Posted by: patenttranslator | March 20, 2017

For Sale by Owner and For Sale by Translator-A Tale of Two Industries

Over several decades as a home owner, I have been following trends in real estate and comparing them in my mind to another industry that I have also been part of and have gotten to know quite well over the last several decades: the “translation industry”.

If you want to buy a house here in the United States, you basically have three options to choose from:

  1. If you know what you are doing, you can simply do it on your own, without a real estate agent. Although this option could save home buyers a lot of money, very few people do it this way, probably because the logistics and risks inherent in a transaction involving a great deal of money are simply too intimidating.

Very few people, around 1 percent of home sellers, choose this option.

  1. You can buy (or sell) your house through a cut-rate type of real estate agency called For Sale by Owner. Unlike most real estate agencies, For Sale by Owner charges a much lower flat fee of only a few thousand dollars that is independent of the sale price of the house, in exchange for providing limited support.

Although the logistics are basically taken care of, the homeowners have to sell the house on their own, without the assistance of a real estate agent. Relatively few people, less than 10 percent, decide to choose this option.

  1. You can sign up with a real estate agency providing the full range of services that real estate agencies offer, including the assistance of a sales agent who gets paid only if the house is sold.

However, the commission that you have to pay for this service is fairly substantial, between 5 and 6 percent of the price for which the house eventually sells. Since the average price of an average house in an average neighborhood (assuming there is such a thing) in Virginia is about 300,000 dollars, while in Northern Virginia it is about 500,000 dollars, homeowners have to pay a lot of money if they sign up with this kind of traditional real estate agency.

A few years ago, many real estate agents were fearful that it was only a matter of time before the internet would put them out of business, and this is precisely what the internet did to many other professions, such as travel agents and bank clerks.

The real estate industry was in a panic. All the information they used to rightfully (in their mind) own was now on the internet and anybody could access it.

When a new internet-based business model was created for selling real estate represented by firms such as,,, or, many in the industry expected that commissions would be slashed in an era when buyers suddenly had instant access to all the information that only real estate agents could access a decade or two decades before.

But it turned out that these fears were unwarranted – there are even more real estate agents now, who are finding, selling and buying houses for their clients than there were a decade ago, and the most common commission in the industry is still 6 percent of the sale price, half of which goes to the agent, and half of which goes to the real estate agency.

Prices on the real estate market collapsed in this country after the real estate bubble artificially created by our friends on Wall Street popped. Wall Street made out like the bandits they are from the crises they themselves created, in 2006 – 2008. But in most of the country, prices are now right back where they were around 2006 (which may or may not mean that another real estate bubble is about burst – I do wish I knew the answer to this question, but I don’t).

So one could say that the real estate industry, and real estate agents in particular, survived the boom and bust cycle typical of the industry, aggravated by the danger of threats to the industry from the internet, quite well.

Most buyers still prefer to pay tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of being assisted by a helpful real estate agent who will hold their hand and whisper sweet nothings in their ears – such as the high prices of “comps” (similar houses) in the neighborhood and advice on how to stage the house for a sale, as I did on two occasions when I bought and sold my house.

The Sale by Owner method is just too scary for most people. The internet did not disrupt the traditional method of selling real estate – on the contrary, most real estate agents take advantage of the new capabilities that became available to them, using the internet for marketing purposes, such as creating virtual tours of houses for sale and tempting buyers to part with their hard-earned money.

If what you need is a translation rather than a house, there are also three main ways to go about it:

  1. A company can create its own in-house translation department and employ people called in-house translators, who receive a salary for translating. This is exactly what some companies, mostly large ones but also some smaller ones do, and I was employed for a while as an in-house translator, once in Czechoslovakia and once in Japan.

But relatively few companies do that – only those that need to translate large amounts of material, generally on a daily basis.

