Posted by: patenttranslator | June 23, 2013

Human Translator’s Survival Guide to The 21st Century


For at least the last twenty years, I have been told that translators, including myself, will be replaced by machine translation within a decade because machine translation that is almost indistinguishable from human translation is just around the corner. For about ten years, I have been told that post-MT editing is the prevailing trend in the translation industry, and that whether I like it or not, MT-post editing is my future and the only future that translators can still hope for. And of course I have been also told  for all of these decades that I have been translating that translation users only care about the price and don’t really care about quality.

All of these statements are true, and at the same time, all of these statements are also oversimplifications and falsehoods, depending on what we mean by terms such as “cost”, “quality”, “human translation” and “translation industry”.

It is true for example that Google Translate can in some cases produce amazingly good translations that look like excellent human translation. But the reason for that is simple – Google Translate is not based on traditional approaches to machine translation. Instead, the machine picks for us an existing human translation from an incredibly large database of human translations. But even this approach to machine translation can work only to a limited extent, and incidentally, a little known fact is that it does not work nearly as well for example for translation between languages such as Japanese and English or Czech and English as it does for translation between common European languages.

I think that the final revolutionary breakthrough of machine translation that will finally be the undoing of people working in a profession like mine will be still just around the corner for at least the next 20 or 30 years if not the next 2 or 3 centuries.

It is hard for me to imagine a fate worse than post-editing of machine translations. What a horrible way to die. I think that certain segments of the translation industry already are or soon will be indeed based on this rather simplistic approach to human thinking, since translating is mostly about thinking. But it will be a relatively small segment of the industry and my heart goes out to people who will have to be actually engaged in this mind numbingly slavish labor to pay their bills and feed their family.

Like God, technology sometime moves in mysterious ways.

After the revelations of Edward Snowden, who was comically and ironically enough accused by the US Government of being a spy because he revealed that the US government is spying on all of us, completely illegally (I can read and I have read the US Constitution), technology is likely to start moving again in somewhat different and more circuitous ways. For example, I have switched from Google to DuckDuckGo and Ixquick because of what he said, although he just confirmed a deep-seated suspicion. I think that because tens of millions of people are likely to do the same, Google and other search engines will have to eventually offer an option to users who do not want to be spied on because otherwise these users will be gone.

Humans are not impotent against the prowess of evil machines in the hands of people who are not very nice.  And translators are not going to be erased from existence by machine translation … except perhaps in certain translation fields.

I see on my Dashboard that this blog, for example, has been quite often translated with machine translation, although several of my posts were also translated into other languages (Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Arabic) also by human translators. It is clear that one translation field where MT will continue to completely dominate the market is free translation.

It is quite likely that free machine translation will take a lot of work away from some translators who used to be paid for their work. I don’t know in which fields this is likely to happen, but I would imagine that these would be translations that are not very difficult and not terribly important.

It is not going to happen in the field of patent translation, which is my field. It so happens that a lot of money can be made or lost depending on whether your translation does or does not make sense in the field of patent translation.

It is true that some translations in my field are no longer necessary because machine translations, for example of German or French patents into English, are good enough at this point to be usable for certain purposes. But at the same time, more translations are being ordered thanks to what my customers are able to find out on their own with machine translation.

I have noticed that the demand for translation of Japanese patents to English has dropped considerably in the last few years, while the demand for translation of German and French patents to English has gone through the roof, at least in my cozy translator’s office. Machine translations of Japanese patents are almost completely useless if you can’t read the Japanese original, while machine translation of French and German patents are not that bad. So if machine translation were my enemy, I should have seen the opposite trend.

I think that the fluctuations of demand for technical translations from certain languages do not really have anything to do with machine translation, and that they have everything to do with the technology being developed in a given moment and in a given country. I translate fewer Japanese patents because Japanese technology has fallen behind. That can and hopefully will change at some point.

So how does a human translator survive the 21st century, you may ask, with so many threats looming on the horizon?

Take a look at what it is that you are translating. Is it a very simple text that can be translated quite easily, so simple that even if it were translated by a machine, the customer would still be likely to understand most of the translation?

If the answer is yes, the chances are that your job may not last very long and that it will be indeed swallowed up by machine translation, or that you will be needed only as a cheap machine translation-editing slave.

If the answer is no, I would not worry too much about surviving on your skills alone in this century.

Instead, I would concentrate more on things like marketing of my services to direct customers, staying well informed about what is happening around me, and having fun and enjoying life at the same time.


