Posted by: patenttranslator | March 24, 2012

Are Your Translations Helping To Make This World A Better Place?

“We do God’s work”, said Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs at one point not long ago as the world was being plunged deeper and deeper into the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression in 1929, largely as a result of the work of the Blankfeins of this world.

People have been trying to figure out whether he was being ironic, or whether this statement is just the logical byproduct of the sick mind of an arrogant and self-deluded banker. I agree that the Blankfeins of this world are doing God’s work. But you have to spell out the name of the God people like him serve.

This God does have a name and his name is Mammon, which is Aramaic for “riches”. The word itself is known from the Sermon on the Mount. “Ye can not serve both God and Mamon” (Matthew 6 : 24). I know what Jesus thought about Mamon from my favorite episode in New Testament when he overturned the tables of moneychangers. I also know what Muslims think of this particular God since Muslims are forbidden to charge interest.

But what about us translators? Are we helping to make this world a better place, or are we just miniature versions, or microscopic, really, of the Blankfeins of this world?

I suppose it would depend on what we translate. Some of us translate novels, others translate manuals, or financial and legal documents. Different translators would have a different answer to this question, but I doubt that they would have to use God to try to justify what they do for a living.

I translate mostly patents. All kinds of patents from all kinds of fields, mostly from Japanese and German, occasionally also from French, Russian and other languages.

Since I have been doing this for the last 25 years, I do ask myself from time to time whether what I do is useful and whether it helps to make this world a better place, or whether it actually makes things worse in this world.

This means that for about a quarter century I have been translating for instance patents about new designs for what not so long ago used to be called telephone and what is now referred to as cell phone in United States, 携帯電話 (“keitai denwa) in Japan, “Handy” in German speaking countries, and portable phone in most other European countries.

In 1987, people in United States still mostly used the term portable phone or car phone to refer to huge, heavy and ugly bricks that could be used mostly only in some parts of big cities. By the time I bought my first cell phone around 1992, the phones were much smaller and the battery lasted much longer, but they were still pretty bulky and you could use them basically only for one thing, namely to make a phone call.

But having a cell phone was a major improvement for this translator because it meant that I no longer had to sit in my office all day long for fear of losing business. I found it so liberating to be able to transfer my office number to my cell phone and wander the streets of little towns in Northern California called Petaluma and Santa Rosa, browsing in bookstores or just going for a walk whenever I felt like it if I was not too busy.

During all those years I must have translated hundreds of patents about different techniques for improving cell phone coverage and for adding new features to your basic portable phone, in addition to periodic software updates of communication manuals and things like that.

I don’t have to delude myself that what I was doing was “God’s work”. I know that what I was doing was useful work because I was among those who were directly benefiting from the new technologies and designs.

The cell phone today is a very different device from what it used to be only a few years ago, let alone 25 years ago. People use them to find out which way to go when they drive in their car, to find a pizza joint or a restaurant, to check a word in a dictionary, to use machine translation, to check their e-mail, or to tweet and waste their time on social media networks in every possible way. My two sons, both in their twenties, carry their whole world in their phones. If I want to see my son who is now living three thousand miles away from me in San Francisco, not just talk to him, I can use the FaceTime feature on my phone. A couple of years ago, this would have been unimaginable. God knows what we will be using the phone for a couple of years from now.

It is quite possible that I will be writing this blog on my phone a few years or months from now or do other things with it that I don’t know about yet. My work as a technical translator was and still is helping to speed up this development when I translate new information from foreign languages. I know that my work is useful. I would even go so far as to say that I am proud of what I am doing. And nobody has to bail out people like me if my business is about to collapse because you can cheat some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time, which I think is a good definition of the “God’s work” of big banks.

Although for some reason I never saw this quote in American media, Lloyd Blankfein also acknowledged that “I could slit my wrists and people would cheer”. That is how many people feel about the bankers these day.

I hope I am not deluding myself, but I really can’t think of anybody who would want to cheer should I decide to slit my wrists.

Least of all my customers. They would have to find another translator to replace me. I think that most of them would prefer if I stay alive so that I can translate for another 25 years for them, as long as I don’t raise my rates too much.


  1. Reblogged this on mrekulliinxhinierike.


  2. […] Are Your Translations Helping To Make This World A Better Place? ( Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]


  3. I would definitely cheer if two or three of the Supreme Court justices “disappeared,” as the French so neatly put it, but not necessarily because they slit their wrists!

    As for making the world a better place, I think only people like Mozart, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Bach, to name but a few, do that because they give voice to something in the master plan. Now for the trees-in-the-forest discussion!


  4. 1. I don’t think that things would be very different if 3 of the Supreme Politburo justices (that’s what I have been calling them since the Bush v. Gore decision) were replaced. For example, it does not really matter what they will decide about the so called Affordable Health Care Act, which is what they are working now.

    The only true part of the name is the word “Act”. The whole thing is an act. We need a real reform, not this garbage.

    In other words, the problems go much deeper than that.

    2. I am no Beethoven, but I believe that in a small way, my translation are helping to make this world a better place, see my cell phone design example.


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