  1. A company or an individual can also contact one of hundreds or thousands of businesses, mainly translation agencies advertising translation services on the internet. Some companies create an in-house department staffed by people who are not translators themselves, but instead work as managers, multilingual and specialized managers of freelance translators. I used to work for a major manufacturer of chemicals as a freelance translator in this manner and from a New Year’s card which had pictures of all of the translators working for the company, including mine, I saw that the company worked with 94 freelance translators.
  1. A company or an individual can contact one of hundreds or thousands of individual translators who, theoretically, should also be findable on the internet, without the intermediary of a translation agency.

While the internet did not cause major changes to the real estate industry, it certainly changed the “translation industry” and from the viewpoint of individual translators, definitely not for the better.

Three are of course many important differences between these two industries, so many in fact that they are not directly comparable. But I also see some commonalities.

I see the real estate industry as a legitimate industry providing an important service in a much more honest manner than the “translation industry”. The “translation industry” does create important value, but only in the sense that it brings together somebody who needs something to have translated with a translator who can do the work.

Unlike in the “translation industry”, everything is out in the open in the real estate business. The clients have direct contact with the real estate agents, and because they know them more or less on a personal basis, they can rely on their instincts and intelligence to make a personal decision about whether they want to trust an agent who provides a direct, personal service.

The last time I worked with a real estate agent, she and her colleague offered to walk our three dogs when we did not have the time to do so and the dogs had to go. Both we and the dogs were very grateful for the offer.

Clients buying a house are also perfectly well aware of how much they are paying the agency and what the real estate agent’s cut will be, as well as the real estate agency’s profit. There are no secrets there.

While real estate agencies encourage their agents to advertise directly to potential clients, translation agencies specifically prohibit translators under the intimidating threat of hefty penalties or a lawsuit, from trying to contact direct clients (I just read on LinkedIn that a Czech translation agency is forcing translators to sign an NDA specifying that the penalty for breaking any of the clauses in the NDA is 20,000 Euros).

The fact that the “translation industry” is trying so hard to make sure that clients never come into contact with actual translators is an explicit admission that translation agencies realize perfectly well that if clients knew how to contact translators directly, many would prefer to do business directly with them because they understand that a translation agency generally does not create any additional value.

That is why so many translation agencies try to force translators to sign very long “Non-Disclosure Agreements” whose main purpose at this point is usually not maintaining the confidentiality of the client’s information, which used to be their original, legitimate purpose. Instead, NDAs now try to make sure that the translator cannot communicate about anything related to the translation agency (such as translation rates being paid to the translator, or how long it takes to pay) with other translators, and most importantly, that the translator will not dare  compete for direct clients with the translation agency.

The “non-compete clause” is currently formulated in many contracts, which are called misleadingly “Non-Disclosure Agreements”, to prevent any possibility of a contact between a translator and a direct client because these contracts are clearly meant to prevent any potential competition on the part of translators, which is in fact an illegal request, at least based on antitrust laws here in the United States.

Translation clients have no idea how the payment is split between a translation agency and a translator; in fact, many probably never even consider the fact that the agency and the translator are not one and the same.

I wonder how it’s possible for translation clients to fall so easily for the other half-truths and misinformation frequently used on websites of translation agencies, how they can be taken by the transparent verbiage about three highly-experienced translators perfecting the translation, and complying with quality assurance standards. Quality assurance standards that are similar to industrial quality assurance standards applied for example to diapers and toilet paper (obviously, there can be no such standard applicable to “translation” – this is again a marketing trick). Marketing propaganda works wonders!

And the “translation industry’s” marketing propaganda does seem to work.

Real estate agents have been able to use changes brought about by the now nearly omnipresent availability of Wi-Fi to their advantage. Just about every real estate agent has a beautiful website that can be easily found by potential clients, and the rates paid by real estate agencies are still 6 percent of the sale price, at the same level where they were 20 years ago. But the rates that many freelance translators can expect to be paid by translation agencies has taken a serious nose dive.

