable translations with the help of machine translation programs.

These translations from translators in China probably contain many mistakes if the Chinese translators don’t really understand Japanese as well as they should, which is almost certainly the case, while their English is limited too. But they are cheap and that is basically the only thing that matters to the translation industry, because cheap translations can be bought at a low price and then sold for a high profit margin.

Fortunately for me, German is quite a complicated language and since it is not widely spoken or understood in countries with an abundance of cheap labor, the rates for German patent translations have not been ruined, at least not yet, by competition from such countries.

  1. Because my ancient website still works quite well and is pretty high up in search engine rankings for key words specific to my type of work, namely patent translations, every now and then I land a few direct clients who still pay much better rates than translation agencies, and these new direct clients sometime stay with me for quite a few years, although some of them eventually also defect to greener (read cheaper) pastures.

I believe the third prong of my business strategy, a website designed for a very narrow translation niche so that it could be found by search engines, is crucially important for every translator who wants to become independent of the translation industry.

So after three or four years of steadily falling income, I am happy to say that this year has been very good for me again.

I think that my experience proves an old truth, namely that if you can deliver a product at a much higher quality level than what your cheap competition is offering, you don’t have to lower your prices.

I also think that in the highly industrialized environment of the translation industry, translators, no matter how good they are and how hard they work, will be able to live in relative comfort and enjoy their demanding but rewarding work only if they can become independent of the toxic environment of the translation industry.

Otherwise, they will be relegated to the role of cheap, easily replaceable, anonymous and insignificant cogs in a machine designed to maximize the profit of whoever owns the big bad machine, including all of the easily replaceable cogs that make the machine work.

Posted by: patenttranslator | December 8, 2017

I Love the Beatles, but This Version Is Terrible

“Amo a los Beatles pero esta version es terrible. Fuera de tono y fuera de ritmo, Es un insulto para nuestro idioma. (I love the Beatles but this version is terrible. Out of tune, and out of rhythm. It is an insult to our language).

From a recent comment on Youtube on Bésame mucho as sung by the Beatles.

In a legendary fiasco, the Beatles failed to impress the talent experts at Decca Studios on January 1, 1962 – in what is considered the biggest fiasco in pop music history, when the Decca label turned them down.

There were actually two major fiascos that occurred on that fateful day, the very first day of 1962:

One fiasco was a big but temporary setback for the Beatles. The other fiasco, when Decca failed to recognize the potential of the group, caused much more permanent damage to the label, which as a result lost an enormous amount of money over a period of many decades, and I believe it continues to lose this money to this day, when it turned down four young lads who in a few months would go on to become the most popular group in the history of rock-and-roll (after drummer Pete Best was replaced by Ringo Star).

Some of the songs that were recorded back then for the audition were available only as bootleg recordings until they were officially released on the Beatles rarities Anthology 1, a set of two CDs in 1995.

I remember buying that set of CDs in 1996 and how I tried to listen to the old songs on a flight from New York to Prague in 1996 over eight or nine hours, depending on the wind (shorter coming back to America). But despite my enthusiasm for hearing something by the Beatles that I had never heard before, I could stand listening to the Beatles Anthology CD for only about 20 minutes before I switched to a new Madonna CD called Something to Remember, which I also purchased when it was issued in 1995, back when people were still buying CDs.

I loved the Madonna CD instantly and played it twice, which helped me forget for about two hours how uncomfortable it is to be sitting in a plane seat during a long flight.

I now know that one of the songs that the Beatles unadvisedly chose for the audition was Bésame mucho, in English translation. You can listen to the song as it was sung originally by its author in Spanish at the beginning of my silly post today, and as it was sung by the Beatles at the end of my post, before the Beatles became a worldwide phenomenon.

It’s hard to believe that this beautifully melodic Mexican song, which was composed in the 1940s and which I heard for the first time around 1965, even is the same song as it is sung in the English version by the Beatles.

And yet, these are the same Beatles who wrote songs that are still instantly recognized by so many people on this planet as some of the most beautiful love songs in the history of popular music, songs like Yesterday, or Girl.

