Posted by: patenttranslator | July 13, 2011

Translations Are Like Sushi, Sausages Or Gourmet Meals, Most People Can’t Tell The Difference

I was watching an interesting program on Envoyé Spécial on TV5 Monde a few days ago in which the French reporters were going through “les poubelles” (garbage cans) behind gourmet French restaurants in Paris to determine the ingredients of fine meals prepared in those restaurants. One of them went with a hidden camera inside the restaurant pretending that she was planning to open a similar restaurant and the chef was graciously explaining to her how things were done. He probably asked her for a date at the end, although they did not show that part.

It’s like this: you buy cheap canned fruits, fish and vegetables from countries like Bulgaria, assemble “fresh” ingredients from assorted cans that cost less than one Euro on a plate and, voilà, you’ve got yourself an entrée that can be sold to discriminating Parisians for at least 20 Euros. Fortunately for the restaurant business, most people can’t tell the difference between fresh ingredients and cheep canned food.

Can our customers tell the difference between a really good translation and a pretty bad one? Some probably can, but many are probably as clueless as the sophisticated gourmands in expensive restaurants in Paris or San Francisco.

I have been eating sushi for about 30 years now and I still can’t tell the difference between sushi that is really good and the so-so kind. It’s all in the ingredients and how you prepare them. Good sushi must have the right kind of rice, vinegar, nori, wasabi, and most importantly …  the fish, of course. The fish should be fresh and it should be the right kind of fish, and you can only tell the right kind of fish for the right kind of sushi by the look in the eyes of the dead fish when it is displayed early in the morning when everybody is still asleep on a Japanese fish market, or so I have been told. It takes a special kind of person with a special kind of training, experience and a burning passion for sushi to prepare such a meal. Is the raw fish that is sold in our neighborhood sushi restaurant fresh? We should be so lucky. In fact, we are probably lucky if the fish being served to us is not today’s “mercury special”, or even “plutonium special” these days.

Is a typical translation customer being served edited machine translations these days, or something that was translated by a translator in a third world country who does not really know a foreign language such as Japanese that well, which was then edited by a native speaker in a translation agency who does not know the foreign language at all so that it would look like a good translation? Many probably are.

Translations are not that different from sushi or sausages in this respect, it’s all in the ingredients and how you put them together. The education and experience of the person who translated the text is the equivalent of fresh fish that is free of mercury (or plutonium these days). A translation that was done by the wrong kind of translator cannot be “edited” to create a good translation and machine translations basically cannot be edited at all. The best you can do with machine translation is fix the most glaring mistakes and replace the most hilarious errors by something that makes sense.

Clients who don’t realize that a really cheap translation is probably toxic are like restaurant goers who pay 20 Euros for an entrée that came out of a cheap can of vegetables and sardines. If they don’t speak the source language, how can they tell what’s really in the translation?

In the field of patent translation which is what I do, most of my clients can probably tell if the technical terms in English seem to be accurate, for instance if it is a chemical patent. But in other types of translation it may be much more difficult to tell fresh ingredients from dog food.

As I said, after about 30 years of eating sushi at least once a week, I still can’t really tell the difference between good sushi and the merely OK kind. I defer in this respect to the judgment of  my wife who is a merciless critic of sushi restaurants in America.

After all, even most Japanese restaurants in San Francisco’s Japantown are run by Koreans who  according to her are genetically incapable of understanding the Zen of sushi, or at least they were in the eighties and early nineties when we lived there. And most Japanese restaurants here in Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Chesapeake are run by Chinese people who suffer from the same genetic defect according to my wife. There was a really good Japanese sushi place in Virginia Beach for quite a few years but the Japanese owners sold it to some Chinese people and we stopped going there.

On the other hand, my wife, who used to be a chef in San Francisco,  cannot tell the difference between a really good sausage and the other kind. She always waits for my approval of the taste when it comes to things like sausages or beer.

She even thought that Budweiser (the American kind, not the original beer by the same name which comes from Southern Bohemia) was a pretty good beer until I explained to her that American Budweiser really tastes OK, except that it is not really a beer. I got used to it after about 30 years and buy it and drink it. It even goes with sushi, although saké is best, of course. But I don’t think of it as a beer, to me it’s a drink that is in its own category which is quite similar to beer.

I think that it is quite possible that people will get used to edited machine translations one day and buy them because they are cheaper than the real thing and nobody will even notice it, let alone talk about it on a TV program such as Envoyé Spécial or 60 Minutes.


  1. Hi Steve!

    I like Envoyé spécial, it is a really good show. I also think what you say is very true. In the end, it all comes to the kind of translation that clients need. If the client needs a basic translation to just understand the meaning of a text or a great translation that will be published for example. I noticed some translators offer specific informational translation rates to help clients get the gist a text. I think there might be a whole market for translators there where they can compete against MT, even if I don’t think MT is a real threat to our profession.



  2. Hi Sophie,

    I have to disagree with you.

    At least in my field, it would not work the way you describe it.

    Sometime I receive an e-mail from a patent lawyer, who probably works for a penny pinching client, that says something like “the translation does not have to be very accurate as long as I can understand it.”

    Which makes me want to say “so what is it that you want, an inaccurate translation?” (although I never say that, of course).

    When I translate something, I give it all I have. What I usually suggest in similar cases is to translate only parts of the patent, usually the claims and description of figures so that the translation would cost only a fraction of what the whole thing would cost.

    Which is not to say that what you are proposing would not work in other fields. Maybe it would, although I don’t see how.

    And yes, Envoyé Spécial is often very good and so is Complément d’enquête, much better than most the of the commercial garbage they show on US TV channels. I also like the Swiss documentary programs called ARTE Reportage, I think they are from Suisse Romande but I am not sure now. I watch them on French TV but they could be dubbed in French, the credits have a lot of German names.

    Best regards,



  3. Hi Steve,

    As you said, I don’t think this kind of service can apply to patent translation or even literature translation of course. But it can work for marketing and journalism for instance. The most important think to remember is that not all clients want a clean translation, they just want to know what a text is about for some reason.




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