Even without taking into account the effect of inflation, the rates that “the translation industry” is now paying to those translating for them are much lower than what they used to be 20 years ago.

I think much of the blame for why the results for those doing the actual work in the real estate industry and in the “translation industry” differ must fall squarely on the shoulders of translators themselves.

Many did not seem to realize early on, and still do not realize, that if they if they fail to make the internet serve them (by choosing a suitable domain name that will be found by search engines, and creating a professional-looking website that will induce direct clients to cut out the middleman and dump a translation agency), the translation industry will continue using the internet against translators and treating them as poorly paid, indentured servants.

Few home owners are interested in selling their homes without the assistance of an experienced real estate agent because there is so much work and a lot of risk involved in something like that.

On the other hand, many direct clients would be only too happy to cut out the middleman and work directly with the translator … if they could only find a suitable one on their own.

If you run a Google search to determine the current prices of houses in your neighborhood, Google will list on the first page not only large real estate agencies eager for your business, but also impressive websites of individual real estate agents who specialize in your regional market.

But if you run a Google search for a translation service specifying precisely your subject and language combination, almost invariably only translation agencies will be listed.

Relatively few translators are findable, on the internet or otherwise, as too many translators, even very good and highly experienced ones, continue to sell their skills and labor for the most part to the “translation industry”, regardless of how poorly they are paid and how much they are being abused by this industry.

I don’t know how to explain the differences between what is happening in the real estate industry and in the “translation industry”. But I do know that unless things change, translators will continue to be abused by the industry even more than they are now.

Posted by: patenttranslator | March 14, 2017

The Curious Phenomenon of Instant Guruism

The curious phenomenon of guruism reflects so many contradicting facets of modern life that it would be impossible to even touch upon most of them in this relatively short blog post.

Guruism it is not exactly a new phenomenon. Gurus of various kinds preaching various theories, teachings and beliefs have been with us for a long time already, and like most people, I ‘ve fallen under their spell to some extent from time to time.

When I lived in San Francisco in the eighties, I once, out of idle curiosity (the same curiosity that killed the cat), went inside a building just off Market Street that sported a huge sign with SCIENTOLOGY written in big letters. I stopped there once and bought a paperback written by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard for five dollars from an enthusiastic young man. I took it home, but after reading through about 30 pages decided that the whole thing was pure humbug.

Although I haven’t had any more contact with the Scientology crowd since then, after more than three decades they still somehow found me – even though I’ve moved about seven times since then – and last week I received junk mail from them.

So Scientology hasn’t given up on me, they still want me!

Several other gurus have briefly attempted to show me the path to absolute truth during what I might call my early San Francisco period. (If one day I write my memoirs, that’s what I’ll call it).

In the early eighties I became friendly with a guy who was a mid-level leader in a cult called Moonies, named after Reverend Moon, a wealthy Korean who founded something called the Unification Church in the seventies. Incidentally, Reverend Moon founded and still owns a Washington daily called The Washington Times, while the other Washington daily called the Washington Post, the one that I subscribe to, is now owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder and owner of another cult called Amazon.

I once went hiking with a guy who was a mid-level leader in the Moonie organization in the Point Reyes area in Marin County, all the way to a spot overlooking the rocky shores of the Pacific Ocean where Sir Francis Drake came ashore in 1579 on his ship called Golden Hind to claim California for England.

We were both fascinated by our respective life experiences, so different and yet similar, and hiking was the perfect medium for discussing what we had been through. I still remember the sweet fragrance of the trees on that hike. The Moonie guy came from a wealthy family in Marin County, one of the wealthiest counties in America, full of Democrats and faux liberals, but detested his parents’ life so much that later he married his Korean wife (who spoke three languages: Korean, Japanese and English) in a mass marriage ceremony in Korea in which Reverend Moon married hundreds of couples in a single ceremony, mostly Western men to Korean women.

