Posted by: patenttranslator | May 24, 2017

What Is a Translator’s Means of Production?

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

I sometimes receive despondent comments from discouraged translators in my blog’s comment section, who don’t know what to do because the translation business is no longer what it used to be.

Like this one I received only last week: ” … The yearly income of a veteran Japanese>English patent translator has been converging with that of an experienced American English high school teacher. This wasn’t the case in 1990 or even in 2005.”

Most people feel for laid-off workers who after decades of work in the automobile industry suddenly find themselves unemployed and unemployable, at least when it comes to their former profession.

And when a burrito vendor who used to make $300 an hour for many years selling fabulous burritos from his food-cart to Washington lawyers (who also make $300 an hour), cannot do so anymore, some of the burrito man’s customers will even cry as per an article in yesterday’s Washington Post entitled “How Washingtonians killed a perfectly good burrito cart.”

As the article puts it: “It wasn’t just one dagger that killed the burrito entrepreneur. It was one after another, after another.”

“Back in his heyday, from about 2007 to 2011, Rider [the burrito maker and vendor] says his one-man cart might bring in $1,000 in an afternoon. In 2007, Washingtonian magazine reported that Rider—who is notoriously tight-lipped about his finances—made enough from his burrito cart to afford a vacation home and then some.”

But now, he can’t pay the rent on his house.

It so happens that a burrito place, a hole-in-the-wall kind of thing, opened about three years ago next to a tiny Foodmart and a rather desolate looking gas station where I sometimes stop to get gas for my car.

So I stop there now and then to get gas and a burrito, and sometimes only a burrito. The last time I tried to do that was a Sunday, but then I went for a burger instead because a line of about twenty people was snaking throughout the entire store and I did not want to wait.

The guy who owns the restaurant works there with two young, Hispanic looking dudes. On weekdays when the place is not that busy, he sometimes works there by himself. His prices are not low, higher than most other burrito places, I would say. But he uses fresh, organic ingredients and free-range chicken with special hot sauces and he knows a lot about how to make the perfect burrito, salsa and quesadillas because he spent years in Central America perfecting his foreign language skills and his chosen trade.

So in contrast to the article from Washington Post, what is happening in my neighborhood seems to contradict the notion that the days of burrito carts, stands and restaurants are over. You can read reviews of this tiny restaurant that opened recently near a rather ugly looking gas station on Yelp here.

Millions of manufacturing jobs have been sent to low-wage countries, because capital always has and always will follow low wages and lower manufacturing costs like a salivating dog will always follow the wonderful aroma of a piece of bacon.

The translation industry, inspired by the example of the manufacturing industry, has been trying to outsource as many translation work as possible – work that used to be performed by highly qualified, experienced translators in Western countries, to low-cost countries in Europe, Asia and Africa for many years now.

This is one reason why the profits of large translation agencies have grown dramatically over the last two decades, while incomes of freelance translators have been falling precipitously.

But unlike the car industry, the translation industry has a big problem when it comes to outsourcing translations to poorer countries: it is much easier to train blue-collar workers in Vietnam, for example, to manufacture car parts while using the latest car manufacturing technology, than to train Vietnamese, Chinese or Moldovan translators to translate for example complicated German, French or Japanese patents into English.

Although the translation industry has been trying to do just that for many years, the main result is that the market for specialized translations is now drowning in what I call “subprime” translations because these translations can be provided (with a few exceptions) only by highly educated and experienced translators who are native speakers of Western languages, English in particular.

In the field of patent translation, subprime translations are translations that are not reliable as they contain unnoticed mistakes due to the manner in which these translations were created: either with “language tools” such as machine translations that are later edited by cheap, unqualified hired help, or by using an equally cheap labor force of “translators” who have no business translating highly complicated technical and legal documents.

One reason for the falling quality of translations is that many translation agencies located in low-cost countries in Asia (collectively known as Chindia), or in Europe (such as in Moldova) now specialize in working as subcontractors for translation agencies located in Western countries.

I know this because these sub-sub-(sub?)-contractors regularly send me offers to ‘cooperate’ with me as they put it. They proudly list agencies that are already ‘cooperating’ with them, and the long list of large translation agencies attached to their emails reads like a directory of who’s who in the translation industry.

These big agencies, the movers and shakers of our beloved translation industry, are the ones who have been paying lower and lower rates, while making translators wait at least two months to get paid based on demeaning and unfair agreements containing many thousands of words. They are the ones who use Trados so that translators are not paid for repeated or similar words (called in the creative agency lingo ‘full matches’ and ‘fuzzy matches’), and who also force translators to sign away copyright to an intellectual product called translation, which is then supposed to become the inalienable property of the agency intermediaries, without the knowledge or consent of the actual clients who paid the agencies for the translations.

But the good news is that this sad situation (sad from the viewpoint of the clients of such translation agencies, the clients who are, perhaps unwittingly, paying for subprime translations), also creates new opportunities for individual translators who want to work for direct clients without the intermediary of mega agencies.

Nobody cries when another translator hits the dust because the rates paid to translators by the translation industry have been slashed in the “bulk translation market” during the last 10 or 15 years by about a third. Nobody will even know about it, outside of the family and perhaps a few friends of a previously busy and prosperous translator.

But there is no reason to cry if we realize that we don’t have to continue working for this new incarnation of the translation industry.

Just like there will always be a demand for good and well priced (and not necessarily cheap) Mexican food, despite sad human interest stories so frequently published in our newspapers, there will always be a demand for good (and not necessarily cheap) expert translations.

In that respect, translators have a major advantage over blue collar workers. Times are changing, but then again, they have always been changing and they will always keep doing that.

If we are able to change with the times, we should be ok, whether we translate patents or sell burritos for a living.

If we can’t change, or refuse to do so because we are too busy complaining about how unfair it is (even though it is unfair), we will bite the dust just like the American automobile industry workers (or should I say the workers of the former American automobile industry?), except that nobody will feel sorry for us when we lose our jobs.

But if we can figure out how to market ourselves to direct clients and make contacts with new clients who are looking precisely for the specialized translation services that the translation industry is unable to provide, and that we have been offering for years, but only to translation agencies, we will survive the conditions created by the current form of the translation industry.

To do that, we have to become specialists in our translation field, not just word mongers selling word units to intermediaries—some at deep discount—which is how the translation industry sees us.

The former American automobile industry workers cannot work without a means of production that is owned by somebody else – a plant with lots of robots and costly machinery in it.

But translators don’t need a means of production that is owned by somebody else because our means of production is called … a human brain.

It is up to us whether we will let ruthless intermediaries use the means of production that we possess for their own purposes and at the lowest possible cost for them, or whether we will use it for our own purposes independently of the translation industry.

ADDENDUM

After more than a year, I went to Burrito Perdido today for lunch. It was a weekday, not very busy – there were only three other guests there besides me. But the owner no longer works there, not even on weekdays. Instead, he had three other workers handling the business, one Mexican woman who takes care of cooking, and two pretty teenage girls who take care of the customers, all three no doubt working for minimum wage.

I also thought that unlike in the past, the chicken burrito was much skimpier on the chicken.

In terms of the translation industry, I think it could be said that the guy became the equivalent of a small, specialized translation agency, successfully competing with a whole bunch of fast-food joints (McDonalds, Hardee’s, as well as with the franchise chain of Mexican restaurants called La Cantina),  located within two or three minutes from the restaurant (by car), which can represent the equivalent of large translation agencies for the purposes of this post.

This is probably the second most popular subject discussed by translators on the internet, right after “What actually is the going rate?”

And for good reason because the consequences of cash flow problems can be deadly, even for a busy translator who has enough work at good rates.

But just as there is no such thing as a “going rate”, there is no perfect recipe for marvelous universally applicable payment terms, because everything depends on your personal situation, which involves a number of variables. I will try to give a few elucidating, practical examples of what these variables are.

The Situation Thirty Years Ago

Although I did not know anything about anything when I started my illustrious career in freelance translation thirty years ago, I did know that most translators set thirty days net as a payment term on their invoices. So that was what I was going to put on my invoices too. In those days, I was working only for translation agencies and most of them paid in more or less thirty days, give or take a week or two.

Because I had many bills to pay, it made me very nervous when an agency that owed me quite a bit of money took longer than that, which did happen once in a long while, even back then.

When agencies owe you a lot of money and keep sending you new translations, it creates a dangerous situation because you don’t know what’s happening at the agency. Should you accept new work and keep your mouth shut? What if they are about to go bankrupt? If this is the case, your ship will go down with theirs. A translation agency is much more likely to go bankrupt than for example a law firm, but this can of course happen in either case.

I remember that in one situation, I was working for a small agency that had a lot of work for me for many months – a constant stream of Japanese patents to translate into English. From what I later found out about them, they had so much work because they had a contract for translating Japanese patents for the US government.

Although they usually paid in about five to six weeks, at one point they owed me about five thousand dollars for more than two months. Five thousand dollars was a lot more money thirty years ago than it is now, especially in San Francisco. The studio I was renting on lower Nob Hill, with incredible views of the financial district, downtown and Mount Sutro, especially at night, cost 500 dollars, and a three bedroom apartment in the Richmond District, two short blocks from the Golden Gate Park and two short blocks from the Asian restaurants and Green Apple Bookstore on Clement Street, was renting for 750 dollars a month. They must cost four times as much now.

So I called this agency’s number, with my heart beating in my chest as fast and hard as when I ran up Hyde Street from Fisherman’s Wharf to California Street. I used to chase cable cars like this every Saturday morning when I lived in San Francisco thirty years ago. From Joyce Street it took me an hour to get to the Golden Gate Bridge, and an hour to get back.

Lydia, the person who called me before she would send another FedEx package with a bunch of Japanese patents, (that’s how things were done in the pre-internet era), answered the phone when I called. I liked working with Lydia – she was pleasant and obviously knew what she was doing, not like the clueless kids who work for translation agencies nowadays.

But the question of when I was going to get paid was above her pay grade and she passed the phone to her boss, the owner of the small agency.

And the owner, who died a few years ago, was anything but nice to me. I remember in response to my timid question of why I hadn’t received my check, he said, “What are you talking about. We sent you the check already. What are you insinuating?

Well, I was “insinuating” that I did not receive the check and that I needed it to pay my bills. He did not seem to believe me. Or so he said. He called his bank, and then called me to concede that to his surprise, the bank had confirmed my perfidious insinuation. (He did not use this adjective, but he as well might have).

Because not receiving the payment was obviously my fault, he made me pay a check cancellation fee and a FedEx fee for issuing a new check to be sent to me as a condition of sending me a new check.

I held my tongue and stoically accepted the unfair, absurd and demeaning conditions.

Two days later I received a FedEx package with the payment for my work from the agency owner  generalissimo for the last two months of work, minus about 45 dollars.

The day after that, I received the original check by regular mail with a date stamp on it that was more than two weeks old. I was so angry at the agency that I just ripped up the check without letting them know anything.

A few days later, sweet Lydia called me to let me know that she was about to send me another batch of Japanese patents, as if nothing happened. When I told her that I would never work for her again because I did not like how her boss treated me, she was surprised.

But she understood, she said.

I am of course only guessing, but I think I know exactly what happened. The agency owner, whose main source of income was the US government, was waiting for Uncle Sam to pay him and the government was taking it’s sweet time as it often does.

So he printed my pay check envelope on his office postage machine with a date that would be only a few days later than usual, but then he was sitting on the envelope for a few more weeks until he finally got paid himself, which was when he actually mailed it with the check in it.

But he could not have told me that of course! His big ego was demanding that the translator who dared ask for his money be treated like a stupid dog who pissed on the carpet in his immaculate house.

The Situation Now

Why am I boring you, gentle reader, with this ancient history? Well, for one thing, it felt good to get it off my chest, even after all this time. But I also think this sordid story shows that things have not changed that much in the last thirty years when it comes to how we translators are treated if we insist on our payment terms. And if things have changed, they’ve only changed for the worse.

It is becoming more and more difficult to make clients respect a reasonable payment period of thirty 30 days net – much more difficult than three decades ago.

Although I always put “thirty days net on my invoices ” as the payment term, I would say that perhaps a third of my most important clients, by which I mean patent law firms, pay me in about four to five weeks with the rest of them taking six to eight weeks to deliver the payment.

Once, about two or three years ago, I dared ask a patent lawyer (after just four weeks) in an email when could I look forward to receiving a check. He got so mad at me! How did I ever dare ask such an insolent question!

I used to send inquiries about late payment quite frequently to speed up the cash flow process for many years, and the usual response from patent lawyers or paralegals would be, “I will check with (or forward your inquiry to) the accounting department.” So though an inquiry presumably would sometime cause the check to arrive a little earlier, other times it would have no effect.

But the sudden, naked rudeness in the response of this particular customer made me understand that his law firm was waiting for payment from its clients much longer than 30 days, which was most likely why he felt the need to vent his frustration on a convenient target, in this case a lowly insolent translator.

The crux of the cash flow problem that most of us are only too familiar with is that as important clients, especially large corporations, kept stretching payment terms for providers over the years and decades to extract more profit from the “float”, most of our customers, both direct ones and translation agencies, simply put the burden of having to wait twice as long as before (or longer) to get paid on us.

Problem solved.

Fortunately, not all of my clients believe in solving their problems by making them our problem.

Some customers, both direct clients and agencies, pay quickly because they want to make sure we will always find time for their projects and because they understand the old saying that, “who pays fast pays twice” has never been more true than now.

Although my official payment policy is still thirty days net, instead of adopting an iron-clad rule not to work for customers who take significantly longer than this, I try to be flexible, depending on who the client is.

If the customer (for lack of a better word) is a translation agency, in the future I no longer accept another translation from them if they take too long to pay. I am not seeking a confrontation, I just tell them I am busy, and eventually they go away.

Since translation agencies are making profit directly from my work, I believe they should set aside their own independent capital to pay me on time. This solves part of my problem, but only if I have enough work from other sources. Fortunately for me, I need to make much less money now that our children live on their own, so quiet periods are not as scary for me as they used to be, especially since I do enjoy being lazy once in a while.

Although most of my income is generated from my own translations, I am an agency too. But because I don’t believe that I have the right to make my cash flow problem the problem of people who work for me, I always pay translators who work for me within thirty days, often well before I myself get paid.

Paypal makes this very easy for me. If I don’t have money in the bank, which happens, I just put the payment on a credit card. It means that I have to pay a little bit more, but not much more, because I am always able to pay the credit card bill in full when it arrives in about three weeks.

But it also needs to be said that some translation agencies are very considerate when it comes to payment terms. Three agencies that I work for generally mail me a check when they receive my invoice, and one agency pays me with a bank transfer on the first and sixteenth of each month (during the months when they have work for me).

I think the solution in the jungle of a system of rules used in corporate financing, which is based on the general principle of squeezing the little guy as much as possible, is to have a flexible policy that distinguishes between valuable and less valuable clients. I do insist on being paid on time, but generally only with clients that I perceive as not terribly valuable.

Valuable clients get away with more than less valuable ones, although I also try not to get into a situation where an important client would owe me so much money that his firm’s bankruptcy could drag me down with him. But one also needs to have in the mix clients who pay quickly, if there are also other clients who take a long time to pay, to make ends meet.

And I also think that clients who bring little value to me (agencies paying low rates, for example), are best eliminated.

Like I said, I can manage with fewer clients since I need much less money now than I used to.

I do enjoy reading my books, binge-watching Netflix series, and following the pretty incredible stories about the latest scandal du jour happening just about every day in the White House on American teevee quite a bit.

Posted by: patenttranslator | May 11, 2017

Look What They’ve Done to My Brain

The last twelve notes from music that I was listening to on my radio today, just before I went to sleep, were hidden deep down in my subconscious all night long while I was sleeping.

Until they emerged again, unexpectedly, the next morning.

It was not the music of spheres, resonating throughout the universe all the way to my bedroom. I eventually recognized them as the first twelve notes from a movement of Dvorak’s “In Nature’s Realm”. I could not remember the rest of the music, only the twelve notes that were floating around and around in my brain for what seemed like hours.

I could not get rid of them until I turned on the radio to chase them away with other music.

It happens to me every now and then, for instance when I drive my car and listen to a music station – hours later I sometimes start hearing the last oldie that was on the radio just before I turned it off. It’s usually just a tiny fragment of the song that somehow does not want to let go of my ears hours later until it is finally chased away by a different tune.

The Germans call it “einen Ohrwurm haben” – to have a worm in one’s ear, and that’s exactly what it feels like.

Just like fragments of music can infect our ears with well hidden music worms, invisible messages containing fragments of information, misinformation, and propaganda can infect our conscience without our knowledge or approval.

This is basically what modern marketing is based on, and that is precisely why we are subjected to a marketing overload from the moment we wake up in the morning and look at our smartphone: the idea is to keep planting worms inside of us until we fall asleep so that the worms can keep working on us overnight as we sleep.

The worms of yesterday’s information, misinformation and propaganda that were planted in our brains the day before must be reinforced and re-inserted every day.

Otherwise, in the absence of the last twelve worm fragments of information in our mind, combined with another dozen squiggly maggots of what appears to be information, we might start to think for ourselves.

And when people start thinking for themselves, what they often demand is CHANGE.

The tragicomical Brexit fiasco, the undemocratic selection of Donald by the Electoral College Trump (as opposed to a democratic election) to the office of US president despite his loss to an almost equally unpopular presidential candidate by millions of votes, and the recent victory in the French presidential election of a young candidate who is so new (relatively speaking) that he has yet to form a political party as I am writing another silly post, coming on the heels of a win by an equally young politician in Canada, who like so many other politicians coasted to victory on the strength of a famous name, clearly show that the whole world is hungry for CHANGE.

Most people may not be quite sure what kind of change they want, but the one thing that people living in different countries and on different continents know for certain is that they do want a change from the current status quo because they see that things don’t work for them the way they used to.

One of the most powerful catalysts for change is technology. From the technology of the printing press, which after more than a thousand years canceled out the monopoly of the Catholic Church on the interpretation of the Bible, to streaming, which made mighty cable TV companies irrelevant to millennials, it is clear that no matter how well established and powerful a government or an industry may be, it better keep a watchful eye on what is happening in the technology sector.

The translation industry is certainly eager to embrace technological change by promoting what it calls language technology. It constantly demands that invisible peons working in its entrails (that it refers to as “Dear Linguists”) adopt as many labor-saving language technology tools as possible and use these tools in their daily work.

The reason for this demand is clear: the more “Dear Linguists” use this language technology, the less money they will make and the more profit will thus be left over for the movers and shakers in the translation industry, the rightful owners of “Dear Linguists.”

The push for obligatory adoption of so-called language technology tools started about fifteen years ago with the demand for obligatory use of CATs, Trados in particular, because these tools made it possible to reduce the word count by a large margin, and word counts are the basis on which most translators are paid.

This particular wage theft scheme was perpetrated so successfully by the translation industry that most translators who send me their résumés, and all newbie translators, proudly and prominently list their mastery of Trados software as evidence of their professional qualifications, along with a statement that “rates are always negotiable.”

Instead of providing proof of professionalism based on their education and experience, translators advertise their willingness to be cheated out of remuneration for their work by the way CATs are used by the translation industry. They are so desperate for work that they are begging the translation industry to abuse them as much as possible, in exchange for a promise of work.

The next chapter of technological change in the translation industry is likely to be based on editing of machine translation by invisible human beings who, although they are not quite translators, should theoretically be able to edit the raw output of machine translation systems that are riddled with well hidden mistranslations so as to remove most mistranslations from this output.

These people, not quite translators, called post-processors or editors (or even copy editors!) of machine translations, would be paid even less than translators who are forced by the translation industry to use the larcenous scheme of how language technology tools ought to be applied by the obedient peons.

The last time I was contacted by a translation agency to become a machine translation “copy editor” I was offered the princely sum of 1 cent per word for “copy editing” of machine translations.

The changes resulting from new technology can be beneficial to us, but they can be also harmful, depending on whether we are able to use new technology for ourselves, or whether we allow other people to use it against us.

Some people swear by CATs and say they could no longer translate without them. Some people, myself included, never used them and never will because they find them too constricting and unsuited to their particular field of translation.

Many translators, myself included, use machine translations, but only use them for their own purposes rather than for the translation industry’s purposes.

When I have access to machine translation, which is most of the time because most patent application can now be easily translated for free from just about any language into English with a few mouse clicks, I print out a machine translation to use as a resource listing technical terms that I may, or may not, use in my own translation.

But what I would never do with machine translation is what the translation industry tells me that I should be doing with it – namely edit out the hidden mistranslation worms from it to transform it into real translation.

Even if translators were paid hourly rates commensurate with their education, skills and experience for post-processing of machine translation, which they most certainly will not be, most translators understand that to edit machine translations is the wrong way to go for the myriad reasons I keep mentioning on my blog.

In my field of patent translation, probably the most important reason why such a practice must be avoided is the fact that precisely because the machine translations may at first glance look very good, many mistakes that are unlikely to be caught by a post-processor will necessarily creep into the final translation.

It is relatively easy to banish the nuisance of an unwanted ear worm of music from our consciousness. All we have to do is turn on the radio and listen to different music.

It is much more difficult to resist the worms that are being planted in our consciousness by the translation industry, an industry that is celebrating technology tools and equating them with a valid replacement for human brains.

But tools are only tools. They cannot replace human brains. They can be very useful to us, but only if we use them for our own purposes.

But they can also do a lot of damage to translation, the product of our work, and to our profession, if we allow the translation industry to use these tools against us.

 

The consequences of a nuclear war are difficult to predict.

Difficult, but not completely impossible to prepare for and anticipate.

In fact, the world has been preparing for nuclear Armageddon for about 70 years now. Regular people were being prepared for just such an eventuality by being instructed by their teachers from an early age to duck and hide under the desks in their classrooms, or by running in an orderly fashion to take shelter in the school’s basement. This was by far my favorite part of atomic bomb drills when I was a kid because the basement of the old school, which was built in 1886, was dark, spooky and totally awesome.

Not that running to the basement would help very much, of course, depending on how far the bomb would fall and the extent of the radioactive fallout.

Important people, such as presidents of various governments, have been preparing themselves by having huge anti-atomic bomb shelters dug, for themselves and their families, so that they can continue waging nuclear war from a safe underground location until the glorious victory.

In the long run, this would probably not help very much either, but building anti-nuclear shelters for important people has been a nice and constant source of income for the nuclear bomb shelter building and maintenance industry since the 1940s.

One good thing about a nuclear war is that since it can anticipated, it is possible to make preparations for something like that, although the preparations will probably be inadequate.

The consequences of the coming Armageddon and the fallout from machine translation are much more difficult to anticipate. As a result, nobody seems to be giving much thought to the bleak future that humankind is facing as a result of excessive reliance on machine translation, which the translation industry now prefers to call “language technology tools”, and I don’t see any individuals or organizations making any preparations for the havoc the machine translation Armageddon will most likely wreak on our civilization in the very near future.

One thing about a nuclear bomb is that is likely to fall on us only once, and although the consequences would then remain with us for a very long time, we would know that it had already happened, and we could then try to figure out what to do next.

But the bad thing about machine translation is that we simply can’t know anything for sure about it because it works like a slow-acting, invisible virus that may have no cure.

We kind of know that there is a lot of machine translation out there already, and once we know that what we are dealing with is machine translation, we are already pretty safe because most people at this point understand that machine translation is not really translation, even when it sometimes kind of looks like a real translation.

Sometimes, machine translation is immediately identifiable as such because it sounds as very poor translation, even worse than a really horrible human translation.

But sometimes it is very difficult to distinguish one from the other.

For example, is the text below the product of machine translation, or of human translation?

(I saw a photo of this translation of instructions on Facebook, so this is a genuine set of very helpful instructions in English that came with a phone case.)

This is the PCV Mobile phone Case of easy shlepping and more function. This case is made with import and defended radialization materials. And the appearance is so beautiful.

The main characteristic is easy schlepping, it can be hunged up at the waist, hunged up at the cervix, and free holding.

Hang up at the waist: This case has steel button and high strength PC clip. The mobile phone can be hunged up with the case at the waist. And it can be went round and round for 365° .

Hang up at the cervix: This case has high strength and defended snap soft fibre sling. The sling will defend hurt to the cervix and defend breaking.

Free holding: If you will put the mobile phone into your placket, or hold in your hand, you can twist off the button of the case. Because it is so easy.

I think this translation is most likely a sample of the carnage that can be inflicted on a relatively simple text by a human translator (for lack of a better word), who is probably using machine translation for inspiration. But the responsibility would in this case rest squarely with the human who thinks he is a translator, because the machine translation tool would in this case be completely innocent of any wrongdoing.

After all, it is clear that what the text means is that the phone case can be attached to something like a lanyard and worn around the neck. If you know some Latin, you would also know that cervix is Latin for neck. So a moderately educated and intelligent person would probably realize what the word cervix means neck in this case (although most men might have to look up the word cervix on Wikipedia to make sure what and where it is.)

So even a highly entertaining translation like the one above would be easy to figure out and would also be quite easy to edit, even without having access to the original text in the original language.

On the other hand, it is a very different story when we are dealing with machine translation.

Because machine translations have improved over the last decade, unlike in the recent past, it is now often very difficult, if not impossible, to identify mistranslations in them because those mistranslations sound logical and plausible.

After all, machine translation operating on the basis of the statistical model (as opposed to the grammatical model) is based on real translations of the same kinds of texts that were produced by human translators, usually very good ones.

I have been translating applications of German patents that are to be filed in English in the United States for several patent law firms for quite some time now. Some of the law firms send me a Microsoft Word file with the original German name, which is what I prefer because there is no room for error in this solution.

But some of them use a machine translation to translate the title of the patent because it is easier for a legal secretary to keep track of titles she can understand.

Since nobody has told me how the titles are translated into English, I used to think that I should try to incorporate the words in these titles into my translations, since those are the words my clients are using.

But eventually I understood that I should not try to do that. The titles are sometimes so clearly wrong that the only reason for such incomprehensible mistakes must be that the source is a machine translation.

At the same time, when I start translating a patent, the translated words helpfully supplied by a specialized machine translation program, although they are completely wrong, sound plausible even to me, an experienced patent translator who has access to the text in the original language.

I sometimes even use the wrong words for several pages before I realize where the problem is and correct the misleading English title.

Can you imagine what would happen if high ranking politicians, the ones who have had deep underground bunkers dug for themselves so that they can survive a nuclear attack, decided in their infinite wisdom that one way to reduce the government’s deficit would be to eliminate human translations and replace them instead with machine translations, perhaps only lightly edited by human post-processors, who would be paid much less than actual translators?

The actual meaning of this communication might no longer be identifiable.

And what about things like product instruction manuals, patents, laws and legal ordinances, or even novels, for example – what if big corporations and publishing houses decided to save money by switching to machine translation, lightly edited by poorly-paid humans called post-editors?

Based on what this patent translator knows about machine translation, namely how difficult it is to identify mistranslations in a text that was translated by a machine with a software package, I believe that the impact of such an unwise decision would be tantamount to nuclear war.

Better in some respects – we would not be dying in millions right away, for example, because the results of the machine translation Armageddon would take a long time to seep into the fabric of society.

But because it would take such a long time to identify what the problem is (politicians and CEOs of multinational corporations would of course not tell us they had switched to machine translation to save money), the consequences of such a switch for human civilization might be even more dire than an all-out nuclear war.

Personally, I think that this world could probably recover from a major nuclear conflict, although it would take a very long time.

But I don’t know whether recovery from an insipid shift in society that would take place very slowly, while most people might not be realizing it, if communication between humans were replaced by communication that is automatically carried out by machines operating much more efficiently on the basis of algorithms, would be even possible.

Posted by: patenttranslator | April 29, 2017

The Connectivity Illusion

I discovered the wonderful world of smart phones and apps when I bought an iPad a few years ago and then an iPhone a couple years later. These dangerously addictive gadgets started rearranging my daily routine pretty quickly.

The one thing that I have in common with about a billion people on this planet is that the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is reach for my phone, even before I get out of bed.

I use the bank app to check my balance and deposit checks. I look at social media apps frequently in all kind of places, such as when I am waiting in line at the cash register, and some of them I allow to push through their very important messages. For some reason, I need to know immediately when people living on another continent, whom I will most likely never meet in person, say what they had for dinner on Facebook.

And other people waiting in front of me and behind me often keep looking at their silly cell phones too.

I usually start watching Netflix movies on my phone. If I like what I see, the film will graduate to the big screen TV, if not, it will die a humiliating death in midstream.

And of course, the map applications on my iPhone (I have two of them), although they sometimes take me to the wrong location, have saved my life more than once, such as that time when more than just a little inebriated from imbibing too much beer in the afternoon and wine in the evening, I navigated darks streets in a French city that I didn’t know so as to get to my hotel in one piece after 2 AM when taxis were no longer available.

The interconnectivity of our world is wonderful. It started with doing things on the internet and talking on cell phones a few decades ago, followed by taking orders from the GPS boss and other connectivity tools that were going to bring us closer to each other.

But did this instant connectivity work the way it was supposed to?

A century ago, before there was TV, people who lived in the same house, people like husbands, wives and children, used to talk to each other a lot because there was not much else to do but either read a book or talk to each other. Sometimes whole families would play music on musical instruments together.

Or people listened to the radio together, but generally they used to have something to say to each other every now and then. Nowadays, there are usually several TVs in most houses so that everybody can watch a different program without being interrupted and inconvenienced by what other people living in the same house want to watch.

A quarter century ago, before the internet, people would actually have to go to a real place to be able to talk to each other. Now they don’t have to go anywhere, so they don’t.

I remember when I lived in San Francisco a quarter century ago, local translators would get together for impromptu meetings dedicated to interesting subjects, such as the perennially interesting subject of translation rates, or the indescribably glorious difficulties of translating Chinese poetry.

And then we would go to a Thai, Vietnamese or Korean restaurant (where I would usually have a bibimbap and a beer.)

Those real meetings of real people were so much fun back when people used to still meet in person – so much better than Skype, Facebook and Twitter combined.

With the old style of personal interactions, people used to be able to take in and get a sense of the whole person they were talking to, to see what they looked like and hear how they sounded; they could create a complete image in their mind of the whole person.

There are clairvoyant persons among us, and a significant percentage of us are equipped with extrasensory abilities, except those who are slaves to their apps, of course. Some extraordinary people are almost as intuitive as dogs!

Back when we still used to meet real people instead of just texting them on apps, the gifted among us could make pretty accurate predictions based on what they saw, heard, and felt, which is very useful for instance in terms of avoiding liaisons with people who might be ax murderers, an imperceptible personality flaw that can be usually intuited only on a subconscious level.

Little pictures called emoticons (what a silly word) were invented to ensure that we will not be misunderstood. We have to make sure that our interlocutors on various apps will understand that what we just said, I mean typed, was meant as a joke. Otherwise our app partners would never get that we were joking!

A blog gives us much more information about who the blogger really is. It used to be said that eyes were the window into another person’s soul. Now, we don’t get to see the eyes of the other person, and the blog became an ersatz window into another person’s soul.

For instance, if you read my blog with some regularity, you must know by now that I’m crazy.

The truth is, the internet, blogs and apps have only given us the illusion of being connected to each other. We can now connect to each other very easily, but in contrast to how people were connected to each other a few decades or centuries ago, modern connections are so mono-dimensional and colorless that they’ve become … dare I say it? … meaningless.

When I went to a translators’ conference not long ago, I met some of the actual human beings that I have been connecting and communicating with on the internet through my blog and social media for at least a couple of years, for the first time in person.

I was looking at the faces, thinking to myself: OK, so this must be so-and-so, and she actually does look exactly like the picture on the app. And this guy is in reality even more complicated than what I thought based on our conversations online. It was so nice to know for sure that these people actually do exist.

When film directors want to indicate to viewers that the story has suddenly moved back in time by several decades, they often switch from vibrant colors to a black-and-white reality as if events that happened long time ago occurred in a world that lacked colors.

But could it be that the opposite is true? Could it be that there were much more vivid colors and many more melodious sounds and sweet fragrances in the pre-digital world when people had to rely on their own senses and use their own brains, before they started being fed meaningless preprocessed and prepackaged information and then emoticoned to death?

No, it is not true that, unlike the present, the past was black and white. The opposite is true. As we grow old, the colors fade, until in the end we are surrounded by total darkness just before the plug is pulled and we become permanently disconnected.

I am in the process of digitizing my paper files so that I can take all the information with me—easily and without a moving truck this time—if we decide to move.

Or rather when we decide to move. The house is way too big for us now that the kids have left, which happened a decade ago. I have to admit that it felt nice to suddenly become what is called “empty nesters”. I luxuriated in the amount of space available to me. Once the kids left, I naturally claimed the entire second floor with four bedrooms and two bathrooms for me alone.

My wife spends most of her time on the first floor anyway, so I let her keep that floor. We do visit each other frequently, but it’s clear who owns which floor. As I learned in Latin classes, Clara pacta, boni amici (Clear agreements, good friends).

I started digitizing my fascinating (even if only to me) past and current professional existence almost  two years ago, first by scanning files from manila folders on my translation clients into my computer – mostly invoices with notations in red ink when they were marked paid. I finished most of that scanning as well as occasional correspondence and other printed information with the exception of the last section of files on current clients because I keep adding new files to this section and will continue to do so for a while.

Whenever I have some free time and feel like reminiscing a bit, I scan pages from my highly treasured Letts of London Diaries, which I have been using for 28 years in lieu of accounting ledgers. I tried several desktop diaries for this purpose in the early years, but switched to the familiar format of Letts of London Diaries in 1989 and have never regretted my decision.

For a small operation such as mine, there is plenty of space in this large, desktop type of diary for entering invoices with customer names, amounts owed and invoices in blue ink. When the invoice is paid, I enter the amount in red ink in the space for the proper date, which is usually more than a month after the date when the invoice was first entered, and I circle the blue invoice information in red so that I can tell with one glance at the two pages of the diary covering one month which invoices have been paid and which are still due.

I also record invoices as MS Word and PDF files on a hard disk in subdirectories for each year, which means that I have created my own, highly innovative and sophisticated version of a triple book keeping record going back to the late eighties. Not to mention that I can also find relatively recent invoices in my email if I know the approximate date when I emailed them, which makes it a quadruple book keeping record.

I also put yellow stickers on the pages as special notes to myself, such as how much work I received in a given month from major clients and in which languages, while projects translated for me by other translators are written in green ink. On the bottom of the page I note the amounts paid to translators who worked for me and how I paid them (check number, PayPal, etc.).

I know there are several software packages that some people use for exactly this kind of book keeping, but I don’t think I would feel the same emotional attachment that I feel when I view and touch the colorful information stored in the desktop diaries as I would for some silly software package.

There are many advantages to recording one’s financial information on paper in this time-tested manner.

First of all, although I am digitizing this information now, even if somebody hacked into my computer, it would be impossible for the hacker to make much sense of the information.

The information is entered in my handwriting, which is perfectly legible, but generally only to me.

And I use abbreviations for names of law firms because some of them have very long names when they have numerous partners and the amount of space in my desktop diary is limited. So I know exactly for example which patent law firm is MDK, and which one is BST, but nobody else can know for sure what the letters mean since dozens of firms could in fact be hiding behind these initials.

I’d say my encryption method is pretty solid.

If I am too busy, I have to pause my scanning activity, sometimes for several weeks, but then I pick up where I left off again, as I did today.

I started scanning pages from this year and now I am at August 2005. I find it hard to believe that translation projects that reside stored in my mind as something that happened very recently are actually from more than a decade ago.

This one, for instance, I remember very vividly, although it is 12 years old now. An elderly Japanese engineer who was translating patents for the corporation he was working for found my website, called me and then sent several long Japanese patents which he did not feel doing himself to me instead.

It was the middle of a very hot summer with temperatures in the nineties, August or July, and because my office is on the second floor, it gets too hot in the summer even when the air conditioning is on full blast. So I put my laptop on the cool vanity counter in one of the bathrooms, the one that has plenty of space for a laptop, a mouse and external keyboard, because that’s the coolest room in the house, and I finished one of the translations there. Most of one wall in the bathroom is made of thick plate glass and there is a big window next to the vanities, so there is perfect light in there for translating.

And then my brother called me on Skype and I wasted an hour talking to him despite the tight deadline.

As I scan the pages, I see how much has changed over the last 12 years in the field of patent translation.

In 2005, almost all the patents I was translating were in Japanese. I see there were a few German ones in July, but not nearly as many compared to Japanese. And I see some other languages there too, but not many. I translated some Russian, some Czech and some French.

In contrast to that, last month I translated 11 patents from German for three different law firms, and although I was also translating Japanese patents, it was only for one project: I was asked to translate the claims sections of 12 Japanese patent applications because these applications were originally filed by US and European companies in English in the United States or Europe and then translated to Japanese, so only the claims were changed in the Japanese version.

Twelve years ago, I was translating mostly Japanese patents and only a few patents from German. The situation is completely reversed at this point.

Twelve years ago, about 30-40% of the work I did came from translation agencies who paid good rates, relatively speaking. As a result of the progress of the corporatization of the translation industry, only about 10% of my work now comes from translation agencies.

When the agencies that had kept me busy on and off for many years (more than a decade in some cases) started lowering their rates, I had to stop working for them. Most of the time I am unable to work for new translation agencies that approach me for the first time because most of them are based on the repulsive, predatory corporate model that I have been describing in my posts on this blog for many years now.

I can’t work for these people!

Fortunately, although I have also lost many direct clients, often represented by the patent departments of large corporations over the last decade or so, smaller law firms have stayed with me and I have been able to keep replacing the direct clients that I’ve lost with new ones.

Had I been content to work only or mostly for translation agencies, which is how I initially structured my translation business 30 years ago, I would probably have to work for significantly lower rates at this point.

Fortunately, I realized early on that I needed to avoid working for the corporate translation industry model at all costs, and through all the ups and downs, that was what I did, by concentrating on keeping my existing clients and also finding new ones.

So these are some of the thoughts that are going through my head as I scan the pages of my Letts of London monthly diary into my computer.

Incidentally, 2005 was a pretty good year for me in terms of receivables, as were 2006, 2007 and 2008.

2016, on the other hand, was not a good year for me, especially compared to 2005-2010. But now that the children have been on their own for almost a decade, I don’t need to make as much money as I used to, and it looks like this year will be very good again for my translation business, perhaps even better than the very busy years from a fondly remembered period of time more than a decade ago.

Posted by: patenttranslator | April 21, 2017

I Can Offer You 20 Dollars for This Work

So much about the translation industry reminds me of the telemarketing industry. A big part of both these industries can be described with a four-lettered word: SCAM.

I don’t answer my phone when it rings. At least not the one that used to be my main office number – that one I cannot answer because whenever it rings, it is either some kind of outright scam, for example somebody pretending to be the Internal Revenue Service requesting urgent payment of past-due taxes, or somebody trying to sell me something I don’t want or need, which is not illegal, although it ought to be.

It was ringing many times a day when I still used to answer it, with messages from scammers and peddlers of things unwanted and unneeded. So now I have a new office number which is a closely guarded secret, as it is only communicated to existing clients on my stationery when I send them an invoice, and in emails to them. And my cell phone number is of course another closely guarded secret.

I still monitor my old number, but as I said, I only answer if the caller ID shows a legitimate number, which it almost never does.

The telemarketing industry pretty much destroyed what used to be called “the telephone”. Alexander Graham Bell must be turning in his grave. Most younger people no longer have what is still called a telephone line, and use a cell phone for everything. I think there is a law that telemarketers cannot bother people using cell phones, and so far it seems to be enforced. And most older people do what I do and only answer the phone if the caller ID shows that it is somebody they know, to avoid scammers.

Because of its incredible lack of scruples, the telemarketing industry is very quickly destroying its own business model, and despite the fact that it embraced new technology to be able to call hundreds or maybe thousands of people at a time to make up for the fact that people can’t trust their phones anymore, it is probably circling the drain at this point.

I certainly hope so, although it may just be wishful thinking on my part.

The damage inflicted by telemarketers on the technology called the telephone, which was invented in 1876 and worked pretty well for almost a century and half, is so horrendous that it is becoming increasingly impossible to get somebody on the phone if you are calling out of the blue. Even lonely senior citizens who are hungry for any kind of human contact, refuse to answer the phone or hang up quickly once they realize it is a robo-call, that is not really a call, made by the telemarketing industry as opposed to a real human.

The translation industry does not use phones much for its scams. It mostly uses emails because a telephone call is much more labor intensive than an email.

The last translation industry telephone call that I remember getting was from over a year ago by an actual person who left a message on my old number’s voice mail. I still monitor this number, usually online and just for messages, which is very easy to do on the Internet with the Ooma telephone service that I use, because it is much cheaper than traditional telephone companies.

It was a woman from a translation agency who was offering me a “copy editing job”. When I called her back out of curiosity, I discovered that what she was really offering was post-editing of machine translations for 1 cent a word.

Ha, ha, ha, so that’s what she meant by “copy editing”.

But as I said, the translation industry mostly just sends emails, because making phone calls is too much trouble for them.

I received an email just yesterday offering me a juicy job that looked just like a cheesy offer from a translation agency, but it wasn’t actually from the translation industry, it was from the film industry.

After the introduction, which contained the usual clumsy attempt to suck up to me “I know that you are (quite famously!) a patent translator, but I thought you might be interested in an offbeat project, and since you are familiar with both Czech and Japanese, your name came to mind”, the email said. “I am in need of a Czech linguist to transcribe one line spoken in Czech in a Japanese movie. […] Our actor will use your transcription & notes to speak this line in Czech in the United States dub. What we will need is a transcription in Czech of the line and advice from you on:

  1. Whether the Czech spoken is grammatical, and if not, what would be the grammatically correct way to say it, and
  1. Whether it really means exactly what it’s supposed to mean. I can offer you $20 for this work.”

So that’s what I’m worth to them, all of 20 dollars!

The email had two attachments, one called “Production Consultant Contract” and one more called “Work Assignment Sheet”. The “Production Consultant Contract” was pretty hilarious, it had the word “WHEREAS” (in capital letters) five times on the first page, although I saw only one instance of “NOW THEREFORE” on the same page, which was kind of disappointing. The total word count was 1,773 words.

So that’s why dialogues in languages other than English spoken by actors who are native English speakers in American movies are completely incomprehensible to people who actually understand those languages, I thought to myself.

It’s because the people tasked by the film producer with making the actors speak in a foreign language in American movies are monolingual, incompetent, and although they don’t have a clue how to do their job, they can get away with murder, as I wrote in this post entitled The Incredible Inauthenticity of Fake Foreign Accents in American Movies.

There is a way to do this job right. But making an actor speak even a short sentence in a foreign language with an accent that is actually understandable is a lot of work.

It is a job that cannot be done for 20 dollars.

But since the target audience for American movies is English speakers, why not spend only 20 dollars on making Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie sound like total idiots when they pretend that they are so smart that they can even speak a foreign language?

American audiences will never know the difference anyway, and who gives a damn about the rest of the world!

Sadly, there does not seem to be much difference at this point between the telemarketing industry, the translation industry, and the film industry.

They all seem to have somehow morphed into a giant monster of an industry in which lack of scruples combined with the absence of any real skills and a propensity toward dishonesty are the main prerequisites for the job.

Posted by: patenttranslator | April 16, 2017

I Am Also Very Picky When It Comes to Choosing My Clients

As I said in my previous post, I am very particular about translators who I decide to work with.

I usually find translators by asking for referrals from people I know. I think this is the best way to find a good professional – be it a dentist, a lawyer, a plumber, or a translator.

I don’t often look for new translators. My operation is very small – mostly just a one-man band, although I occasionally work with about a dozen translators on a yearly basis. So, unlike the translation industry, all I need are a few good men or women.

But I am generally always on the lookout for new clients. Even when I am not looking for new clients because I have too much work, I really still am because at some point the work I have now may and probably will dry up.

There are two kinds of clients that one can work for: direct clients, and translation agencies, which prefer to be called “LSPs” or “language services providers”. If you want to know what I think about the acronym “LSP”, you can run a search of my blog. I’ve written half a dozen posts on this subject.

In my silly post today I will say a few words about translation agencies, and I will save direct clients for a future post to keep this one reasonably short.

The worst type of translation agency to work for is the big corporate type of agency that has many offices in different locations, including abroad. They pay the lowest rates and have the worst, extremely repulsive working conditions, spelled out in great detail in their deceptively named “Non-Disclosure Agreements” (I call these agreements deceptively named because they are about much more than just confidentiality, which was their original purpose), that are usually at least three thousand words long, sometimes much longer.

When these agencies contact me, as they do quite frequently when yet another new, young and clueless project manager finds my website or my entry in the ATA database, I simply ignore them. I believe that at this point, it has become basically impossible for established and experienced translators to work for the business model that large agencies created, a business model that treats translators so savagely.

Some smaller agencies use the same kind of predatory business model and I ignore these outfits too. It’s easy to identify who they are when they contact you because they use the same boilerplate for all their emails. The email often starts with the words “I am reaching out to you”.

It sounds dramatic, as if they were trying to tug on your heartstrings by using this language. When they put it like this, accepting a translation job from them could seem almost as noble and praiseworthy as adopting a sad, lonely pit bull from a shelter for abused animals who is in danger of being “put to sleep” because nobody loves him or wants him.

You can also tell that an agency is one that you don’t want to work for by the fact that they don’t even bother using your name in the greeting line. The reason for this is also obvious: they send the same mass email with the melodramatic words “I am reaching out to you” to a number of translators, often a large number. So to save time (time is money to them, except when it’s our time, which they don’t value very highly based on the rates they want to pay us), they simply address each prospective translator with the greeting ‘Dear Linguist’.

Maybe they think that ‘linguist’ sounds better or more distinguished and better educated than just ‘translator’. But, personally, I consider the words ‘Dear Linguist’ a major insult and I never respond to this kind of an insidious insult.

These outfits usually hit all ‘Dear Linguists’ with incredibly short deadlines for the translation jobs offered, although the jobs tend to be smallish, and the coordinators often stipulate in advance how much they want to pay for the smallish, extremely urgent job.

The payment offered is another major insult, even a bigger insult than the words ‘Dear Linguist’. Imagine that you emailed a plumber and offered this person a job, for example a clogged toilet, for which you would be willing to pay no more than 150 dollars.

The plumber would naturally think you were crazy. Nobody would dare dictate the price to a plumber because plumbers are perfectly capable of determining their own rates and fees. But when a translation agency says to a prospective translator “Our budget for this” (that’s how they usually put it) “is 150 dollars”, it’s not crazy, I suppose, because it happens all the time.

I still sometimes do accept jobs from new, smaller agencies if they seem to have a human face, once I check them out online. But not very often because I have been so busy for the last little while with work from my regular clients that it seems that all I do is work, because that’s pretty much true –all I do is work.

I occasionally still work for a few small agencies, some of which have been sending me jobs for a long time, and I plan to continue working for them for as long as they need me. Incidentally, all of these agencies that I still work for have one thing in common: they pay right away.

In contrast to what a certain blogger said on her blog some time ago, namely that there is basically no difference (I am paraphrasing her statement) between working for an agency and working for a direct client, I happen to think that there is a world of difference between working for a translation agency and working for a direct client.

I think that a single good direct client is worth a hundred translation agencies, even good ones.

What kind of business equity do you accumulate as a highly experienced, highly educated and extremely skilled translator if you have been working only or mostly for translation agencies … for a decade, or two, or three?

It’s great if the agencies keep you busy working for them, hopefully at good rates, and some of them do pay decent rates, although these rates are still likely much lower than what one can make without an intermediary. They made it possible for you to pay your bills, and for that, they shall be praised.

But as far as I can tell, a translator who has been working only for translation agencies has not accumulated any business equity at all, regardless of for how many years or decades he has been making his knowledge and skills available to an intermediary between a translator and the actual customer.

This translator does not really have a business, because one characteristic of a business, even if it is an intangible asset such as a translation business, is that it is an asset that can be bought and sold.

It is possible to sell a translation business if you work only for direct clients, depending on what kind of clients you have and what you want for your business.

But if you work only for agencies, you don’t really have a business at all. You are just a temp, and temps generally own nothing, except their ability to work.

Temporary workers usually want to be hired for a full-time, permanent position. And if they are good, persistent, and smart, they can achieve their goals after some time, and other temps will step into their shoes, temporarily.

Temps who have no ambition to rise above their temporary situation are usually considered losers. It may be cruel to think about people in this manner, but we live in a cruel world. If I had a daughter, I would be very unhappy if she married a permanent temp.

Just like temps, translators who work mostly for agencies, especially the big ones, can after some time figure out how to graduate to direct clients. This is, in my opinion, the best way to keep the translation industry from interfering with our profession, especially since the translation industry is doing its best to destroy this profession.

If more translators take business away from corporate agencies, the balance of power between corporate translation agencies and the little busy bees called “Dear Linguists” may start changing.

I will try to address the topic of working for direct customers, which I have dealt with a number of times on my silly blog, soon again, I hope in my next post.

Posted by: patenttranslator | April 6, 2017

I Am Not Choosy – But I Am Particular

It’s not that I’m choosy – but I am particular”.

This was what a Japanese woman who was looking for a prospective husband in San Francisco told me once, more than 30 years ago. Incidentally, she did not find the man she was looking for and returned to Japan, although she would have preferred to stay in America. A few years later I heard that she got a really good, well-paying executive job with a Japanese company in Tokyo, partly thanks to her fluency in English.

She is probably better off without an American husband. I certainly hope so.

It’s not that I am choosy when it comes to who I pick to help me with my translations, but I am definitely very particular. I believe the same principle that applies to husbands and wives also applies also to translators and their work.

Despite the fact that I am bombarded by dozens of resumes on a daily basis, I know from much experience that it is very difficult to find a suitable translator for my small (but potent) patent translation operation.

Although I could sometimes use help from other translators, 99.99% of the resumes that I receive I instantly eliminate, usually without even looking at them, after a brief glance at the accompanying email.

Here are some of the elimination criteria that I personally use for this purpose, in addition to obvious criteria such as how well the translator can write even a simple introductory email in the English language.

  1. The translator has a free email address (at yahoo.com, hotmail.com, or even gmail.com)

I have a few free email addresses myself that I use for various purposes, but for communication with clients, including prospective ones, I use my own, custom-made, distinctive and paid email address.

A serious real estate agent would never drive a piece-of-junk car because clients who see it would probably think that this particular real estate genius does not sell a whole lot of houses and thus cannot afford a better car.

A translator who uses a free, throw-away email is in my opinion no better than a real estate agent who has no choice but to drive an old, scratched, dented and rusty car.

  1. The translator has a free page on a blind auction site such as Proz or Translators Cafe, but never bothered to create her own website.

I know this translator is trained to charge very low rates, and I am not particularly interested in taking advantage of people like that.

It’s one thing to have a page on one of these sites if the same translator also has a well functioning, informative and good looking website that took some time and effort to put together, generally with some professional help along the way.

But to be listed only on Proz or other free “portals” for translators, where translators are forced to bid against each other until the cheapest guy gets a job means to me that the translator is either a total beginner, or not very smart, and I am not interested in beginners or people who are, how does one say this in English … not exactly the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

  1. The translator emphasizes the fact that he uses CATs, and Trados in particular, as a sign of professionalism.

Some people use CATs, and some don’t. Since plumbers generally don’t advertise the tools that they use for their important and highly specialized work to prove that they are highly skilled professionals. I am astonished that so many translators would think that mentioning Trados might make them appear more professional.

In fact, the exact opposite happens because it is well known that many shady translation agencies use CATs, usually Trados, to eliminate “full matches” and “fuzzy matches” from the word count for which the translator can expect to be paid full rate.

Translators who announce to the world that their tool of choice is Trados are clearly announcing to translation agencies that they will be amenable to this kind of extortion and cheating that amounts to wage theft, quite common now in the modern form of the “translation industry”, and that they don’t mind being treated in this way.

To me this means that they are desperate for work, and I am not interested in people who are desperate for work.

  1. The translator claims to be able to translate just about anything, but in fact does not really have a specialty.

Beggars can’t be choosers, and since beginners are pretty much in the same position as beggars, it is understandable that they may not have a specialty yet.

But when people who have been translating for many years advertise themselves as being able to translate anything in any field, from the “hospitality industry” to patents, to me this means that this person is fated to remain a beginner forever.

The specialty “hospitality industry” makes me particularly suspicious about a translator’s qualifications, perhaps because I worked in the “hospitality industry” myself for several years before it dawned on me that I was wasting my life in a superficial industry and that I would be working for peanuts forever unless I started doing something else.

I know I am being unfair to the hospitality industry. On the other hand, since I don’t remember a lot of patents about the hospitality industry (not a single one), it’s not really a very helpful field for my line of work, which is translating patents from Japanese, Chinese, Korean, German, French and other languages into English.

The translator takes forever to return my email on the rare occasion when I do respond.

Some people who look promising to me on the computer screen, at least when it comes to patent translation, don’t respond to my email for days, or never.

Maybe they have their own rejection criteria and somehow I inadvertently disqualified myself by responding to their email. But if that is the case, why did they bother to contact me in the first place?

I can’t figure out why this happens relatively frequently, especially given that I respond to unsolicited emails (which is, by the way, a definition of junk email), extremely infrequently.

  1. The translator has already advertised a low rate in the introductory email.

The reasons why I distrust people like this are similar to how I view advertising Trados, having a free email and not having a professional-looking website. In fact, would-be translators who have these characteristics never have a professionally looking website because they do all the (in my opinion) stupid things I am mentioning here, either because they are beginners, which is forgivable, or because they are not very smart, which is unfortunately not curable.

On the other hand, peeps who are willing to work for low rates probably have no choice but to work for peanuts, so it makes sense to advertise their willingness to do so from the get-go, as the saying goes.

They may not have much choice and I am not judging them. I’m just saying I don’t want to work with them.

  1. Being a member of a “professional organization of translators” does not count for anything in my book.

I am sorry if I offend some of my esteemed colleagues by saying this, but I know what I am talking about because I myself am and have been a member of the American Translators Association (ATA) for almost 20 years.

The only condition to become a member of this organization is to pay a membership fee, which at this point is 190 US dollars. You don’t even have to know a foreign language, and many members, usually people who run or work at translation agencies, are 100% monolingual.

So how could it possibly mean anything?

I understand things are not much better in other countries when it comes to “professional” organizations of translators either.

The ATA has some kind of accreditation, but all you have to do to become accredited is to translate a few sample texts from one language to another in one session that may take up to three hours, I think.

You do have to know a foreign language to be able to pass a test like that, but that’s all. You don’t have to have a college degree, in languages or in chemistry, or mechanical engineering, or anything useful for patent translators, which would take many years and a lot of intelligence, drive and perseverance to accomplish.

So I’m afraid I can’t really take this particular test very seriously either. In the absence of a college degree, it is better than nothing, but to me it is only an aspirational characteristic of a beginner.

But if you have a degree in languages or sciences, or both, plus years of experience as a patent translator, please send me your resume – I promise I will take a look at it, and I might even respond.

And if I do respond, I hope you will have the courtesy of not letting me wait for your next email forever because I get really angry with people who do that to me!

Posted by: patenttranslator | March 27, 2017

How Much Does an Average Translator Make?

This is a question I often see asked on social media, usually but not always by beginning translators or those who are relatively new to the profession.

I of course don’t have an answer to this question because the answer depends on many variables. It’s like asking the question: How much does an average writer make? Well, from nothing, to millions. And if you can sell the captivating plots of your books to Hollywood, it will be many more millions. So what is the average between zero and many millions?

There is no such thing.

How much does an average adult person weigh? Well, from about a hundred pounds, to maybe five or six hundred pounds. If you weigh more than that, you will probably not live for much longer.

The most important variables when it comes to a writer’s income are how many books said writer can sell and what cut the publishing house will take. We also know most of the variables determining how much people weigh: they depend mostly on how much and what we eat, drink, and move around, but also on our genes and metabolism, which in turn depend in part on our age, etc., and so on and so forth.

Although there is no answer to the question in the title of my silly post today, the variables determining translators’ income can be identified to some extent.

First of all, people who live off their own work will probably never make as much money as parasites who basically live off other people’s work, without really creating anything useful except a lot of money, mostly for themselves, by using a system that was custom-made for people like that, such as banksters on Wall Street.

A banker at a community bank may be doing a very useful and important job, unless he is a fraudster, and some of them are. As far as I can tell, Wall Street bankers mostly destroy value instead of creating it, as we saw in 2008 when they destroyed so much value that it resulted in a worldwide crisis from which they were then promptly bailed out by taxpayers, including translators.

As I said, it’s a system custom-made for them. The way they see it, they would be stupid not to use it for themselves, which means against us, regardless of how much damage they cause.

And they may be and are a lot of things, but stupid they are not.

Let’s turn now our attention to how much make people who live off their own work and do something useful, namely translators.

Some associations of translators regularly publish average rates and average incomes of translators who are members of these associations and who respond to regular questionnaires about incomes.

If I remember correctly, according to the ATA (American Translators Association) income surveys, the average income of an ATA member is about 40 thousand dollars, while a translator with ATA accreditation makes on average about 45 thousand dollars. (Please correct me if I have the numbers wrong).

I don’t know how sound and impartial ATA’s statistical methodology is. What I do know is that in 30 years of private practice as an independent translator, if I dare call it that, not a single direct client has ever asked me whether I was an ATA member, let alone an accredited one (I have been a member for 20 years, but I never bothered with certification).

So I would say the value of ATA certification for me personally is approximately zero because based on my personal experience, direct clients don’t even know there is something called ATA, which must be why they never ask me about it.

Personally, I would also hesitate to draw many conclusions from ATA’s statistics about our average incomes for a number of reasons. Apart from the very questionable definition of the term “translator”, which means that we may be comparing apples to oranges based on this term, not every translator is an ATA member, relatively few of them are ATA-certified, and not all ATA members respond to questionnaires about how much they make.

For example, I don’t participate in this survey because I don’t want ATA to know how much I make. It’s none of their damn business. I’m sure they say that the results are anonymous … yeah, right.

And if it turned out that non-accredited  ATA members made more money than their accredited colleagues, would the ATA publish these results? Maybe, maybe not. I think the American Translators Association has a few conflicts of interest when it comes to the results of this particular survey of average incomes.

So far, ATA-accredited translators have been consistently ahead of their non-accredited brothers and sisters (in this survey) when it comes to how much they make, year after year, after year. I doubt that there will be a year when non-accredited translators are going to make more than their accredited counterparts. It would be really bad for the morale of accredited members.

I don’t think that in reality, being a member of ATA or being accredited or certified by this particular or another august organization of translators in another part of the world has much to do with how much translators make in real life. Other things are in my opinion much more important.

I think that such certification is useful if you want to stand out from the competition, but generally only if you translate a common language that has a lot of competition, such as French or Spanish, and only if you want to work mostly for translation agencies.

Because as I said, direct clients don’t even seem to know that the ATA exists.

Having said that, I still am an ATA member, have been for 20 years, partly out of inertia since there does not seem to be another organization for me in the United States, partly because I think that ATA does some (limited amount) of useful work, and partly because I do receive a (limited amount) of work based on my listing in the ATA database of translators; usually from Czech, Slovak, or Polish to English, albeit so far only from translation agencies.

So what other evidence do we have, other than statistics, for how much translators make? (Whenever I use this word, I hear Ronald Reagan’s immortal, although not original, quip in my head about the reliability of statistics: “There are lies, big lies, and then there are statistics”).

Well, we also have anecdotal evidence.

I know, for instance, that about twenty years ago, I was more than mildly surprised when a Japanese patent translator to whom I was sending work sometimes when I had too much of it from my own direct clients to do it all by myself, told me that he had made 137,000 dollars that year.

137,000 dollars is a very nice income even now, especially for a translator, and due to inflation, twenty years ago it was worth almost twice as much as it’s worth now.

This translator, who passed away a decade ago, worked for a few select translation agencies so that he wouldn’t have to worry about being paid on time (or paid at all). He had no direct clients, and because I was one of those few agencies that he would work for, I know he was charging 12 cents per English word to translate Japanese patents.

He must have been incredibly busy most of the time. He was very, very good – better than me at that time, partly due to the fact that he was translating the same kind of material that I was also translating, but had been doing it for much longer than I had.

I did learn a few things from him as I was proofreading his translations, back in the pre-internet times when there were very few precious resources from which one could learn anything.

Let’s fast-forward 20 years to the future.

Last week, a translator posed the question in the title of my silly post today on Facebook. She said that last month she had made 7,000 dollars, and asked: “How much do you guys usually make?” Nobody really told her much, translators are a reluctant bunch when it comes to talking about how much they make.

Except for yours truly, of course, because Mad Patent Translator has a penchant for getting unnecessarily into tricky discussions on social media, although nothing good can come out of things like that as we all know.

As I understand it, this particular translator works mostly with direct clients and has in fact very cleverly created her own niche for highly specialized translations and ancillary services: she translates documents for her direct clients that a certain country requires to have translated from and into English in order to apply for a second passport in a certain European country, (without giving up their US citizenship), and also walks them through the steps of the naturalization procedure.

Two heads are better than one, and so are two passports. To have a second passport is a very popular trend these days, made even more popular by recent phenomena such as Brexit and the selection (by a medieval torture instrument called “The Electoral College”) of the current US president.

Much as she dislikes Donald Trump, he must have been and continues to be very good for her translating business.

The next piece of anecdotal evidence is also from Facebook: a few weeks ago a translator said on a discussion group for translators on Facebook: “Last month I made 20,000 Euros. I must be doing something right.”

Another translator commented to me at the time, on Private Messenger, that she thought what he said was very inappropriate. So I agreed with her, but truth be told, mostly just to stay on her good side.

I think it’s a good thing when translators know that if they stay away from the “translation industry”, have a good plan for how to run their translation business, and do what they are doing very well, at least some of them can expect to make pretty good money after a while.

Although there is no average income of an average translator, it may be true that certified ATA translators make a little bit more than their non-accredited colleagues. But it is also true that your translation income does not depend at all on whether you are a member of a translator association. It’s even quite possible that translators who are non-members make more money than translators who are members.

It’s not a bad thing to make pretty good money if one creates something important and valuable, and I believe that a good translation is very valuable.

The thing about money is that it is a great motivator. That’s why people often ask themselves “how much money is in it for me”, and “how much money can I make if I do this, as opposed to doing something else?”

As Woody Allen put it: “Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons”.

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