Bésame mucho may very well be one of the most beautiful love songs in the Spanish language. But in the version sung by the Beatles, the Mexican song really does sound terrible. When I hear their “chacha-boom” improvement on the original version of the song, it feels like somebody is hitting me over the head with a two-by-four (a piece of lumber, supposedly two inches by four inches, generally very hard).

A song like Girl, on the other hand, has an indescribable power to move me and probably at least another hundred million people every time we hear it, even though we may have heard it a hundred times. The voice harmonies are sublime, and the guitar accompaniment could not possibly be more perfect.

Although I still don’t understand what these lyrics actually mean:

“Was she told when she was young that pain would lead to pleasure?

Did she understand it when they said

That a man must break his back to earn his day of leisure?

Will she still believe it when he’s dead?”

Having had half a century to think about it, I have my theories about what they could mean.

This may very well be the best love song in the English language, just like Bésame mucho may very well be the best love song in the Spanish language.

Depending, of course, on who is singing these songs and how the singers go about it.

Malcolm Gladwell said in his book Outliers that nobody is born a genius. He actually uses the example of the Beatles to make his point by positing that the Beatles had to practice in daily eight-hour gigs for 10,000 hours in a club in Hamburg before they were ready to invade and conquer the world.

Though there may be exceptions to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, he himself said that most people misunderstand what he was trying to say.

Some people don’t need as many hours. A few centuries ago, Johann Sebastian Bach put it like this: “It’s easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself.

Yeah, it’s easy when your are J.S. Bach. But even musical geniuses such as Bach or Mozart probably needed a few thousand hours before the instrument started playing itself. To say “the instrument will play itself” is just an exaggeration that Bach clearly used for dramatic effect.

Personally, I am very thankful that the Beatles did not become discouraged after the 1962 fiasco and eventually found their own style, without the “chacha-boom” part that clashed so horribly with the mood of the song.

I still remember when I heard them for the first time.

It was a sunny Saturday morning in 1963, and I was 11 years old, riding my bike in a park in Český Krumlov, a town where I lived and considered my hometown until I moved to Prague, which then became my second hometown, until I moved to San Francisco, which then became my third hometown … until I moved to the vast American suburbs that have no downtown, where love goes to die, as the saying goes.

Anyway, in 1963, I was riding my bike in a beautiful park rimmed by the River Vltava. There is a big, old hotel called Hotel Růže [Rose] on the other side of the river, which was originally a Jesuit seminary if I remember correctly, see the photo of  Hotel Růže below.

Hotel Ruze dnes

That hotel has a terrace high above the river, overlooking the park where I liked to ride my bike, and somebody put big speakers on top of a table on that terrace to play From Me To You, the first song by the Beatles that I heard and that made me wonder about who these people singing the song might be.

So soon after having failed a very important test, the four youngsters from Liverpool regrouped and found themselves in their own music and their own style, and by doing so changed pop music forever.

Let it be a lesson to us all!

Posted by: patenttranslator | December 2, 2017

Our Incomplete, Diluted and Fluid Linguistic and Cultural Identities

It was the multilingual monarch Charlemagne who supposedly said more than 12 centuries ago, or in the early Middle Ages, so different in their backwardness from our enlightened time, “to know two languages is to possess a second soul”.

There are proverbs in several languages that say very similar things. For example, a German proverb says “Je mehr Sprachen du kanst, desto mehr Mensch du bist” (the more languages you know, the more you are a human being), which happens to be an almost exact copy of a Czech proverb (Kolik jazyků znáš, tolikrát jsi člověkem) and also of a Slovak proverb (Koľko jazykov vieš, toľkokrát si človekom.)

Having a multilingual identity, one for each language, is not quite the same thing as having several souls, or several lives. is it? Having several identities is incidentally also a psychiatric disorder called a multiple personality disorder (MPD).

Or was that what Charlemagne really meant? Unfortunately, there is no way to ask him, so we’ll never know.