I spent one Sunday at a gathering of Moonies in wine country near Napa. About a hundred young people in their teens and twenties were there, talking about all kinds of subjects, playing music and putting on a short theater play – no alcohol, no drugs, no sex, or at least I saw no signs of any of that.

But although I was as young and impressionable as the rest of the young people surrounding me at the Moonie house I visited once or twice in San Francisco and at their retreat in the Wine Country, I did not become a Moonie.

I think the main problem was that at heart I’ve never been a joiner.

Later I was taken by several other gurus who tried to mess with my mind or at least influence my thinking through books they wrote for people like me to read and believe in what they were saying in those books. Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock is an example, which was published in the seventies but which I read only around 1984. I don’t remember anything about the book anymore, which probably means that it was about nothing.

I remember a little more about the descriptions of near-death experiences from a book by another influential guru: Edgar Cayce, a mystic and spiritual guru who himself had more near-death experiences than any other person. A lot of people who have had near-death experiences have described them mostly in the same way – as a journey through a long, dark tunnel toward a brilliant light. If you get to the light, you don’t go back.

Cayce not only collected the experiences of other people, he also could, when hypnotized, leave his body and recall many of his past lives going back to ancient Egypt if I remember it correctly, which is something that I would so dearly love to be able to do myself!

I know that Edgar Cayce lived in a house on Atlantic Avenue in Virginia Beach, not too far from where I live now, but so far I have never been to see the house, which is now an Edgar Cayce museum.

I’ll try to remember to do it this summer on my way to or from the beach.

A kind of  guruism is at present also a very popular trend in the field of freelance translation. Many new translators who don’t have much, if any experience, and who don’t know much about anything are establishing themselves as gurus of translation.

One big difference between the gurus that were popular when I was younger and those that are popular in what one might call the modern global translation village is how young and relatively inexperienced these new gurus are.

The new gurus in our profession, or what’s left of it at this point after the unrelenting assaults of the “translation industry” on what not so long ago used to be a fairly profitable and safe job, of course don’t call themselves gurus, that would be laughable. The preferred professional term that is generally used as a designation of an instant translation guru is a professional translation coach.

Some of these professional translation coaches, or instant gurus as I call them, usually propagate their teachings via internet seminars, and many also participate in translation conferences organized by various bodies, such as translator associations, schools and universities, but also entrepreneurial individuals, as is the case in many other professions.

I remember how I was listening to one of these professional coaches at a conference – I will not name names or places to keep my readers in suspense, although many people will probably easily guess what I mean.

A guru, or professional coach if you will, who seemed young enough to be my daughter – and some of them are young enough to be my grandsons and granddaughters, started her presentation by describing the dire state of affairs created for us by what is called the “translation industry”.

From what I could gather from her explanations, she saw translators simply as an integral part of the “translation industry”. There is nothing else but the “translation industry” in this world for us translators, since it is very unlikely that as translators we would be able to find out how to get work without relying on the “translation industry” model and work for direct clients instead. Our job therefore is to try to figure out how we can best serve the hungry “translation industry”.

She came armed with charts and graphs expertly prepared in PowerPoint in beautiful colors, which showed among other depressing things almost equally depressing graphs demonstrating how exponential and rapid the progress in machine translation has been over the last few years. According to her, it is this unavoidable and inexorable progress that is pushing us translators farther and farther from our goal – namely making a decent living from an important, useful and interesting occupation – and closer and closer to total extinction.

Her conclusion was that if we want to survive as translators in a new, digital environment that is hostile toward translators and similar occupations, instead of fighting “progress”, by which she meant improvements and major achievements in machine translation, we need to “embrace change” and incorporate machine translation into our work, by which she must have meant becoming poorly paid robot-like humans, or maybe human-like robots, cheerfully post-processing machine-translated detritus.

Impressionable relative newbies surrounding me (and I must have been the oldest person in the audience) seemed entranced by her reasoning. Given how young and inexperienced they were, quite a few of them probably told themselves that it might be best to give post-processing a try, without realizing that “embracing progress” the way it has been crafted for us by the “translation industry” is in fact tantamount to committing professional suicide en mass.

Many instant gurus, most of whom, from my perspective, have very limited experience, give seminars on the internet on the always popular topics of how to find clients.

Initially I felt very positive about the fact that young translators are willing to share what they have learned during a few years of freelance work, (and in the real world, a decade of on-hand experience as a freelance translator is just a few years), with their even younger and less experienced colleagues.

I try to promote this kind of experience exchange among translators by putting links on my blog to innovative approaches of communicating with other translators through Youtube and other media. On my blog I wrote reviews of publications of instant gurus when asked me to do so, where I tried to emphasize mostly positive aspects, etc.

After all, there is so much out there in the digital universe that translators who are much younger than me understand much better than an old dog like me possibly could, and it’s a good thing if I can learn a thing or two from budding translator gurus.

But it has finally started dawning on me that most of these instant gurus are not sharing what they have learned, and some of them presumably did learn something worth sharing with other translators, out of the goodness of their heart, or because they care about the far-flung community of translators.

They are simply doing it to make money, possibly because they can’t make enough money as translators.

Although most instant gurus nowadays give paid seminars on the internet, I believe that most of them don’t know much about anything. The term “translation” encompasses dozens of different languages and dozens of specialized fields. If you translate only one language, work mostly in one field, and most of your experience is based on working for translation agencies, the only people who can learn something really useful from you are clueless newbies who translate from the same language as you do and who believe that it is best to work for agencies because finding direct clients is just too damn hard, (although even this kind of instant guru would probably feel the need to include a chapter on direct clients to make the seminar look more promising).

Making relative newbies shell out a lot of money, relatively speaking, for the privilege of learning something they would eventually learn in due course on their own anyway reminds me of the slick TV evangelists on American teevee who promise viewers that Jesus will bless them and their family if they send at least a hundred dollars right now by calling a toll-free number in Virginia or Texas.

Nobody has a ready-made, generally applicable recipe for how to make it as a freelance translator.

Our success or failure in a chosen profession depends for the most part on aspects such as our language and subject combination, where we live, and how able and willing we are to learn, especially from our own mistakes.

An instant guru will not help much when it comes to the choices we have to be able to make on our own, because nobody knows us better than we know ourselves.

We may be able to learn a thing or two from instant gurus, but they cannot do the hard thinking that is required from each of us, no matter how much we pay them.

Thirty years ago, people were relying on L. Ron Hubbard and Reverend Moon to do the hard thinking for them and shelter them from the cruelties of life.

But the truth is that we have to do the hard thinking and make the hard choices all on our own.

In 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to land their lunar landing module on the Moon, it appeared that humankind has entered a new era, the era of interplanetary travel. Surely, if we could make it to the Moon, we would soon be landing on Mars and then also on other celestial bodies, which should be more interesting than the rocky Moon landscape. Perhaps it would take a decade or two, but definitely not longer than that, most people thought. Maybe we’ll even meet some cute and friendly aliens along the way if we get lucky.

Some people maintain to this day that the Moon landing never really happened and that the whole thing was a hoax, just a movie, not unlike those that are made in a Hollywood basement, as Red Hot Chili Peppers put it in one of their songs.

I tend to think that this conspiracy theory is probably incorrect – although who knows these days.

Other people say that the Moon landing did happen, but that it was only a tour de force designed after the sneaky Russians managed to launch the first human into space, and that the United States did the Moon landing largely for propagandistic reasons to prove the continued superiority of American technology. Skeptics say that this feat, spectacular as it was, did not bring back to Earth anything that would be particularly valuable for science and R&D. In other words, that just like launching the first human into space, the Moon landing was also designed mostly for propagandistic reasons.

I tend to think that this conspiracy theory is probably correct.

The fact is that almost half a century later, interplanetary travel, a dream that seemed so close that one could almost touch it in 1969, still remains what it was almost half a century ago – a beautiful, but elusive, improbable and unrealizable dream.

Unlike the Moon, those planets that humans would dearly love to reach now are so far and such an incredible amount of energy would be needed to power a space craft for interplanetary travel with humans on board, not to mention the years that it would take to get there, that at our present stage of technological development, we are simply unable to do anything about interplanetary travel, except to write sci-fi novels and make movies about it.

Vendors of various customized machine translation packages will never admit that the other dream mentioned in the title of my post today, machine translation that is as good as human translation, another popular feature of sci-fi books and movies, is also just a dream that remains unrealizable at our present stage of technological development.

Of course they can’t say something like that out loud, although most of them must know it by now. Because if they dared to say what they know in their hearts must be true, they would be instantly out of a job, just like the alchemists from the 15th century would have been immediately out of a job had they dared to reveal to their rich and greedy sponsors that, unlike Rumpelstiltskin, they cannot turn straw or lead into gold.

The alchemists of old made sure to wring out as much money as possible from their credulous sponsors before admitting the obvious. Some three hundred years later, machine translation alchemists of our era are merely following in their tracks when they say that machine translation may not be perfect yet, but if you wait just a few more years, perfect translations, or at least translations that near perfection, are just around the corner.

Legend has it that when a primitive machine translation system was put to a test decades ago with a structurally very simple sentence (although not really so simple when it comes to content), namely a sentence from the New Testament, (Matthew 26:40-43, New International Version) that says “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”, it was allegedly “translated” into Russian as “the vodka was good, but the meat was rotten”.

It’s possible that this particularly revealing mistranslation is just a myth, and maybe another famous example of an alleged mistranslation, when “out of sight, out of mind” was allegedly translated from English into Chinese with machine translation as “invisible insanity”, is also only a myth.

But translators who use machine translation on a daily basis know that not only both mythical mistranslations, which may or may not be real, but even much, much more hilariously nonsensical mistranslations are indeed quite plausible because they are produced now by our present-day machine translation system every day.

When I tried to put machine translation to a test a few months ago on a translation of a Japanese document which you can see it for yourself right here in this post to counter the constant drumbeat of machine translation propagandists, the result was pretty unbelievable…

“But what about GoogleTranslate and Google’s new “neural” statistical machine translation model?” some people are bound to object. “Isn’t it already sometime almost as good as human translation?”

Well, no, it’s not, not by a long shot. It looks in parts as good as human translations because it is based in part on translations that were done by real human translators. But the software sometime incorporates unrelated human translations, and sometime aggregates different pieces of different translations together the wrong way, which means that the machine translation cannot be trusted. If it could be trusted, I would already be out of job, but it so happens that I am so busy that I’ve hardly had any free weekends since November and it is already March.

This weekend, for example, I have been translating nine sets of claims from nine examined Japanese patent applications. These patent applications were filed in Japan in Japanese, but originally they were filed in different countries and in different languages – in English, French and Portuguese.

I found a lot of information about other versions of these patents that exist in other languages than Japanese, most of which I can read, and when I was looking at this information, I was thinking, it must be very difficult for a patent lawyer who does know Japanese to figure out what really was filed in those Japanese patents in Japan.

I don’t know how many good translators are there who can translate French and Portuguese patents to Japanese. I doubt that there are many translators like that in Japan, but even if there are some or quite a few, my guess would be that in a pinch, a patent law firm would simply use a translation from English for translation to Japanese if they can’t find a translator for the original language. Which would mean that I may have been translating to English something that was translated from French or Portuguese to English, and then from English to Japanese.

Combined with the fact that there are many differences between different versions of the same invention depending on whether these documents were filed as unexamined patent applications, as examined patent applications, or as issued patents in different countries, and depending on in which language these different documents were filed, there is basically no telling what really is in the Japanese version unless one can read Japanese, or unless one can pay somebody to translate the Japanese version, although the Japanese version might be the result of two other translations, for example from Portuguese to English, and then from English to Japanese.

And how does one know which differences are due to the different rules for filing patents in different countries with different patent systems, and which ones are due to potential misunderstandings and mistranslations? If a text was translated several times between different languages, there must have been a mistranslation or two involved somewhere in there, right?

I did print out machine translations of the Japanese texts, which I did find confusing. Basically, only machine translations of very short sentences made sense, the rest of the machine-translated output was usable basically only by a translator as a dictionary.

Which means that the machine translations were very helpful to me, but only because I do understand Japanese.

There is no denying that machine translation technology has come a long way since the times of good vodka, rotten meat and invisible insanity. It is much, much better than what it was 50, 20, 30 or even 10 or 5 years ago.

But the amazing and very significant developments in machine translation technology over the last few decades have basically only covered a distance that is approximately equivalent to landing on the Moon. This was a major accomplishment, but an accomplishment that, contrary to expectations, was not followed by traveling to faraway planets for a simple reason – this is presently impossible at our level of technological development.

Creating software capable of producing machine translation that is as good as human translation is about as easy creating a robot that would be indistinguishable from a beautiful woman who can play a hauntingly beautiful melody on a piano, with all of the feeling that only a human being who happens to be an experienced and accomplished concert pianist can put into a command performance.

Yet, I don’t think that practical magic of this  type is impossible, and I even think that I know when something like will become a reality.

It will become a reality one day when humans finally meet cute and chummy aliens who will land on our planet and generously share with us technology that will enable us, humans, to do the same things that have been possible for centuries or millennia already on faraway plants that are much more technologically advanced than what we have here on planet Earth.

Posted by: patenttranslator | February 28, 2017

Please Abuse Me, I Am a Translator/Interpreter (Part II)

Translators and interpreters are abused all the time, mostly by translation agencies as I wrote in Part I of my post with the same title. But sometimes we can fight back … although we usually have to use furtive, clandestine methods, because the first rule of the game is that we have to make sure we’ll still get paid by the client.

Once I made one of several lawyers who hired me for an interpreting session blush. It was not the proudest achievement of my short-lived career as an interpreter – that would have been when I was interpreting the nearly incomprehensible mumblings of an immigration judge in San Francisco so well that the client I was working for was granted his permanent resident visa.

But it was still enjoyable.

This lawyer, young and eager to show off his linguistic acumen, in an obvious attempt to test my knowledge of the English language and have some fun at my expense at the same time should my vocabulary be less extensive than his, asked me in a deposition about the person being deposed: “Is the gentleman ambidextrous?” while looking at me with the clear hope that what he thought was an inept interpreter would need an explanation of what that word meant.

So I inserted a dramatic pause into my performance and after a second or two of faked hesitation, I said: “Oh, you mean whether he can use both hands the same way?”

The guy turned red in the face like a tomato as he realized that the lowly interpreter was seeing right through him and daring to make fun of his client.

There were no more language tests after that one.

It so happens that English has many Latin words, or words introduced directly from Latin, and many interpreters know much more Latin than most lawyers, which is logical enough since unlike most lawyers, most interpreters are interested in foreign languages. As far as translators and interpreters are concerned, Latin happens to be just another foreign language and the fact that it is a dead one only adds to its mystique and appeal. I now sound like somebody who suffers from necrophilia don’t I? Which, incidentally, is another English word derived from another dead and extremely desirable language, namely old Greek.

I have been told by several female interpreters who work for lawyers that some lawyers like to abuse them by addressing them as “Miss interpreter”, while pronouncing it as one word. (Note: a good retort would be “it’s MIZ”.)

That is just so funny and original, no matter how many times it is used!

Once, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was interpreting for a Czech government delegation whose job was to purchase some wonderful American technology urgently needed to update major parts of the crumbling Czechoslovakian infrastructure that was back than in an even worse shape than the US infrastructure is now after decades of neglect, almost rivaling the mismanagement of communist regimes.

When the guy who hired me saw that some members of the Polish delegation who were also there with the same job were intently listening to my translation, he asked about it. So I explained to him that since the two languages are to some extent mutually intelligible, like for instance Spanish and Portuguese, he told me to raise my voice so that the Polish delegation would be able to hear me too.

But the Poles, about half a dozen of them or so, were sitting at the end of a very long table in a very big room. “Am I supposed to shout at them? It would be very disturbing” I told to my client. “No”, said the guy, “speak loud enough so that they could hear you, but not so loud that they would be disturbed by it.”

It was just like an episode straight from Dilbert’s comic strip.

At this point, my interpreting days are fortunately long over and part of the reason for that is that I don’t want to put up with the abuse that interpreters have to take like a man (although most interpreters are actually women). I’m just too old for that stuff.

Based on my very limited experience, it’s rare when an interpreter can defend himself or herself effectively.

The problem is that we don’t want to antagonize our clients, who might decide not to hire us next time, or even not to pay us for work already done, which, although it would be indescribably despicable, has been known to happen on occasion.

The abuse that translators have to put up with is different from the kind of abuse that our interpreting brothers and sisters have to put up with—or not, as the case may be—and is not as bad as what interpreters face, because translators don’t deal directly with people, only with documents. And I believe that independent—or freelance, if you will—translators are in fact less abused then most interpreters, and much, much less than most employees.

I still remember the subtle but persistent and nearly omnipresent abuse I received when I was an employee. I was an employee in several countries, and in every one of them, as an employee I had to do whatever I was told to do, without questioning anything, pretty much the same way as when I was wasting two years of my life in the army.

The only possibility open to employees to express their disagreement about the way a company is run is to quit. And because it may take a very long time before an employee finds another employer, especially a better one, it is very hard to quit a job when you are an employee.

It has often been said that many people stay on at a job they hate, despite the abuse, living a life of quiet desperation for decades until they die because they see no other way to pay their bills. And it is probably true, most of us have experienced something similar; in fact that is often the main reason why some of us are no longer employees.

All things considered, in most cases translators and interpreters are not nearly abused as much as regular employees, thanks to the fact that we don’t have an employer.

Losing a long-time client hurts if it is a customer who kept us busy at good rates for years. But unfortunately, there is nothing we can do about it, because clients don’t last forever.

And even when we sometimes do have to put up with being abused by a client, for example by having to wait months before we finally get paid, once we do get paid for our work, we can put an end to the abuse by no longer accepting more work from a tainted source, which is called firing a client.

As long as we can figure out how to hook the next fish in the sea, and there really are plenty of other fish in the sea, and provided we also learn how to stay away from the red ocean and yellow ocean where all kinds of pretty disgusting fish may be swimming, one of the advantages of our job is that we are much less likely to be abused than employees.

Posted by: patenttranslator | February 21, 2017

How Good Translation Agencies Go Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello [no name],

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

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

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

Thank you and we look forward to receiving your information.

Best regards,


Project Coordinator

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sonja Johanson, The Truth About Fences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: patenttranslator | February 7, 2017

When a Translator Dies

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear [my name]

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

 The funds have been returned to your account.

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

He does it mostly for the challenge, he said.

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

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

I certainly look forward to it.

Posted by: patenttranslator | January 30, 2017

Is Translation Even a Separate Profession?

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

Dean Kuntz, Saint Odd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what if he is right?

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

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

This question can be answered in many different ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Good

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

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

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

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

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

The Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ugly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impact of Machine Translation on My Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: patenttranslator | January 18, 2017

Proofreading of Translations Can Easily Result in a Disaster

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

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

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

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

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

Problems with Proofreading Translations In-House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problems When Translations Are Sent Out for Proofreading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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