Posted by: patenttranslator | July 26, 2013

If Politics Is Hollywood for Ugly People, Translation Is Literature for Writers Without a Single Original Idea

According to a popular saying, politics is Hollywood for ugly people, although this may be less true now than it used to be. The younger politicians are these days often pretty hip, they like things like parties, sexting, junkets and taxpayer-paid vacations for their wives and precious children that cost almost as much as the bailout of Detroit that never was, and of course, the all time favorite of important people – having other important people pay them lots and lots of money in exchange for very minor and completely legal favors.

But by the time they turn sixty after almost three decades of “serving” in Congress, they all seem to finally have the sad, repulsive faces that they deserve and that we have grown to love so much when we watch them lying to us on TV.

A certain well known relatively young politician reminds me, every time I see him on TV, of a variation of what Mary McCarthy once said once about Lilian Hellman:”Every word she said was a lie, including “the” and “and”.

Try to guess which one. You will have quite a choice.

Well, if politics can be defined as Hollywood for ugly people, translation could be defined as the perfect occupation for people who really would like to be writers but who have no idea what to write about.

As long as you know at least two languages, one of them pretty well and the other one well enough to understand most of it, you can be a translator, which is to say  a writer who does not need to have any ideas of his own because he is perfectly happy writing about the ideas of other people.

It is such a restful occupation when you can hitch your wagon to what other people have said in a different language, and it is so much fun to be simply writing while concentrating only on the beauty and the meaning that is hidden in words, both everyday words and very uncommon words, without having to supply your own ideas. All you need is words (not love, or ideas, in this case).

There is also no risk in doing that. Having your own ideas, now that could be pretty dangerous when everything you say and do is stored somewhere by invisible people.

Non-translators usually don’t understand how much fun it can be to be simply writing about something, anything, even when you are really only transcribing somebody else’s idea into another language. Most people also don’t understand that unless you are a really good writer, you cannot be a very good translator, regardless of how fluent you are in however many languages and how well educated you may be.

Because translators love to write, many of them have blogs, sometime with only a precious few ideas in the posts they incessantly keep publishing, often several times a week. Does this post have an idea? Probably not, other than that it is based on a silly comparison, but it feels so good to keep on writing.


On the other hand, although translators may not have any or only very few ideas of their own, without their idea-less occupation, technical translators in particular, we might still be riding in horse drawn carriages and buggies, living in houses without electricity and thus without Internet, which may work very well for the Pennsylvania Amish, but probably not so well for the rest of us.

A thousand years ago there was not much need for translators, at least not in Europe where everybody who had some education was able to read and write in Latin as Latin was used as the lingua franca of sciences for about eight hundred years during the Middle Ages.

We don’t know what whether the mother tongue of Copernicus was Polish or German, although we do know that his mother did not talk to him in Latin when he was a child. How do you say in Latin:”Go to your room, now!”? Is it “Vade ad cubiculum tuum, et nunc!”? Sounds about right.

But had he written his book titled “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) in Polish or German five hundred years ago when the occupation of “technical translator” did not exist yet, the chances are that the Sun would have been revolving around the Earth for a few more centuries because not too many people would know about his book as our noble occupation did not exist yet.

So it would not be an exaggeration to say that while translators may not need to have a single original idea to do their job, without them, most people might not even know in what direction the Earth is turning.


  1. PT you said: “Most people also don’t understand that unless you are a really good writer, you cannot be a very good translator, regardless of how fluent you are in however many languages and how well educated you may be.”

    Unfortunately there are a great many people working in the “translation business” who appear to believe that their CAT tools will do all their work for them at the press of a button. That doesn’t help them much but nor does it help those of us who handcraft our translations either.


  2. How very true.

    Yesterday I turned down a job offer from a translation agency as they were only interested in translators who use Trados.

    I did have the time to fit some work in, but I don’t use Trados and never will.

    If a customer is interested more in my software than in what kind of translator I am, that is a kind of customer that I myself am not interested in at all.

    But this is how translators are being selected these days for long rush jobs which are stitched together from the detritus left after Trados is done “standardizing” the input of a bunch of not very experienced but quite affordable translators who fit the new definition of “translator”.


    • Steve, I don’t mind if it’s Trados, Tracos or Crados, the most important is I don’t pay for the license.

      If a customer is interested more in what software I use than to pay me the expense for another fancy software, that is a kind of customer that I am not interested in at all.

      You see, you must be smart enough to use smart phone nowadays and you must know CATs and DOGs as well as the “Herrchen” to be a modern translator.


      • I am smart enough to be able to use a smart phone, and not to use Trados.

        But I don’t “must” anything.

        You only have to use these CATs if you work for a certain kind of agency, the kind that I avoid like a plague.


  3. @Michal: Not only they believe in CAT, but they go further to believe in MT. I guess that would lead to the extinction of the species of translators that Paul Sulzberger is talking about recently.

    “With the lower ground gone, the traditional LSPs will have to scramble to find a niche higher up the ‘quality’ ladder where they can serve customers who are prepared to pay higher prices. But delivering the goods to the industry’s most demanding customers is no easy matter—access to quality resources becomes a critical factor and a matter of survival. This implies intensified competition to attract and retain human resources that are already in short supply—the best and most talented translators.”

    No wonder the elite translators nowadays are making a much, much better living than St. Jerome.


    • I’m so out of touch with all this that I still confuse CAT and MT:). My mother and father were both professional translators but of course in the days of typewriters with ribbons and also using carbon paper :). I was already correcting some stuff for my Dad by mail when I was in my teens when we’d already been physically separated for well over a decade – he in Prague, I in London.

      He was primarily translating English language novels, including some of the classics, and especially Richard Halliburton’s tales of adventure that were considered very exotic and were extremely popular in the Czech lands. After we had had reconnected, precisely 25 years to the day from when I had left Prague with my English mother following the Communist coup in 1948 he frequently consulted me in regard to his ongoing projects.

      It’s not so surprising therefore that I became a translator of the old school, one who is profoundly mistrustful of “Machine Translation”, CAT and whatever other translation shortcuts anyone else might devise..


      • P.S. I do hope that I AM making a better living than St. Jerome, however 🙂


    • Michal, I know your profile by heart. No problem with me. I’d better say that I admire your career as a writer and a translator. You must be about 6 to 8 years elder than I am.

      In my case, it was different. I went to German with the intention to combine Linguistics with Computer Science. I didn’t succeed in that field, but a bit of the dream stays.

      As a translator, I don’t have much to complain, because I must be one of those elite translators. I am known in my field and offers come over the phone, as Glen Campbell sang, so that I work only with clients of my choice.

      CAT (Computer Aided Translation) tools are necessary for me, because I translate manuals in bulk. There came in last night over 110 thousand lines (55 keystrokes a line) for 12 days. It would be impossible to complete the job without a specific CAT tool within the time frame. It doesn’t mean that I can translate around 10 thousand lines a day. Most of the texts to be translated was already translated by me during the last 7 years, so that there are less than 1500 completely new lines to be translated. 1500 * 55 = 82500 keystrokes, and that would around 9000 German words for 12 days. Isn’t it wonderful to have such a job with which you need only to translate 750 words a day to make a nice living? Without a CAT tool, I wouldn’t make it this way.

      As to MT (Machine Translation), Steve wrote quite a few posts about it and mostly with examples from Google Translate. In Paul Sulzberger’s recent blog post, he mentioned Google Translate, too. And the reason why I mentioned Sulzberger’s blog post is because of the use of Google Translate is actually growing, though everybody knows about its bad quality. Yet, some translators believe in it for the sake of the money. However, the point I wanted to make is the paragraph from Sulzberger I quoted above and the last sentence that I didn’t quote, “Time to put your prices up, guys?”

      This is why elite translators make much, much better livings than St. Jerome.


      • Wenjer – you’re one of the people whom I most respect around here and there’s no way that I would ever want CAT or MT to be a subject of any discordance between us! I’m not very technically oriented, even to the point where my partner does the major part of the formatting of the work that we do and I have pretty Luddite inclinations in many respects :).
        My favourite home in my entire life was a solitary cabin in a gulch in the Rocky Mountains of Northern Montana, relatively close to Yellowstone Park, where I lived alone for 9 mostly winter months with a husky whom I adopted from a friend who was leaving for the Big City. There was a hint of civilisation a couple of miles away – a mountain lodge that even accommodated guests and had a swimming pool in which I occasionally swam all night but otherwise most of my life was about collecting and chopping up wood to feed an ancient and insatiably hungry pot-bellied stove in order to stay alive.
        Now, alas, in my 70th year and with a dodgy heart and a 24/24 monitoring device there’s no way that I could replicate such an adventure but I’m still enough of a Luddite that I shall continue to handcraft my translations. However I shall also never disrespect anyone who chooses the MT or the CAT route because I completely appreciate the concept that they can save a huge amount of effort and unnecessary repetition and that sounds like a VERY wise strategy indeed :).
        All the very best to you! Michal


  4. The niche for these “LSPs” is not difficult to foresee – it is a well known fact that many “demanding” customers are unable to tell a good translation from a bad one if it sounds good enough, and what they really demand is low, low price, especially large corporate customers where bean counters rule with an iron hand.

    So all these “LSPs” need to do is find very inexpensive translators, and there is always a huge supply of people like that, cheap enough to double or triple the rates that these subprime translators are paid when charging the customer.

    Eventually, something is likely to go wrong, but until it does, it will be business as usual.


  5. I’m a little late to the party, but what you talk about really resonates with me. I used to write a lot of fiction when I was younger, but somewhere around the age of 18 I ran out of ideas… I still loved to write, I just had no idea what on earth I would write about. So I joined the workforce and did all sorts of things until life led me to translation and, eventually, to translating books. What a revelation this turned out to be! I finally get to write all the time, but I no longer have to worry about story, characters, plot… Somebody else did all that hard work for me! All I need to do is to find pretty words.


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