I think that we can probably have at least two identities (maybe more when it comes to the languages we speak), without being seriously demented … or at least I hope so, because otherwise, I’m in big trouble.

I say that with the full knowledge that my own linguistic identity, (unlike my gender identification, for example, a common dilemma these days), is at this point so messed up that I would not even know how to measure or determine the different variables contained therein, or which way these variables point.

Up until the age of 27, I spoke Czech and thought in Czech almost exclusively every day of my life – except when I was trying to learn a foreign language at school. So that was clearly my linguistic and cultural identity back then.

But gradual dilution of my original language started when I became a refugee in Germany in the early 1980s, because at that point I started speaking and also sometimes thinking in German, a language that I had been studying for quite a few years prior to coming to Germany. To make things worse, at that point I felt inspired to also start speaking somewhat butchered Polish.

This was because most of my friends were Polish refugees who just like me were waiting for a visa to emigrate: to the United States, Canada or Australia, so I tried to speak their language with them because I knew they appreciated it, since they could then understand me better, despite my funny accent and the horrible mistakes I was making in that complicated language.

After that, I started speaking mostly English after emigrating to America at the age of 30. Except that this linguistic identity soon enough has also come under a ferocious, frontal attack by the Japanese language, ever since I married a Japanese woman 33 years ago.

I could have probably kept my English language identity intact and safely separate from all the other languages that I have been trying to learn for decades, with different degrees of success, including keeping it separate from Japanese, if my wife spoke to me only in Japanese, just like I have for the most part managed to keep my Czech identity separate from my American identity, at least as far as the linguistic aspects of these very different identities are concerned.

But the problem is, for the last 33 years, she has been insisting on speaking both languages indiscriminately and at the same time, often starting a sentence in one language and finishing it in another. “It’s all 中途半端” (chuto hanpa), as she might put it, by using two languages in one sentence, no doubt to keep me in deep, perpetual confusion.

The words “chuto hanpa” can be difficult to translate, depending on the context. One possible translation into English would be, “half way through”, although I like “incomplete” better, if only because it is much shorter.

Another blow to my linguistic integrity, which caused me major financial pain, as well as confusion, was that after I have been translating mostly Japanese patents to English for more than 20 years, the demand for translation of Japanese patents to English started decreasing considerably about seven years ago. There are probably several reasons for this phenomenon, I will deal with these in a separate blog post.

This phenomenon was obviously very unfortunate for somebody who was educated and trained to become a teacher and translator of Japanese, since after a few years, I was for the most part out of a job.

Fortunately, I was able to fall back on a few European languages that I can fake almost as well as Japanese, and in some cases better than Japanese, which eventually saved my translation business.

As far as I can tell, there is as much demand for translation of German patents to English, at least in the fields that I translate for my clients, as there was for translation of Japanese patents to English some 20 years ago when I was flying high as a translator in that particular language combination.

To me, the real moral of the story, which in this case happens to be the story of my life, is that whether or not one can have several souls, or be a human being several times over, or have several separate linguistic or cultural identities, is not really the question here except perhaps for graduate students in linguistics who might be able to write an interesting dissertation on this topic.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s fine to have one’s original linguistic identity diluted, distorted and degraded after living in different countries where one does not get to use one’s original language at all!

It’s not a problem when your spouse is talking to you for decades “chuto hanpa” (in a funny mishmash of two languages at the same time)! Lots of people do that, and most of them are not crazy!

Nor do I care too much whether my efforts to learn several languages over so many years are a clear sign of a multiple personality disorder, or of some other serious psychiatric symptom pointing to dementia!

Things change so fast in this world that as a result of the “destructively creative effect of technology”, for example, we simply have to be ready to jump on a new bandwagon, professionally speaking, when, or preferably just before, the wheels fall out of the bandwagon that we were so successfully riding while the original vehicle was still in good working order.

This is true of every profession. And it so happens that when you are a translator, to know more than two languages, and the more the better, is like having an iron reserve of funds accessible in the bank just in case they become needed.

Older Posts »


%d bloggers like this: