Posted by: patenttranslator | February 9, 2014

Translation – A Most Misunderstood Profession

Somebody from a patent law firm, probably a paralegal, sent me an e-mail through the quote request link on my website because he was looking for a highly qualified translator.

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am looking to have a Japanese patent publication translated to English by a translator having:

1.      A technical degree in computer science

            a. Ph.D. preferred but will consider other candidates

2.      Experience with network security and caches

a.       This criteria is preferred but not required

3.      Experience translating from Japanese to English as well as English to Japanese

Do you have any translators that meet this criteria?

Because I was not really interested in working for this person, I allowed myself to say in my response to him this: “Incidentally, criteria is plural”. I could also have said that “that” should have been “who”, but I didn’t.

I mean, how can you evaluate the qualifications and the suitability of a translator if you don’t even seem to know basic things such as the difference between singular and plural in your own language?

Personally, I don’t want to work for people like that …. people who are very demanding, but who don’t really know what it is that they want.

The criteria reveal interesting misconceptions that some of our clients often seem to have about the translating profession.

Let’s briefly consider the expected criteria designed to ensure that the best possible candidate will be selected for the job at hand.

1.  A technical degree in computer science, a Ph.D. preferred

Just because you have a Ph.D. in something does not mean that you are automatically a better translator than somebody who only has a master’s degree, or a diploma from a community college.

Moreover, if you are a medical doctor, or a lawyer, for example, why would you want to work as a translator when most doctors and lawyers generally make more money (if they are any good), usually much more money, than most translators?

There are people like that, but they are often retired, or they consider translating more a hobby than a real career and a real profession. If you studied medicine or law, and don’t practice medicine or law, the chances are that you were probably not a very good doctor or lawyer, which is why you decided to become a translator.

Many people who eventually become translators joined our unappreciated and misunderstood profession from various fields of human knowledge. The more you know about the subject that you translate, the better, of course. But contrary to popular belief, there is no direct relationship between a Ph.D. and the quality of one’s translation as a degree does not automatically make you a better translator.

I’ll take an experienced translator over a medical doctor any time as I wrote in an article for the ATA (American Translators Association) Chronicle 11 years ago. But so many clients seem to think that the most important qualification for a translator is that it should not really be an experienced translator but a person armed with a title who is somehow, mysteriously, perfectly fluent in a number of languages and thus obviously able and eminently qualified to translate.

2.      Experience with network security and caches

Are we talking practical experience on the level of an Edward Snowden here, or what are we talking about? Practical experience is invaluable for a translator, of course, but that again does not a translator make. People who have tons of practical experience in the field but are not excellent writers, or who don’t know the grammar of their own language very well, or who are not really fluent in the foreign language are not really translator material at all, are they?

Also, Snowden was a high school dropout, wasn’t he? That would seem to clash with point 1 in the required criteria mentioned above.

Education and practical experience are really important, but they per se do not guarantee that the quality of the translation will be excellent. A combination of a number of different factors usually determines whether a translator will be good, but these are not necessarily the factors that were mentioned in the e-mail.

3.      Experience translating from Japanese to English as well as English to Japanese

This shows a level of misunderstanding of what translation is really about that is very common among some of our clients, although it is not probably that surprising the person who did not know that “criteria” is plural would also fail to understand that people generally translate only into their native language, and based on the etymology of the word “native”, (a cognate of the Latin word “natus” meaning “born”), most of us are really native only in one language because most of us have been born only once.

It is true that some translators are truly bilingual to the point that they may be able to translate very competently into two languages. I know translators who translate between German and English, Spanish and English, and French and English in both directions.

None of them is a native speaker of English, but they write very good English. For example, they would certainly know the difference between singular and latinized plural of English words.

But I don’t know any native English speakers who translate into Japanese. Japanese is so complicated and so different from any European language that essentially only native Japanese speakers can translate in both directions … and the problem is, very few native Japanese speakers can write good English, although there are a few people like that on this planet.

So the potential customer basically eliminated all native speakers of English as unsuitable for the job at hand, probably without even realizing it, although a native speaker of the target language would be most likely his best bet for the kind of translator that he was interested in.

Judging from the salutation, he must have sent his query to a number of translation agencies, and he probably found somebody who on paper appeared to be the best suitable candidate for translating a complicated Japanese patent. There must be a hundred translation agencies ready to enthusiastically declare that they absolutely “have” the best candidate for this job!!!

I am sorry I was not the chosen one, as I think that I too would have done a very good job, although I only have a master’s degree (in languages, not in computer science), I have no practical experience as a system administrator (although I must have translated hundreds of patents on the subject of caches and network security over the last 27 years), and I do not translate into Japanese (only from Japanese and five other languages into English).

But as I got blog post number 407 out of this brief exchange of e-mails, this lost opportunity on my part to make some money was at least good for something.

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Responses

  1. I love the ones that ask for these kind of credentials, then say 4 yen per Japanese character. Um, no thanks.

    Like

  2. So what is an acceptable payment level in yen per Japanese character these days?

    I really don’t know because I have no clients in Japan at this point.

    Like

  3. How about giving them the underwritten link?
    Half an hour ago, I found it and was astonished at reading all the Sch… in the website:
    https://www.unbabel.co/pricing
    This is lower than peanuts and gets down to a crumb level!?! As I thought, they want translators to become assistants to TM and CAT tools. I am and want to be a translator by profession, not an assistant to a Sch…maschine. How much are they going to pay for proofreading then? I am curious and would like to know what people in the “Chindia” area think about and how happy are with that. Are we in the middle of a price war, and we have not realised that?
    It is too early and cannot be an “April-1st-joke”. Could it be, they are in the good mood already that “during carnival anything goes”?

    Like

    • “Machine + Crowd Translation you can trust”… that is the best oxymoronic tagline I’ve ever seen!! Worth of a Pulitzer or even a Nobel Prize! :))

      1 cent per word… how low can you go…. these are the actual sites that should be taken down, not the pirate bay and the like. Putting absurd ideas into the public’s mind that grow like a cancer and then infect and drag down the profession.

      Like

  4. @Vincenza

    At these prices, it’s probably just packaging of MT.

    Although I still don’t understand how anyone can make money like this since anybody can use MT for free, and you can’t really pay “editors” anything at these prices.

    But one thing is for sure – nobody can underbid these guys.

    Like

  5. Neither do I. http://www.linkedin.com/in/vascopedro
    In Germany, there are translation companies looking for students on a 400-euro basis. They do not have to in translation studies on purpose. Maybe students perhaps are ready to work for crumbs since they do not have expenses and taxation that we have to cope with.

    Like

  6. … sorry, there are grammar mistakes. It is 01:22 in the night, and I am tired.

    Like

  7. Good article! As a matter of fact, though, “criterion/criteria” originates from Ancient Greek, not Latin.

    Like

    • @Alexandra
      You are right, of course.

      What I meant to say was that the “a” at the end means that it is a latinized plural created in English (for the originally Greek word kriterion as you are correctly pointing out), although words with the plural “a” in English generally originate in Latin.

      Thanks for your correction – I fixed the misleading part.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. […] Somebody from a patent law firm, probably a paralegal, sent me an e-mail through the quote request link on my website because he was looking for a highly qualified translator. Dear Sir/Madam, I am …  […]

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  9. Thank you Steve, for taking me a bit farther into the reach of how to dissect a job offer and see what kind of a client is getting in touch with me. You make a good point and it’s something that we should all be looking at more closely; how does the language of a potential client tell you what they know about translation? It’s fairly common for clients not to know that translators are working mostly into their native language and I think part of our job is educating the client. WHEN you have one that is worth it. I find it very interesting that you, as an experienced translator still get this kind of thing. I thought you were in that great translator’s pie in the sky, cracking out translations for the most important, educated and understanding clients. 🙂

    Like

  10. “I thought you were in that great translator’s pie in the sky, cracking out translations for the most important, educated and understanding clients. :)”

    Ain’t no such thing, as you know well, Jessie (judging from the emoticon).

    Like

  11. […] I am looking to have a Japanese patent publication translated to English by a translator having: 1. A technical degree in computer science. a. Ph.D. preferred but will consider other candidates. 2. Experience with network …  […]

    Like

  12. […] Somebody from a patent law firm, probably a paralegal, sent me the e-mail below because he was looking for a highly qualified translator. Dear Sir/Madam, I am looking to have a Japanese patent publication translated to …  […]

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  13. […] A Word on Large and Small Translation Agencies 2014 Web Globalization Report Card is Released! Translation – A Most Misunderstood Profession Using scripts to market your services effectively Select Committee evidence on legal interpreting […]

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  14. I’ve been out of the loop on this website of recent, but found this a bull’s eye of a topic idea to again frequent me. Other than ignorance in travel logistics issues for interpreting assignments, let alone California state evasion of Certification in my second language (Italian), when it becomes less “survivor” to find the beef of the paychecks and not just the peanuts (all zoo life told), this will be once again the profession it should have become before the war in America. Cheers! Stephen

    Like

  15. Normally I find your blog interesting, well reasoned and insightful. I was rather offended with your sweeping statement:

    ‘If you studied medicine or law, and don’t practice medicine or law, the chances are that you were probably not a very good doctor or lawyer, which is why you decided to become a translator.’

    Apart from the fact that a lot of people get a law degree for the skills they learn, with no intention of practicing law, there are many good reasons why people change career, not just because ‘you were probably not a very good doctor or lawyer’.

    I wanted to be a lawyer since I was about 10. I have an Upper Second (Hons) in Law from the University of Essex. I have a Commendation in the Legal Practice Course. However before I was able to find a training contract, I became ill. I have a long-term chronic condition to which there is no cure. Working even a 9-5 admin job became impossible. As I had studied German law in Germany, I started translating. I have been freelancing for 5 years now, more or less full time as my health allows. I have just finished an MA in Legal Translation from City University London.

    Apart from health problems, I can imagine many other reasons why someone might become a translator instead of a lawyer, or switch careers. I was rather surprised and offended by your off the cuff comments tarring everyone with the same brush, regardless of their background.

    I believe having a legal background makes me a better legal translator and I like to think my clients do as well.

    Like

    • Thanks Louisa for your contribution and for sharing your story on this blog. I totally agree with you, the comment does sound questionable. I hadn’t noticed it before while I should have. I really hope the owner of the blog will get back to us on this. Have a nice day! Ciao from Italy! Alessandra

      Like

  16. […] Translation – A Most Misunderstood Profession […]

    Like

  17. […] “ Somebody from a patent law firm, probably a paralegal, sent me an e-mail through the quote request link on my website because he was looking for a highly qualified translator. Dear Sir/Madam, I am …”  […]

    Like

  18. […] by a potential client, if one could be found, would most likely not be a very good translator as I am trying to explain in this post, which was incidentally also translated into Russian. (As you can see, I am very proud of the fact […]

    Like

  19. A reason why a doctor might become a translator: because they did something very naughty and got struck off.

    Like

    • But I imagine it would have to be something really naughty, not the kind of honest mistake that we read about on the news sometime, like forgetting and sewing up scissors inside a patient, or amputating the wrong leg.

      Like

  20. I wanted to “like” your comment but got stumped on the request for a password. Anyway, “Like”.

    Like

  21. I did not set it up for any password …. dunno what happened.

    But I appreciate the thought anyway,

    Like


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