  1. I couldn’t agree more with you. I have a number of comeback clients who once thought MT was their way. I’ll never forget this masterpiece I once found in one of their machine-translated documents:
    Original Sp: “El empleado debe tener un dominio fluido del ingles”
    MT En: “The employee must have fluid domain in the groin”


    • Priceless. 🙂 [Which, translated by a human into Spanish, is “impagable”. By MT, I would suspect it would end up at “without price”, LOL]


  2. Ingle, ingles, same difference.


  3. “For example, I have switched from Google to DuckDuckGo and Ixquick because of what he said, although he just confirmed a deep-seated suspicion.”

    Do you really believe there is such a thing called anonymous on the web???
    There may be degrees of difficulty in finding the information, but anything that is based on zeros and ones (and works so wonderfully, I might add) is bound to leave a print and be discovered. So, whether you search Google-eyed or if you quack around for the results, I think your working assumption should be that you are followable.


  4. Of course we are all followable, just like we are all mortal.

    But I believe that we should use common sense methods to prevent tracking, just like I believe in looking both ways first before I cross the street.

    I think that search engines that store only key words and throw away all particulars about Internet users have a superior business model and a bright future.

    I think that Google and other search engines that spy on everything we do on Internet have a big problem, and they will probably offer less intrusive alternatives to Internet users.

    They’d better do that. If they don’t, their future may not be so bright anymore.


  5. “Having some fun at the same time” – ain’t THAT the truth?! We happen to be in a period in which the amount of stress is high and the degree of fun is negligible. I believe this is unsustainable and that our only realistic solution is to bypass the agencies and search out ongoing end-clients our very wide range of fields of interest.


  6. My current jobs include puns, something like an acrostic, length-limited lines, lip-synching, etc. MT won’t get that far, I suppose. 🙂


  7. Sounds like fun, but not as much fun as patents.

    For instance, the poetry of chemical terms such as “bis(triethoxysilyl propyl) tetrasulfide and bis(triethoxysilyl propyl) disulfide” and the healing effect and impact of the melodious words on my tortured psyche is simply indescribable.


  8. […] For at least the last twenty years, I have been told that translators, including myself, will be replaced by machine translation within a decade because machine translation that is almost indisting…  […]


  9. I was once conned into “proofreading” a MT by a regular client who told me that this time he managed to translate the text “by himself” and now he only needs me to proofread….we are talking here about English to Hebrew – not quite one of the above mentioned European languages! It took me ages to work out what the text was supposed to be saying, but the penny dropped only after I read that one of the main causes of bad health is due to children having (roughly translated back to English) “a pitiful weight loss program”. The English version said “poor diet”. As “poor” in English means pitiful as well as deficient, and diet means a weight-loss program in adition to what you eat, but in Hebrew there are different expressions in both cases, that’s what the MT came up with.

    Following that enlightning experience, I don’t do anymore MT “re-translating” – and if I found out I’ve been tricked into doing one, my rate is the same as for translating.


  10. MT gets very creative with Japanese characters because it can easily misidentify them, especially if the legibility is not good, and supply English translations of old, historical characters that are not much used anymore, relating for example to Confucianism or Ming dynasty, or to Chinese stories about the Monkey King and things like that, when the subject is for instance a patent about a shoe sole or a toothpaste.

    I am grateful that little pearls like that brighten my dull life every now and then.


  11. Great post and good insights, especially on the trends that you reported in your own work. Although machines will never replace human translators, there is not doubt that MT has driven down human translation prices in most areas. But that’s fair because most professional translators use MT to help themselves in their own work. Production is faster, delivery times are shorter and professional translators can spend less time on a job. The same is true of translation memory tools. Translation agencies expect a discount for repeat text and for matches because it takes less time to process that text. I think that ultimately, MT helps more than it harms professional translators.


  12. “A little known fact is that it does not work nearly as well for example for translation between languages such as Japanese and English or Czech and English as it does for translation between common European languages.”

    I can confirm that this is also true for translations into English from other Slavic languages like Polish and Russian, since machine translation seems to go by word order instead of word ending in determining what the subject, object, and indirect object of the sentence are, as do novice human translators in those pairs. Double negatives and passive constructions also give machines and novices problems. In fact, machine translations often look and feel like novice or amateur translations.


  13. Very nice intelligent article on machine translation. I agree with most of the views you present. I am pretty sure that machine translation is not going to replace Chinese legal translation either, which is my specialty. It, as the comment above states, is changing the industry, especially in lower pricing.
    I just hope those MT translations don’t make it into GPS or medical devices where lack of accuracy is life threatening.


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